Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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SocioPsychological Factors in Crime

Relaunched: 8 July 2020

While, clearly there a number of biological factors which can substantially increase the likelihood of someone committing crime and deviance, most crimes take place in a social setting and result from an interaction between the offender’s state of mind and the social pressures of the situation – including victims of the crime(s). So what are the social and psychological factors that may precipitate deviant and/or criminal actions…?

Social Inequalities
The world is plagued with huge gaps in social equality, with inequality having increased substantially in the West over the past 40 years. particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (2010) identified that happiness and well-being are generally much greater in countries where the gaps in the ranges of social equality are relatively small – eg: Sweden – compared to countries with large gaps such as the US.

In Western societies the more consumerism there is, the more people are either ‘seduced’ or ‘repressed, to use Zygmunt Bauman’s (1988) concepts. The ‘seduced’ are those who are sucked into consumerism and are seduced into buying many things they don’t need but are persuaded will be life enhancing if acquired. In many ways, this is Classical Conditioning – associating something really important with something that isn’t. Steve Cutts’ 2014 award-winning animation, Wake Up Call, perfectly illustrates the process of memetic infiltation of our minds so that the need for such items is embedded into our schemas. (Cutts’ animation also shows all too clearly the terrible costs to our ecology of unrestrained consumerism.)


Of course, in our modern consumerist society we are bombarded with memes in the media – and increasingly in social media – about what we need to be successful, from the latest hi-tech to exotic ‘experience holidays’. The competitive nature of the RED and ORANGE vMEMES makes them highly susceptible to such memes, if only to “keep up with the Jones”.  This is a form of normative influence.

In Bauman’s concept the ‘repressed’ are those who are unable to be seduced in this way – mainly through poverty, though that may also be related to illness and/or disability. Thus, they are outside of the consumerist society.

Bauman’s concept is, of course, too simple in such rigid categorisation. The ‘seduced’ are not a single homogeneous entity. People are ‘seduced’ to varying degrees at different times and in different contexts, depending on their life conditions – what they are experiencing, their values and the current balance(s) in their vMEME stacks. There are whole groups – as well as individuals – who stand outside of the consumerist society, perhaps because of ideology, who willfully resist the ‘seduction’.

Nonetheless, Bauman clearly lays out the idea that there are those who participate, wittingly or unwittingly, in the riches of society and those who are prevented from accessing those riches.

Willem Adriaan Bonger (1905), a Marxist criminologist, believed in a causal link between crime and economic and social conditions. He asserted that crime is social in origin and a normal response to prevailing cultural conditions. He believed crime in the streets was a result of the miserable conditions in which workers lived in competition with one another. While emphasising the criticality of poverty as the root cause of crime, he believed that individualism, materialism, false needs, racism, and what he perceived as the false masculinity of violence and domination among street thugs also contributed significantly to criminal actions.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, given his political affiliations, Bonger roots his primary explanation of crime in the Marxist dialetic. He contends that survival in more primitive societies requires more selfless altruism within the community. However, once agricultural technology improved and a surplus of food was generated, systems of exchange and barter offered the opportunity for selfishness. As Capitalism emerged, there were social forces of competition and wealth, resulting in an unequal distribution of resources, avarice and individualism. Once self interest and more self-oriented impulses assert themselves, crime emerges. The poor commit crime out of need or out of a sense of injustice. Hence, those with power exercise control and impose punishment, equating the definition of crime with harm or threat of harm to the property and business interests of the powerful. Although the inherent activities comprising, say, a theft, may be identical, theft by the poor will be given greater emphasis than theft by the rich. This will have 2 consequences: direct which will increase the pressure for survival in an unequal society; and indirect in that it will increase a sense of alienation among the poor.

How then are the poor – Bauman’s ‘repressed’ – to obtain those things the memes of the consumerist society tell them they should have to be fulfilled?

Robert K Merton (1938), coming from a Functionalist viewpoint, supports the argument that all societies set their members certain goals and, at the same time, provide socially-approved means of achieving their goals.
However, Merton contends that, the goals are linked, in a stratified society, to a person’s position in the social structure. The lower down in the structure somebody is, the more restricted their goals are – and, therefore, their expectations. According to Merton, this works as long as the majority of people are able to achieve their goals. Strain results from people not being able to achieve their goals (Strain Theory). Merton sees 4 potential outcomes from strain:-

  1. Conformity
    The individual continues to adhere to both goals and approved means – despite limited chances of success.
  2. Innovation
    The individual accepts the target of achieving the goals society has set for them but can’t achieve them by means approved by society. This may lead to anomie as a result – people resorting to non-approved (criminal) means to obtain their goals.
    This can be interpreted as the RED vMEME taking steps outside the BLUE-approved framework to attain the things ORANGE consumerism tempts it with. When BLUE doesn’t function effectively, it is not uncommon for RED to take things into its own hands. (Further discussion of the consequences of BLUE failures in a crime and deviance context can be found in When BLUE fails, call for Clint!)
  3. Retreatism
    The individual rejects both goals and means. (Someone dependent on drugs or alcohol is included in this behaviour.)
  4. Rebellion
    As with ‘retreatism’, both goals and means are rejected but, in this case, both are substituted for – thus creating both alternate goals and alternate means.
    The radical political activist and the religious fundamentalist both are examples of this notion of ‘rebellion’.

Merton differs from the Marxists in that he views a multi-strata society as being acceptable while the Marxists simplify the strata of society into those who have and those who haven’t – the dialectic.

Carl Nightingale’s 1993 research supports the view of anomie as a response to consumerism. Nightingale studied young black youth in inner-city Philadelphia and found they avidly consumed American culture through television, absorbing its emphasis on consumerism and success through violence. Thus, young blacks aspire to be part of the mainstream, from which they are rejected and marginalised – excluded economically, racially and politically – and overcompensate by identifying themselves with the wider culture by acquiring high-status trade names or logos, often through illegitimate means. Nightingale reflects Merton in that the desire to be included in the mainstream leads, paradoxically, to behaviours that further exclude them.

Phillippe Bourgois’ (2003) study of drug dealers and criminals in the deprived El Barrio district of New York City also supports Merton. He found that they also believed in the ‘American Dream’ of financial success. Their values, according to Bourgois, are little different to the mainstream – it is the means they employ which differentiate them from the mainstream.

Further support for the relationship between poverty and crime comes from the work of Steven Messner & Richard Rosenfeld (2001) who argue that the ‘American Dream’s’ obsession with success at any cost validates the use of illegitimate means. Inverse support for this – and also tying in with Wilkinson & Pickett – is the negative correlation between welfare spending and imprisonment found by David Downes & Kirstine Hansen (2006) in a survey of 18 countries. The results support Messner & Rosenfield’s view that societies that protect the poor from the worst excesses of the free market have less crime.

Not all research supports the idea that social disadvantage predicates crime. The highly-regarded Peterborough Youth Study (2003) had its origins in concerns about associations between poverty/disadvantage and turning to crime. UK Government figures show that the most-disadvantaged 5% in society are 100 times more likely to have multiple problems than the most advantaged 50%. Identified problems include conduct disorders, mood disorders, police contact, cannabis use and alcohol abuse. Led by Per-Olof Wikström & Henri Tajfel, the study set out to test which factors were the most significant predictors of criminal behaviour, from a cross-sectional study of nearly 2,000 white working class adolescents aged 14-15, from state schools in the Peterborough area. ‘Propensity-induced offenders’ the researchers characterised as a relatively-small group that is responsible for a high number of different and more serious offences. They tend to have a wide range of high-risk factors such as weak family and school bonds, low levels of self-control, anti-social values and low levels of shame interacting with a high-risk lifestyle. To Wikström & Tajfel’s surprise, social disadvantage was not a strong predictor of delinquency. However, those from a lower social class did have more risk factors than those from a more comfortable background. The low levels of shame identified with this group of offenders may indicate the strength of the RED vMEME amongst them.

The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development is even more highly-regarded than Peterborough. A longitudinal study begun by Donald West in 1961 to follow 411 boys born in the years 1953-4. 97% came from the registers of 6 state schools in East London. The boys were predominantly white working class. David Farrrington joined West in 1969 and became sole director of the project in 1981. The researchers published several reports over the years and it has been reported on in several books and volumes by other researchers. By the time of the third report in 1977, the participants had decreased to 389 (95% of the original sample). When they were around 48 years old, 365 (93%) of the 394 survivors from the original sample were still involved – a fairly impressive retention rate. While Cambridge had a number of key findings – several of which will be discussed -the one immediately relevant is that low family income is a predictor of delinquent and criminal behaviour (West & Farrington, 1977).

A way of reconciling these differing findings from the Peterborough and Cambridge studies lies in the work of Jock Young. John Lea & Jock Young (1984) used Walter Runciman’s (1966) concept of relative deprivation to help explain why more lower class people committed crime when society as a whole was becoming wealthier. In the consumerist society, those who can’t have all the things the media and advertising strongly suggest they should have feel deprived – Bauman’s ‘repressed’. However, still not all who feel relatively deprived commit crime. Into this toxic resentment Young (1999) – like Bongor – adds individualism which, of course, is driven by the RED vMEME. Young (2002) fears that the increasing social and instability of the last quarter of the 20 Century – with many jobs lost in the UK , the US and Western Europe to the New International Division of Labour  – the resultant increased relative deprivation will produce more and more anomie.

An alternative explanation to anomie of the link between crime and poverty comes from Martin Daly & Margo Wilson (1997) Daly & Wilson theorised that risk-taking behaviour by young males was linked to a desire for instant gratification because they perceived they would have a short lifespan. To investigate this, they looked at whether homicide rates would vary as a function of local life expectancy. They chose Chicago for their study – where the sociologist William Julius Wilson (1987) had already identified rootless young black men from the inner city as being particularly alienated and disaffected. Daly & Wilson used a correlational study drawing on survey data from police, school and local demographic records collected by population census for local communities with lower than average male life expectancies, varying from 54.3 to 77.4 years. From these, they found that life expectancy was the best predictor of neighbourhood-specific homicide rates which ranged from 1.3 to 156 homicides per 100,000 persons per annum, with a strongly negative correlation of -0.88.
They concluded that these men effectively discounted having a future beyond a short life and, therefore, were willing to take great risks for short-term rewards. The researchers concluded that not only did these young men see little point in investing effort in school performance but their parents saw little point too because they were also operating on a short-time horizon. Daly & Wilson further concluded that poverty was correlated with male risk taking as those with little to lose might as well engage in reckless behaviour and violent tactics.

In 2008 the Daily Mail reported on a YouGov poll, commissioned by the Prince’s Trust which surveyed 1,754 14-25-year-olds which found that…

  • 58 percent young people turning to gangs and ‘youth communities’ for support
    Young people with a problem were found twice as likely to turn to a friend for advice as a parent
    The Mail reported Barbara Wilding, Chief Constable for South Wales, as commenting: “In areas of extreme deprivation, there are almost feral groups of very angry young people. Many have experienced family  breakdown: and, in place of parental and family role models, the gang culture is now established. Tribal loyalty has replaced family loyalty and gang culture, based on violence and drugs, is a way of life.”
  • 22% looking for role models in gangs and 55% citing friends and peers as role models

At the time of the report’s launch, Martina Milburn, Trust Chief Executive, told the Mail: “All the threads that hold a community together – a common identity, role models, a sense of safety – were given by young people as motivations to join gangs. Our research suggests that young people are creating their own ‘youth communities’ and gangs in search of the influences that could once have been found in traditional communities.” Effectively Milburn is describing the PURPLE vMEME’s need to find safety-in-belonging.

However, the relationship between youth and gangs may be more complicated than the Mail’s headline of  ‘Youngsters “Turning to Gangs instead of Parents”’  suggested.

The YouGov report also found that:-

  • only about 6-9% of young people say they do belong to a gang or have done in the past
  • only 2% claim to carry or ever have carried a knife

Simon Harding (2014) considered the role of gangs in the 2011 London riots. He argues that the proportion of gang members involved in the rioting was far higher than the official 1 in 5 statistics. (See also the BlogThe Riots: who’s right – Cameron or Blair?) He writes: “Many of the gang element were smart and didn’t get arrested. They covered their faces and moved their stolen goods on quickly, unlike the opportunists.” He also notes that increasing numbers have made gang membership more competitive. “All of them are in competition to achieve a level of distinction.” Gang members face a daily struggle to build and defend their own personal ‘brands’ which can be generated or destroyed at the click of a button. As a result, many gang members are in a “hyper-vigilant state of perpetual high anxiety”.

Interestingly, Ben Marshall, Barry Webb & Nick Tilley (2005), on the premise that the idea of a ‘gang’ is defined differently by different young people, suggest there are 3 distinct categories of youth groupings which vary in the degree of seriousness of offending behaviour but which are often mixed together under the term ‘gang’:-

  1. Peer groups or ‘crews’ – unorganised groups of young people who tend to hang around together in a particular place. Any offending behaviour is incidental and does not reflect any great estrangement from society.
  2. Gangs – similar in structure and membership to crews but with a much greater emphasis on offending and violence.
  3. Organised criminal groups – with varying ages of their members and a clear hierarchy, these are heavily involved in serious crime. Their illegal activities are their main occupation for many of their members.

Richard Cloward & Lloyd Ohlin (1960) have identified this third type of gang as providing a parallel opportunity structure to the legal opportunities available. These gangs provide a route into becoming a ‘career criminal’. Following the examples of successful role models, young offenders can work their way up the criminal hierarchy. Dick Hobbs (1998) interviewed successful professional criminals and demonstrated how it is possible to have a career in crime, given the right connections and personal qualities. Vincenzo Ruggiero & Kazim Khan (2007), based on interviews with 110 imprisoned drug dealers of South Asian heritage, found evidence of criminal careers being available for those who wanted to make money out of drug dealing.

Cloward & Ohlin see that, where there is no local criminal sub-culture to provide career opportunities, gangs of the second type are likely to turn to violence, usually against other gangs, bringing about gang warfare.

Research by David Smith & Paul Bradshaw (2005) suggests that many teenagers lose interest in gang membership as they mature. This finding is supported by Cambridge: the proportion of men leading successful conventional lives – ie: meeting at least 6 of the 9 Criteria of Life Success – increased from 78% at age 32 to 88% at age 48. (Life Success criteria include no drug use in the past 5 years, no self-reported offence in the past 5 years, no convictions in the past 5 years and satisfactory mental health.) Even participants who were persistent offenders in their teens and twenties improved their life success to 65% between ages 32 and 48 (David Farrington et al, 2006).