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SocioPsychological Factors in Crime #2

Lower Class and Marxist Sub-Cultures
Much research indicates there is a relationship between being in the lower classes and crime. Merton explores the relationship between poverty, consumerism and crime in Strain Theory. Daly & Wilson prefer to focus on the limited opportunities and limited life expectancy. Both locate their theories in lower class sub-cultures.

Another lower-class sub-culture theorist is Albert Cohen (1955). Influenced both by Merton and the ethnographic ideas of the Chicago School of Sociology. he was especially interested in the fact that much offending behaviour was being simply done for the ‘thrill of the act’, rather than from economic motivations. (This is still evidenced today as, according to the Office of National Statistics (2020),  around a million offences of this type were committed in 2018-2019. Cohen does not share Merton’s emphasis on economic motivation and materialistic gain. Rather he sees deviance and crime as expressive.)

According to Cohen, lower class boys strive to emulate middle class values and aspirations but lack the means to achieve success – leading to ‘status frustration’. Consequently these boys end up rejecting middle class values. Cohen (p119): “The delinquent sub-culture offers him status as against other children of whatever social level, but it offers him this status in the eyes of his fellow delinquents only…. He can perfect his solution only by rejecting as status sources those who reject him. This, too, may require a certain measure of reaction-formation, going beyond indifference to active hostility and contempt for those who do not share his sub-culture….”

School tends to be where the drama is acted out. Lower class children are much more likely to fail academically and, as a consequence, feel humiliated. In an attempt to gain status, they invert traditional middle class values by behaving badly and engaging in a variety of anti-social behaviours. In this way, they effectively form a deviant sub-culture. This seeking status through bad behaviour, when high status through the approved route cannot be achieved, was termed reputation management by Nicholas Emler (1984). Emler, however, did not put such an explicit class spin on the concept as Cohen.

Jack Katz (1988) portrays young males, in particular, as getting drawn into crime, not through any rejection process, but simply because it is exciting. Similarly, Stephen Lyng (1990) puts forward the proposition that young males like taking risks and engaging in ‘edgework’ – going right to the edge of acceptable behaviour and flirting with danger. Katz points out that this particular reason for engaging in deviant and criminal behaviour is particularly ‘male’ (as opposed to female’). If so, then this male attitude could also be linked to the temperamental dimension of Psychoticism and the role of the male sex hormone testosterone which is associated with impulsive and risk-taking behaviours.

To have excitement from this kind of nihilistic and recklessness delinquency is postulated by Walter Miller (1962) as one of the 6 ‘focal concerns’ most young working class males have. By ‘excitement’ in this context, Miller means thrill-seeking – the sheer excitement of doing something ‘naughty’, deviant and, in some cases, outrightly criminal.

The other 5 of Miller’s focal concerns are:-

  1. ‘Smartness’ – which can range in expression from ‘looking good’ to having ‘smart repartee’
  2. Being prepared for ‘trouble’ – “I don’t go looking for trouble, but…”
  3. Toughness – being stronger than others and prepared to demonstrate it
  4. Autonomy – no being pushed around by others
  5. Fate – a fatalistic view that there is little chance to avoid their wider fate

The first 5 of Miller’s concerns can be explained in part at least by the RED vMEME dominating the individual’s selfplex or in the culture of the grouping, as RED (in the role of Sigmund Freud’s (1923b) Id) will do whatever gives it the greatest pleasure ‘in the moment’. The last concern, fatalism, is more the product of the PURPLE vMEME which can tend towards passive acceptance of limiting circumstances because it is more safe than challenging them.

Miller argues that lower class sub-culture is has different norms and values than mainstream culture.

Howard Parker (1974) found working class young males have Miller’s focal concerns. He  undertook participant observation with a group of young males in Liverpool and found they stole car radios to fund their lifestyle which involved heavy cannabis use, heavy drinking and fighting. (Parker actually joined in some of their activities and admits he got so involved he actually kept watch while they stole car radios! )

Simon Winlow (2004) posits that values and concerns such as those Miller identifies were appropriate for working class males in former times of heavy industrialisation and unskilled physical work. However, times have changed and only a small amount of that type of work is left, meaning that values appropriate for that kind of work are inappropriate for most contemporary employment. Winlow suggests that the problem is particularly acute for those young men who are excluded completely from employment.

Stephen Box (1981) postulates that there is little evidence that these concerns are specifically lower class.In this Box is reflecting David Downes (1966) who studied young working class males in London. He could find no substantive evidence of values specific to working class young males only. What Downes suggested instead was that working class young males were dissociated from the mainstream – ie: alienation – being more concerned about leisure than their long-term future or employment. Accordingly, they were more likely to indulge in petty crime. The kind of passive nihilism Downes describes again can be seen as typical of the RED vMEME, especially in a low or non-aspirational culture.

Downes’ mention of alientation leads to  discussion of Marxist sub-culture theories like that of Mike Brake (1980). He states that working-class youth language and clothes show disdain for Capitalism. Only groups on the margins of society, not ‘locked’ in by ideology and finance – effectively, Bauman’s ‘repressed’ – can resist Capitalism because they have no investment in the kind of society it produces. However, Brake sees that the resistance is ‘magical’ in that it appears to solve the resistors’ problems..but actually doesn’t. Each generation of working-class youth face similar problems (dead-end jobs, unemployment, etc) but in different circumstances. Ie: society changes constantly so that every generation experiences a very different world. The one constant, however, is that the majority will be exploited by the ruling class. Each generation will express its resistance through different choices in clothes, argot (slang and patterns of speech), music, etc. However, rather pessimistically Brake perceives that each generation will end up trapped, like their parents before them.

John Lea & Jock Young (1984) take issue with the notion that crime is a form of resistance to Capitalism, pointing out that crime mostly affects the working class – both the crimes of the powerful and working class ‘street crime’. With members of the working class often both the perpetrators and the victims of street crime, Young (1992) criticises the Marxist concept of crime being a working class revolt against Capitalism as over-simplistic. He writes (p146): “it is difficult to romanticise this type of crime as some kind of disguised attack on the privileged.”

Jock Young & Roger Matthews (1992) note that poor people pay dearly for inadequate protection and that there is a need for an adequate criminal justice system that works in the interest of all social groups.

Sub-Cultures, Tribes or Subterranean Values?
Theories like those of Cohen, Miller and especially Marxists like Brake assume a degree of awareness, of class consciousness that is unlikely in most of the people described.  Shane Blackman (1995) argues that factors such as sexual identity, locality, age and ‘intellectual capacity’ influence the development of sub-cultures at least as much as any sense of class consciousness.

Sarah Thornton (1995) goes further and argues there is simply no real social-class basis to youth sub-cultures at all and that youth sub-cultures are really the constructions of the media. Michael Maffesoli (1996)  posits ‘sub-culture’ is better thought of in terms of ‘neo-tribes’. Coming from a Post-Modern perspective, he was unhappy with the idea that the concept of ‘sub-culture’ had mutated, in the hands of the likes of Cloward & Ohlin and Miller, from a concept based on values into more of one of a group of people sharing a set of values. ‘Neo-tribes’, for Maffesoli, is more about states of mind and lifestyles that are very flexible, open and changing. Deviant values are less important than an emphasis on consumption, suitably fashionable behaviour and individual identity that can change rapidly,

In way of complete contrast, David Matza & Gresham Sykes (1961) argue that there are no distinctive sub-cultural values as such but all groups in society share subterranean values – ie:  those deviant desires most people keep under control most of the term. These emerge only at certain times and/or in certain contexts – eg: the office party or a debauched holiday ‘drugs ‘n’ sex fest’. Matza & Sykes’ argument has echoes of Freud’s Ego trying to keep the Id under control – or BLUE trying to stop RED from its most self-indulgent excesses.
Matza & Sykes identify 5 ways in which deviants endeavour to justify their actions – 3 of which clearly, in review, are based on the seflplex defence mechanism of denial

  1. denial of responsibility: the offender denies that it was their fault – eg: “It wasn’t me – it was the alcohol” or “It was the drugs”
  2. denial of victim: the offender claims that, in this particular case, the victim was in the wrong – eg: in a rape case,the accused alleges that the victim was dressed in a way that led him on
  3. denial of injury: the offender claims that the victim was not really hurt or harmed by the crime – for example, people,who wouldn’t dream of stealing from individuals, thinking stealing small items from corporate organisations is non-consequential
  4. condemnation of condemners: the offender feels they are being unfairly picked on for something others have done and not been punished for
  5. appeal to higher loyalties: the offender claims that the rule of law had to be ignored because more important issues were at stake – eg stand for the family/community/race

In Matza & Syke’s view, what distinguishes a persistent offender from a law abiding citizen is simply the number of times the behaviour occurs and in what circumstances.

The sub-cultural explanations generally fail to address the gender differences in crime and deviance.

There is no doubt males commit more crimes than females – especially violent crimes

2 sets of longitudinal statistics from the American Bureau of Justice show a clear difference between the genders in the levels of violent crime committed. Interestingly while levels of violent crime amongst males appear to have declined since the mid-1990s, the drop in violent crime committed by females has been nothing like as sharp. Similar patterns can be found in most Western countries.

Frances Heidensohn & Marisa Silvestri (2012) note that 4/5 of convicted offenders in England & Wales are male. By the age of 40 9% of females have a conviction compared to 32% of males.

However, as Rob Webb et al (2016) point out, men and women sometimes commit quite different types of crime. More women shoplift and more men commit violent and sexual crimes. However, Tim Newburn (2013) states that women commit all the same crimes men do. So there may be differences in frequency of offence bu there is no ‘female’ type of crime as opposed to ‘male’ type of crime.

Just to show how complex gender-based attribution of criminality can be, Webb et al point out that an act of prostitution is unlikely to be reported by either party!

Mike Collison (1996) asserts that investigating such gender differences needs an understanding of the nature of masculinity. In saying that masculinity itself is linked to crime, he draws on the work of Raewyn Connell (1995) who has observed a hegemonic masculinity which males both conspire with and aspire to.

Males generally take more risks. They are more likely to abuse alcohol and recreational drugs and less likely to seek professional help. They also drive more aggressively. (Ivan Brown & Jeffrey Groeger (1988) found that young male drivers underestimate objective risks and overestimate their own abilities in comparison to older drivers.)

Evolutionary psychologists explain this kind of risk taking by young males in terms of mate selection – ie: they are under pressure to ‘win’ females and demonstrate superiority to other males.

There are, of course, biological factors in gender differences. Testosterone has been correlated with violent criminality in number of studies – such as those of James Dabbs et al (1987; 1995). Correspondingly  Ruben Gur et al (2002) show that women generally have a far greater volume of inhibitory circuits in the lower frontal cortex, tending to result in much less impulsive behaviour.

Certainly when males engage in a regular partnership with a female, they tend to reduce risk-taking behaviours. Partly, this is attributed to them no longer having to ‘win’ a partner. Partly, also there may be a motivation to be around the female and any children to protect them. (For similar reasons, the female may demand a reduction in risk-taking behaviours.) However, if the partnership breaks up, the male may well go back to more risky behaviours. There is a biological correspondence with this: Allan Mazur & Alan Booth (1998) found that found testosterone levels often decreased when the men were married and increased when they got divorced.

Heidensohn (1996) argues that a factor in women committing less crime is that traditionally they have had fewer opportunities, being much more closely bound to the home (and the domestic social roles of wife and mother) than men were. In the early days of the so-called ‘Second Wave’ of Feminism, Freda Adler (1975) predicted that, with women gaining freedom from patriarchy, their greater self-confidence and freedom would lead to more females committing crime – including violent crime. Darrell Steffensmeier & Jennifer Schwartz (2009) did report an increase in the female share of arrests in the United States – from 1/5 to 1/3 – between 1980 and 2003. However, victim studies did not show a corresponding increase in violent crime by females. This led Steffensmeier & Schwartz to speculate that the increased numbers of arrested females were due to police arresting women for a wider range of offences.

However, from interviews with 15-16-year-olds in the East Midlands, Martyn Denscombe (2001) was in no doubt that teenage girls were adopting traditional male values of ‘looking hard’, ‘being in control’ and taking more risks.

Webb et al note that blacks comprise just 3% of the UK population but 13.1% of the prison population.

Paul Gilroy (1982) is just one Sociologist who attributes such high conviction rates being a result of police officers being influenced by criminal stereotypes – particularly to do with young black males. The results of this racial bias were demonstrated by Clare Sharp & Tracey Budd’s (2005) analysis of 2003 Home Office data, They found that black offenders were more likely to have been charged than white offenders.

However, Lea & Young (1995) believe that such statistics genuinely reflect the amount of crime committed by black people. While the researchers acknowledge the police often do act in racist ways, they posit the fact that blacks have a considerably higher rate of criminalisation than Asians – 6.5% of the population but just 7.7% of convicted offenders (Webb et al) – cannot be due to racism alone. Rather, Lea & Young posit that black people are so marginalised and suffer such relative deprivation that they inevitably turn to crime. Crimes such as robbery can be classified as ‘utilitarian’ because they are a means of coping with relative deprivation. However, such is the frustration and alienation of black communities that they are liable to resort to violence and rioting.

Support for Lea & Young comes from Marian FitzGerald, Jan Stockdale & Chris Hale (2003) who found that crime rates were greatest where poor neighbourhoods juxtaposed more affluent ones. Poor whites were equally as likely to commit crime as poor blacks. Ethnicity was not a factor in itself.


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