Why The Concentric Circles Theory on Crime Is So Flawed

police crimes

What are Concentric Circles?

Chicago Concentric Circles is a theoretical construct postulated by Ernest Burgess in 1925 that was a descriptive land use model placing different parts of the city into zones or circles (Fisher, 2007). In the metaphorical sense, Burgess theory is organismic in nature, meaning that a city is a living, breathing thing that expands over the course of time.

He believed that the cause of social disorganization, which would include things like insanity, disease and crime could be attributed to a distancing from the natural equilibrium. It is important to note that the natural equilibrium is not clearly defined, although some believe this to be the center of the circles, known as the central business district (Banai, 2019).

The zones consist of six circles, starting with the center (business district). The second zone is the factory area. Zone three is the transition area. The fourth zone is the working class area, Zone five is residential. The sixth zone, or outer ring, is commuter zone.

Stereotypes Live On

First, it is important to recognize that Burgess’s theory is based on the city of Chicago, it’s layout and general flow during the mid-1920’s. Many cities do not follow Chicago’s unique layout, which was a direct result of the city’s location in the United States and how it was rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire of of 1871 (Abbot, 2012). Second, the circles themselves have changed within the city of Chicago and have blurred with different zones.

With all of that said, the public’s fear of crime can be, in part, attributed to existing stereotypes about where crime occurs. Much of these beliefs have been promoted in the popular media, where movies and television shows depict cities as being crime ravaged in nature where lawlessness is common. Sadly, there are even elements of racism involved (Welsch, 2007).

An example of a reinforcing stereotype on crime and the cities can be found in the 1985 movie, Death Wish III starring Charles Bronson. In the film, Bronson (Paul Kersey) plays the part of a vigilante who comes into a public housing area of New York City to clean up crime problems.

The movie shows most of the criminals as inner-city thugs who happen to be black and Latino (with a few whites sprinkled in). Other parts of the city, outside of the ghetto, are depicted as clean, safe and white.

This is just one example of how cities are depicted by the media. But recent data suggests that the suburbs may have more criminal activity than the cities and as a result, more arrests (Mirsa, 2019). While criminal trends may be changing, the stereotypes live on. Many people still think that crime happens in the big cities and are shocked when something occurs in their community.

It does not help that recent social events have contributed to such stereotypes. For example, the riots that occurred during the summer of 2020 as the result of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of several police officers in Minneapolis.

The pictures, videos and news reports from almost all of the social unrest showed large cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta. The reality is protests occurred in smaller communities, like Kenosha, Wisconsin and even St. Petersburg, Florida (Drew, 2020).

In short, the media continues to lean into stereotypes about crime, largely buying into Burgess’s 1925 concentric circle model. Sadly, people thing murder, rape, and theft is something that occurs “over there” and are genuinely shocked when it occurs in their community.

In truth, America is changing, particularly with the proliferation of the Internet. In most large American cities, factories no longer exist and if they do, they aren’t near the heart of the city’s center. The “working class” area has moved from within the city limits and out towards the suburbs. The transition area is really more rural. The commuter zone is now America’s interstates.

But, still, those stereotypes from long ago on where crime occurs and what happens live on.


Abbot, K. (2012, October 4). What (or Who) Caused the Great Chicago Fire? Retrieved from Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-or-who-caused-the-great-chicago-fire-61481977/

Banai, R. (2019, April 15). Concentric Zone Theory. Retrieved from Wiley Online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781118568446.eurs0512

Drew, K. (2020, August 28). Amid Unrest: America is not recognizable to allies . Retrieved from US News and World Report: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2020-08-28/amid-a-pandemic-and-social-unrest-america-appears-unrecognizable-to-its-allies

Fisher, M. (2007). A Pragmatist Cosmopolitan Moment: Reconfiguring Nussbaum's Cosmopolitan Concentric Circles. Retrieved from JSTOR: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25670659?seq=1

Mirsa, T. (2019, February 4). The Suburbanization of American Arrests. Retrieved from Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-04/suburban-areas-in-the-u-s-have-higher-arrest-rates

Welsch, K. (2007, August 1). Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling. Retrieved from Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1043986207306870?journalCode=ccja