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8.4 Explaining Crime

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand social structure theories of crime.
  2. Explain the social bonding theory of crime.
  3. Describe the general assumptions of conflict theories of crime.

If we want to be able to reduce crime, we must first understand why it occurs. Sociologists generally discount explanations rooted in the individual biology or psychology of criminal offenders. While a few offenders may suffer from biological defects or psychological problems that lead them to commit crime, most do not. Further, biological and psychological explanations cannot adequately explain the social patterning of crime discussed earlier: why higher crime rates are associated with certain locations and social backgrounds. For example, if California has a higher crime rate than Maine, and the United States has a higher crime rate than Canada, it would sound silly to say that Californians and Americans have more biological and psychological problems than Mainers and Canadians, respectively. Biological and psychological explanations also cannot easily explain why crime rates rise and fall, nor do they lend themselves to practical solutions for reducing crime.

California has a higher crime rate than many other states, but it is difficult to argue that Californians have more biological or psychological problems than the residents of other states.

In contrast, sociological explanations do help understand the social patterning of crime and changes in crime rates, and they also lend themselves to possible solutions for reducing crime. A brief discussion of these explanations follows, and a summary appears in Table 8.2 "Sociological Explanations of Crime".

Table 8.2 Sociological Explanations of Crime

Major perspective Related explanation Summary of explanation
Functional (social structure theories) Social disorganization Certain social characteristics of urban neighborhoods contribute to high crime rates. These characteristics include poverty, dilapidation, population density, and population turnover.
Anomie According to Robert Merton, crime by the poor results from a gap between the cultural emphasis on economic success and the inability to achieve such success through the legitimate means of working.
Interactionist (social process theories) Differential association Edwin H. Sutherland argued that criminal behavior is learned by interacting with close friends who teach us how to commit various crimes and also the values, motives, and rationalizations we need to adopt in order to justify breaking the law.
Social bonding Travis Hirschi wrote that delinquency results from weak bonds to conventional social institutions, such as families and schools.
Labeling Deviance and crime result from being officially labeled; arrest and imprisonment increase the likelihood of reoffending.
Conflict (conflict theories) Group conflict Criminal law is shaped by the conflict among the various social groups in society that exist because of differences in race and ethnicity, social class, religion, and other factors.
Radical The wealthy try to use the law and criminal justice system to reinforce their power and to keep the poor and people of color at the bottom of society.
Feminist Gender plays an important role in the following areas: (1) the reasons girls and women commit crime; (2) the reasons female crime is lower than male crime; (3) the victimization of girls and women by rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence; and (4) the experience of women professionals and offenders in the criminal justice system.

The Functional Perspective: Social Structure Theories

Social structure theories all stress that crime results from the breakdown of society’s norms and social organization and in this sense fall under the functional perspective outlined in Chapter 1 "Understanding Social Problems". They trace the roots of crime to problems in the society itself rather than to biological or psychological problems inside individuals. By doing so, they suggest the need to address society’s social structure in order to reduce crime. Several social structure theories exist.

Social Disorganization Theory

A popular explanation is social disorganization theoryThe view that the weakening of social bonds and conventional social institutions in a community raises its crime rates.. This approach originated primarily in the work of Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay (1942),Shaw, C. R., & McKay, H. D. (1942). Juvenile delinquency and urban areas. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. two social scientists at the University of Chicago who studied that city’s delinquency rates during the first three decades of the twentieth century. During this time, the ethnic composition of Chicago changed considerably, as the city’s inner zones were first occupied by English, German, and Irish immigrants, and then by Eastern European immigrants, and then by African Americans who moved there from southern states. Shaw and McKay found that the inner zones of Chicago consistently had the highest delinquency rates regardless of which ethnic group lived there, and they also found that the ethnic groups’ delinquency rates declined as they moved to outer areas of Chicago. To explain these related patterns, Shaw and McKay reasoned that the inner zones of Chicago suffered from social disorganization: A weakening of social institutions such as the family, school, and religion that in turn weakens the strength of social bonds and norms and the effectiveness of socialization. Research today confirms that crime rates are highest in neighborhoods with several kinds of structural problems, including high rates of residential mobility, population density, poverty, and single-parent families (Mazerolle, Wickes, & McBroom, 2010).Mazerolle, L., Wickes, R., & McBroom, J. (2010). Community variations in violence: The role of social ties and collective efficacy in comparative context. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 47(1), 3–30.

Anomie Theory

Another popular explanation is anomie theoryRobert Merton’s view that deviance is caused by a failure to achieve the American goal of financial success through the conventional means of working., first formulated by Robert K. Merton (1938)Merton, R. K. (1938). Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review, 3, 672–682. in a classic article. Writing just after the Great Depression, Merton focused on the effects of poverty in a nation like the United States that places so much emphasis on economic success. With this strong cultural value, wrote Merton, the poor who do not achieve the American dream feel especially frustrated. They have several ways or adaptations of responding to their situation (see Table 8.3 "Anomie Theory").

Table 8.3 Anomie Theory

Goal of economic success
Accept Reject
Value of working
Accept Conformity Ritualism
Reject Innovation Retreatism

First, said Merton, they may continue to accept the goal of economic success and also the value of working at a job to achieve such success; Merton labeled this adaptation conformity. Second, they may continue to favor economic success but reject the value of working and instead use new, illegitimate means, for example theft, of gaining money and possessions; Merton labeled this adaptation innovation. Third, they may abandon hope of economic success but continue to work anyway because work has become a habit. Merton labeled this adaptation ritualism. Finally, they may reject both the goal of economic success and the means of working to achieve such success and withdraw from society either by turning to drugs or by becoming hobos; Merton labeled this adaptation retreatism. He also listed a fifth adaptation, which he called rebellion, to characterize a response in which people reject economic success and working and work to bring about a new society with new values and a new economic system.

Merton’s theory was very influential for many years but eventually lost popularity, partly because many crimes, such as assault and rape, are not committed for the economic motive that his theory assumed, and partly because many people use drugs and alcohol without dropping out of society, as his retreatism category assumed. In recent years, however, scholars have rediscovered and adapted his theory, and it has regained favor as new attention is being paid to the frustration resulting from poverty and other strains in one’s life that in turn may produce criminal behavior (Miller, Schreck, & Tewksbury, 2011).Miller, J. M., Schreck, C. J., & Tewksbury, R. (2011). Criminological theory: A brief introduction (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

The Interactionist Perspective: Social Process Theories

Social process theories all stress that crime results from the social interaction of individuals with other people, particularly their friends and family, and thus fall under the interactionist perspective outlined in Chapter 1 "Understanding Social Problems". They trace the roots of crime to the influence that our friends and family have on us and to the meanings and perceptions we derive from their views and expectations. By doing so, they indicate the need to address the peer and family context as a promising way to reduce crime.

Social process theories stress that crime results from social interaction. In particular, our friends influence our likelihood of committing crime or not committing crime.

Differential Association Theory

One of the most famous criminological theories is differential association theoryEdwin Sutherland’s view that deviance stems from interacting with primary group members who commit deviance and have values conducive to deviance., first formulated at about the same time as Merton’s anomie theory by Edwin H. Sutherland and published in its final form in an edition of a criminology text he wrote (Sutherland, 1947).Sutherland, E. H. (1947). Principles of criminology (4th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: J. P. Lippincott. Sutherland rejected the idea, fashionable at the time, that crime had strong biological roots and instead said it grew out of interaction with others. Specifically, he wrote that adolescents and other individuals learn that it is acceptable to commit crime and also how to commit crime from their interaction with their close friends. Adolescents become delinquent if they acquire more and stronger attitudes in favor of breaking the law than attitudes opposed to breaking the law. As Sutherland put it, “A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of law over definitions unfavorable to the violation of law.” Crime and delinquency, then, result from a very normal social process, social interaction. Adolescents are more or less at risk for delinquency partly depending on who their friends are and what their friends do or don’t do.

Many scholars today consider peer influences to be among the most important contributors to delinquency and other misbehavior (Akers & Sellers, 2009).Akers, R. L., & Sellers, C. S. (2009). Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application (5th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. One problem with differential association theory is that it does not explain behavior, like rape, that is usually committed by a lone offender and that is generally the result of attitudes learned from one’s close friends.

Social Bonding Theory

In a 1969 book, Causes of Delinquency, Travis Hirschi (1969)Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. asked not what prompts people to commit crime, but rather what keeps them from committing crime. This question was prompted by his view that human nature is basically selfish and that it is society’s task to tame this selfishness. He wrote that an adolescent’s bonds to society, and specifically the bonds to family and school, help keep the adolescent from breaking the law.

Hirschi identified several types of social bonds, but generally thought that the closer adolescents feel to their family and teachers, the more they value their parents’ beliefs and school values, and the more time they spend with their families and on school activities, the less likely they are to be delinquent. Turning that around, they are more likely to be delinquent if they feel more distant from their parents and teachers, if they place less value on their family’s and school’s values, and if they spend less time with these two very important social institutions in their lives.

Hirschi’s social bonding theoryTravis Hirschi’s view that deviance results from weak bonds to conventional social institutions such as the family and schools. attracted immediate attention and is one of the most popular and influential theories in criminology today. It highlighted the importance of families and schools for delinquency and stimulated much research on their influence. Much of this research has focused on the relationship between parents and children. When this relationship is warm and harmonious and when children respect their parents’ values and parents treat their children firmly but fairly, children are less likely to commit antisocial behavior during childhood and delinquency during adolescence. Schools also matter: Students who do well in school and are very involved in extracurricular activities are less likely than other students to engage in delinquency (Bohm & Vogel, 2011).Bohm, R. M., & Vogel, B. (2011). A primer on crime and delinquency theory (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Children and Our Future

Saving Children from a Life of Crime

Millions of children around the nation live in circumstances that put them at risk for a childhood, adolescence, and adulthood filled with antisocial behavior, delinquency, and crime, respectively. Although most of these children in fact will not suffer this fate, many of their peers will experience these outcomes. These circumstances thus must be addressed to save these children from a life of crime. As social scientists Brandon C. Welsh and David P. Farrington observe, “Convincing research evidence exists to support a policy of saving children from a life of crime by intervening early in childhood to tackle key risk factors.”

What are these risk factors? They include being born to a teenaged, single mother; living in poverty or near poverty; attending poor, dilapidated schools; and living in high-crime urban areas. As should be evident, these risk factors are all related, as most children born to teenaged, single mothers live in poverty or near poverty, and many such children live in high-crime urban areas.

What can be done to help save such children from a life of crime? Ideally, our nation would lift them and their families entirely out of poverty with employment and social payment policies. Although this sort of national policy will not occur in the foreseeable future, a growing amount of rigorous social science evaluation evidence points to several effective programs and policies that can still help at-risk children. These include (1) at the individual level, certain types of preschool programs and social skills training programs; (2) at the family level, home visiting by trained professionals and parenting training programs; and (3) at the school and community levels, certain types of after-school and community-mentoring programs in which local adults spend time with children at risk for delinquency and other problems.

As Welsh and Farrington note, “Early prevention is by no means a panacea. But it does represent an integral part of any plan to reduce the nation’s crime rate.” They add that several other Western democracies have national agencies devoted to improving behavioral and other outcomes among those nations’ children, and they call for the United States to establish a similar national agency, the National Council on Early Prevention, as part of a nationwide strategy to prevent delinquency and other antisocial behaviors among American youth.

Sources: Piquero, Farrington, Welsh, Tremblay, & Jennings, 2009; Welsh & Farrington, 2007Piquero, A. R., Farrington, D. P., Welsh, B. C., Tremblay, R., & Jennings, W. (2009). Effects of early family/parent training programs on antisocial behavior and delinquency. Journal of Experimental Criminology 5, 83–120; Welsh, B. C., & Farrington, D. P. (2007). Save children from a life of crime. Criminology & Public Policy, 6(4), 871–879.

Another social institution, religion, has also been the subject of research. An increasing number of studies are finding that religious involvement seemingly helps keep adolescents from using alcohol and other drugs (see Chapter 7 "Alcohol and Other Drugs"), from engaging in frequent sexual activity, and from engaging in delinquency generally (Desmond, Soper, & Purpura, 2009).Desmond, S. A., Soper, S. E., & Purpura, D. J. (2009). Religiosity, moral beliefs, and delinquency: Does the effect of religiosity on delinquency depend on moral beliefs? Sociological Spectrum, 29, 51–71. Fewer studies of religiosity and criminality during adulthood exist, but one investigation found an association between greater religiosity and fewer sexual partners among never-married adults (Barkan, 2006).Barkan, S. E. (2006). Religiosity and premarital sex during adulthood. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 45, 407–417.

Labeling Theory

Our criminal justice system is based on the idea that the prospect of quick arrest and harsh punishment should deter criminal behavior. Labeling theoryThe view that being labeled deviant increases the chances of future deviance. has the opposite idea, as it assumes that labeling someone as a criminal or deviant, which arrest and imprisonment certainly do, makes the person more likely to continue to offend. This result occurs, argues the theory, because the labeling process gives someone a negative self-image, reduces the potential for employment, and makes it difficult to have friendships with law-abiding individuals.

When this man is released from prison, he will probably face difficulties in finding a job and starting friendships with law-abiding people. These difficulties will make him more likely to commit new crimes.

Suppose, for example, that you were just released from prison after serving a five-year term for armed robbery. When you apply for a job and list your prison term on the application, how likely are you to get hired? If you are at a bar and meet someone who interests you and then tell the person where you were for the previous five years, what are the chances that the conversation will continue? Faced with bleak job prospects and a dearth of people who want to spend time with you, what are your alternatives? Might you not succumb to the temptation to hang out with other offenders and even to commit new crime yourself?

Although research findings are not unanimous, several studies do find that arrest and imprisonment increase future offending, as labeling theory assumes (Nagin, Cullen, & Jonson, 2009).Nagin, D. S., Cullen, F. T., & Jonson, C. L. (2009). Imprisonment and reoffending. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, 38, 115–200. To the extent this undesired consequence occurs, efforts to stem juvenile and adult crime through harsher punishment may sometimes have the opposite result from their intention.

The Conflict Perspective

Several related theories fall under the conflict perspective outlined in Chapter 1 "Understanding Social Problems". Although they all have something to say about why people commit crime, their major focus is on the use and misuse of the criminal law and criminal justice system to deal with crime. Three branches of the conflict perspective exist in the study of crime and criminal justice.

The first branch is called group conflict theoryThe assumption that criminal law is shaped by the conflict among the various social groups in society that exist because of differences in race and ethnicity, social class, religion, and other factors., which assumes that criminal law is shaped by the conflict among the various social groups in society that exist because of differences in race and ethnicity, social class, religion, and other factors. Given that these groups compete for power and influence, the groups with more power and influence try to pass laws that ban behaviors in which subordinate groups tend to engage, and they try to use the criminal justice system to suppress subordinate group members. A widely cited historical example of this view is Prohibition, which was the result of years of effort by temperance advocates, most of them from white, Anglo-Saxon, rural, and Protestant backgrounds, to ban the manufacture, sale, and use of alcohol. Although these advocates thought alcohol use was a sin and incurred great social costs, their hostility toward alcohol was also motivated by their hostility toward the types of people back then who tended to use alcohol: poor, urban, Catholic immigrants. Temperance advocates’ use of legal means to ban alcohol was, in effect, a “symbolic crusade” against people toward whom these advocates held prejudicial attitudes (Gusfield, 1963).Gusfield, J. R. (1963). Symbolic crusade: Status politics and the American temperance movement. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

The second branch of the conflict perspective is called radical theoryA view that highlights the importance of (economic) social classes more than the importance of religion, ethnicity, and other social group characteristics in shaping the creation and operation of criminal law.. Radical theory makes the same general assumptions as group conflict theory about the use of criminal law and criminal justice, but with one key difference: It highlights the importance of (economic) social class more than the importance of religion, ethnicity, and other social group characteristics. In this way, radical theory evokes the basic views of Karl Marx on the exploitation and oppression of the poor and working class by the ruling class (Lynch & Michalowski, 2006).Lynch, M. J., & Michalowski, R. J. (2006). Primer in radical criminology: Critical perspectives on crime, power and identity (4th ed.). Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

An early but still influential radical explanation of crime was presented by Dutch criminologist Willem Bonger (1916).Bonger, W. (1916). Criminality and economic conditions (H. P. Horton, Trans.). Boston, MA: Little, Brown. Bonger blamed the high US crime rate on its economic system, capitalism. As an economic system, he said, capitalism emphasizes the pursuit of profit. Yet, if someone gains profit, someone else is losing it. This emphasis on self-gain, he said, creates an egoistic culture in which people look out for themselves and are ready and even willing to act in a way that disadvantages other people. Amid such a culture, he said, crime is an inevitable outcome. Bonger thought crime would be lower in socialist societies because they place more emphasis on the welfare of one’s group than on individual success.

Feminist approaches comprise the third branch of the conflict perspective on the study of crime and criminal justice. Several such approaches exist, but they generally focus on at least one of four areas: (1) the reasons girls and women commit crime; (2) the reasons female crime is lower than male crime; (3) the victimization of girls and women by rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence; and (4) the experience of women professionals and offenders in the criminal justice system.

Regarding the first area, the research generally finds that girls and women commit crime for the same reasons that boys and men commit crime: poverty, parental upbringing, and so forth. But it also finds that both women and men “do gender” when they commit crime. That is, they commit crime according to gender roles, at least to some extent. Thus one study found that women robbers tend to rob other women and not to use a gun when they do so (J. Miller & Brunson, 2000).Miller, J., & Brunson, R. K. (2000). Gender dynamics in youth gangs: A comparison of males’ and females’ accounts. Justice Quarterly, 17, 419–448.

In addressing the second area, on why female crime is less common than male crime, scholars often cite two reasons discussed earlier: gender role socialization and gender-based differences in parental supervision. One additional reason derives from social bonding theory: Girls feel closer to their parents than boys do, and thus are less delinquent (Lanctôt & Blanc, 2002).Lanctôt, N., & Blanc, M. L. (2002). Explaining deviance by adolescent females. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, 29, 113–202.

One important area of feminist-inspired work on crime and criminal justice involves studies of women police officers.

We have already commented on the victimization of women from rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence, but the study of this topic began with work by feminist criminologists during the 1970s. Since that time, innumerable works have addressed this type of victimization, which is also thought to contribute to girls’ delinquency and, more generally, female drug and alcohol abuse (Chesney-Lind & Jones, 2010).Chesney-Lind, M., & Jones, N. (Eds.). (2010). Fighting for girls: New perspectives on gender and violence. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

The final area for feminist work addresses women professionals and offenders in the criminal justice system. This body of research certainly goes beyond the scope of this book, but it documents the many blatant and subtle forms of discrimination that women face as police, attorneys, judges, prison guards, and other professionals (Muraskin, 2012).Muraskin, R. (Ed.). (2012). Women and justice: It’s a crime (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. A primary task of research on women offenders is to determine how they fare in the criminal justice system compared to male offenders. Studies tend to find that females receive somewhat more lenient treatment than males for serious offenses and somewhat harsher treatment for minor offenses, although some studies conclude that gender does not make too much of a difference one way or the other (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004).Chesney-Lind, M., & Pasko, L. (2004). The female offender: Girls, women, and crime (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Key Takeaways

  • Social structure theories stress that crime results from economic and other problems in how society is structured and from poverty and other problems in neighborhoods.
  • Interactionist theories stress that crime results from our interaction with family members, peers, and other people, and from labeling by the criminal justice system.
  • Conflict theories stress that social groups with power and influence try to use the law and criminal justice system to maintain their power and to keep other groups at the bottom of society.

For Your Review

  1. What are any two criminogenic (crime-causing) social or physical characteristics of urban neighborhoods?
  2. According to labeling theory, why are arrest and imprisonment sometimes counterproductive?