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Sociological Explanations Of Criminality

From a sociological perspective, explanations for criminality are found in two levels which are the subculture and the structural explanations. The sociological explanations emphasize aspects of societal arrangements that are external to the actor and compelling. A sociological explanation is concerned with how the structure of a society or its institutional practices or its persisting cultural themes affect the conduct of its members.

Individual differences are denied or ignored, and the explanation of the overall collective behavoir is sought in the patterning of social arrangements that s considered to be both outside the actor and prior to him (Sampson, 1985). That is, the social patterns of power or of institutions which are held to be determinative of human action are also seen as having been in existence before any particular actor came on the scene. In lay language, sociological explanations of crime place the blame on something social that is prior to, external to, and compelling of any particular person.

Sociological explanations do not deny the importance of human motivation. However, they locate the source of motives outside the individual and in the ultural climate in which he lives. Political philosophers, sociologists, and athropologists have long observed that a condition of social life is that not all things are allowed. Standards of behavior are both a pro- duct of our living together and a requirement if social life is to be orderly. The concept of a culture refers to the perceived standards of behavior, observable in both words and deeds, that are learned, transmitted from generation to generation and somewhat durable.

To call such behavior cultural does not necessar- ily mean that it is refined, but rather means that it is cultured– quired, cultivated, and persistent. Social scientists have invented the notion of a subculture to describe variations, within a society, upon its cultural themes. In such circumstances, it is assumed that some cultural prescrip- tions are common to all members of society, but that modifica- tions and variations are discernible within the society. Again, it is part of the definition of a subculture, as of a culture, that is relatively enduring.

Its norms are termed a style, rather than a fashion, on the grounds that the former has some endurance while the latter is evanescent. The quarrel comes, f course, when we try to estimate how real a cultural pattern is and how persistent. The standards by which behavior is to be guided vary among men and over time. Its is in this change and variety that crime is defined. An application of this principle to crimin- ology would find that the roots of the crime in the fact that groups have developed different standards of appropriate behavior and that, in complex cultures, each individual is subject to competing prescriptions for action.

Another subcultural explanation of crime grows readily out of the fact that, as we have seen, ocial classes experience different rates of arrest and conviction for serious offenses. When strata within a society are marked off by categories of income, education, and occupational prestige, differences are discovered among them in the amount and style of crime. Further, differences are usually found between these social classes in their tastes, interests, and morals. Its is easy to describe these class-linked patterns as cultures.

This version of the subcultural explanation of crime holds that the very fact of learning the lessons of the subculture means that one aquires nterests and preferences that place him in greater or lesser risk of breaking the law. Others argue that being reared in the lower class means learning a different culture from that which creates the criminal laws. The lower- class subculture is said to have its own values, many of which run counter to the majority interests that support the laws against the serious predatory crimes.

One needs to note that the indicators of class are not descriptions of class. Proponents of subcultural explanations of crime do not define a class culture by any assortment of the objective indicators or rank, such as annual income or years of schooling. The subcultural theorists is interested in pattern- ed ways of life which may have evolved with a division of labor and which, then, are called class cultures. The pattern, however, is not described by reference to income alone, or by reference to years of schooling or occupational skill.

The pattern includes these indicators, but it is not defined by them. The subcultural theorist is more intent upon the variet- ies of human value. these are preferred ways of living that are acted upon. In the economist’s language, they are tastes. The thesis that is intimated, but not often explicated, by a subcultural description of ehaviors is that single or multiple signs of social position, such as occupation or educa- tion, will have a different significance for status, and for cultures, with changes in their distribution.

Money and education do not mean the same things socially as they are more or less equitably distributed. The change in meaning is not merely a change in the prestige value of these two, but also betokens changes in the boundries between class cultures. Generally speaking, whether one believes tendencies to be good or bad, the point of emphasis should be simply that the criteria of social lass that have been generally employed- criteria like income and schooling-may change meaning with changes in the distribution of these advantages in a popula- tion.

Class cultures, like national cultures, may break down. A more general subcultural explanation of crime, not necessarily in disagreement with the notion of class cultures, attributes differences in crime rates to differences in ethnic patterns to be found within a society. Explanations of this sort do not necessarily bear the title ethnic, although they are so designated here because they partake of the general assumption hat there are group differences in learned prefer- ences-in what is rewarded and punished-and that these group differences have a perisistence often called a tradition.

Such explantions are of a piece whether they are advanced as descriptions of regional cultures, generational differences, or national characteristics (Hirschi, 1969). Their common theme is the differences in ways of life out of which differ- ences in crime rates seem to flow. Ethnic explanations are proposed under an assortment of labels, but they have in common the fact that they do not limit the notion of sub- culture to class culture (Hirschi). They seem particularly justified where differences in social status are not so highly correlated with differences in conduct as are other indicators of cultural difference.

Thus many sociologists in this field argue that in the United States economic and status positions in the community cannot be shown to account for differences [in homicide rates] between whites and Negroes or between Southerners and Northerners (Freeman, 1983). In relevance, an index of Southerness is found to be highly correlated with homicide rates in the United States. Therefore, there is a measureable regional culture that promotes murder. The hazard of accepting a subcultural explanation and, at the same time, wishing to be a doctor to the body politic is that the remedies may as well spread the disease as cure it.

Among the prescriptions is social action to disperse the representatives of the subculture of violence. Quite apart from the political difficulties of implementing such an en- forced dispersion, the proposal assumes more knowledge than what is available. We, as a society, do not know what pro- portion of the violent people would have to be dispersed in order to break up their culture; and, what is more important, e do not know to what extent the dispersed people would act as culture-carriers and contaminate their hosts.

While sociologists acknowledge the plausibility of med- leys of causes operating to affect crime rates, their atten- tion has been largely diverted to specific kinds of social arrangements that may affect the damage we do to each other. Among the more prominent hypotheses stress the impact of social structure upon behavior. These proposals minimize the facts of subcultural differences and point to the sources of criminal motivation in the patterns of power and privilege within a society. They shift the blame for crime from how people are to where they are (Sampson).

Such explanations may still speak of subcultures, but when they do, they use the term in a weaker sense than is intended by the subcultural theorist. A powerful and popular sociological explanation of crime finds its sources in the social order. This explanation looks to the ways in which human wants are generated and satisfied and the ways in which rewards and punishments are handed out by the social system. There need be no irreconcilable contradiction between subcultural and structural hypotheses, but their different em- phases do produce quarrels bout facts as well as about remedies.

An essential difference between these two explana- tions is that the structuralists assume that all the members of a society want more of the same things than the sub- culturalists assume they want (Herrnstein, 1985). In this sense, the structural theses tend to be egalitarian and demo- cratic (Herrnstein). The major applications of structuralism assume that people everywhere are basically the same and that there are no significant differences in abilities or desires that might account for lawful and criminal careers.

Attention is paid, then, to the rganization of social relations that affects the differential exercise of talents and interests which are assumed to be roughly equal for all individuals of a society. Modern structural explanations of criminogenesis derive from the ideas of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim viewed the human being as a social animal as well as a physical organism. To say that a man is a social animal means more than the obvious fact that he lives a long life as a helpless child depending on others for his survival.

It means more, too, than that homo sapiens is a herding animal who tends to ive in colonies. For Durkheim, the significantly social aspect of human nature is that human physical survival also depends upon moral connections. Moral connections are, of course, social. They represent a bond with, and hence a bond- age to, others (Christiansen, 1977). Durkheim states that it is not true, that human activity can be released from all re- straint (Christiansen). The restraint that is required if social life is to ensue is a restraint necessary also for the psychic health of the human individual.

Social conditions may strengthen or weaken the moral ties that Durkheim aw as a condition of happiness and healthy survival. Rapid changes in one’s possibilities, swings from riches to rags and, just as disturbing, form rags to riches, may constitute an impulse to volutary death. Excessive hopes and unlimited desires are avenues to misery (Christiansen). Social conditions that allow a deregulation of social life Durkheim called states of anomie. The word derives from Greek roots meaning lacking in rule or law.

As used by contemporary sociologists, the word anomie and its English eq- uivalent, anomy, are applied ambiguosly, sometimes to the ocial conditions of relative normlessness and sometimes to the individuals who experience a lack of rule and purpose in their lives. It is more appropriate that the term be restricted to societal conditions of relative rulelessness for our purpose. When the concept of anomie is employed by structurlists to explain behavoir, attention is directed toward the strains produced in the individual by the conflicting, confusing, or impossible demands of one’s social enviroment.

Writers have described anomie in our schizoid culture, a culture that is said to present conflicting prescriptions for conduct (Ferr- ington, 1991). They have also perceived anomie in the tension between recommended goals and available means. It is import- ant to keep the word anomie in mind to all explanations discussed. The American sociologist R. K. Merton has applied Durk- heim’s ideas to the explanation of deviant behavior with part- icular reference to modern Western societies.

His hypothesis is that a state of anomie is produced whenever there is a dis- crepancy between the goals of human action and the societally structured legitimate means of achieving them. The hypothesis is simply, that crime breeds in the gaps between aspirations and possibilities. The emphasis given to this idea by the pattern of social arrangements. Its is the structure of a society, which includes some elements of its culture, that builds desires and assigns opportunities for their satisfac- tion (Herrnstein).

The emphasis given to this idea by the structuralists is that both the goals and the means are given by the pattern of social arrangements. It is the structure of a society, which includes some elements of its culture, that builds desires and assigns opportunities for their satisfaction. This structural explanation sees illegal behavior as resulting from goals, articulary materialistic goals, held to be desirable and possible for all, that motive behavior in a societal context that provides only limited channels of achievement. It is a thesis that has appropriately been named strain theory (Hirschi).

Sociologist R. K. Merton devised another theory dwelling in delinquency. This type of explanation sees delinquency as ad- aptive, as instrumental in the achievement of the same kinds of things everyone wants. Its sees crime, also, as partly reactive–generated by a sense of injustice on the part of delinquents at having been eprived of the goof life they had been led to expect would be theirs. This hypothesis, which may with accuracy be described as the social worker’s favorite, looks to the satisfaction of desires, rather than the lowering of expectations, as the cure for crime.

To be sure, it ap- proaches the satisfaction of desires not directly but indirectly, through the provision of expanded opportunities for legitimate achievement (Herrnstein). In closing on the oppurtunity-structure thesis, this thesis as a whole sounds plausible, closer attention to its assumprions lessens confidence in its explanatory ower. Finally, the proposal that differences in the availability of legitimate opportunities affect crime rates is only one version of the structural style of explanation.

The weaknesses of this particular hypothesis do not deny the validity of the structural notion in general. There are features of the struc- ture of a society that seem clearly and directly antecedent to varying crime rates. Culture conflict is one such general aspect of a society’s structure that seems to promote criminal- ity. This theme locates the source of crime in some division within a soicety that is ssociated with differential accept- ance of legal norms. All sociological explanations, at bottom, assume culture conflict to be the source of crime.

Durkheim’s anomie, the deregulation of social life, may be another such feature, as yet inadequately applied to the explanation of crime. Merton’s application of the idea of anomie to the pro- duction of criminality seems plausible in general, particulary if one avoids translating anomie into opportunity. This more general use of the notion of anomie predicts that serious crime rates will be higher in societies whose public codes and even ass media simultaneously stimulate consumership and egilitarianism while denying differences and delegitimizing them (Herrnstein).

More concretely, the age distributions and sex ratios of societies or of localities can be interpreted as structural features and related to differences in crime rates. Thus it comes as little surprise to learn and comprehend that situa- tions in which sex ratio is greatly distorted result in dif- ferent patterns of sexual offense. Homosexualality, including forcible rape, increases where men and women are kept apart from the opposite sex, as in prisons Blumstein, 1979). Prostitution flourishes where numbers of men live without women but with the freedom to get out on occasion, as from mining camps or mili- tary bases (Blumstein).

These more concrete features of the social structure seem at once more obvious and less interesting, however, than the class structure of a society by the way in which its wealth and prestige are differentially achieved and rewarded. It is among these differentials that sociologists and many laymen con- tinue to look for generators of crime. The opportunity-structure hypothesis is one way f attending to class differences and attempting to show how they breed crime. It views criminality as adaptive, as utilitarian, as the way de- prived people can get what everyone wants and has been told he should have.

There is yet another type of explanation that looks upon the pattern of rewards in a society as causing crime. This theory differs from the opportunity-structure theory in its emphasis. It interprets crime as more reactive than adaptive to social stratification. Reactive hypotheses are related to other structural schema in emphasizing the role of the status system of a society in producing crime and delinquency. As one kind of sociological explanation, these formulations also partake of some of the subcultural ideas and may even speak of delinquent subcultures.

The reactive hypotheses, however, describe criminal subcultures as formed in re- sponse to status deprivation. They see criminality as less tradi- tional, less ethnic, and more psychodynamically generated (Ferrington). They interpret delinquency as a status-seeking solution to straight society’s denial of respect. The reactive hypotheses are, then, a type of structural theory that carries a heavy burden of psychological implication (Ferrington). The pure reactive hypothesis claims that the social structure produces a reaction formation in whom its rules disqualify for status.

Reaction formation, or reversal formation, is a psycho- analytic idea: that we may defend ourselves against forbidden de- sires by repressing them while expressing their opposites (Ferrington). In this tense, the behavoirs of which the ego is conscious are psychoanalytically interpreted as a shield against admitting the true urges that have been frustrated. For example, if one says that if I can’t have it, it must be no good. Thus, it is held, if one can’t play he middle-class game, or won’t be let into it, he responds by breaking up the play (Ferrington).

The denial is proof of the desire and when put into the present topic, this results in an unlawful act of criminality. Where the subcultural theorists see delinquent behavior as real in its own right, as learned and valued by the actor, and where the social psychologists agree but emphasize the training processes that bring this about, the proponents of reactive hypo- theses interpret the defiant and contemptuous behavoir of many de- linquents as a compensation that defends them against the go- wounding they have received from the status system (Ferrington).

In scientific work there is a criterion, not pointly adhered to, which says that the simple explanation is preferable to the complex, that the hypothesis with few assumptions is preferable to the one with many. There are simpler explanations of criminal hostility than the reactive hypotheses. One such theory holds that violence comes naturally and that it will be expressed unless we are trained to control it. Another theory calls envy a universal and independant motive (Herrnstein). Some social psychologists elieve that children will grow up violent if they are not adequately nurtured.

Adequate nurturing in- cludes both appreciating the child and training him or her to ac- knowledge the rights of others. From this theoretical stance, the savagery of the urban gangster for example represents merely the natural outcome of a failure in child upbringing. Similarily, on a simple level of explanation, many sociolo- gists and anthropologists believe that hostile behavior can be learned as easily as passive behavior. Once learned, the codes of violence and impatient tendencies of the mind are their own positive values. Fighting and hating then become both duties and pleasures.

For advocates of this sociopsychological point of view, it is not necessary to regard the barbarian whose words and deeds laugh at goodness as having the same motives as more lawful per- sons. It needs no radical vision to agree that the school systems of Western societies presently provide poor aprenticeship in adult- hood for many adolescents. A poor apprenticeship for being grown up is criminogenic. In this sense, the structure of modern countries encourages delinquency, for that structure lacks institutional procedures for moving people smoothly form protected childhood to utomonmous adulthood.

During adolescence, many youths in affluent societies are neither well guided by their parents nor happily engaged by their teachers. They are adult in body, but children in responsi- bility and in their contribution to others. Now placed in between irresponsible dependence and accountable independance, they are compelled to attend schools that do not thoroughly stimulate the interests of all of them and that, in too many cases, provide the uninterested child with the experience of failure and the mirror of denigration (Herrnstein).

Educators are conceiving remedies. This engages a dilemma–a dilemma of the democratic educators. They want equality and individuality, objectives that thus far in history have eluded societal engineers. Meanwhile, the metro- politan schools of industrialized nations make a probable, but measurable, contribution to delinquency. Some crimes are rational. In such cases, the criminal way appears to be the more effecient way of satisfying one’s wants. When crime is regarded as rational, it can be given either a structural or a sociopsychological explanation.

The explanation is structural when it emphasizes the conditions that make crime rational. It becomes a sociopsychological explanation when it emphasizes the interpretations of the conditions that make crime rational, or when it stresses the training that legitimizes il- legal activities. No one emphasis need be more correct–more use- ful–than another. Conduct, lawful and criminal, always occurs within some structure of possibilities and is, among normal people, justified by an interpretation of that structure.

Both the interpretation of and the adaptation to a structure of possibilities are largely learned. It is only for convenience that we will discuss the idea that crime may be rational as one of he structural, rather than one of the sociopsychological, explantions. The most obvious way in which a social structure produces crime is by providing chances to make money illegally (Herrnstein). Whether or not a structure elevates desires, it generates crime by bringing needs into the view of opportunities.

This kind of explanation does not say that people behave criminally because they have been denied legitimate opportunities, but rather it says that people break the law, particulary those laws concerning the definition of property, because this is a rational thing to do. he idea of rational crime is in accord with the common-sense assumption that most people will take money if they can do so without penalty. Obviously there are differences in personality that raise or lower resistance to temptation.

These differences are the concern of those sociopsychological explantions that emphasize the controlling functions of character. However, without attending to these personal variables, it is notable that the common human proclivity to improve and maintain status will produce offenses against property when these tendencies meet the appropriate situa- tion (Ferrington). These situations have been studied by crimin- ologists in four major contexts. There are, first, the many situations in civil life in which supplies, services and money are available for theft. Theft is widespread in such situations.

It ranges from taking what isn’t nailed down in public settings to stealing factory tools and store inventories to cheating on expense accounts to embezzlement. Second, there are circumstances in which legitimate work makes it economical to break the criminal law. Third, there are able criminals, individuals who have chosen theft as an occupation and who have make a success of it. These expert thieves are sometimes affiliated with musclemen or organizers in a fourth context of rational crimes, the context in which crime becomes an economic enterprise fulfilling the demands of a market (Ferrington).

Now specifically on these contexts, crime has been seen as a preferred livelihood. The conception of some kinds of crime as rational responses to structures indicates that in the struggle to stay alive and in the desire to improve one’s material condi- tion lie the seeds of many crimes. some robbery, but more burglary; some snitching, but more boosting; some automobile heft by juveniles, but more automobile transfers by adults represent a consciously adopted way of making a living. All organized crime represents such a preference.

The organization of large scale theft adopts new technologies and new modes of opera- tion to keep pace with increases in the wealth of Western nations and changes in security measures. Such businesslike crime has been changing form craft crimes to project crimes involving big- ger risks, bigger takes, and more criminal intelligence. Conversations with successful criminals, those who use intel- legence to plan ucrative acts, indicate considerable satisfaction with their work. There is pride in one’s craft and pride in one’s nerve. There is enjoyment of leisure between jobs.

There is ex- pressed delight in being one’s own boss, free of any compelling routine. the carefree life, the irresponsible life, is appreciat- ed and contrasted with the drab existence of more lawful citizens. Given the low risk of penalty and the high probability of reward, given the absence of pangs of guilt and the presence of hedonistic preferences, crime is a rational occupational choice for such individuals (Sampson). On level of lesser skill, many inhabitants of metropolitan slums are in situations that make criminal activity a rational enterprise.

Young men in particular who show little interest in school, but great distaste for the authority of a boss and the imprisonment of a predictable job, are likely candidates for the rackets. Compared to work, the rackets combine more freedom, money and higher status at a relatively low cost. In some organ- ized crimes, like running the numbers, risk of arrest is low. the rationality of the choice of these rackets is therefore that much higher for youths with the requisite astes. In summary, the structuralist emphasis on the criminogenic features of a stratified society is both popular and persuasive.

The employment of this type of explanation becomes political. If the anomie that generates crime lies in the gap between desires and their gratification, criminologists can urge that desires be modified, that gratifications be increased, or that some compro- mise be reached between what people expect and what they are likely to get (Christiansen). The various political positions prescribe different remedies for our social difficulties. Radical thinkers use the chema of anomie to strengthen their argument for a classless or, at least, a less stratified society.

Conservative thinkers use this schema to demonstrate the dangers of an egalitarian philosophy. At one political pole, the recommendation is to change the structure of power so as to reduce the pressure toward criminality. At the other pole, the prescription is to change the public’s perception of life. Criminologists are themselves caught up in this debate. The major tradition in social psychology, as it has been developed from sociologists, emphasizes the ways in which perceptions and beliefs cause behavoirs.

Between how things are (the structure) and how one responds to this world, the social psychologist places attitude, belief, and definition of the situation. The crucial question becomes one of assessing how much of any action is simply a response to a structure of the social world, and how much of any action is moved by differing interpretations of that reality (Sampson). Social psychologists of the symbolic-inter- actionist persuasion attempt to build a bridge between the struc- tures of social relations and our interpretations of them and, in this matter, to describe how crime is produced.

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