The broken windows theory is a criminology theory introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The theory is the subject of a great many debates and criticisms, although various studies are in support of it.
Wilson and Kelling is of the opinion that crime is the result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, passersby might conclude that little care is exercised and that there is no control. The effect of this is more broken windows that in turn sends a signal that there is no order. The theory is therefore one of norm setting and the associated signaling effect of urban disorder and vandalism leading to serious crime and anti-social behaviour.
In an urban or city environment, broken windows can be anything from literal broken windows to graffiti, public disorder, or aggressive panhandling. (Wikipedia, 2012).
Malcolm Gladwell in his book Tipping Point discusses an interesting perspective of which I will quote several sections:
“They say that the criminal—far from being someone who acts for fundamental, intrinsic reasons and who lives in his own world—is actually someone acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all kinds of cues, and who is prompted to commit crimes based on his perception of the world around him. That is an incredibly radical—and in some sense unbelievable—idea. There is an even more radical dimension here. The Power of Context is an environmental argument. It says that behaviour is a function of social context. But it is a very strange kind of environmentalism. In the 1960s, liberals made a similar kind of argument, but whey they talked about the importance of environment they were talking about the importance of fundamental social factors: crime, they said, was the result of social injustice, of structural economic inequities, of unemployment, of racism, of decades of institutional and social neglect, so that if you wanted to stop crime you had to undertake some fairly heroic steps. But the Power of Context says that what really matters is little things. The Power of Context says you don’t have to solve the big problems to solve crime.” (Gladwell, 2011:150&151)
“Once you understand that context matters, however, that specific and relatively small elements in the environment can serve as Tipping Points, that defeatism is turned upside down. Environmental Tipping Points are things that we can change: we can fix broken windows and clean up graffiti and change the signals that invite crime in the first place. Crime can be more than understood. It can be prevented.” (Gladwell, 2011:167)
Gladwell, Malcolm, 2011. The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference. Great Britain: Clays Ltd, St Ives plc.
Wikipedia. 2012. Broken windows theory. [Online]. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_windows_theory [15 May 2012]