Modernization and Crime Research Paper

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Common beliefs often associate crime with features of modern society such as big cities, mass society, liberal democracy, capitalism, and modern mass media. In reality, the relationship between modernization and crime is highly complex. Modernization may be accompanied by declining, stable, or rapidly increasing crime rates, depending on the place, particular conditions, and time frame under consideration. A look at basic definitions provides a first understanding of the complexity of the relationship between modernization and crime.

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Definitions: Complex Phenomena

First, crime is behavior defined as criminal by the law of the state. States typically undergo profound changes in modernization processes. So do criminal law and its enforcement. Thus, while behaviors change during modernization, so does their definition as criminal versus lawabiding. Both changes affect crime records.

Second, modernization is the replacement of traditional structural elements by modern ones. In the context of development theory, modernization is understood as a trend toward urbanization, mass communication, general political participation, and general education (Lerner). Classical sociologists have understood modernization as a movement from small social units (Gemeinschaft) toward mass society (Gesellschaft) (Ferdinand Toennies), toward functional differentiation (Émile Durkheim), toward high levels of rationality (Max Weber), or toward modern action orientations such as universalism, achievement, and affective-neutrality (Talcott Parsons). Closely related are recent debates on social networks and social capital that have also been applied to the understanding of crime (Hagan). Modernization is often thought to diminish the closure of social networks, and, as a consequence, social capital and social control. Finally, the term civilization is relevant for our theme. Civilization refers to people’s growing capability of selfcontrol, especially in the public sphere, in the context of evolving states and increasingly complex social configurations (Elias).

This terminological overview indicates the complexity of the phenomenon. First, modernization is obviously multidimensional. Second, not all dimensions—for example, urbanization, universalistic action orientation, or functional differentiation—necessarily progress at the same time or pace. We may thus, depending on place and time, face different constellations of components of modernization. Each of these constellations may have a specific effect on crime. Third, modernization may well not be unidirectional. For example, an increase in functional differentiation may cause problems of coordination and integration and these tradeoffs may initiate a trend toward dedifferentiation. These kinds of reversals are the underlying structural condition of what is often referred to as postmodernity.

It is thus not surprising that different empirical patterns can be observed depending on the researcher’s focus on long-term European modernization, recent trends toward postindustrial society in the Western world, or modernization in post-Communist Europe or in countries of the third world.

The Long-Term European View

Social historians in recent decades have produced rich evidence regarding the relationship between modernization and crime in Europe since the Middle Ages (Johnson and Monkkonen, eds.). Long-term European history has indeed been characterized by numerous modernizing shifts: the building of modern nationstates, urbanization and industrialization, functional differentiation, rationalization, and the emergence of capitalist economies and of autonomous spheres of politics, economics, religion, and science. In general, this period was marked by major declines of violent crime and less unambiguous increases in property crime. While national statistics are obviously not available except for more recent periods, careful archival research in different localities provides a rather convincing picture.

Consider homicide: the rate of homicide in thirteenth-century England was at around twenty per 100,000 population. It declined to fifteen by 1600, between eight and two depending on location in the late 1600s, and further to 0.9 by the period 1780–1802 (see James A. Sharpe in Johnson and Monkkonen, eds.). Rates of homicide for Sweden declined from thirty-three per 100,000 during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, to sixteen during the first half of the eighteenth century, to 1.5 in the nineteenth century. The capital Stockholm experienced a decline from forty-three per 100,000 in the Middle Ages to below one in the second half of the eighteenth and, after an upturn to three in the nineteenth century, again declined to 0.6 in the first half of the twentieth century (Johnson and Monkkonen, eds., p. 9). The period of clearest decreases in violence coincided with a program of major reforms under King Gustav Adolf (1611–1632), including the foundation of many towns, the modernization of administration, and the systematic registration of Swedes by the clergy. Property crimes, however, showed an upward trend during this period (Eva Oesterberg in Johnson and Monkkonen, eds.; for similar trends for Amsterdam, see Pieter Spierenburg in the same volume).

Johnson and Monkkonen, in an introductory chapter to the above-cited collection, summarize the overall findings by these and other social historians. First, violent crime declined since the Middle Ages, especially between the 1600s and 1700s, until quite recently. Second, control emanated from the courts of the aristocracy. Third, urban centers tended to be more protected from violence than the countryside. And fourth, areas with less developed states tended to be more violent. These findings are consistent with sociological analyses of medium-term processes in nineteenth-century Europe. Using sophisticated statistical techniques, A. R. Gillis, for example, studies the effects of intensifying state surveillance through policing in France between 1865 and 1913. He concludes that the growth of policing deterred major property crimes while it increased charges for minor types of crime. Declines in major violent crime were better explained by urbanization than by intensified policing.

Social historians thus object to everyday beliefs and raise skepticism against arguments and findings by most sociologists and criminologists who, in a short-term view, associate violent and property crime with modernization. Instead they consider their findings to be in sync with the civilization theory developed during the 1930s by sociologist Norbert Elias. This theory would predict exactly what the cited historians have found, a dramatic decline in violence: European history since the Middle Ages has been characterized by peoples’ growing capability of self-control, including constraint from violence, especially in the public sphere. This individual level change is, Elias argues, due to two conditions. First, the emerging modern nation-states claim the monopoly of the legitimate use of force. Violence as a means of dispute resolution thus becomes increasingly illegitimate and subject to penal law. Second, with urbanization and the growing division of labor, people are embedded in ever more complex social configurations. The use of brute force in the relationships that constitute these configurations is no longer suited to advance an individual’s interests. More sophisticated action strategies are required. The result of these new constraints on individuals is growing self-control or civilization.

Rapid Modernization in The Twentieth Century

Rapid modernization in the twentieth century led to different effects on crime. Examples include modernization in third world societies, especially after the end of authoritarian or dictatorial rule, and rapid modernization during periods of fundamental reform in societies with statesocialist forms of government.

Consider third world countries. Uncertainties of record keeping suggest that we focus on relatively reliable homicide and murder data. Dane Archer and Rosemary Gartner offer time series for a large number of third world countries, mostly through 1970. Some extend just through a decade, others through seven decades. Some countries show clear declines in violence. In Chile, for example, the homicide rate declined from above thirty per 100,000 during the first three decades of the twentieth century to below ten and as low as four during the 1960s and early 1970s. Egypt shows a 50 percent decline in murder rates between the early 1950s and mid 1960s. Ghana, Indonesia, and, for homicide, Mexico, Tunisia, and Israel show declines between 50 and 75 percent. Other countries are characterized by stable or cyclical rates of homicide or murder, respectively, including India, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, Lebanon, Pakistan, Korea, Philippines, and Sri Lanka. Countries with rising homicide or murder rates include Taiwan, Bermuda, Thailand, and Turkey.

Other researchers study individual developing countries beyond 1970. In Nigeria, for example, urbanization after the end of colonial rule in 1960 appears to have been associated with massive increases in crime, even though crime figures follow a highly erratic course in a turbulent political environment (Olufunmilayo Oloruntimehin in Heiland, Shelley, and Katoh, eds.). Several studies are available for Caribbean and Latin American countries. For example, Barbados shows a threefold increase in crime rates between 1960 and 1980 (from 43 to 139 per 100,000 population) and Jamaica shows a more than 100 percent increase, while crime in Trinidad and Tobago is quite stable (Hyacinthe Ellis in Heiland et al., eds.). Ellis explains this increase in Jamaican rates of violence with a combination of massive economic crises and poverty and a disoriented state and law enforcement. While tough crime-fighting programs were pronounced, clearance and conviction rates declined to dismal levels. In Venezuela crime rates more than doubled between 1962 and 1987 (from 474 to 1,111 per 100,000 population). Homicide rates doubled between 1971 (6.2) and 1980 (12.5), then declined to 8.1 in 1987 (Christopher Bikbeck in Heiland et al., eds.), and increased again dramatically to reach a new peak of 24.4 in 1994 (Ana Maria Sanjuan in Pinheiro et al.). Rates for the city of Caracas were even higher with a level of 13.4 per 100,000 population in 1986, climbing to above eighty in 1993 and 1994, then declining more modestly to 64.5 in 1996 (Sanjuan in Pinheiro et al.).

Generally, then, crime statistics for developing societies show quite divergent trends through the beginning of the 1970s. This period is generally associated with decolonization, and globalization of political rule and economic trade. More recent studies on a smaller number of single countries point at an increase in crime rates. Clearly, simple conclusions on the relationship between development and crime cannot be drawn. Open questions include: Which sectors of the population are affected by which aspects of modernization and in which subpopulations is crime concentrated?

Other countries are of particular interest, as they underwent conscious and short-term modernizing reforms. Consider democratization and moves toward market economy. Both processes are generally considered aspects of modernization by development theorists. They also fit the more basic sociological understanding of modernization as they imply a replacement of particularistic action orientations by universalistic ones. Consider the People’s Republic of China after the introduction of market reform. A period of highly stable official crime statistics is followed by a massive increase of serious crimes from 50,000 in 1980 to 366,000 in 1989. The vast majority of these crimes were committed by juveniles. In addition, economic crimes increased dramatically (see He Bingsong in Heiland et al., eds., and numerous media reports, e.g., The New York Times, 11 July 1996, pp. A1, A6). Or consider massive changes in political organization. South Africa, after the abolition of apartheid and following a period of deadly civil strife, experienced a massive increase in crime, including violent crime. Homicide rates reached above forty per 100,000 population by 1997 (John Aitchison in Pinheiro et al.). Another example of democratization is Brazil after two decades of military dictatorship (1964–1985). Homicide rates for S˜ao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, for example, increased from fourteen per 100,000 population in 1981 to above thirty-three by 1993. The increase, however, had already begun during the last years of dictatorship (Sergio Adorno, Maria Helena P. Jorge, both in Pinheiro et al.).

One of the most radical moves toward modernization was initiated near the end of the 1980s when the formerly state socialist countries of east, east central, and southeastern Europe introduced market reform and democratic political structures. Crime rates began to increase markedly during the 1980s, the decade of reform. The increases accelerated after the breakdown of state socialism in 1989 (Savelsberg, 1995) but leveled off in most countries by 1992 or 1993. Official police data show partly dramatic rate increases between the mid-1980s and the mid1990s: for homicide, increases of 150 percent (Russia), 450 percent (Estonia), 250 percent (Lithuania), 100 percent (Poland), 100 percent (Czech Republic), 80 percent (Slovak Republic), and 50 percent (Hungary); for burglaries, increases of 270 percent (Russia), 300 percent (Estonia), 230 percent (Lithuania), and 300 percent (Slovak Republic); for robbery, increases of 300 percent (Russia), 500 percent (Estonia), 2,000 percent (Lithuania), 200 percent (Poland), 300 percent (Czech Republic), and 120 percent (Slovak Republic). Rates of assault and rape, on the other hand, were considerably more stable. Victimization research for eastern Germany, the area of the former German Democratic Republic, indicates that increases in the post– Communist era are not merely a reflection of changing control practices (see several contributions in Bilsky, Pfeiffer, and Wetzels, eds.). Crime rates apparently stabilized at levels comparable to those of mainstream west European countries, with some crime types at somewhat higher, others at somewhat lower levels (Van Dijk and Mayhew). Only countries emerging from the former Soviet Union reach considerably higher crime levels.

Theorizing Crime Increases During Rapid Modernization

How can we explain such trends in periods of rapid modernization? What accounts for the differences between these experiences and the decline in violence during the long-term European civilizing process? Classic sociological theorists and contemporary research suggest potential explanations.

Robert K. Merton’s strain approach, recently revived for an explanation of newer U.S. crime trends (Messner and Rosenfeld), appears applicable to the post-Communist situation (Savelsberg, 1995). We expect rates of crime to increase with the proportion of people who have internalized material goals but do not have access to legitimate means of achieving them. The breakdown of communism (just like rapid development elsewhere) tends to be accompanied by intense hopes for economic improvement. Yet the economic situation has deteriorated for many groups in formerly state socialist societies. Basic goods have become much more expensive, unemployment rates have soared in some countries, and pension payments have been cut or fallen victim to high inflation rates (Gerber and Hout). In addition to material hopes, democracy and political liberty do not simply appear when so ordered by proclamation or constitutional change. Frustration with political conditions is widespread. John Hagan and others demonstrate in an empirical analysis of survey data on post-unification Berlin youths how East Berlin youths were much more exposed to anomic aspirations than their West Berlin counterparts. Related periods of rapid transformation are typically associated with a massive loss of legitimacy of major government and economic institutions. Recent research for the United States has provided evidence that such loss of legitimacy may result in increases in crime rates (LaFree).

Durkheim’s classic argument and contemporary extensions provide further theoretical orientation. Durkheim discusses the trend of modernizing societies from segmentary to functional differentiation. He argues that segmentary differentiation is associated with mechanical solidarity, a fundamental agreement on norms and values shared by all members of society. This collective conscience is likely to be weakened in modernity. Individuality grows and traditional bonds loose their effectiveness. Yet, Durkheim does not assume a necessary breakdown of social order as mechanical solidarity is replaced by organic solidarity. Anomie, the lack of normative orientation, is only likely to occur under two conditions. First, functional differentiation is imposed by force. Second, modernization occurs at a speed that does not allow for new forms of association to develop (see Lewis Coser in his introduction to Durkheim, 1984). This argument is of particular interest for societies that undergo modernization as they emerge from autocratic rule. Totalitarian political systems typically repress civil society. They instead impose a set of organizations from professional associations to labor unions to youth organizations, all under the control of a centralized political leadership. The dissolution of such associations leaves a dramatic vacuum in social organization.

Only some elements of social organization prevail, some adverse, others welcoming to crime. Hagan et al. demonstrate how East Berlin youths are somewhat protected from engaging in excessive delinquency as they are, more than their western peers, embedded in tight social networks that provide massive social capital. Such networks were either an intended result of Communist policies, for example in schools that more strongly fostered community than western schools; or partly an unintended consequence of a state in which an omnipresent police, aided by secret police and informant systems (Shelley), played a central role. In a world characterized by mistrust in the public sphere, people withdrew into small social networks of trust, often centered on close kin. These networks continued to exert a sense of social control according to Hagan et al. (1995). They appear to initially dampen the crime wave that accompanied the end of communism.

Other survivals of the authoritarian, specifically Communist past direct our attention to the concept of partial modernization. From this perspective crime waves after totalitarianism may be less explained by the features of modernity but by surviving structural elements of the totalitarian past in the context of modern institutions. First, the demise of communism neither resulted in the eviction of the old elite (nomenklatura) from leading positions in politics and industry nor in the elimination of old networks between members of the former elite. The continuation of such networks provides fertile ground for corruption (see media reports, e.g., The New York Times, 9 September 1999, pp. A1, A14; 15 September 1999, p. A8; 7 October 1999, pp. A1, A6; 19 October 1999, pp. A1, A8). A second survival from the Communist era, especially in Russia, is organized crime. Under conditions of a centrally planned economy, segments of organized crime often played a central role in the shadow economy; they filled in where central plans could not satisfy demands. In the transformation period organized crime benefits from the insufficient functioning of new market institutions and from involvement with corrupt practices of members of the former nomenklatura (Handelman).

Increasing Crime in Late Modernity

Another contrast with the declining rates of violent crime in the long-term European perspective is the recent increase in crime rates in most Western societies. Clearly, these countries have continued their development toward urbanization, general education, economic growth, and technological innovation.

Time series indicate that crime rates in Western industrialized countries increased in the post–World War II period, especially after 1960. Rates of homicide doubled in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden between 1950 and 1986 (Matti Joutsen in Heiland et al., eds.). Assault rates more than tripled in Denmark and Sweden. Robbery rates, in the average, increased around tenfold. In the former West Germany violent crime rates more than doubled between 1963 and 1980 and then stabilized at a high level. Burglary rates increased sixfold through 1987 and fraud rates about twofold (Heiland in Heiland et al.; for more countries up to 1974 see Archer and Gartner). Trends were most extreme in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Violent and property crimes more than doubled during the 1960s. They increased by almost another 50 percent during the 1970s and then stabilized on a high plateau during the 1980s (Louise Shelley in Heiland et al., eds.). American crime rates, however, decreased sharply during most of the 1990s.

Rosemary Gartner, in probably the most sophisticated analysis of homicide rates in eighteen developed countries for the period 1950 to 1980, describes trends and offers a theoretically guided statistical analysis of their conditions. While homicide declined slightly during the 1950s, it increased during the 1960s and 1970s, for the entire sample of eighteen countries by almost 50 percent for women and by 62 percent for males. Combining measurements over time and across countries, Gartner finds that risk factors predicting homicide include indicators of material deprivation, weak social integration, exposure to official violence (e.g., capital punishment), and— most strongly—divorce rates. Specifically for women, the ratio of female labor force to households constitutes a risk factor. Children seem to be more at risk in countries in which spending on social programs is more limited and in which more women work outside the home.

All of the factors identified by Gartner are exposed to the modernization process. Yet, very long-term trends in Europe between the Middle Ages and the early nineteenth century may well have affected these factors and those identified by social historians differently than modernization in the second half of the twentieth century. (1) The nation state, strengthening during the era studied by social historians, has been weakened by recent trends toward globalization. (2) Recent waves of economic modernization have contributed to a bifurcated labor market in which the lower segment has suffered considerable decreases in income and social security. This trend has hit particularly hard in countries such as the United States in which disadvantaged minorities were especially affected by economic restructuration. It may thus have contributed to the especially steep increases in crime rates in the United States (Sampson and Wilson). (3) The incorporation of an ever-larger percentage of the population into the labor market may have initially contributed to growing social control (Foucault), but has more recently turned into a risk factor as it increases opportunities for criminal behavior and decreases social integration. (4) The continuing growth of institutions such as work places, schools, and urban areas has further contributed to challenges to social control and integration. The larger these units are the less closure of those networks do we expect that link individuals and households with schools, workplaces, religious communities, and neighborhoods. Also, ever larger economic and government organizations have become increasingly alienated from the population. Alienation from these institutions has grown, as offenses against them have become more frequent and often accepted (Coleman, pp. 15ff). Many of the factors show the dialectic of modernization, which up to one point may contribute to decreasing crime but beyond that point to increasing rates. However, even highly developed industrial nations may not necessarily experience high and increasing crime rates in the late stages of modernity, as the Japanese case illustrates. The Japanese exception has been explained through control forms in that country that have been described as reintegrative shaming (Braithwaite).

The current wave of crime has, in some countries, contributed to punitive responses, a greater willingness to commit people to prison and (only in the United States) a revival of capital punishment. Yet in this research paper we have seen that crime is associated with basic factors of social development. Solutions to high crime rates in late modernizing societies may be sought in the manipulation of those societal conditions that have contributed to dramatically varying crime rates over time such as value commitment, social integration, and embeddedness in legitimate exchange networks (Savelsberg, 1999). States, of course, also appear to play an important role as social historians have shown. Violent crime did decline as nation-states were built (on the risk of state violence in overly centralized states, though, see Cooney). Yet crime rates in fully developed nation-states vary considerably over time and by place. What features of states inhibit or contribute to crime has not been fully understood. More research is needed. One important area of research would have to examine the impact of weakening nation-states under pressures of globalization on crime. The establishment of political and legal authority at the supranational level and their impact on crime should attract more research attention in the future.


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