Inverting ‘Broken Window Theory’?

In 1982 George Kelling and James Wilson published a paper in the Atlantic outlining their ‘Broken Window Theory’. The theory begins from the observation, which is common enough, that small instances of ‘disorder’, such as the broken window of an abandoned house, are often followed by more disorder (i.e. more broken windows), and finally to destruction. What made Kelling and Wilson’s (henceforth K&W) contribution new was their attempt to transpose this insight into a social theory about the relation between crime and community. They argued that protecting the community from minor infringements can stop more severe infringements from becoming the norm.

The thesis I want to consider in a moment, is that something approaching the opposite may be true: that a relative improvement of community standards may lead to an increase of problems. Before getting to this I want to provide some more information about the original theory.

Most people recognise a measure of truth at the core of broken window theory. So, a factory with a broken window soon develops more broken windows, and if these are left unrepaired, it may be seriously vandalised. In the theory the first broken windows function as signal that: (1) I’m not being protected (vandals won’t be punished); (2) no-one values me. Once enough damage occurs, the building transforms – no longer projecting the dignity due to a status of ‘property’ but abject and cowering, it becomes less valued. Another example used by K&W is of an experiment in which a car which is deliberately damaged and left in a ‘good’ neighbourhood*; after a time even well-to-do folks begin to dismantle the car (it is not cared for, no one owns it); soon after it is being smashed and finally it is flipped over (it is worthless and deserves nothing better). These examples show the theory as applied to physical items within communities. The transition to a theory about community itself requires a couple of conceptual switches.

The first is the obvious switch from a physical thing to community – the community then becomes a collective-property, which can be ‘owned’, cared for and policed or disregarded, its appearance betraying the types of behaviours which are permitted. The second shift is from acts of vandalism – litter, breaking windows, graffiti, fire –which are all of a type (i.e. physical) to a multitude of acts of different types –physical, emotional, cultural – which are nonetheless placed on a single progression from the lowliest to the highest. As K&W put it, for community the “unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window”; a further progression may be robbery at knife point, and later, possibly a ‘crime invasion’.

Although Broken Window Theory has been strongly criticised by some, it has also received a good deal of support. Recent research has validated some of its basic assumptions (that less orderly environments trigger ‘aberrant norms’ (an oxymoron)); and iterations of the theory have been practiced in many places – notably New York – with some claim to success. The strongest criticisms of the theory are of the connection posited between petty and severe crime. Do beggars really facilitate progressive transition to thievery, drugs and murder? Also, with so many other potentially causative factors in all social environments, is the ‘appearance’ of community standards really so significant?

Immaculate Windows?

Leaving aside these questions now, the thesis I want to propose for consideration, is that perhaps something approaching the opposite of Broken Window Theory has validity, call it (in jest) ‘immaculate window theory’. What if we were to invert the theory somewhat, so as to focus upon the detrimental effects of improving community standards for some? By this I mean that improvements of standards of security may signal new norms, and by ‘raising the ceiling’ of what is considered ‘cared for’, ‘loved’, ‘owned and protected’, they also raise the requirements for inclusion within this category; they trigger what may formerly have been a norm to be now conceived as ‘less valued’ and fairer game for violation.

This is the thesis that the creation of improvements of security or prestige for a part of society (for example a cage in which bikes can be stored safely for a fee) leads to the devaluation of bikes not stored thus. In other words, now bikes stored on the street become ‘less valued’, and of less value – they are not only easier to steal than ‘caged’ bikes, the contrast between ‘cared for’ bikes and the uncaged bikes signals that theft of the latter is somewhat legitimate.

This is not a general theory of crime and society as Broken Window Theory was intended to be, and there will of course be major exceptions to this logic. But even if ‘immaculate windows’ is only one factor among many its effect should be explored when considering the direction of public policy.

Here are some suggestions of other areas that might be affected by this logic:

  • Class systems of transport (i.e first class, second class, third class trains, first class, business, economy planes)
  • Distinctions of quality of food – organic (pesticide/poison free) versus regular (“non-organic”)**
  • Payed for, monitored car parking facilities versus, unmonitored unpaid parking
  • Gated communities
  • Public and private schooling systems


It might be said that all of the above are positive distinctions, because by raising the ceiling they open the possibility of society-wide improvement. To take organic food as a hypothetical: organic food represents an improvement because without it (when it is more than a fad) most food would be “non-organic”, possibly equally and democratically unhealthy. This is a good point, but it is separate to the points made by this thesis. Firstly, in cases like the one just mentioned, there is still the risk that if there were health consequences as a result of “non-organic” food they may be conceived of symbolically (‘they didn’t care for their health’), ignoring class factors such as time, wealth, and perhaps education which are also important determinants of the decision and ability to choose organic food. Secondly, there are situations for which new improvements are not gained but where already existing ‘resources’ – of attention, concern, responsibility etc. – are diced and redistributed.

Finally, an observation: this phenomenon is not only about ‘class’. It has a close analogue in the logic that is beneath “they were asking for it”, the attitude applied to women who were assaulted and who wore the ‘wrong’ clothes, or were in the ‘wrong’ place. There are several different (mostly reprehensible) rationalisations for this attitude, but the following is most analogous: because she was there, she knew the risks but didn’t care enough for her own safety (a knowing choice). This argument, like Broken Window Theory, is based on symbolic appearance of the victim and on normative rules; it requires the existence of other ‘self-care, self-love’ norms to which the victim allegedly did not comply: wearing something else or being somewhere else. One can extend this analogy further by thinking of forced changes of dress-code in places around the world and the effect of these codes on those who do not conform.

*This element of class(less) is important for K&W’s argument. In its original formulation, which was semi-functionalist, a premise is that community has a strong role in regulating the behaviours of individuals. In the example cited, it is as though the car itself signalled the sorts of behaviours that are acceptable, quite apart from the status (economic or other wise) of the individual themselves.
**Organic here loosely refers to food which is produced with greater consideration for health rather than strictly “organic certified” foods. “Non-organic” is an extremely clumsy way of referring to tendencies unconcerned with health risks beyond the call of law.

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