Criminologists Don’t Pay Attention in Sociology Class

Crime, the Economy and Common Sense Notions Proved Wrong


A few of months ago criminologists were shocked and amazed that, despite the decrepit economy, the crime rate went down. Now, it’s true that the crime rate has gone down, and has been going down for quite some time. However, I cannot vouch for the statement that criminologists were “shocked.” If it’s true that criminologists were shocked, then there’s only one reasonable explanation for this. Criminologists, at least those interviewed by the press, did not pay attention in their mandatory sociology classes.

Most of the articles that I read asked economists to explain the poor correlation between crime and economic integrity. None of them really offered an explanation. They cited interesting research such as the exceptionally high crime rates in the 1960s despite general prosperity as compared to relatively low crime rates during the Depression. One article did offer sociological analyses. For instance, the 1960’s experienced the Baby Boomers entering prime crime commission age, the teens and early twenties. They speculated that the Depression was so severe that communities had to come together to survive, thus decreasing crime. That’s why, in these instances, crime did not follow the economic trends.

The press is playing on the common sense notion that economic hardship leads to higher crime rates. After all, crime rates are higher in poor communities than they are in economically sound communities. This makes sense to the layperson and even to the sociologist. When a person doesn’t have legitimate access to the resources they want, they must turn to illegitimate means of achieving those resources. In sociology this is referred to as Strain Theory. Strain is the inability to satisfy socially accepted goals, such as economic prosperity. Strain, however, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Regardless of strain, most people do not turn to criminal behavior over all. Most people conform to the norms and values of their culture. Like most common sense notions, this presumed link between the economy and criminal behavior is wrong.

Criminal or deviant behavior is the result of a breakdown in the influence of norms (rules) and values on human agency (the decisions of individuals). Human behavior is influenced by socialization. Socialization regulates human behavior through internal and external controls. Internal controls are values that are internalized by individuals. They are the reason why we recoil when we see people do something we know to be wrong. They are the reason why we feel guilt when we do something wrong—the reason why we hesitate in the face of a deviant act. External controls are the mechanisms in place for identifying and dealing with deviants, such as surveillance, police and corrections policies in society or discipline plans in schools or families. When individuals are certain that they will get caught committing a deviant act and will suffer significant consequences, this is sometimes enough to dissuade their straying from the accepted path.

Crime is likely when these controls fail. What brings people to turn their backs on the norms and values of a society to which they are socialized? Well, of course here we make the assumption that we are all socialized to respect the same norms and values. That’s not necessarily true. Some are taught that the conventional rules do not apply to them and are socialized with contrary norms and values. This phenomenon exists in impoverished communities, subgroups and counter-cultures, but it is also apparent among the elite whose status offers them a certain protection from external controls and whose aristocratic arrogance reinforces an ideology of superiority.

The above scenario, however, should not explain changes in crime rates unless there are significant changes in the relevant populations. So how do we explain a differential acceptance of social controls? Once socialized, these controls are very potent. Yes, we all challenge them in relatively minor ways, but for the most part, we accept the legitimacy of what we’ve learned to be right and wrong. For us to abandon our values the very legitimacy of our socialization must be challenged. This can happen in a number of ways.

First, along the lines of strain theory, the individual may recognize that the values of the society are out of his or her reach. Through the resources and networks at her command, it is impossible to achieve higher status through socially legitimate means. Therefore, one might be inclined to pursue illegitimate means to achieve at least a representation of the desired goal, or will reject the goal outright and establish more local goals. However, this can’t be the only variable, otherwise one would predict that during times of economic hardship, more people will innovate to achieve the desired ends. At best, strain can only be one variable contributing to higher crime.

As a check against strain, social constructs exist that define the misfortunes, or dare I coin the term “disfortunes” of those with the least access to life chances and valued resources as proper, right and even natural. According to these constructs, for instance, society might define those who are poor as being undeserving of wealth. In the United States, such people are blamed for their condition. They are defined as lazy. Today, they are often framed as being parasitic, leaches on the welfare state with no incentive to pursue wealth or improved status. If they would only commit themselves to work and self-improvement, they would reap the benefits of our great nation.

Such a construct is no different than defining the “disfortunate” as being intellectually or, genetically inferior. In this instance, programs for improving the lives of the impoverished are nothing more than wasted resources.

In some societies, the dispossessed are so due to the whims of God. Perhaps they are cursed by God. On the other hand, God may be preserving the poor for a greater reward in Heaven. The legitimacy of iniquitous access to resources, according to this paradigm, is the will of God. Who are we to question the Almighty.

Regardless of the constructs, if those on the wrong end of the status ladder accept their position as right, proper or natural, then they will likely internalize the accepted norms of the society despite their status. However, when these status positions are called into questions, for instance when we see slothful dilatants living the high life, while our own toils go unrewarded, when we are witness to the profits gained by the morally reprobate while we are induced to righteousness, we may call into question the rightness, propriety and nature of our position. In this case, inequality, or shall we say conspicuous inequality, may invalidate established social controls.

Another factor that may contribute to crime is a breakdown in institutional legitimacy. This could result from paradigm shifts that demonstrate the iniquitous and often oppressive nature of accepted institutions. Philosophies recognized as otherwise radical may be vouched popular appeal, calling into question the values that hold our institutions together such as the concept of the social contract during the Ancient Regime. Perhaps a significant exemplifying event may force us to question our values, such as the death of Ann Hutchinson, or the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, or the Kent State massacre. Successful claims may be introduced to the popular discourse, such as feminist critiques of male primacy in the family, scathing Enlightenment critiques of nobility and religion, or the application of the fairness principle in the Civil Rights and LGBT movements. These movements have a moral center, but can serve to destabilize, at least temporarily, institutional legitimacy.

The above happens because, often, the institutions that provide stability and moral legitimacy are, in fact, iniquitous. Patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia, economic exploitation, are vulgar foundations on which to establish social stability. An unjust society may be able to enforce, coerce or institute stability for the short term, but not in the long term. Injustice cannot be shrouded in secrecy or legitimized in the face of its victims for long. Eventually all injustices will be confronted and all institutions based on those injustices will be either reformed or ruined. During the interregnum, however, we can expect an increase in crime as institutions are the framework by which external and internal controls are supported.

That’s why crime often travels with the young. Adolescents are ripe for questioning the legitimacy of established social norms. Not yet fully socialized, adolescents offer the best critiques of the validity of our institutionalized norms. In some cases the young person can be persuaded to see the light, so to speak, and accept institutional validity. In those cases where they don’t, they can be drugged or otherwise coerced…for a time. This is especially true when the answers to their critiques are blatantly inadequate. It is also true when they understand that their future, in the legitimate sense, is at best questionable.

Economic variables are not the only factors involved in crime. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that our current calculations of crime show a continuation of its downward trend. However, we should keep in mind that current research is based on 2009 figures. Perhaps it is too soon for the calamities of 2008 to be internalized. However, all of the variables highlighted above, the questionable legitimacy of our institutions, inequitable access to life chances, conspicuous injustice, significant exemplifying events, are all in place today. We established a precedent (not really unprecedented to the historically literate, but unprecedented in the minds of many today) of rewarding those who believe that the established norms do not apply to them, namely the banksters and the Wall Street scammers, with a colossal, tax funded, golden parachute. This was not lost on those who are now expected to pay for the bailouts through punishing austerity measures while the elite toast their success with Dom Perignon.

Moreover, this was not lost on our youth, who learned an interesting lesson about “real” American values. But what did they learn? Did they learn that crime pays, when it’s Wall Street crime? Did they learn that the only way to avoid punishing “austerity” is to get rich by any means? Or did they learn to revile the modern day robber barons and to apply themselves to re-alligning American society with its vaunted values of fairness and opportunity for all? Unfortunately, at this point, there is no way to know for sure. Nobody is asking them. Maybe we should.

Based on the rough outline above, I would predict that the crime rate, especially property crime, will trough soon and start increasing. I base this not on the economy. The economy doesn’t appear to be getting any worse (yet), but on the conspicuous iniquity revealed after the dust of 2008 settled.

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