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.
+ 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.
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.
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.
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.
Argues that crime is a result of people being socialised into expecting success but not achieving this success due to limited opportunities.
Strain Theory argues that crime occurs when there aren’t enough legitimate opportunities for people to achieve the normal success goals of a society. In such a situation there is a ‘strain’ between the goals and the means to achieve those goals, and some people turn to crime in order to achieve success.
Strain 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.
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.
Criticisms of Strain Theory
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).
The Continuing Relevance of Strain Theory
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
Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology
This post offers a useful discussion and evaluation of Strain Theory
A consensus theory which argues that crime increases when the bonds attaching the individual to society weaken
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.
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.
Functionalist believe that crime is actually beneficial for society – for example it can improve social integration and social regulation.
The Functionalist analysis of crime starts with society as a whole. It seeks to explain crime by looking at the nature of society, rather than at individuals. There are two main thinkers usually associated with the Functionalist Perspective on Crime: Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton.
This post provides a summary of Durkheim’s Functionalist Theory of why crime is inevitable and functional for society. For Merton’s Strain Theory of Crime please see the link below.
Durkheim: Three Key Ideas About Crime
A limited amount of crime is inevitable and even necessary
Crime has positive functions -A certain amount of crime contributes to the well-being of a society.
On the other hand, too much crime is bad for society and can help bring about its collapse, hence institutions of social control are necessary to keep the amount of crime in check. Refer here to Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide
Durkheim developed his theory of crime and deviance in The Rules of Sociological Method, first published in 1895.
Crime is Inevitable
Durkheim argued that crime is an inevitable and normal aspect of social life. He pointed out that crime is inevitable in all societies, and that the crime rate was in fact higher in more advanced, industrial societies.
Durkheim theorized crime was inevitable because not every member of society can be equally committed to the collective sentiments (the shared values and moral beliefs of society). Since individuals are exposed to different influences and circumstances, it was ‘impossible for them to be all alike’ and hence some people would inevitably break the law.
Durkheim also imagined a ‘society of saints’ populated by perfect individuals deviance would still exist. The general standards of behaviour would be so high that the slightest slip would be regarded as a serious offence. Thus the individual who simply showed bad taste, or was merely impolite, would attract strong disapproval.
Durkheim argues that all social change begins with some form of deviance. In order for changes to occur, yesterday’s deviance becomes today’s norm.
Crime Performs Positive Functions
Durkhiem went a step further and argued that a certain amount of crime was functional for society.
Three positive functions of crime include:
SOCIAL REGULATION (reaffirming the boundaries of acceptable behaviour) – Each time the Police arrest a person, they are making it clear to the rest of society that the particular action concerned is unacceptable. In contemporary society newspapers also help to perform the publicity function, with their often-lurid accounts of criminal acts. In effect, the courts and the media are ‘broadcasting’ the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, warning others not to breach the walls of the law (and therefore society)
SOCIAL INTEGRATION (Social Cohesion) – A second function of crime is to actually strengthen social cohesion. For example, when particularly horrific crimes have been committed the whole community joins together in outrage and the sense of belonging to a community is therefore strengthened
Social Change – A further action performed by the criminals is to provide a constant test of the boundaries of permitted action. When the law is clearly out of step with the feelings and values of the majority, legal reform is necessary. Criminals therefore, perform a crucial service in helping the law to reflect the wishes of the population and legitimising social change.
Durkheim argued that crime only became dysfunctional when there was too much or too little of it – too much and social order would break down, too little and there would not be sufficient capacity for positive social change.
Durkheim’s view of punishment
Durkheim suggested that the function of punishment was not to remove crime from society altogether, because society ‘needed’ crime. The point of punishment was to control crime and to maintain the collective sentiments. In Durkheim’s own words punishment ‘serves to heal the wounds done to the collective sentiments’.
According to Durkheim a healthy society requires BOTH crime and punishment to be in balance and to be able to change.
Evaluations of Durkheim’s Functionalist View of Crime
Durkheim talks about crime in very general terms. He theorizes that ‘crime’ is necessary and even functional but fails to distinguish between different types of crime. It could be that some crimes may be so harmful that they will always be dysfunctional rather than functional.
Secondly, Durkheim is suggesting that the criminal justice system benefits everyone in society by punishing criminals and reinforcing the acceptable boundaries of behavior. However, Marxist and Feminist analysis of crime demonstrates that not all criminals are punished equally and thus crime and punishment benefit the powerful for than the powerless
Interactionists would suggest that whether or not a crime is functional cannot be determined objectively; surely it depends on an individual’s relationship to the crime.
Functionalists assume that society has universal norms and values that are reinforced by certain crimes being punished in public. Postmodernists argue society is so diverse, there is no such thing as ‘normal’.
The selection of dramas below is a good illustration of just how much the media sensationalises crime –
Crime drama seems to make up huge percentage of the BBC’s output – and all of the recent dramas above focus on the most horrific crimes – kidnapping and murder seem to be the most popular. Many of these dramas also have multiple victims – Happy Valley had about five – in one quiet region of Northern England, in the space of the few weeks the series was set over.
Just a quick post as I wanted something in place to introduce media and crime when we do the topic early next Academic year.
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