A core principle of social disorganization theory is that place matters—i.e., one's residential location—as much or more than one's individual characteristics (age, gender, race) in shaping the likelihood that a person will become involved in illegal activities. Larry Gaines and Roger Miller state in their book, Criminal Justice in Action, that "...crime is largely a product of unfavorable conditions in certain communities."
According to the Social Disorganization Theory there are ecological factors that lead to high rates of crime in these communities, and these factors linked to constantly elevated levels of "high school dropouts, unemployment, deteriorating infrastructures, and single-parent homes" (Gaines and Miller).
The theory is not intended to apply to all types of crime, but instead to street crime at the neighborhood level. The theory has not been used to explain organized crime, corporate crime, or deviant behavior that takes place outside neighborhood settings. Up to the beginning of seventies, this theory took a back seat to the psychological explanation of crime. A recent overview of social disorganization theory, including suggestions for refining and extending the theory, is a journal article by Kubrin and Weitzer (2003).
Thomas and Znaniecki (1918–1920) introduced the idea that a person's thinking processes and attitudes are constructed by the interaction between that person's situation and his or her behavior.
Attitudes are not innate but stem from a process of acculturation. Any proposed action will have social importance to an individual both because it relates to the objective situation within which the subject has to act, and because it has been shaped by attitudes formed through a lifetime of social and cultural experiences. This is based on the "four wishes" of the Thomas theorem, viz., "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences".
These four wishes are the desire for new experiences, the desire for recognition, the desire for domination, and the desire for security. Combined with the cultural values of a pre-existing situation, the four wishes give rise to certain attitudes which are subjectively defined meanings and shared experience, strongly emphasised and embodied in specific institutions. The root of new attitudes arises from the formation of new relationships and interaction between the person and the world outside the community. For example, the emergence of economics as an independent sphere reflected the tendency to reduce quality to a quantity in barter transactions and led to the development of money.