Last Updated on January 17, 2019 by Karl Thompson
An essay plan on Consensus Theory for the A Level Sociology Crime and Deviance Module.
- For more examples of short answer, 10 mark and essay questions, please see my main page on ‘Exams, essays and short answer questions‘.
- For an overview of consensus theories of crime and deviance please see these two posts: (1) Consensus and strain theory, (2) subcultural theories of deviance.
Consensus Theory sees crime as a result of social institutions losing control over individuals. This is associated with the Functionalist point of view, first being expounded by Emile Durkheim who argued that when social institutions such as the family, education, and work, lose control over people, they effectively miss out on socialisation and suffer from anomie, a state of normlesseness, which can lead to criminal and deviant behaviour.
This idea was developed by Hirshchi who argued that when an individual’s bonds of attachment to institutions weaken, when, for example, they do not feel as if they belong to institutions, or when they are not involved with institutions, they are more likely to commit crime.
The blame for crime lies with weak institutions and their agents. For example, single parent families and ‘absent dads’ are accused of lacking control over their children, as are unstable families. This theory would also predict that children with a history or truancy and exclusion would be more likely to turn to crime and those who are long term unemployed could also be a problem.
This is also the point of view emphasised by both the present labour government and the conservative opposition. The then home secretary Jack Straw argued that ‘Dads need Lads’ sound bite, and David Cameron’s speeches about the importance of the family and the problems associated with absent fathers. These views are popular with the right wing press, which often reminds their (middle class, nuclear family) readers of the problems faced by lone mothers and the underclass.
Initially, it seams that there is a lot of evidence to support Consensus Theory. For example, the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (Faring ton and West 1991). This Study of 411 ‘working class’ males born in 1953 who were studied until their late 30s. The study found that offenders were more likely to come from poorer, single parent families with poor parenting and parents who were themselves offenders. This study suggests that good primary socialisation is essential in preventing crime.
The daily telegraph recently reported that ‘Seventy per cent of young offenders come from lone-parent families; and children from broken homes are 70 per cent more likely to become drug addicts.’
Criminologist Martin Glyn who works closely with young offenders has pointed out that many young offenders suffer from what he calls ‘parent deficit’. He argues that this is the single most important factor in explaining youth offending. He argues that children need both discipline and love, two things that are often both absent with absent parents.
Research commissioned by NASUWT, a teachers’ union, based on reviewing existing literature and in depth studies of two schools in Birmingham and London found that ‘Family breakdown and a lack of father figures could be to blame for pupils joining gangs, Children as young as nine are being drawn into organised crime for protection and to gain a “sense of belonging” because of the lack of positive role models at home.
One take on ‘Consensus Theory’ is Charles Murray’s theory of the underclass. Recent government statistics suggest that there is a relationship between the long term unemployed and youth crime. Those known as NEETS are much more likely to commit crime. In this sense it is a whole group rather than individuals who socialise their children into anti-social values.
There are many Criminologists who argue that Consensus Theory is too simplistic…
For a start, it could be regarded as deterministic. Not all broken families’ children commit crime, and there is no immediate causal link between the two variables.
Other factors often influence whether a child from a broken home to turn to crime. Albert Cohen’s status frustration theory reminds us that the pressure to attain status within a deviant group may lead an individual to get involved in violent crime to gain a reputation. Many recent documentaries on the problem of gang crime suggest there is some truth in this.
In addition to these pull factors, poverty and the area one lives in are both correlated with criminal behaviour.
Also, Merton’s strain theory reminds us that much economic crime is a result of a strain between the success goals of material wealth and the lack of opportunities for many among the lower classes to commit crime. He argued that some crime was a result of effective socialisation into the success goals (so no ‘lack of control’ here) and lack of legitimated opportunities such as high paid jobs to achieve these goals. Many sociologists who have carried out qualitative research with gangs have found evidence to back this theory up such as Sudhir Venkatesh.
Strain theory suggests that it is the fault of the system for encouraging us to want more than we can get, which creates the conditions that makes crime rational. More radical Marxists take there analysis further, arguing that it is the fault of the Capitalist system that breeds selfish individualism, inequality and poverty, all of which can lead to crime. A similar view was offered by Willis who argued that lack of control was less to blame than a system that did not meet the needs of the Lads who he studied.
Much of the evidence cited for CONSENSUS THEORY is quantitative, and even if 70% of criminals come from broken homes, it will still be a minority of families whose children commit crime. If we look at the cases of those who do commit crime in more depth, we realise that many of them face multiple problems such as living in deprived areas and drug and alcohol abuse.
CONSENSUS THEORY is thus problematic because it stereotypes all ‘broken families’ as potentially problematic. It could even be seen as ideological because it blames a minority group for society’s problems, rather than looking at the problems of the system.
It could be that CONSENSUS THEORY is a popular theory because lone parent families and NEETs are a minority and an easy target. In addition, such a simplistic theory is easy for the mass population to understand, as it fits populist discourse. CONSENSUS THEORY is also the kind of theory that can be summarised in ‘sound bite’ media, and wins politicians votes.
In conclusion, while there may be some truth in CONSENSUS THEORY, we need to be careful of adopting lack of social control and weak institutions as the main cause of crime, it is only one factor amongst many, and alone, it provides us with a very limited understanding of the causes of crime.