«Jock Young Crime is a subject of perennial interest, and in recent years it has once again become a topic of major public debate. We are likely to ...»
THINKING SERIOUSLY ABOUT CRIME:
Some models of Criminology
Crime is a subject of perennial interest, and in recent years it has once again become a
topic of major public debate. We are likely to encounter the ‘conversation about crime’
wherever we turn – in conversations at a bus stop, or in the pub, reading the News of the
World or The Guardian, or listening to a phone-in on the radio. These conversations will
not only reflect the concern with what is commonly perceived as the ever-rising rate of crime, our feelings about what this means, and what ought to be done about it. They will also draw on a range of implicit explanations as to what causes crime, and a range of implications as to how to deal with it, even though we are not aware that we are using criminological theories and explanations of crime at all.
But there are important differences between ‘popular theories’ of crime and criminology.
In particular, the latter:
§ Attempts to ground itself in an empirical knowledge of the patterns, incidences and variations in criminal behaviour, drawing on more systematic information;
§ Attempts to build a theoretical position systematically, so that the different parts of the theory fit coherently, ironing out inconsistencies and contradictions of position;
§ Attempts to be as comprehensive as it can – dealing with the different aspects and drawing these into a systematic account.
This does not mean that it is only criminologists who are capable of ’thinking seriously about crime’. Popular or lay discussions of crime may be well-ordered and thoughtful, and most criminological theories are better at explaining some aspects, or types, of crime than others.
In more popular discussions, we can often identify the points where people switch theories in mid-argument. For example, they sometimes define vandalism as a ‘wilful act of damage’ (implying conscious intent), but go on in the next breath to explain vandalism as a product of the vandal’s poor home background (implying that the behaviour is determined). Another common ‘switch’ is between the explanation of crime and the policy conclusions that are drawn. For example, if it is true that vandalism is the product of poor family and home circumstances, then is it logical to propose that vandals should be harshly punished for acts which are determined by circumstances? If the principal cause of vandalism is ‘bad home conditions’, we should logically ‘treat’ the circumstances, not the individual vandal, if we want to get to the root of the problem.
Using criminological theories can be equally problematic. It is not uncommon for theories of crime to adopt different explanations for different types of crime and offender.
Thus, white collar crime is theorised differently from working class petty property crime.
Indeed, the variability of what is defined as crime has led some criminologists to question the search for a single, all-embracing theory which will explain all criminal activity.
What is considered to be crime differs between and within societies over time. For example, the sale of alcohol was a legitimate activity in the USA at the turn of the century, was effectively criminalised during the Prohibition period, and is once more legitimate. Throughout this period the activity remained the same, it was the legal status of the sale of alcohol that changed. It may well be that we should not require a single theory, no matter how systematic in form, to account for all the many different types of crime within a single explanatory framework. Indeed, criminological theories differ precisely as to whether or not they assume a single explanation of crime in general to be either conceivable or useful.
In this article I shall introduce and consider six of the major paradigms within criminological theory. I shall show how some theories explain particular types of crime more adequately than others – and need not necessarily be faulted on this ground alone.
The proposition that, though crime-in-general is universal, the types and patterns of crime are specific to particular societies at particular times is central to some of the theories we review. The test of this general applicability may not be relevant for judging their value as it would for theories, for example, on a set of universal psychological or physiological features.
Each of the paradigms I shall consider has certain features or elements in common. For example, they all have a particular view of human nature or of social order, even though this may not be especially stated. In examining the six paradigms, then, I shall ask a
number of questions about each one:
1. What is their view of human nature in general?
2. What picture do they present of the social order which crime challenges, abrogates, or deviates from?
3. Do they define crime as a natural, social or legal phenomenon?
4. What is the extent and distribution of crime – is it general and normal in all societies, or is crime a marginal and exceptional activity? Do all people commit crime, or are there particular groups or individuals who engage in criminal activity?
5. What are the principal causes of crime?
6. What policy deductions so they draw as to how crime should be dealt with?
I shall ask these six questions of each of the major paradigms:
It is important to remember that we are using these questions as a device for organising our thoughts about crime. By posing them as dichotomies (is the view of human nature a voluntaristic or deterministic one? Is the view of social order based on consensus or coercion?), we are deliberately applying the question to draw out and emphasise the differences between paradigms. Posing the question as dichotomies does not necessarily mean that each theory wholly answers the questions with one alternative or the other.
It is also worth noting that the six paradigms are not of the same kind. Conservatism, for example, has been generally ignored in academic criminology, being regarded largely as a pragmatic and unelaborated way of thinking. The paradigms also have different historical developments: Classicism dates back to the eighteenth century, while interest and work in New Deviancy Theory stems from the 1960s.
In this article, paradigms are presented in ideal-typical form. Just as I have emphasised differences between the paradigms, so I have minimised the variety of position within six theoretical models. Positivism, for example, contains many other strands besides that of ‘individual positivism’, on which this article focuses. Although the paradigms are presented sequentially, this does not imply that they have been developed in a series of discrete historical stages, from Classicism to Marxism. Nor does it suggest that they are developed in a unilinear fashion. They are competing paradigms, each with its own intellectual history and each flourishing, with powerful support and a substantial body of research work, at the present time.
The DichotomiesA. Human Nature: voluntarism versus determinism
At the point of committing a crime, is the offender perceived as acting out of free-will (voluntarism) or is she/he seen as propelled by forces beyond her or his control (determinism)? This can be conceived of as a question of (a) whether the act was committed wilfully as part of a process of reasoning (i.e. was it a rational act, whether or not correct in its reasoning), or (b) whether it was non-rational, invoking determining factors outside rational control (such factors can be either genetically or environmentally determined).
B. Social Order: consensus or coercion
Theories of crime are the other side of the coin to theories of order. All criminological theory, at least implicitly, involve a theory of social order. Order in our society can be understood as based either on the consent of the vast majority (although a minority may be coerced by this consent), or largely by the coercion – subtle or blatant – of the majority by a powerful minority.
Thinking Seriously About Crime 3 C. Definition of Crime: legal versus social The definition of crime may be seen as obvious and taken-for-granted: it is behaviour or activities which break the legal code. Alternatively it may be argued that a more appropriate measure would be behaviour or activities that offend the social code of a particular community. The legal and social codes do not always coincide and can often conflict. One might argue that tax evasion is illegal only on paper; in reality it is a normal activity indulged in by a large part of the population. Similarly, vandalism may be seen as a crime simply by virtue of the fact of it being illegal, or else it may be seen as part and parcel of the spirited behaviour of young adolescent boys.
D. The Extent and Distribution of Crime: limited versus extensive
Is crime, as the official statistics suggest, a limited phenomenon committed by a small number of people, or are the statistics misleading in that law-breaking is an extensive phenomenon engaged in by a large proportion of the population? All criminological theories start from this key problem, although, as we shall see, they differ markedly in their use and interpretation of official crime statistics.
In Figure 1, I have constructed a series of Aztec pyramids on class, age, race and sex. As
can be seen, the social characteristics which greatly increase the risk of incarceration are:
to be lower working class rather than middle class, young rather than old, black rather than white, and male rather than female. Thus, to take an example, whereas on an average day in 1960 only one in 450 Americans were in prison, one is 26 black men aged between 25 and 34 were behind bars. Serious crime, according to the statistics, is a minority phenomenon within which certain social categories who are most marginal to society are vastly over represented. We have used American statistics here because comparable British figures on race are non-existent and, on class, extremely limited (although one British study, interestingly, indicates that the likelihood of a labourer going to prison in Britain is identical to that in the USA – see Banks, 1978).
Figure 1: Odds of going to prison by class, age, race, and sex
NOTE: A labourer is fourteen times more likely to go to prison than a professional; a 20-24 year old is sixteen times more likely than a 65 year old, and a black male is twentyeight times more likely than a white female. The prisoner is thus seen to be on the fringe of the economy, unemployed, or a casual labourer, to have missed out on the educational system, to belong to a minority group.
E. The Causes of Crime: individual versus society
The causes of crime may either be located primarily within the individual, whether in his or her personality, biological make-up or powers of reasoning, or be seen as essentially the product of the wider society within which the individual exists. For example, rape might be viewed either as a product of a gross genetically-determined personality disorder, or as a mode of conduct which is a direct product of the sexist nature of a patriarchal society, and the way in which sexual encounters are usually understood and conducted by men.
F. Policy Deductions: punishment versus treatment
Such a series of propositions regarding the nature of the criminal, the way social order is to be maintained, the definition and extent of crime and its root causes has, of course, implications for public policy. If, for instance, we view crime as a voluntary act of the individual, we would tend towards a policy of punishing him or her, whereas, if she/he is seen as acting under the compulsion of individual or social forces, the treatment of the criminal might seem to be more appropriate.
The Six Paradigms1. CLASSICISM
Classicist theories of crime and punishment developed out of the philosophy of the Enlightenment which swept through Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Within a hundred years most of the legal and penal systems of administration in Europe had been thoroughly remodelled in the light of classicist principles. Enlightenment thinkers were reacting strongly against the arbitrary systems of justice which prevailed Thinking Seriously About Crime 5 during the ancien régime, and the severe and ‘barbarous’ codes of punishment by which the law was upheld in the period of feudalism and the absolutist monarchies. The rise of Classicism is closely associated with the emergence of the free market and the beginnings of agrarian capitalism, and is best thought of as the philosophical outlook of the emerging bourgeoisie – the class that was rising to prominence in this new social order. The members of the new rising class not only sought to secure a privileged position for themselves in society, but aspired to re-fashion society itself along new lines. They demanded political rights hitherto denied them – they were political as well as legal reformers in England, at the forefront of the movement to extend the franchise to the new propertied classes. They also demanded a legal system that would defend their interests and protect their ‘rights and liberties’ against the arbitrary power hitherto wielded exclusively by the aristocratic landed classes and the Crown. In England, they were the principal inheritors of the English Revolution of 1644, which limited the prerogative of the monarchy and, even more, of the ‘Glorious Settlement’ of 1688 which settled the country under a constitutional monarchy and undermined the last vestiges of feudal power and authority.