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The Underclass Theory of Crime

the underclassAn American Sociologist Charles Murray (1989) first coined the term ‘the underclass’ to refer to that group of people in America who were long term unemployed and effectively welfare dependent. In the late 1980s he argued that the first generation of underclass were then having children and socialising the next generation of children into a culture of worklessness, thus creating a potential problem for US society because of this group being essentially cut off from ordinary social life and are not constrained by ordinary norms and values like ordinary working people. At that time, Murray looked across to Britain and warned us that in 20 years time we would be facing a similar problem….

Low and behold, A recent article reporting on some relatively recent sociological research from The Times Newspaper (NB – Link is to the Telegraph, not behind an evil pay wall like The Times) reported that….

Two decades after the American sociologist Charles Murray warned that a big new underclass was looming, official studies and ministerial papers — which ministers have chosen not to highlight — reveal that it has finally arrived in the form of the NEETS.

Aged between 16 and 24, they number 1.1m and are responsible for a social and economic drag on society that is vastly disproportionate to their numbers. A study by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) conservatively estimates 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.

[In response to these figures Charles Murray commented…]

“When I was looking at Britain in the 1980s, the offspring of the first big generation of single mothers were small children,” said Murray, speaking from his home in America. “Now they are teenagers and young adults and the problems are exactly those that I was warning they would be — high crime rates and low participation in the labour force. These people have never been socialised and they simply don’t know how to behave, from sitting still in classrooms to knowing you don’t hit people if you have a problem. It is very difficult, almost impossible, to take these people now and provide basic conditioning. There has always been a small underclass but now you have got a major problem, who are being called the Neets.”

Related Posts

The Functionalist Perspective on Crime and Deviance

Hirschi’s Social Control Theory of Crime

Robert Merton’s Strain Theory 

 

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Subcultural Theories of Deviance

Subcultural Theory: The Basics

A Subculture is a group that has values that are different to the mainstream culture. Subcultural theorists argue that deviance is the result of whole groups breaking off from society who have deviant values (subcultures) and deviance is a result of these individuals conforming to the values and norms of the subculture to which they belong.

In contrast to Social Control theorists, it is the pull of the peer group that encourages individuals to commit crime, rather than the lack of attachment to the family or other mainstream institutions. Subcultural theory also helps explain non-utilitarian crimes such as vandalism and joy riding which strain theory cannot really explain. Deviance is a collective response to marginalisation.

There are four people you need to know about for Subcultural Theory:

1. Albert Cohen’s Status Frustration Theory
2. Cloward and Ohlin’s three types of subculture
3. Walter Miller – the focal concerns of the working class
4. Charles Murray – the underclass and Crime (links to the New Right)

Albert Cohen: Deviant Subcultures emerge because of Status Frustration

Albert Cohen argues that working class subcultures emerge because they are denied status in society. Just like Merton, 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.

Cohen argued that many boys react to this by rejecting socially acceptable values and patterns of acceptable behaviour. Because there are several boys going through the same experiences, they end up banding together and forming delinquent subcultures.

This delinquent subculture reverses the norms and values of mainstream culture, offering positive rewards (status) to those who are the most deviant. Status may be 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 starts in school and then becomes more serious later on, taking on the form of truancy and possibly gang membership

Subcultural Theory 2: Cloward and Ohlin’s 3 types of subculture

Cloward and Ohlin develop Cohen’s subcultural theory further, expanding on it in order to try and explain why different types of subculture emerge in different regions. They suggest that the ‘illegitimate opportunity structure’ affects what type of subculture emerges in response to status frustration – The varied social circumstances in which working-class youth live give rise to three types of delinquent subculture.

1. Criminal Subcultures are characterised by utilitarian crimes, such as theft. They develop in more stable working class areas where there is an established pattern of crime. This provided a learning opportunity and career structure for aspiring young criminals, and an alternative to the legitimate job market as a means of achieving financial rewards. Adult criminals exercise social control over the young to stop them carrying out non-utilitarian delinquent acts – such as vandalism – which might attract the attention of the police.

2. Conflict subcultures emerge in socially disorganised areas where there is a high rate of population turnover and a consequent lack of social cohesion. These prevent the formation of stable adult criminal subcultures Conflict subcultures are characterised by violence, gang warfare, ‘mugging’ and other street crime. Both approved and illegal means of achieving mainstream goals are blocked or limited, and young people express their frustration at this situation through violence or street crime, and at least obtain status through success in subcultural peer-group values. This is a possible explanation for the gang culture which is increasingly appearing in run down areas of the UK, and possibly explains the UK riots of 2011.

3. Retreatist subcultures emerge among those lower class youth who are ‘double failures’ – they have failed to succeed in both mainstream society and in the crime and gang cultures above. The response is a retreat into drug addiction and alcoholism, paid for by petty theft, shoplifting and prostitution

Alternative Perspectives to Consensus Subcultural Theories of Crime

  1. Paul Willis’ 1977 study of the Counter-School-Culture represents a Marxist critique of consensus subcultural theory. Willis argued that the working class lads formed a subculture in order to ‘have a laff’ in a school system which they had accurately identified as being irrelevant to their futures. Unlike Cohen, these lads never aspired to be middle class, they identified themselves as working class, rejected middle class aspirations, and rejected the middle class system of the school – thus why Willis coined the term ‘counter (against) school culture’.
  2. David Matza has developed what might cautiously be termed an Interactionist approach to understanding subcultures. Matza suggested that there were no distinct subcultures among young people. Rather, all groups in society share a set of subterranean values. These are simply deviant values that encourage us to go against social norms – the urge to party hard, drink too much, swear, stealing, punch the idiots you work with and sleep with your brother’s wife etc. These are usually held under control, but sometimes emerge at peak leisure times – weekends, holidays and so on. The difference between a persistent offender and a law-abiding citizen is simply how often and in what circumstances these subterranean values emerge.
  3. Postmodernists point out that the nature of subcultures today has changed, in that subcultures are much more common today than they were in the 1960s. Today, subcultures are just a normal part of life. Subcultural theory assumes that there are ‘mainstream norms and values’ which subcultures deviate from. This is wrong according to Postmodernism – in society today, deviance and hence subcultures are ‘normal’, which renders the whole of subcultural theory irrelevant in helping us to understand crime and deviance.

Related Posts 

Subcultural theories of deviance are the second group of theories of crime on the A level crime and deviance specification (AQA), normally taught after functionalist and strain theories.

The Functionalist Perspective on Crime and Deviance

Hirschi’s Social Control Theory of Crime

Robert Merton’s Strain Theory 

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Evaluate the Contribution of Marxism to our Understanding of Crime and Deviance (30)

An essay plan on the Marxist Theory of Crime and Deviance – starting with an introduction outlining the Marxist conception of social class and then covering 4-5 key points such as the costs of corporate crime, selective law enforcement and crimogenic capitalism, with some overall evaluations and a conclusion to round off. 

Brief intro outlining key ideas of Marxist Theory (links to Theory and Methods):

  • Conflict Perspective
  • Class Structure (Bourgeoisie/ Proletariat)
  • Capitalism/ Economic Power = other forms of power (Private Property)
  • Exploitation/ extraction
  • False consciousness/ ideological control
  • Political Perspective supports working class struggle and revolution

Point One – The law is made by the elite and supports their interests

  • William Chambliss said this
  • Against the consensus view of the law
  • Most of the law is protection of Private Property
  • The whole history of Colonialism supports

Point Two – All classes commit crime, the crimes of the elite are more harmful and they are more likely to get away with it

  • Laureen Snider said this
  • High profile case studies support this – Bernie Madhoff/ Bhopal
  • Statistically supported by Tombs and Whyte

Point Three – Selective Law Enforcement and Ideological Functions

  • Working class crime more likely to be punished and criminals jailed
  • NOT interactionism, although their work supports this
  • 3* ideological functions – e.g. neutralisation of opposition

Point Four – Crimogenic Capitalism

  • Crime is a natural outgrowth of Capitalism
  • David Gordon ‘Dog Eat Dog society’
  • Capitalism breeds desire, selfishness, materialism

Bonus Point Five – Add in Neo-Marxism – The Fully Social Theory of Deviance

  • Taylor, Walton and Young – Moral Panics against WC crime = a tool of social control
  • Stuart Hall – Policing the Crisis – good illustration of the above
  • See criminals as a ‘revolutionary vanguard’

Best Overall Evaluations

Positive 

  • + Better than Consensus Theory – doesn’t ignore power and inequality
  • + The law does benefit the rich more because the poor have no significant property
  • + Highlights the cost of Corporate Crime and the injustice (links to Victimology)
  • + On the side of the many victims of Elite Crime

Negative 

  •  – Economically Deterministic – Evidence that crime exists in non-capitalist societies and crime is going down in the UK
  • – Postmodernism – Doesn’t explain recent changes in crime – causes are more complex
  • – Realisms – Not pragmatic – offers not immedate ways of controlling crime
  • – Realisms – out of touch with working class victims of crime

Conclusion – How Useful is this theory?

  • + Useful if you’re a victim of elite crime and think long term political change is required to end this problem.
  • – Not useful if you’re a victim of ‘ordinary working class crime’ and want immediate solutions to your problems.
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Official Crime Statistics for England and Wales

The two main sources of official statistics on Crime in the UK (or rather England and Wales!) are:

  1. Police Recorded Crime – which is all crimes recorded by the 43 police forces in England and Wales (as well as the British Transport Police)

  2. The Crime Survey for England and Wales which is a face to face victim survey in which people are asked about their experiences of crime in the previous 12 months.

NB – There are other sources of official statistics on crime, which I’ll come back to later, but these are the two main ones.

Below are three very good web sites which you can use to explore crime stats from the above two sources. The point of this post is really just to direct students to good sources which they can use to explore these statistics (strengths and limitations of crime statistics posts will be forthcoming shortly!)

OneCrime in England and Wales

Published by the Office for National Statistics, Crime in England and Wales provides the most comprehensive coverage of national crime trends. I’d actually recommend starting with the methodology section of this document, which states

‘Crime in England and Wales has 2 main data sources: The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) and police recorded crime. The CSEW is a face-to-face victimisation survey in which people are asked about their experiences of crime in the 12 months prior to the interview. Police recorded crime figures are supplied by the 43 territorial police forces of England and Wales and the British Transport Police.’

Crime trends UK

Twohttps://www.police.uk/

This is a good starting point for exploring crime statistics. You can click on an interactive map which will show you how much crime there is in your area. NB this map shows you only police recorded crime, and there are many, many crimes which are not recorded, for various reasons.

Crime in Kent

Threehttp://www.ukcrimestats.com/

This site describes itself as ‘the leading crime and property data’ website – scroll down for a nice colour coded analysis of crime trends for a number of different crime categories. Reported month by month (2 month data lag). I think the table below is CSEW data

What I particularly like about this web site is that it provides data tables by police force – Here’s a link to data for the Surrey Police (Local link, I teach in Surrey, where my measly teacher salary makes me feel poor because of the sickening and unjustified wealth in the local area.) The data below is Police Recorded Crime data.

Crime in England and Wales

When looking at statistics on crime, make sure you know whether the stats come from Police Recorded Crime or the Crime Survey of England and Wales (a victim survey) – the two figures will be different, and the difference between them will be different depending on the type of crime – for example the stats for vehicle theft are quite similar (because of insurance claims requiring a police report) but domestic violence figures are very different from these two sources because most offences do not get reported to the police, but many more (but not all) get reported to the CSEW researchers.

Related Posts

Official Statistics in Sociology

Crime Statistics Revision Video

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Sociological Perspectives on Crime and Deviance

A brief overview of some sociological perspectives on crime and deviance – from Functionalism through to Right Realism. 

Theory

Summary

Functionalism

Argue that societies need a limited amount of crime, because crime is inevitable (society of saints argument) and that crime performs three positive functions: regulation, integration and change. Also see Durkheim’s work on suicide.

Social Control Theory

The cause of deviance is the breakdown or weakening of informal agencies of social control such as the family and community. Criminal activity occurs when the individual’s attachment to society is weakened. According to Hirschi there are four types of social bond

Merton’s Strain Theory

Crime and deviance occur in times of anomie when there is a ‘strain’ between society’s socially approved ‘success goals’ and the opportunities available to achieve these goals. Crime occurs when individuals still want to achieve the success goals of society but abandon the socially approved means of obtaining those goals.

Subcultural Theory

Explains deviance in terms of the subculture of certain social groups. Deviance is the result of individuals suffering ‘status frustration’ and conforming to the values and norms of a subculture which rewards them for being deviant. Focuses on crimes of the working class.

Traditional Marxism

Explain crime in terms of Capitalism and the class structure – The Ruling classes make the law to benefit them, the law protects private property. Ruling and Middle class crime is more harmful than working class crime but ruling classes are less likely to get caught and punished for crime. Selective law enforcement performs ideological functions. WCs commit crime due to the ‘dog eat dog’ values of capitalist system – selfishness, materialism.

Interactionism

Focus on how crime is socially constructed, on how certain acts become defined as criminal or deviant, and how certain people are more likely to be defined as deviant than others. Labelling Theory and Moral Panic Theory are key ideas within Interactionism.

Neo-Marxism

Fuses Traditional Marxist and Interactionism. Crime is an outgrowth of capitalism, but moral panics over the relatively minor crimes of marginalised groups make the public side with the ruling class against the marginalised, maintaining social order. Believe that criminology should focus on highlighting the injustices of the Capitalist System in order to change society.

Left Realism

Concerned with working class crime, believe that we should work with the system in order to improve the lives of the victims of crime, who are mainly working class. Marginalisation, relative deprivation and subcultures are the main causes of crime and we should aim to tackle crime on multiple fronts – more community (less militaristic) policing and tackling poverty and marginalisation within communities are solutions.

Right Realism

Right Realism is more concerned with practical solutions to crime. Relatively simple theories such as rational choice and Broken Windows theory explain crime and Zero Tolerance Policing and Situational Crime Prevention are the solutions

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Assess the Contribution of Post/ Late Modern Perspectives to our Understanding of Crime and Deviance (30)

An essay plan on Post/ Late Modern perspectives on crime and deviance covering the relationship between consumerism and crime (Robert Reiner), The Vertigo of Late Modernity (Jock Young), the consequences of globalisation for crime, and the rise of cyber crime, all followed by some evaluations and a conclusion. 

Brief intro outlining the key ideas of Post/ Late Modernism

  • Postmodern society is different to modern society – It is more consumerist, and individuals have more freedom of choice than ever before.
  • Late Modernists argue that crime has changed in some fundamental ways in the age of postmodernity

Point One – Consumer society is a high crime society (Robert Reiner)

  • Crime started to rise in the 1950s with the birth of consumerism
  • 80% of crime is property crime, suggesting a link between the increase in materialism and the rise of crime
  • Rapid crime increase became especially pronounced with the neoliberal policies of Thatcher

Point Two – The ‘Vertigo of Late Modernity’ (uncertainty) explains crime and deviance today (Jock Young)

  • Postmodern life is insecure – neither jobs nor relationships are for life. These instabilities create a constant state of ‘anomie’ or meaninglessness.
  • Thus people no longer find security in their jobs/ relationships, and they thus look for thrills at weekends to give their life meaning – risk taking behaviour is the norm (‘edgework’) and much crime is an outcome of this.
  • Winlow’s study of night-time violence supports this, as does Katz’s work on ‘Edgework’.

Point Three – Globalisation has resulted in many new types of crime

  • Postmodern culture is global – there are many new flows of money, goods, technologies and ideas which open up new opportunities for crime.
  • Some of the most significant types of global crime are drug-crime, people trafficking, cybercrime and the global terrorist threat.
  • One thing fuelling this is global inequality (demand and supply).
  • One major consequence is the increase awareness of ‘risk consciousness’ and the increase in fear, especially because of the perceived terrorist threat.

Point Four – New Technologies open up new opportunities for crime, especially cyber-crime

  • Cybercrime is one of the fastest growth areas of crime and this is global in nature.
  • Fraud is one type of crime – such as the Nigerian Romance Scam.
  • Cyber-stalking and harassment also seems to be more common than face to face crimes of this nature.
  • Governments are also under threat from ‘cyber attacks’ from foreign powers.

Overall Evaluations

Positive Negative
+ Society and the nature of crime do seem to have changed in recent years, so it’s worth revisiting the ‘underlying causes’

+ Better than Marxism and Feminism as these theories look at crime more generally, rather than just focussing on issues of power.

– On closer inspection there doesn’t seem to be much new in many late-modern theories of crime – much of it just seems to be Strain Theory updated.

– These theories may be too general to be useful to anyone. If there are multiple causes of crime, which are complex and global, we have no clue what to do to control crime?!?

Conclusion – How useful are post (late) modern theories in helping us understand crime and deviance

On the plus side it is clear that the nature of crime has changed with the onset of a global, hyper-connected postmodern society.

However, we might not need a completely new batch of theories to understand these changes. Marxists, for example, would say that we can understand much global crime, and even much ‘local crime’ because of the increase in economic inequalities which are part of globalisation.

Related Posts 

Modernity, Post-Modernity, and Late-Modernity 

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Evaluate Sociological Perspectives on Prison as a Form of Punishment (Essay Plan)

1. Functionalists would point to the positive functions prison might perform in society –Prison could act as a deterrent – thus reinforcing social regulation; and it should also work to maintain equilibrium and balance in our society – making up for the failings of other institutions such as the family and the education system – restoring order through incapacitating those who break the law.

Ultimately however, one might criticize the effectiveness of prison – given that there is a 60% reoffending rate it isn’t really effective in restoring equilibrium in the first place – what prison does most of the time is resocialise people into criminal norms, in the extreme people become institutionalized and unable to reintegrate into society once released.

2. Marxists argue that by relying on prison, we ignore the failings of the system that lead to the conditions of inequality and poverty which lead to crime. Furthermore, the imprisonment of selected members of the lower classes neutralises opposition to the system; the imprisonment of many members of the underclass also sweeps out of sight the ‘worst jetsam of Capitalist society’ such that we cannot see it; and we may also add a fourth benefit, that all of the police, court and media focus on working class street crime means that our attention is diverted away from the immorality and greed of the elite classes.

Supporting evidence for the Marxist view comes from the fact that there are higher rates of imprisonment in more unequal countries.

Left realists criticise Marxists for absolving criminals from blame – people in jail mostly deserve to be there and their victims are most likely to be working class themselves.
3. Michel Foucault sees the growth of prison as a means of punishment as reflecting the move from sovereign power to disciplinary power – in traditional societies power was exercised on people’s physical bodies – punishment was harsh – it was a spectacle – today power is exercised through surveillance – the state no longer beats criminals – it just subjects them to increased surveillance – the theory is that people change their behavior because they know they are being monitored constantly. Prison seams more humane than physical punishment but in reality it is much more invasive as a means of social control.
One criticism of Foucault is that he fails to recognize that many prisoners do not change their behavior even though they are being watched!

4. Since the 1980s there has been a significant increase in the use of imprisonment in the United Kingdom – numbers have roughly doubled since 1990 with the total prison population now standing at about 84000 and we have one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the western world.

This increase has gone hand in hand with the implementation of Right Realist policies that emphasize rational choice theory as the cause of crime and zero tolerance as the solution to crime. The state claims that tougher penalties are one of the major causes of declining crime rates.

5. However David Garland points out that the crime rate has fallen in many countries over the last two decades, even in those that do not imprison as many people as the UK.

David Garland’s view the increasing use of imprisonment in the United States is that we now live in a era of mass incarceration – the United States locks up a massive proportion of the unemployed (Garland estimates as many as one third of all unemployed people are actually in jail in the USA) – and many of these become locked in a cycle of ‘transcarceration’ – where they shift between different agencies of state control and never fully reintegrate into society once having been in jail.

Garland actually argues that the reason the US and the UK lock up so many people is because of neo-liberalism – neo-liberal policies have made these societies more unequal and more individualistic – life has become harsher – and thus it is easier for the state to justify harsher penalties.

6. Critics of the ‘overuse of prison’ argue that we should employ alternatives – by using curfews, community service and treatment orders – because these have a lower reoffending rate – mainly because they do not remove an offender from society.

It is also worth noting that the characteristics of the prison population are very different to the characteristics of the population as a whole. People who are over-represented include ethnic minority groups, men, the underclass and the young. It is also worth noting that many female prisoners are likely to have suffered physical and emotional abuse and many claim they are in jail because of pressure to do criminal acts coming from their male partners.

7. To conclude, given the massive reoffending rate – and thus failure of prison to rehabilitate offenders – critical perspectives such as Garland’s remind us not to fall into the simplistic analysis of Functionalism and Right Realism who see prison as an effective means of social control.

The critical approaches of Marxism, Foucault and Garland are probably the most useful here as these remind us that it is the rise of neo-liberal hegemony since the 1970s and right realism since the 1990s that have lead to an increasing crime rate, and then to the increases in prison populations experienced in neo-liberal countries such as the UK and the USA.

Related Posts

The Spirit Level – how inequality effects the crime rate

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Crime and Deviance for AQA Sociology – An Overview

A mind map providing an overview of the main topics covered within Crime and Deviance, for the AQA specification. This is how I teach the module – broken down into 15 topics – Every text book is slightly different, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to pass a Sociology exam. This break-down works for me.

Crime and Deviance

Each of the areas above is likely to be the basis of your long essay question in Crime and Deviance, but if the examiners have got a particular hate on in any given year, they may select a more narrow focus (Moral Panics for example, yes that actually happened one year), or just Green Crime – which I’m sure would be truly awful for many students.

More likely is that they’ll ask you a question which cuts across two of the above areas – E.G. Assess Interactionist explanations for variations in patterns of offending by Age or Ethnicity.

Anyway, hopefully this at a glance look at the Content of the crime module is useful. Obviously you need to know more depth – but I couldn’t fit that in and make the map readable.

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Merton’s Strain Theory of Deviance

Robert MertonStrain Theory was first developed by Robert Merton in the 1940s to explain the rising crime rates experienced in the USA at that time. Strain theory has become popular with Contemporary sociologists.

Merton argued that the cultural system of the USA was built on the ‘American Dream’ – a set of meritocratic principles which assured the American public that equality of opportunity was available to all, regardless of class, gender or ethnicity. The ‘American Dream’ encouraged individuals to pursue a goal of success which was largely measured in terms of the acquisition of wealth and material possessions. People were expected to pursue this goal through legitimate means such as education and work. The dominant cultural message was if you are ambitious, talented and work hard, then income and wealth should be your rewards.

However Merton pointed out that these goals were not attainable by all, that the structural organisation of the USA mean that the means to get on were not fairly distributed and it was difficult, if not impossible for some to compete an achieve financial success.

Merton developed the concept of ‘anomie’ to describe this imbalance between cultural goals and institutionalised means. He argued that such an imbalanced society produces anomie – there is a strain or tension between the goals and means which produce unsatisfied aspirations.

Merton argued that when individuals are faced with a gap between their goals (usually finances/money related) and their current status, strain occurs. When faced with strain, people have five ways to adapt:

1. Conformity: pursing cultural goals through socially approved means.

2. Innovation: using socially unapproved or unconventional means to obtain culturally approved goals. Example: dealing drugs or stealing to achieve financial security.

3. Ritualism: using the same socially approved means to achieve less elusive goals (more modest and humble).

4. Retreatism: to reject both the cultural goals and the means to obtain it, then find a way to escape it.

5. Rebellion: to reject the cultural goals and means, then work to replace them.

strain theory

Explaining the Higher Rates of Offending Among Lower Social Classes

Merton developed his theory from a well-established observation from official statistics – that a higher proportion of acquisitive crime is committed by those from unskilled manual backgrounds (or ‘lower social classes’).

Merton noted that American society promoted material success as a ‘legitimate goal’, and encouraged self-discipline and hard work as the ‘legitimate means’ of pursuing that goal, with the idea that any individual, irrespective of their background could, with sufficient effort, achieve material success.

HOWEVER, Merton argued that for those from lower social classes, this ‘dream’ had become an ideology, masking the fact that the legitimate opportunities are not available to all, and worse, those who failed to achieve success via legitimate means were condemned for their apparent lack of effort.

This situation puts great pressure on people to achieve material success by illegitimate means (acquisitive crime) to avoid being branded a failure.

In short, Merton argued that America was a highly unequal and divided society which promoted goals that only some of its population could realistically hope to achieve. Many young, working class men especially had internalised the desire to achieve material success (they wanted cars and nice clothes for example), but the only way they could meet these goals was through crime.

Thus, it is not so much the individual’s flaws that lead them to crime, but rather ‘anomie’ in society – the combination of the pressure to be materially successful and the lack of legitimate opportunities to achieve that success.

Critical Points

  • Firstly,  not all working class individuals turn to crime, and so we need something else to explain why some of them do and some of them do not. Subcultural theorists argued that the role of working class subcultures plugs this gap in the explanation – deviant subcultures provide rewards for individuals who commit crime.
  • Secondly, Merton’s reliance on official statistics means he over-estimates the extent of working class crime and underestimates the extent of middle class, or white collar crime.
  • Thirdly, Strain theory only really explains economic crime, it doesn’t really explain violent crime.
  • Marxists point out that lack of equality of opportunity is at the heart of the Capitalist system. (Elites make the system work for them, which disadvantages the lower classes).

Continuing Relevance

  • Merton’s strain theory is an important contribution to the study of crime and deviance – in the 1940s it helped to explain why crime continued to exist in countries, such as America, which were experiencing increasing economic growth and wealth.
  • Baumer and Gustafson (2007) analysed official data sets in the USA and found that instrumental crime rates were higher in areas where there was a ‘high commitment to money success’ alongside a ‘weak commitment to legitimate means’..
  • It is possible to apply Merton’s theory of anomie to explain White Collar Crime – white collar criminals (those who commit fraud at work, for example) might be those who are committed to achieving material success, but have had their opportunities for promotion blocked by lack of opportunities – possible through class, gender or ethnic bias, or possible just by the simple fact that the higher up the career ladder you go, the more competition for promotion there is.
  • The (2009) applies Merton’s strain theory to explain rising crime rates during a period of economic growth in Malaysia, suggesting we can apply this theory to developing countries and that a ‘general theory of crime’ may thus be possible.
  • Philip Bourgeois (1996) In search of respect shows us that some of the most despised criminals have actually internalised Merton’s success goals.
  • Carl Nightingale: On the Edge – Carl Nightingale developed Merton’s Strain Theory, applying it to inner city youths in the 1990s

Sources

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology

This post offers a useful discussion and evaluation of Strain Theory

Revision Bundle for Sale 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Crime and Deviance Revision Bundle

Crime Deviance A-Level Revision.png

It contains

  • 12 exam practice questions including short answer, 10 mark and essay question exemplars.
  • 32 pages of revision notes covering the entire A-level sociology crime and deviance specification
  • Seven colour mind maps covering sociological perspective on crime and deviance

Written specifically for the AQA sociology A-level specification.

Related Posts 

Merton’s Strain Theory is taught as part of consensus theory within the A-level sociology Crime and Deviance syllabus. Other consensus theories include:

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Hirschi’s Social Control Theory of Crime

The ‘Social Control’ Theory sees crime as a result of social institutions losing control over individuals. Weak institutions such as certain types of families, the breakdown of local communities, and the breakdown of trust in the government and the police are all linked to higher crime rates.

Hirschi: Bonds of Attachment

Travis Hirschi argued that criminal activity occurs when an individual’s attachment to society is weakened. This attachment depends on the strength of social bonds that hold people to society. According to Hirschi there are four social bonds that bind us together – Attachment; Commitment; Involvement and Belief.

According to this theory one would predict the ‘typical delinquent’ to be young, single, unemployed and probably male. Conversely, those who are married and in work are less likely to commit crime – those who are involved and part of social institutions are less likely to go astray.

Truancy
According to Social Control Theory, truancy is an indicator of low social-attachment, and thus a predictor of criminal behaviour

 

Politicians of all persuasions tend to talk in terms of social control theory. Jack Straw from the labour party has argued that ‘lads need dads’ and David Cameron has made recent speeches about the importance of the family and the problems associated with absent fathers. These views are also popular with the right wing press, which often reminds their (middle class, nuclear family) readers that ‘Seventy per cent of young offenders come from lone-parent families; children from broken homes’

Supporting evidence for Hirschi’s Social Control Theory

Evidence for Social Control Theory tends to focus on three problem areas that are correlated with higher crime rates. These are: Absentee parents; Truancy; Unemployment

The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (Farington and West 1991). Looked at 411 ‘working class’ males born in 1953 who were studied until their late 30s. 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.

Martin Glyn 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, it is claimed. Others are being effectively “born into” gangs as membership is common among older brothers and even parents in some areas. The problem is increasingly threatening some inner-city schools, with teachers claiming that the influence of gang culture has soared over the past three years.

Criticisms of Social Control Theory

  • Some crimes are more likely to be committed by people with lots of social connections – e.g. Corporate Crime
  • Marxism – It’s unfair to blame marginalised people – they are victims of an unfair society which does not provide sufficient opportunities for work etc.
  • Interactionism – Middle class crimes are less likely to appear in the statistics – In reality the attached (middle classes) are just as criminal.
  • By focussing on the crimes of the marginalised, the right wing elite dupe the public into thinking we need them to protect us from criminals (whereas in reality we need protecting from the elite)
  • This may be a case of blaming the victim – We need to look at structural factors that lead to family breakdown (poverty, long working hours, unemployment.)
  • Parent deficit does not automatically lead to children becoming criminals. There are also ‘pull factors’ such as peer group pressure.

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:

  1. Consensus based theories part 1 – Functionalism; Social control’ theory; Strain theory
  2. Consensus based theories part 2 – Sub cultural theories
  3. The Traditional Marxist and Neo-Marxist perspective on crime
  4. Labeling Theory
  5. Left- Realist and Right-Realist Criminology (including situational, environmental and community crime prevention)
  6. Post-Modernism, Late-Modernism and Crime (Social change and crime)
  7. Sociological Perspectives on  controlling crime – the role of the community and policing in preventing crime
  8. Sociological Perspectives on Surveillance
  9. Sociological Perspectives on Punishment
  10. Social Class and Crime
  11. Ethnicity and Crime
  12. Gender and crime  (including Girl gangs and Rape and domestic violence)
  13. Victimology – Why are some people more likely to be criminals than others
  14. Global crime, State crime and Environmental crime (Green crime)
  15. The Media and Crime, including moral panics