Conflict and Critical Theories of Crime

Conflict and critical theories shift the focus away from the individual offender and toward the role of social institutions and political dynamics. Labeling theory bridges the gap between sociological theory and conflict and cultural theories. Labeling theory holds that individuals structure their behavior according to social expectations. Primary deviance occurs when society reacts to an individual’s actions and successfully labels the person. Secondary deviance is complete when labeled individuals internalize the label and see themselves as devalued members of society. The theory has several limitations. Programs that divert individuals from the criminal justice system are examples of the use of labeling theory in criminal justice policy.

Social location is the position of an individual within society as defined by class, race, gender, and age. Conflict theory considers social institutions concerned with money and social class to contribute more to crime than individual antisocial behavior. This concept can be traced to Karl Marx, who proposed the idea of economics as a primary factor in antisocial behavior. Other key conflict thinkers include Max Weber, Ralf Dahrendorf, and Austin Turk.

Critical theories see crime as rooted in a concept of justice that perpetuates social inequality. Feminist criminology deals with issues and problems related to women, crime and the criminal justice system, including incarcerated females, women working in the criminal justice system, and gender aspects of victimization. Peacemaking criminology advocates making peace and can be applied to the problems of crime at the personal, interpersonal, institutional/societal, and global levels.

Cultural criminology examines the way culture and the media reflect and produce antisocial behavior and reveals that the quality of justice often reflects social standing. Postmodernism explores how language affects the way we construct our perceptions about the world. Postmodern criminology considers how language and ideas in all aspects of crime and the criminal justice system include and exclude groups of people and how they define the realities of those groups. Critical race theory is the most extensive theoretical development of race as a social category that influences power. It focuses on differential treatment by the criminal justice system based on race.