Last Updated on February 3, 2023 by Karl Thompson
In this topic we examine the relationship between social class and crime.
According to available statistics, class background is correlated with both the amount of and type of offending, but there are some significant limitations with the statistics on social class and crime and these limitations are the first thing we examine.
We then simply selectively apply some of the perspectives which we’ve already looked at earlier in the course: Consensus theory explains the higher rates of working class crime in terms of differential access the working classes and middle classes have in relation to the legitimate opportunity structure, which generates different cultural responses; Interactionism broadly rejects the consensus theory arguing that the higher rates of working class crime are a social construction; Marxism recognises the fact that the high levels of working class crime are a social construction in that emphasises the role of crimogenic capitalism in generating crime.
Finally, we look at the realisms – Right Realism focuses our attention on the underclass, rather than the working class as the main cause of crime in society today, while left realism sees crime as an outgrowth of inequality and marginalisation, without blaming Capitalism per se as Marxists do.
Consensus Theories, Social Class and Crime
Consensus theories generally accepted the fact that crime rates were higher among the lower social classes and set out to explain why – two theories which explicitly focused on the differences between working class culture and crime were Strain theory and Status Frustration theory.
Robert Merton: Strain Theory, Blocked Opportunities and Working Class Innovation
Robert Merton argued that crime increased when there was a strain (or gap) between society’s success goals (achieving material wealth) and the available opportunities to achieve those goals through legitimate means (having a well-paying job). Merton called this imbalance between goals and the ability to achieve them ‘anomie’.
Merton argued that crime was higher among the working classes because they had fewer opportunities to achieve material success through legitimate means and were thus more likely to adopt innovative cultural responses in order to achieve material success through criminal means – through burglary or drug dealing, for example.
Merton saw crime as a response to the inability of people to achieve material wealth, emphasising the role of material or economic factors.
Albert Cohen: Status Frustration and Working Class Subcultures
Albert Cohen put more emphasis on cultural factors (values and status) rather than material factors in explaining working class crime.
Cohen argued that working class boys strove to emulate middle-class values and aspirations, but lacked the means to achieve success. This led to status frustration: a sense of personal failure and inadequacy.
In Cohen’s view they resolved their frustration by rejecting socially acceptable values and patterns of acceptable behaviour. Because there were several boys going through the same experiences, they end up banding together and forming delinquent subcultures.
This delinquent subculture reversed the norms and values of mainstream culture, offering positive rewards (status) to those who were the most deviant. Status was gained by being malicious, intimidating others, breaking school rules or the law and generally causing trouble.
This pattern of boys rejecting mainstream values and forming delinquent subcultures first started in school and then becomes more serious later on, taking on the form of truancy and possibly gangs.
Interactionism, Social Class and Crime
The main piece of sociological research which has specifically examined the relationship between the police and the social class background of offenders is Aaron Cicourel’s ‘Power and The Negotiation of Justice’ (1968)
Cicourel argued that it was the meanings held by police officers and juvenile officers that explained why most delinquents come from working class backgrounds, and that the process of defining a young person as a delinquent was complex, involving mainly two stages of interactions based on sets of meanings held by the participants.
The first stage is the decision by the police to stop and interrogate an individual. This decision is based on meanings held by the police of what is ‘strange’, ‘unusual’ and ‘wrong’. Whether or not the police stop and interrogate an individual depends on where the behaviour is taking place and on how the police perceive the individual(s). Whether behaviour is deemed to be ‘suspicious’ will depend on where the behaviour is taking place, for example an inner city, a park, a suburb. If a young person has a demeanour like that of a ‘typical delinquent’ then the police are more likely to both interrogate and arrest that person.
The Second Stage is that the young person is handed over to a juvenile delinquent officer. This officer will have a picture of a ‘typical delinquent’ in his mind. Factors associated with a typical delinquent include being of dishevelled appearance, having poor posture, speaking in slang etc. It follows that Cicourel found that most delinquents come from working class backgrounds.
When middle class delinquents are arrested they are less likely to be charged with the offence as they do not fit the picture of a ‘typical delinquent’. Also, their parents are more able to present themselves as respectable and reasonable people from a nice neighbourhood and co-operate fully with the juvenile officers, assuring them that their child is truly remorseful.
As a result, the middle class delinquent is more likely to be defined as ill rather than criminal, as having accidentally strayed from the path of righteousness just the once and having a real chance of reforming.
Cicourel based his research on two Californian cities, each with a population of about 100, 000. both had similar social characteristics yet there was a significant difference in the amount of delinquents in each city. Cicourel argued that this difference can only be accounted for by the size, organisation, policies and practices of the juvenile and police bureaus. It is the societal reaction that affects the rate of delinquency. It is the agencies of social control that produce delinquents.
Marxism, Social Class and Crime
Marxists argue that while working class crime does exist, it is a rational response to crimogenic capitalism. Moreover, all class commit crime, and the crimes of the elite are more harmful than street crime, but less likely to be punished.
- Capitalism encourages individuals to pursue self-interest before everything else.
- Capitalism encourages individuals to be materialistic consumers, making us aspire to an unrealistic and often unattainable lifestyle.
- Capitalism in its wake generates massive inequality and poverty, conditions which are correlated with higher crime rates.
Marxist Sociologist David Gordon says that Capitalist societies are ‘dog eat dog societies’ in which each individual company and each individual is encouraged to look out for their own interests before the interests of others, before the interests of the community, and before the protection of the environment. If we look at the Capitalist system, what we find is that not only does it recommend that we engage in the self-interested pursuit of profit is good, we learn that it is acceptable to harm others and the environment in the process.
Marxists theorise that the values of the Capitalist system filter down to the rest of our culture. Think again about the motives of economic criminals: The burglars, the robbers, and the thieves. What they are doing is seeking personal gain without caring for the individual victims.
The Capitalist system is also one of radical inequality. At the very top we have what David Rothkopf calls the ‘Superclass’ , mainly the people who run global corporations, and at the very bottom we have the underclass (in the developed world) and the slum dwellers, the street children and the refugees in the developing world.
The Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out that the super wealthy effectively segregate themselves from the wealthy, through living in exclusive gated communities and travelling in private jets and armoured vehicles with security entourages. If people can afford it, they move to a better area, and send their children to private schools. However, this doesn’t prevent the poor and the rich from living side by side.
Marxists argue that the visible evidence of massive inequalities give people at the bottom a sense of injustice, a sense of anger and a sense of frustration that they are not sharing in the wealth being flaunted in front of them (the flaunting is the point is it not?) As a result, Capitalism leads to a flourishing of economic crime as well as violent street crime.
William Chambliss even goes so far as to say that economic crime ‘’represents rational responses to the competitiveness and inequality of life in capitalist societies”. As we have seen from previous studies. Drug dealers see themselves as innovative entrepreneurs. So internalised is the desire to be successful that breaking the law is seen as a minor risk.
Marxists hold that more egalitarian societies based on the values of the co-operation and mutual assistance, have lower crime rates.
White Collar Crime: Crimes committed in the furtherance of an individual’s own interests, often against the corporations of organisations within which they work.
Corporate Crime: Those crimes committed by or for corporations or businesses which act to further their interests and have a serious physical or economic impact on employees, consumers and the general public. The drive is usually the desire to increase profits.
The Crimes of the elite are more costly than street crime
Marxists argue that although they are hidden from view, the crimes of the elite exert a greater economic toll on society than the crimes of the ‘ordinary people’. Laureen Snider (1993) points out that the cost of White Collar Crime and Corporate Crime to the economy far outweighs the cost of street crime by ‘typical’ criminals.
The Cost of Financial Crime (Fraud)
Organisations such as Corporate Watch and…. Multinational Monitor, suggest that Corporate Fraud is widespread. The General Accounting Agency of the USA has estimated that 100s of savings and loans companies have failed in recent years due to insider dealing, failure to disclose accurate information, and racketeering. The cost to the taxpayer in the USA of corporate bail outs is estimated to be around $500 billion, or $5000 per household in the USA.
Case Study – Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme
In 2009 the disgraced financier Bernie Madoff was sentenced to the maximum 150 years in prison for masterminding a $65bn (£38bn) fraud that wrecked the lives of thousands of investors.
The US district judge Denny Chin described the fraud as “staggering” and said the “breach of trust was massive” and that a message was being sent by the sentence. There had been no letters submitted in support of Madoff’s character, he said. Victims in the courtroom clapped as the term was read out.
Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 counts of fraud, theft and money laundering. The sentencing, in what has been one of the biggest frauds ever seen on Wall Street, was eagerly anticipated. Described by victims in written testimony as a “thief and a monster”, Madoff has become an emblem for the greed that pitched the world into recession. Nearly 9,000 victims have filed claims for losses in Madoff’s corrupt financial empire.
Madoff masterminded a huge “Ponzi” scheme. Instead of investing client’s money in securities, it was held with a bank and new deposits used to pay bogus returns to give the impression that the business was successful. At the time of his arrest in December, he claimed to manage $65bn of investors’ money, but in reality there was just $1bn left.
Please see this linked post for more details on The Marxist perspective on crime
Right Realism/ Underclass Theory and Crime
Right Realists disagree with Marxists – Right Realists point to the underclass as being responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime in society.
Charles Murray and the Underclass
Charles Murray argued that changes to family structure was responsible for much of the increase in the crime rate in the 1970s and 80s – he largely attributes the growth of crime because of a growing underclass or ‘new rabble’ who are defined by their deviant behaviour and fail to socialise their children properly. The children of the underclass fail to learn self-control and also fail to learn the difference between right and wrong.
The underclass has increased because of increasing welfare dependency. Murray argues that increasingly generous welfare benefits since the 1960s have led to increasing numbers of people to become dependent on the state. This has led to the decline of marriage and the growth of lone parent families, because women can now live off benefits rather than having to get married to have children. This also means that men no longer have to take responsibility for supporting their families, so they no longer need to work.
According to Murray, lone mothers are ineffective agents of socialisation, especially for boys. Absent fathers mean than boys lack paternal discipline and appropriate male role models. As a result, young males turn to other, delinquent role models on the street to gain status through crime rather than supporting their families through a steady job.
Increasing crime is effectively a result of children growing up surrounded by delinquent, deviant criminal adults which creates a perfect crimogenic environment.
Unemployment and Crime
A recent comparison 4.3 million offenders in England and Wales whose names appeared in court records or the Police National Computer with separate benefits records held by the Department for Work and Pensions revealed that more than 1.1 million of the 5.2 million people claiming out-of-work benefits had a criminal record, or 22 per cent. This means that people who are claiming unemployment benefit are more than twice as likely to have a criminal record as those who are not. (Source: More than a fifth of people on unemployment benefits have a criminal record.)
NEETS and Crime
NEETS stands for young people aged between 16 and 24 Not in Education, Employment or Training. They first came to the government’s attention in the mid 2000s when they numbered 1.1m. At that time, a study by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) conservatively estimated that each new NEET dropping out of education at 16 will cost taxpayers an average of £97,000 during their lifetime, with the worst costing more than £300,000 apiece.
Their impact on crime, public health and antisocial behaviour was so marked that the study found that a single 157,000-strong cohort of 16 to 18-year-old NEETs would cost the country a total of £15 billion by the time they died prematurely in about 2060. They are, says the study, 22 times more likely to be teenage mothers; 50% more likely to suffer from poor health; 60% more likely to be involved with drugs and more than 20 times more likely to become criminals.
Left Realism, Social Class and Crime
Left Realists Lea and young conclude that they can explain this using the following key concepts; relative deprivation, marginalisation and subculture.
Lea and Young argue that crime has its roots in deprivation, but deprivation itself is not directly responsible for crime – for example, living standards have risen since the 1950s, so the level of deprivation has fallen, but the crime rate is much higher today than it was in the 1950s.
Left Realists draw on Runciman’s (1966) concept of relative deprivation to explain crime. This refers to how someone feels in relation to others, or compared with their own expectations.
The concept of relative deprivation helps to explain the apparent paradox of increasing crime in the context of an increasing wealthy society. Although people are better off today, they have a greater feeling of relative deprivation because of the media and advertising have raised everyone’s expectations for material possessions – we are wealthier, but we feel poorer, and thus there is more pressure to get more stuff to keep up with everyone else, which generates historically high crime rates.
This is where people lack the power or resources to fully participate in society. According to Left Realists marginalised groups lack both clear goals and organisations to represent their interests. Groups such as workers have clear goals (such as wanting better pay and conditions) and organisations to represent them (such as trades unions), and as such they have no need to resort to violence to achieve their goals.
By contrast, unemployed youth are marginalised – they have no specific organisation to represent them and no clear sense of goals – which results in feelings of resentment and frustration. Having no access to legitimate political means to pursue their goals, frustration can become expressed through violence.
Left Realists see subcultures as a group’s collective response to the situation of relative deprivation, and they draw on Cohen’s theory of status frustration to explain how they emerge. There are many different subcultural adaptations to blocked opportunities, and not all result in crime – but those subcultures which still subscribe to the mainstream values of material wealth but lack legitimate opportunities to achieve those goals.
Revision Notes for Sale
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Crime and Deviance Revision Notes – 31 pages of revision notes covering the following topics:
- Consensus based theories part 1 – Functionalism; Social control’ theory; Strain theory
- Consensus based theories part 2 – Sub cultural theories
- The Traditional Marxist and Neo-Marxist perspective on crime
- Labeling Theory
- Left- Realist and Right-Realist Criminology (including situational, environmental and community crime prevention)
- Post-Modernism, Late-Modernism and Crime (Social change and crime)
- Sociological Perspectives on controlling crime – the role of the community and policing in preventing crime
- Sociological Perspectives on Surveillance
- Sociological Perspectives on Punishment
- Social Class and Crime
- Ethnicity and Crime
- Gender and crime (including Girl gangs and Rape and domestic violence)
- Victimology – Why are some people more likely to be criminals than others
- Global crime, State crime and Environmental crime (Green crime)
- The Media and Crime, including moral panics
Signposting and Related Posts
This topic is taught as part of the Crime and Deviance compulsory unit with the AQA’s A-level Sociology specification.