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The Explanation Of Criminality

The Explanation Of Criminality From a sociological perspective, explanations for criminal- ity are found in two levels which are the subculture and the structural explanations. The sociological explanations emphasize aspects of societal arrangements that are external to the actor and compelling. A sociological explanation is concerned with how the structure of a society or its institutional practices or its persisting cultural themes affect the conduct of its members. Individual differences are denied or ignored, and the explanation of the overall collective behavoir is sought in the patterning of social arrangements that is considered to be both outside the actor and prior to him (Sampson, 1985). That is, the social patterns of power or of institutions which are held to be determinative of human action are also seen as having been in existence before any particular actor came on the scene. In lay language, sociological explanations of crime place the blame on something social that is prior to, external to, and compelling of any particular person.

Sociological explanations do not deny the importance of human motivation. However, they locate the source of motives outside the individual and in the cultural climate in which he lives. Political philosophers, sociologists, and athropologists have long observed that a condition of social life is that not all things are allowed. Standards of behavior are both a pro- duct of our living together and a requirement if social life is to be orderly. The concept of a culture refers to the perceived standards of behavior, observable in both words and deeds, that are learned, transmitted from generation to generation and somewhat durable. To call such behavior cultural does not necessar- ily mean that it is refined, but rather means that it is cultured– aquired, cultivated, and persistent.

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Social scientists have invented the notion of a subculture to describe variations, within a society, upon its cultural themes. In such circumstances, it is assumed that some cultural prescrip- tions are common to all members of society, but that modifica- tions and variations are discernible within the society. Again, it is part of the definition of a subculture, as of a culture, that is relatively enduring. Its norms are termed a style, rather than a fashion, on the grounds that the former has some endurance while the latter is evanescent. The quarrel comes, of course, when we try to estimate how real a cultural pattern is and how persistent. The standards by which behavior is to be guided vary among men and over time. Its is in this change and variety that crime is defined.

An application of this principle to crimin- ology would find that the roots of the crime in the fact that groups have developed different standards of appropriate behavior and that, in complex cultures, each individual is subject to competing prescriptions for action. Another subcultural explanation of crime grows readily out of the fact that, as we have seen, social classes experience different rates of arrest and conviction for serious offenses. When strata within a society are marked off by categories of income, education, and occupational prestige, differences are discovered among them in the amount and style of crime. Further, differences are usually found between these social classes in their tastes, interests, and morals. Its is easy to describe these class-linked patterns as cultures. This version of the subcultural explanation of crime holds that the very fact of learning the lessons of the subculture means that one aquires interests and preferences that place him in greater or lesser risk of breaking the law.

Others argue that being reared in the lower class means learning a different culture from that which creates the criminal laws. The lower- class subculture is said to have its own values, many of which run counter to the majority interests that support the laws against the serious predatory crimes. One needs to note that the indicators of class are not descriptions of class. Proponents of subcultural explanations of crime do not define a class culture by any assortment of the objective indicators or rank, such as annual income or years of schooling. The subcultural theorists is interested in pattern- ed ways of life which may have evolved with a division of labor and which, then, are called class cultures.

The pattern, however, is not described by reference to income alone, or by reference to years of schooling or occupational skill. The pattern includes these indicators, but it is not defined by them. The subcultural theorist is more intent upon the variet- ies of human value. these are preferred ways of living that are acted upon. In the economist’s language, they are tastes.

The thesis that is intimated, but not often explicated, by a subcultural description of behaviors is that single or multiple signs of social position, such as occupation or educa- tion, will have a different significance for status, and for cultures, with changes in their distribution. Money and education do not mean the same things socially as they are more or less equitably distributed. The change in meaning is not merely a change in the prestige value of these two, but also betokens changes in the boundries between class cultures. Generally speaking, whether one believes tendencies to be good or bad, the point of emphasis should be simply that the criteria of social class that have been generally employed- criteria like income and schooling-may change meaning with changes in the distribution of these advantages in a popula- tion. Class cultures, like national cultures, may break down. A more general subcultural explanation of crime, not necessarily in disagreement with the notion of class cultures, attributes differences in crime rates to differences in ethnic patterns to be found within a society.

Explanations of this sort do not necessarily bear the title ethnic, although they are so designated here because they partake of the general assumption that there are group differences in learned prefer- ences-in what is rewarded and punished-and that these group differences have a perisistence often called a tradition. Such explantions are of a piece whether they are advanced as descriptions of regional cultures, generational differences, or national characteristics (Hirschi, 1969). Their common theme is the differences in ways of life out of which differ- ences in crime rates seem to flow. Ethnic explanations are proposed under an assortment of labels, but they have in common the fact that they do not limit the notion of sub- culture to class culture (Hirschi). They seem particularly justified where differences in social status are not so highly correlated with differences in conduct as are other indicators of cultural difference. Thus many sociologists in this field argue that in the United States economic and status positions in the community cannot be shown to account for differences [in homicide rates] between whites and Negroes or between Southerners and Northerners (Freeman, 1983).

In relevance, an index of Southerness is found to be highly correlated with homicide rates in the United States. Therefore, there is a measureable regional culture that promotes murder. The hazard of accepting a subcultural explanation and, at the same time, wishing to be a doctor to the body politic is that the remedies may as well spread the disease as cure it. Among the prescriptions is social action to disperse the representatives of the subculture of violence. Quite apart from the political difficulties of implementing such an en- forced dispersion, the proposal assumes more knowledge than what is available. We, as a society, do not know what pro- portion of the violent people would have to be dispersed in order to break up their culture; and, what is more important, we do not know to what extent the dispersed people would act as culture-carriers and contaminate their hosts. While sociologists acknowledge the plausibility of med- leys of causes operating to affect crime rates, their atten- tion has been largely diverted to specific kinds of social arrangements that may affect the damage we do to each other. Among the more prominent hypotheses stress the impact of social structure upon behavior.

These proposals minimize the facts of subcultural differences and point to the sources of criminal motivation in the patterns of power and privilege within a society. They shift the blame for crime from how people are to where they are (Sampson). Such explanations may still speak of subcultures, but when they do, they use the term in a weaker sense than is intended by the subcultural theorist. A powerful and popular sociological explanation of crime finds its sources in the social order. This explanation looks to the ways in which human wants are generated and satisfied and the ways in which rewards and punishments are handed out by the social system. There need be no irreconcilable contradiction between subcultural and structural hypotheses, but their different em- phases do produce quarrels about facts as well as about remedies.

An essential difference between these two explana- tions is that the structuralists assume that all the members of a society want more of the same things than the sub- culturalists assume they want (Herrnstein, 1985). In this sense, the structural theses tend to be egalitarian and demo- cratic (Herrnstein). The major applications of structuralism assume that people everywhere are basically the same and that there are no significant differences in abilities or desires that might account for lawful and criminal careers. Attention is paid, then, to the organization of social relations that affects the differential exercise of talents and interests which are assumed to be roughly equal for all individuals of a society. Modern structural explanations of criminogenesis derive from the ideas of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim viewed the human being as a social animal as well as a physical organism.

To say that a man is a social animal means more than the obvious fact that he lives a long life as a helpless child depending on others for his survival. It means more, too, than that homo sapiens is a herding animal who tends to live in colonies. For Durkheim, the significantly social aspect of human nature is that human physical survival also depends upon moral connections. Moral connections are, of course, social. They represent a bond with, and hence a bond- age to, others (Christiansen, 1977).

Durkheim states that it is not true, that human activity can be released from all re- straint (Christiansen). The restraint that is required if social life is to ensue is a restraint necessary also for the psychic health of the human individual. Social conditions may strengthen or weaken the moral ties that Durkheim saw as a condition of happiness and healthy survival. Rapid changes in one’s possibilities, swings from riches to rags and, just as disturbing, form rags to riches, may constitute an impulse to volutary death. Excessive hopes and unlimited desires are avenues to misery (Christiansen).

Social conditions that allow a deregulation of social life Durkheim called states of anomie. The word derives from Greek roots meaning lacking in rule or law. As used by contemporary sociologists, the word anomie and its English eq- uivalent, anomy, are applied ambiguosly, sometimes to the social conditions of relative normlessness and sometimes to the individuals who experience a lack of rule and purpose in their lives. It is more appropriate that the term be restricted to societal conditions of relative rulelessness for our purpose. When the concept of anomie is employed by structurlists to explain behavoir, attention is directed toward the strains produced in the individual by the conflicting, confusing, or impossible demands of one’s social enviroment.

Writers have described anomie in our schizoid culture, a culture that is said to present conflicting prescriptions for conduct (Ferr- ington, 1991). They have also perceived anomie in the tension between recommended goals and available means. It is import- ant to keep the word anomie in mind to all explanations discussed. The American sociologist R.K. Merton has applied Durk- heim’s ideas to the explanation of deviant behavior with part- icular reference to modern Western societies.

His hypothesis is that a state of anomie is produced whenever there is a dis- crepancy between the goals of human action and the societally structured legitimate means of achieving them. The hypothesis is simply, that crime breeds in the gaps between aspirations and possibilities. The emphasis given to this idea by the pattern of social arrangements. Its is the structure of a society, which includes some elements of its culture, that builds desires and assigns opportunities for their satisfac- tion (Herrnstein). The emphasis given to this idea by the structuralists is that both the goals and the means are given by the pattern of social arrangements.

It is the structure of a society, which includes some elements of its culture, that builds desires and assigns opportunities for their satisfaction. This structural explanation sees illegal behavior as resulting from goals, particulary materialistic goals, held to be desirable and possible for all, that motive behavior in a societal context that provides only limited channels of achievement. It is a thesis that has appropriately been named strain theory (Hirschi). Sociologist R.K. Merton devised another theory dwelling in delinquency.

This type of explanation sees delinquency as ad- aptive, as instrumental in the achievement of the same kinds of things everyone wants. Its sees crime, also, as partly reactive–generated by a sense of injustice on the part of delinquents at having been deprived of the goof life they had been led to expect would be theirs. This hypothesis, which may with accuracy be described as the social worker’s favorite, looks to the satisfaction of desires, rather than the lowering of expectations, as the cure for crime. To be sure, it ap- proaches the satisfaction of desires not directly but indirectly, through the provision of expanded opportunities for legitimate achievement (Herrnstein). In closing on the oppurtunity-structure thesis, this thesis as a whole sounds plausible, closer attention to its assumprions lessens confidence in its explanatory power.

Finally, the proposal that differences in the availability of legitimate opportunities affect crime rates is only one version of the structural style of explanation. The weaknesses of this particular hypothesis do not deny the validity of the structural notion in general. There are features of the struc- ture of a society that seem clearly and directly antecedent to varying crime rates. Culture conflict is one such general aspect of a society’s structure that seems to promote crimina …


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