Jock Young (1999) argues we are now living in a late modern society characterised by instability, insecurity and exclusion, which make the problem of crime worse.
Structurally and economically there is much more insecurity and marginalisation than ever, but culturally there is more pressure to publicise how successful you are, even if you don’t have the means.
This is really an application of Merton’s anomie theory, but the nature of ‘strain’ between legitimate means and ends is different, more constant and more severe.
Increasing Insecurity and marginalisation
Young contrasts today’s society (since the 1970s) with the period preceding it, arguing that the 1950s and 60s represented a golden age of modern capitalist society. This was a period of stability, security and social inclusion, characterised by full employment and a well functioning welfare state. There was also low divorce, rate, strong communities and a general consensus about right and wrong, and crime rates were very much lower.
Since the 1970s, however, society has become a lot more unstable. De-industrialisation and the corresponding decline of unskilled manual jobs has led to increased unemployment, underemployment and poverty, especially for young people. These changes have also destabilised family and community life and contributed to rising divorce rates, as have New Right policies designed to hold back welfare spending. All of this has contributed to increased marginalisation and exclusion of those at the bottom.
A Media saturated society
However, just as more and more people are suffering from the economic exclusion described above, we now live in a media saturated society which stresses the importance of leisure, personal consumption and immediate gratification as the means whereby we should achieve the ‘good life’.
The media today generally informs us that the following are normal and desirable – in in order to belong to society we are required to do the following:
- We need to have high levels of consumption – and buying now, paying later, and debt are seen as legitimate strategies for maintaining our consumption levels.
- We need to have active leisure lives and publicise this – in effect we should turn ourselves into mini-celebrities – in short, we need to be somebody.
- We should strive to achieve success ourselves rather than depending on others. Anyone can be successful if they try hard enough is the message.
Crime in Late Modernity
Young essentially applies Merton’s Strain Theory to explain crime in late modernity. He argues that today there are millions of people (just in the UK) who will never earn enough money to live a high-consumption, celebrity lifestyle, and this results in many people suffering relative deprivation, and frustration (basically anomie).
However, Young goes beyond Merton by arguing that deviant and criminal behaviour become a means whereby people can not only attempt to realise material goals, but crime can also the means whereby they can seek to achieve celebrity, or simply to seek a temporary emotional release from the anomic-frustrations of coping with the usual contradictions and pressures of living in late-modernity.
Two further consequence of the trend towards economic exclusion combined with the media message of ‘cultural inclusion through consumption and celebrity’ are firstly that crime is more widespread and found increasingly throughout the social structure, not just at the bottom, and secondly crime is nastier, with an increase in ‘hate-crimes’.
Examples of attempts to achieve celebrity through deviance include extreme-subcultures, or any form of extreme ‘one-upmanship’ videos on YouTube, while examples at escapism include binge-drinking and violence at the weekends. Young also argues that the anomie and frustration generated in late-modernity also explains the increase in more serious crimes such as hate-crimes against minority groups and asylum seekers.
Evaluating Jock Young’s theory of crime in Late Modernity
These ideas can add a new dimension to our understanding of the causes of crime and deviance – particularly with regard to the non-economic reasons why people commit crimes – those acts which seemingly have no monetary reward, by focusing on the emotions and feelings involved in offending.
Young argues against the idea that crime is committed when there are available opportunities (rational choice theory) or lack of controls against criminal behaviour. He says that crime here is depicted as quite a routine and logical act, and something which we, the victims, have to protect ourselves against.
Young argues that these approaches do not explain why why crime is such an attractive option for so many young people (particularly young men). He says that there are many crimes such as drug use and vandalism, joyriding and even rape and murder, which clearly involve much more than a simple rational choice. There is obviously something much more appealing for those involved in crimes such as street robbery than the promise of (very small) profits on offer.
Signposting and Sources
This material is mainly relevant to the Crime and Deviance Module. This is part of the A-level sociology (AQA) specification.
Jock Young (1999) The Exclusive Society.
You might also like… Jock Young (2007) The Vertigo of Late Modernity.