Sociological Theories Crime

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Research into the sociological theories of crime prior to the Chicago School had not contemplated social environment or context external to individuals, but focused on facets such as spiritual (the Quakers), natural (Hippocrates, 460 BC), utilitarianism (Bentham, 1948) and biological waywardness (Lombroso, 1976) of individuals. This essay will illustrate how the divergence of sociological theories has departed from individualism and the impact this has had on the criminal justice policies and socio-political issues in relation to the likelihood of an individual committing crime and deviancy.

With recent reforms in government, we have seen a steady increase in the number of criminal offences being created. The increase in criminal justice polices has led to the likelihood of an individual becoming a lawbreaker. The government’s aim to prevent victimisation and restore peace and stability has impacted on measures such as policies to for under-age drinking and anti-social behaviour. The Drinking Banning Orders (DBO) has seen more power being given to police and local authorities to curb Anti-Social behaviour. Many feel this is laying in wait for some to get drunk. Policy director Isabella Sankey, director of Liberty feels “It will be jelly bean Asbos for sugared-up kids next. Surely it’s time to call last orders on endless new legislation” (The Independent, 2009, p.17). The Marijuana Tax Act 1937, according to (Becker et al, p. 145) resulted in “the creation of a new fragment of the moral constitution of society, its code of right and wrong.”

New Government policies on stop and search under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, has resulted a record number of ethnic minority groups being unfairly treated. A recent report of the Ministry of Justice (2007/2008) found that black people are six times more likely to be in prison than a South Asian or white person. Police stop and search reports have established a 322% rise in black people being stopped and searched and 185% for white people under counterterrorism law (CJPO Act 1994) and (PACE, 1984). Practical law enforcement policies have contributed to these increase and the pattern of offences are related to these issues. These safeguarding political measures have had a negative result on black and ethnic minority groups. They are being faced with discrimination and treated like criminals from the officials who are meant to protect.

It seems that a person is criminalised before an offence is even committed. The creations of more ASBO’s are a prime example of policies targeted at young people. It is felt by many including the Children’s Rights Alliance for England that in our society “we seem to have an innate element in our society that wants to criminalise and punish everyone.” This could set into motion process that evoke the very behaviour that was anticipated – that transform an offender into the very type of criminal that was feared.

However, as individuals our ideas and conceptual differences of crime may be influenced by customs, societal perceptions, ethical values and government policies. These factors determine and underpin our attitude towards deviancy. Society’s reaction to deviancy can seriously affects a person’s role in society. Labelling theories suggests that severe societal reaction to offenders as permanent criminal’s sets in motion the process of anticipated criminal behaviour, eventually converting an offender into a life of crime. Consistent with this reasoning, scholars Mead (1934) and Lemert (1951) argues that labelling “…disrupts an individual’s role in society which pressures them to adopt a role in an existing deviant group or creating their own group.

Individuals who are labelled will resort to crime because of exclusion from society. They may find gaining employment difficult which increases stress levels resulting in the recourse of illegitimate means (Merton, 1963). It prevents an individual from participating with conventional groups and building relationships, forcing them to associate with other criminals. Finally, it can result in an individual accepting the status that has been given and acts in accordance with this self-concept (Merton et al 1968).

In recent years not only are individuals labelled, but the area or neighbourhood a person lives in can be ‘stigmatised’ and discriminated against by society. This stigmatisation is widespread and applies to the housing, employment, health and education for people living within these areas. These stigmatisations can result from the media’s stories and exaggerations. The 1970’s riots in Brixton, South London and Toxtheth in Merseyside have changed society’s perception of Afro-Caribbean groups from law-abiding citizens to lawbreakers. This portrayal by the media of ‘muggers’ creates a fear of young black men and results in an over policing of this group. However, it was the murder of Steven Lawrence that broke the image of black ‘muggers.’ Afro-Caribbean are considered a threat to society which resulted in alienation, stigmatisation and marginalisation of this particular group (Lemert at el, 1951, Erikson, 1966). It is submitted by Agnew (2004) that ‘we focus our attention not on the behaviour of offenders, but on the behaviour of those who label, react to and otherwise seek to control offenders…it is these efforts of social control that ultimately trigger the processes that trap individuals in a criminal career (p.295). Labels now range from dangerous dogs to Jamaican yardies drug dealers. Other factors such as race, age, demeanour and appearance can confer a deviant label.

Not only are our environment or individualistic values leads us to criminal behaviour but the system that is meant to give stability has forced individuals to commit crime. Robert Sampson uncovered an “ecological bias” in police control of juveniles. Due to this label that has been given from generation to generation it may be hard for a young individual and those living in deprived areas to overcome this classification and be successful without resorting to illegitimate means.

Other theorists have proposed that deviancy and crime results from social environments (Park, Burgess & McKenzie, 1925; Shaw & McKay, 1942; Merton, 1938, and Sutherland, 1942). There work draws heavily on the central ideas of control, social learning and strain theories. Rejecting Darwinian Theory of ‘biological throwbacks’ (Lombroso, 1876), that crime is mainly attributed to the poor and biologically inferior. Criminologist Shaw and McKay’s et al (1942) proposed that crime was a result of social disorganisation within a given community. It is found that a person’s behaviour is recoil to the behaviour of others. Thus, if this behaviour is conditioned as non-criminal then that will be the prevailing ethos, if on the other hand, people suspect that everyone is involved in criminal behaviour then they will also get involved. Shaw and McKay led to the conclusion that it was ‘the nature of the neighbourhood – not the nature of the individuals within the neighbourhood’ that regulated an individual’s involvement in crime.

The lack of strong conventional bond to society or any form of preventive power to compel and individual not to become delinquent was the drive behind crime according to Hirschi (1990) and Gottfredson (1990). The effects of high rate of divorces, unemployment, lack of education, single-parent families and the ability or willingness to exercise social control over youths have reduced the monitoring of neighbourhood residents and crime leads to social disorganisation. It is concluded, as a result of juveniles not receiving the support and supervision required for healthy development (Clayton, 2008, p. 28-30) and where no barrier to associating with and in criminal activities will lead to deviancy.

On another hand, individuals at some point may have been exposed to both criminal and noncriminal behavioural patterns, values and attitudes. The influence of what leads some to deviate and not others is yet to be established. It was stated by Philosopher Aristotle (cited in Barnes, 1971) that all knowledge is acquired through experience and that none is inborn or instinctive as proposed by Lombroso et al (1876). Like most Chicago criminologists, Sutherland and Cressey (1970) identified that delinquent values are transmitted from one generation to the next through ordinary learning mechanisms. The exposure and reinforcement of criminal or deviant behaviour, if considered as a norm within a community, can potentially drive an individual to crime (Burgess and Akers, 1966). It should not be assumed that only due to an individual abiding in that group, they will influence that person to commit crime. Immeasurable factors such as frequency, duration and intensity of association with criminal behaviour will have to be proven. Cressey (1969) also pointed out that general skills that are learned through life are sufficient enough to enable individuals to commit crimes rather than learned techniques through association.

The socialisation could be contradictory, rather than a simple process of teaching in which the individual being socialised appears to play little actual part. Hypothetically, there may be law-abiding people who live in the same house as lawbreakers and one might not get involved in crime. They may not be influenced by that way of life but someone who has been socially deprived is more likely to resort to crime than one who is (Morris, 1957). If this theory is followed, the influences will mainly be seen in youths and young adults. Youths who are born into families that are disruptive and dysfunctional and are single parented might feel neglected and typically received harsh and erratic punishments grow up alienated and embittered Anderson (1999).

The complexities of life such as the need to achieve, to be successful and attain economic wealth are compelling. These complexities and the obstacles presented will force individuals to deviate if path to success are not easily accessible. The idea that stress and strain induces an individual into criminal activities persists in the work of past and present theorists, such as Merton (1938), Cohen (1955), Cloward & Ohlin (1960) and other associates. It is often said, ‘money is the root of all evil,’ with money individuals, whether of the lower or middle class can enjoy luxuries, going on holidays, nice car etc. It would be unfair to say that only poor people or the less fortunate get involved in criminal activities to gain economic success as Lilly (2007, p.56) states, “Poor people are not taught to be satisfied with their lot but rather are instructed to pursue the “American dream.” Through hard work, it is said; even the lowliest among us can rise from rags to riches.” This assertion by Lilly (2007) seems to target poor and lower class individuals. It also implies that without a college education, family connections or being born with a special skill or talent the road to success is limited for these individuals. It begs the question, why do the wealthy or upper-class individuals commit crimes; their paths of attainment are not blocked, they do not live in deprived communities.

Some theorists feel that political and social issues have increased individuals likelihood of resorting to criminal activities. According to Charles Murray “poverty was not the just deserts of people who didn’t try hard enough. It was produced by conditions that had nothing to do with individual virtue and effort…Poverty was not the fault of the individual but of the system (Murray, 1984, p. 29).” It made sense that on the contrary of Lilly’s notion of hard work that crime and delinquency would be the consequence of a system where equal opportunity is not necessarily granted across society.

Identifying with Merton, delinquent subculture illustrates that young people have access to different kinds of customs such as deviance or conformity. Cloward and Ohlin (1960) both proposed that depending on the social structure the selection of adaption of illegitimate means is based on the availability. However, not everyone shares the same customs in judging whether an act is right or wrong, something that is considered normal in one section of society is assessed different in another. It has been contended that the more exposure to adult criminal behaviour one has then the more likely it is that an individual progress to adulthood of criminal behaviour.

Interestingly, these theories focal point is on the poor and slum areas, yet no attention is paid to wealthy individuals who commit ‘white collar’ crimes. They may face the same frustration as a less deprived person although their strain may not be based on none achievement of economic goals but the maintenance of those goals. As Edwin Sutherland (et al, p. 9-10) stated, “Persons in the upper socioeconomic class engage in much criminal behaviour.” Nevertheless, “white-collar criminals…are not in poverty, were not reared in slums or badly deteriorated families, and are not feebleminded or psychopathic.” Thus, a similarity can be seen, illegal practices are accepted as the way of doing business with white-collar criminals in which it becomes the norm, similarly to criminals who are associated with criminals in less deprived areas, they eventually become transformed into a criminal tradition.

Despite these considerations, it must be admitted that the strain and frustration is ‘not dependent on the absolute amount of money one has, but is dependent on how much money one has relative to those “reference group (Agnew, 2006, pp. 165-166).’” In a report conducted by the Economic and Social Research Council (BBC News, 29 November 2006) found that individual do not necessarily deviate because they, the join and condone criminal activities just for ‘pleasure’. It was commented by one interviewee that “It weren’t even for money. I had money. It was more like the buzz you get from doing things” why he committed crimes. If crime was just for the fund of it Cohen with the merger of the Chicago School questioned why the deviancy persists from generation to generation in the slum or poor areas of society. The proposition was made that “Because slum youths learn and act on the basis of these values…they only guide for their conduct is that they do things for “the hell of it (Colen 1955).” Ultimately, strain and frustration increases the probability of delinquency and the root not necessarily lay in the individuals but in the organisation and workings of society.

Merton’s (1965) view of society having a set of goals arguable cannot be seen as the reason why individuals with a certain environment commit crimes, it is contended that within society there are different social groups and not all individuals are socialised in the same pattern.

Everyone in society have the general desire to be respected and hold a respectable status in society. It has been argued by Messerschmidt (2004) that the desire for ‘masculine status’ is particularly relevant to crime hence more male are being incarcerated then women. This is not to suggest that only men are criminals as Lombroso (1903/1920) who describes female criminality as an inherent tendency of biologically atavists. However, the need for young individuals to be respected and hold a highly regarded status in society (Sykes and Matza, 1957) results in status problems being solved by gang membership. It has been stated that as new generations of youths develop the issue of status within their society develops from generation to generation and consequently the environment of delinquency and gang organisations are easily accessible when the need for friendship, excitement and protection are needed. As was the view of Carrabine (2009) “Having a notorious street reputation may win no points with society as a whole, but it may satisfy a youth’s gnawing desire to ‘be somebody.” Negatively, not all individuals in a community or area share the same values as each other

In contention to all the theoretical propositions, other aggravating and mitigating circumstances could influence a person to commit crimes. Individual who have been victims of crimes or alcoholics may not learn criminal behaviour by association or even be rational calculators of their actions. Survivors of abuse, it could be physical, sexual, or verbal may be driven to crime because of past experiences. In a recent report Bedard (2005) concluded that “victimisation as a child can negatively impact adult behaviour and often has long-term psychological effects on an individual.” With this in mind, alcoholism is another issue that can be the influence of crime. According to the British Crime Survey 2007/2008 nearly a million attacks in 2007/08, the aggressors were believed to be drunk. Also, as of recently, Darwinians and Lombroso’s ‘biological throwbacks’ have won some support in the courts. Abdelmalek Bayout on a trial for murder, had his charge was reduced as he was the victim of genetic misfortune, the owner of five genes known to be associated with violent behaviour (The Times Online, 17 November 2009).

Another point worth noting, although Lombroso’s arguments is a thing of the past and is difficult to be proven, a recent study conducted by psychiatrist at King’s College London (The Telegraph, 6 August 2009) found that ‘Psychopaths are thought to make up about 15 per cent of the UK prison population and criminals who are psychopaths commit 50 per cent more offences than those who do not have the disorder.’

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