1. Name and explain three key concepts in the sociology of crime.
The sociology of crime explains criminal behaviour with reference to the following three concepts: a) social interaction, b) social structure, and c) conflict. Following from this, we talk about social interaction theories, social structural theories and conflict theories. The first two can be seen as groups of theories. For example, social interaction theories can be broken into social differentiation theory, social control theories and labelling theories. Social structural theories are inclusive of subcultural theories and social disorganisation theory.
Social interaction theories of crime focus on the interaction and socialisation of people and the impact of this on their involvement with crime. Social structural theories of crime explore the effect of socio-economic conditions and structures (e.g. unemployment, urbanisation, poverty, transient populations) on crime patterns and people’s engagement in crime. Conflict theories highlight the existence of different social groups, each with its own interests, which compete with each another for power and domination; the group that dominates exercises their power to keep the other groups in check and ultimately under control through processes of criminalisation.
2. Explain the extent to which the following offences/acts of deviance might be explained by differential association and consider the limitations of that explanation: stealing the secrets of a rival company for use by your company; burglary.
To answer the question, we first need to have some understanding of the key points of differential association. This will help us assess how well the theory can explain the two crimes. In brief, differential association theory argues that we learn criminal values and skills through our interaction with and socialisation by people who promote such values, exhibit such skills and are keen to teach them to us. The closer, the more intense and frequent our interaction and socialisation with such people, the more likely it will be that we will engage in similar behaviours. More specifically, if we are exposed to criminality early on in life, over a long time and by people close to us, then we are more likely to participate in criminal lifestyles (Sutherland, 1939a, 1939b, 1949).
If our work culture promotes and celebrates criminal behaviour, and we are invested in our work (e.g. we like and are good at the work; we admire the people involved in it and the opportunities it offers), we may be inclined to steal the secrets of a rival company. As for burglary, if this is something that we witnessed family members being involved in or later our friends got involved in on a regular basis, we may be influenced to participate in it ourselves, especially if it has been rewarding. The key issue here, however, is that just because we are exposed to such environments, it does not automatically mean that we will be willing to engage in the criminal activities, and the theory says little about how or why one person learns criminal behaviour when someone else in the same environment does not.
3. How does Durkheim suggest that crime is functional for a society?
For Durkheim crime at certain low levels is healthy and serves a purpose for society. The purpose is two-fold. First, the crime unites the different members of society in their joint censure of it. In essence, it re-affirms the morals and values of a given society. Second, a crime can force a society to reflect upon its values, cultural practices and social arrangements and thus to re-assess its priorities and needs. This can bring vital and much needed changes that will allow the society to flourish and better protect its members.
4. Explain the differences between Durkheim’s and Merton’s concepts of anomie.
For Durkheim, anomie refers to the breakdown of societies’ social standards or controls. It occurs when the pace of transformation a society has to contend with and respond to is too quick and does not allow time to take stock of the developments and actions that are needed. A society can then be overwhelmed under the weight of unprecedented changes and inadequate control mechanisms.
For Merton, a society is anomic when people’s culturally-defined goals cannot be met through legitimate means, due to social structural problems such as discrimination, lack of equal opportunities, and unemployment. This strains those parts of society which have been socialised to aspire to the cultural goals and to believe that they too would be able to attain those goals. Therefore, for Merton, there is no need for social upheaval to occur for a society to be anomic. Merton suggested that people in anomic groups might respond in five possible ways: conformity, innovation, ritualization, retreatism, and rebellion (see table 17.2).
5. How useful are the subcultural theories to explaining youth offending in the UK?
A subculture is a division of the broader culture with some of its own values, customs, and expectations, to which individuals feel committed and which influences the way in which they think and behave. The most studied subcultures are youth subcultures, each of which generally has a very distinctive image, style, behaviour, appearance, demeanour, values, and their own figures of speech or jargon. Many are also associated with particular types of music and often embrace excitement, power, and freedom. Subcultural theories seek to explain why some subcultural groups commit crimes, and have been considered useful in understanding youth offending behaviour.
This chapter outlines the subcultural theories proposed by Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin, and Sykes and Matza (neutralisation), and summarises the critiques of each in section 17.6.
6. What are the main differences between Cohen’s subcultural theory and that of Matza?
Cohen (1955) focused on the formation of youth gangs, comprised of working-class boys in inner cities, and their motivations. He argued that working class males join gangs in order to feel part of a community through which they can acquire a sense of identity, purpose and belonging. They seek a sense of community and belonging in the gang because they are not able to fulfil their dream of attaining society’s dominant measures of success due to structural inequalities. Therefore, they cannot join mainstream communities representing success and status. This puts strain on them and leads to their feeling conflicted, which is resolved by being part of the gang. The gang engages in hedonistic, expressive, anti-social behaviour as a way of venting its anger and frustration against representations/symbols of societal success, such a property.
Matza and Sykes (1957, 1961) and later Matza on his own (1961, 1964, 1969) theorised that the youth ‘drift’ in and out of offending, growing out of it as they grow older and eventually settle down. This ‘drift in and out’ is accompanied by techniques of neutralisation that youths (as well as adults) employ to rationalise their behaviour, and feel less guilty and inhibited. The difference with Cohen (1955) lies in offenders’ motivations and emotional states. For Matza youth offending is not an expression of anger, frustration and resentment against a society that blocks a young person’s success. He does not even see the young person who struggles to succeed conventionally as rejecting society’s standards of success. Instead, he views the young person as a rational, free agent who decides to deviate and offend when they see that their ambitions and plans are held back by society.
7. What is meant by the term ‘underclass’ and why does Young see it as divisive to deal with the issue through social exclusion?
There are different definitions of the term ‘underclass’. For Murray (1990) for example, the underclass was the chronically unemployed on benefits and single mothers, who lacked discipline and morals and thus were more interested in illegitimate opportunities to survive rather than legitimate ones. Less stigmatising definitions of the term refer to people who are affected by social deprivation and unemployment and find their choices constrained to such a degree that criminality becomes the only option. A third approach, which also purports to be more inclusive and sympathetic, views the underclass and its people as part of the problem of social exclusion. This approach is embodied in the Social Exclusion Unit set up by the New Labour government back in the late 1990s. Interestingly, Young (2002) draws attention to the risks of this approach, due to its tendency to categorise people into deserving and undeserving. He views this binary view of human nature as not allowing the empowerment and support of all in equal measure, due to the biases involved.