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From its inception criminology has been embedded in politics (Radzinowicz). Despite frequent claims to scientific objectivity, criminological inquiry has been defined and sustained by political concerns. Affinities between political orientations and explanations of crime have often been noted, and debates over theoretical differences have typically included references to such affinities. Indeed, pointing out the ideological assumptions and implications of theories has been a standard element in assessments of their worth—with or without regard for research findings.
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In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the idea of studying crime and criminals was closely associated with that of making governance more effective. European intellectuals saw the arbitrariness and cruelties of despotic rule as threats to social order. Their views were crystallized in 1764 by Cesare Beccaria, one of the Italian illuministi, who forcefully and concisely argued that punishment of offenders should be ‘‘public, necessary, the minimum possible under the circumstances, [and] proportionate to the crime’’ (quoted in Beirne, p. 38). By the 1830s the movement to rationalize governmental social control through law promoted statistical studies of the ‘‘dangerous classes’’ (ultimately leading to Cesare Lombroso’s search for ‘‘born criminals’’) and the mapping of associations between crime and various indicators of moral deficiency (for the detailed history see Beirne).
Until the 1960s, disagreements among criminologists centered almost entirely on how best to measure and explain the characteristics of people who ran afoul of the law, or who were statistically likely to do so. It was generally assumed that the goal of criminology is to learn what pathologies, individual and/or environmental, cause criminal behavior. That assumption was challenged by a growing number of ‘‘conflict’’ criminologists who argued (1) that criminality is defined by a lawmaking process influenced mainly by the more powerful classes in society, and (2) that the prime directive of law enforcement is to protect the interests of the higher classes, so that (3) the lower classes are more likely both to commit the kinds of acts legally defined as crimes (while the often much more harmful behaviors of the higher classes are not so defined) and to be labeled as criminals regardless of their behavior.
Where criminologists stand on the issues raised by traditional and conflict criminological studies largely determine the research questions they ask, and the theories they find most promising in looking for answers. Although the complexity of theories may sometimes leave them open to differing political interpretations and uses, there are affinities between conservative, liberal, and radical political orientations and major statements about crime causation.
Political Orientations and Theoretical Affinities
Each orientation is characterized by distinctive assumptions regarding (1) the nature of social order, both as current reality and as an ideal; (2) human nature; and (3) criminality and crime causation. Affinities between political orientations and specific criminological theories will be noted in considering those assumptions.
Conservatism and Restraining Defective People
Conservative ideologies assume that the ideal society is one in which authority is unquestioned. The hierarchy of wisdom and virtue is accepted by all as based on recognizing natural inequalities. Because human nature is basically egoistic, people need discipline—instruction for those with the requisite capacity, restraint for those lacking the capacity to understand. An approximation of the ideal is found in contemporary society, characterized by limited democracy and free market capitalism, which is basically sound. Unfortunately, society is threatened by defective people—individuals and population groups—who cannot or will not accept the authority and direction of their superiors, and resort to crime to profit from the labors of others. Criminals are predators, and their crimes are the results of pathologies of mind and body.
The influence of conservatism is evident in the politics of ‘‘law and order’’ (Scheingold). Fear of crime is promoted by focusing attention on heinous crimes and emphasizing the ‘‘failures’’ of rehabilitation, probation, and parole. The public is encouraged to believe they are threatened by a surrounding army of murderous psychopaths, epitomized in racial and class stereotypes (‘‘folk devils’’). Demonization of offenders is compatible with calls for ‘‘taking the handcuffs off the police’’ (i.e., reducing legal restraints and accountability, as in expanding their powers of discretionary search and seizure). At the same time, rights of the accused (and of the convicted) are constricted; and the ‘‘victims’ rights’’ movement is fostered—which goes beyond ensuring concern and support for victims and survivors, instead to promoting the demand for more severe penalties. Punishment in the name of deterrence is stressed, rejected are liberal calls for institutional reforms and greater investment in preventive and custodial treatment, support for the families of offenders, job training, diversion to community service, and other alternatives to punitive crime control policies.
Theories positing that criminal behavior must have some pathological sources are obviously most congenial with conservative thinking about crime and criminals. The search for criminogenic genes, glands, body types, minds, and personality traits has become increasingly more sophisticated in research designs and techniques, but the underlying assumption remains: there must be ‘‘something wrong’’ with lawbreakers, at least those whose offenses are heinous or repeated.
Biological theories suggest that the fundamental sources of psychological abnormalities, and thus of criminal behavior, are to be found in genetic or other organic defects and anomalies. The history of research along such lines is at best spotty and inconclusive, but studies such as those of Sarnoff Mednick and his colleagues encourage the view that genetic factors are involved in causing crime. Efforts to link crime causation to inferior intelligence, brain disorders, nutritional deficiencies, and glandular disorders have been similarly inconclusive. Still, the imagery of the inferior and inherently dangerous criminal is given wide currency, and fits readily the ideological assumptions of conservatism—and at the extreme, of racism.
Psychological theories of unconscious problems and failures in moral development have been compatible with conservatism insofar as they support the view that criminals are unable to resist their impulses. Similarly, theories emphasizing childhood emotional and material deprivations imply that it is probably too late for many offenders, whose limited capacities for healthy social interaction make it very unlikely that they can become normal law-abiding citizens. And though an enormous body of research comparing criminal and noncriminal personalities has failed to confirm significant and consistent differences, attempts to find such differences have continued. Such studies as those of Halleck, Yochelson and Samenow, and Gough and Bradley support the notion that criminals (at least serious persistent and violent ones) are sociopaths, or psychopaths, who have only contempt for others, unbounded egoism, no sense of responsibility, and no self-control.
Assuming that people are inherently egoistic, and thus criminally inclined, Travis Hirschi has offered a theory of internal social control to explain why everyone does not commit crimes. In its original formulation (considerably expanded in Gottfredson and Hirschi, pp. 85–120) his theory posited four social bonds that keep people from committing criminal acts: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. Strong attachments to parents and schoolteachers outweigh peer attachments, which are nonetheless significant in promoting respect for others. Commitments to such conventional norms as working hard to get ahead educationally and occupationally help to keep young people out of trouble, as does involvement in the kinds of activities required to achieve success. More abstractly, conformity is also the product of belief in the values of society, which means respecting its institutions and laws. To the extent that people fail to establish such bonds early in life, there is nothing in them to inhibit criminal behavior—that clearly implies the need for external restraint. External controls include both the detention and elimination of individual offenders and the manipulation of the social environment so as to reduce opportunities for crime and make its detection more probable.
If criminal types are presumed, the theories and research offering to identify them encourage the conclusion that little or nothing can be done to change criminals. For those who have not been ‘‘habilitated’’ in the first place, rehabilitation is a meaningless notion. Accordingly, the criminal threat must be dealt with by external controls. As noted above, conservatism favors ‘‘get tough’’ measures aimed at making the apprehension and incapacitation of offenders easier, and at making it as difficult as possible for crimes to be committed without risking detection, apprehension, and punishment.
Situational (‘‘opportunity’’) theories assume the existence of criminally motivated people, and promote efforts to learn what kinds of social environmental factors increase or reduce the opportunities available to them. Environmental theory (Brantingham and Brantingham) focuses on crime patterns, using mapping techniques to relate the location of criminal incidents to features of the social setting (e.g., the location of schools, businesses, recreational facilities; the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic; the availability of security personnel and devices; the racial, class, age, and other characteristics of local populations). Rational choice theory (Clarke) emphasizes the ‘‘choice-structuring properties’’ of specific types of crime, assuming that offenders choose to commit a particular kind of crime (e.g., theft) in regard to such factors as the number and accessibility of targets, skills, and resources needed to optimize the chances of success, the likely payoff, and the risks of injury and apprehension. Routine activities theory (Felson) predicts an incident whenever the everyday activities of people (such as going to school or work, shopping, attending recreational events) lead to the conjunction of a likely offender (someone intending to commit a crime), a suitable target (something or someone), an absent guardian (no one to see or prevent the act), and no personal handler (no associate to dissuade the offender).
Liberalism and Reforming Defective Environments
Liberalism assumes that the ideal society is one in which there is equality of opportunity and a general consensus to accept differences in rewards as the outcomes of fair competition. Social stratification is functional if based on merit, that is, differences in achievement; it is dysfunctional insofar as it is based on ascription (e.g., inherited status or other attributes independent of performance) or mere power differences. Contemporary society is basically sound, grounded in the principles of representative democracy and enlightened capitalism. However, there are structural and administrative problems in applying those principles. And illiberal racial and other prejudices remain to be eliminated. Though naturally inclined to peaceful and mutually supportive relations with others, people whose opportunities for enlightenment and achievement are blocked—by the organizational and operational shortcomings and cultural biases of social institutions—are at risk of falling into crime as they try to cope with the stresses imposed on them. The institutional shortcomings that cause stress, and therefore crime, are to be remedied by legal and social reforms.
Liberalism has had minimal success in challenging the dominance of conservatism in crime control policymaking. The efforts of its advocates have included: refocusing debate on the historical failure to give rehabilitation a fair chance; searching for the sources of crime in social environments instead of individual pathologies; redirecting budgeting decisions so as to reward lawful behavior rather than punish criminal behavior; examining the greater punitiveness of the American criminal justice system as compared to the systems of other advanced Western industrial societies; and providing the public with more accurate information about crime and criminals. All of these efforts have failed to overcome the conservative ascendancy (Currie; see also Stenson and Cowell, pp. 33–61).
Theories of crime emphasizing institutional sources of stress are obviously congenial with liberal ideology. Social disorganization or strain theories explain criminal behavior in terms of associations between crime rates and various indices of institutional malfunctioning or breakdown. An extension of social disorganization theory is ecological theory, which focuses on the negative effects of political and economic decisions (e.g., zoning, investment) on land use patterns, resulting in the deterioration of neighborhoods (Bursik and Grasmick).
The core notion of stress resulting from institutional defects is derived from the classic concept of anomie—referring to either the breakdown of social norms or, later, the discrepancy (notably in American society) between the cultural norms defining material success and how it is to be achieved, and the institutional barriers denying minorities and poor people opportunities to compete and succeed. The primary criticism of strain theory is that the stressful impact of institutional shortcomings has been assumed rather than demonstrated, and that the causal role of stress in causing criminal behavior has not been adequately specified.
Accepting the postulate that institutional deficiencies have stressful consequences, Robert Agnew offers a refinement of strain theory that identifies three types of stress that may lead to crime. First, stress may be caused by failure to achieve positively valued goals, such as material success. Second, it may result from the removal of positively valued stimuli (e.g., the actual or feared loss of someone or something valued). Third, stress may be caused by the presentation of negative stimuli—for example, experiencing child abuse, being a victim of a crime, being taunted or threatened. Each type produces anger, fear, or depression. The type of stress most likely to result in crime is anger, which increases the urge for revenge, helps to justify aggression, and stimulates action. Because people vary in their capacity to cope with frustration and anger, not everyone under stress will resort to crime. Whether criminal behavior is the ultimate outcome depends on the nature and degree of strain experienced in relation to the person’s capacity to handle it by noncriminal means.
Given that people are not naturally inclined to crime, it is assumed that they must learn both the attitudes and the behaviors necessary to commit crimes. Thus, there is an affinity between liberalism and social learning theories of crime causation. Differential reinforcement, operant conditioning, imitation, and the many theories of socialization and acculturation all begin with the assumption that criminals are made, not born (Akers). Therefore, understanding how people learn to be criminals is closely tied to explanations of how they individually and collectively are influenced by stressful environments.
Theories of criminal subcultures may explain how institutional barriers generate stresses on individuals who then band together to support one another in trying to cope— prototypically by forming gangs (explained in Albert Cohen’s famous statement as a process of ‘‘mutual conversion’’). More often, subculture theories begin with the assumption that criminal subcultures exist as a part of the malfunctioning social environment, adding to the consequent stress while at the same time offering at least some resources for coping with it (Sanchez Jankowski). At the extreme, a ‘‘subculture of violence’’ may in time emerge as populations react to the strains imposed by repression, exploitation, and discrimination (Wolfgang and Ferracuti).
Radicalism and Replacing Defective Societies
Whether left or right, radical ideology envisions the ideal society as one in which people— naturally creative and freedom-loving—are able to do as they please in going about their peaceful business, without interference by anyone— especially those claiming or representing some presumed higher authority. Contemporary society is viewed not merely as falling well short of the ideal, but as a massive obstacle, blocking progress toward it. Liberal democratic society is a sham, camouflaging social realities that are obvious in openly despotic societies—namely, political oppression and economic exploitation. Capitalism is institutionalized exploitation.
Stratification is intrinsically dysfunctional. The rich manipulate the poor so as to divide and conquer, by pitting workforces and races against one another. A common theme in rightist ideology is that racial and ethnic minorities are favored to keep more capable groups from becoming strong enough to challenge ‘‘the system.’’ To leftists, particularly those inspired by Marxism, class, racial, and other forms of discrimination are promoted by the ‘‘ruling classes’’ to keep the work force divided, thus more easily controlled.
The current social order is doomed, and will be replaced by a truly free society. Rightists emphasize moral deterioration, reflected in crime rates, as the harbinger of society’s political and economic collapse into war among racial and other groups fighting to survive. Leftists posit fundamental and ultimately fatal contradictions in the structuring of capitalist liberal democracy—for example, the inherent clash between capitalists’ interest in maximizing profits and workers’ interest in maximizing wages, as well as the contradiction between capitalists’ interest in minimizing labor costs and their interest in maximizing consumer purchases. The conflict between capitalists and workers encourages selfishness (‘‘possessive individualism’’) leading to acts of force and fraud in an insatiable quest for material gains.
Radical rightist ideology is most congenial with the same theories of crime causation found to have affinities with conservative ideology, especially those emphasizing biological and psychological abnormalities. Crime is distinguished from ‘‘acts of war.’’ Biologically, psychologically, and morally inferior human beings (most notably racial minorities) commit crimes. Governmental and corporate ‘‘goons’’ commit crimes in a war against survivalists and other rightists resisting tyranny. Resisters, on the other hand, are forced to commit acts of war, ranging from bank robbery and fraud to assassination and terrorism, in order to carry on the struggle.
Radicalism, particularly of the left, has had even less impact on crime control policymaking than has liberalism, which has led radical leftists to divergent strategies for accomplishing the replacement of contemporary society (Lanier and Henry, pp. 235–297; Turk). The major difference is between confrontational and incremental strategies. Classic instrumental Marxism and militant anarchism encourage an uncompromising confrontation with the political, economic, and intellectual defenders of liberal democratic capitalism. Whether reactive or provocative, militant defiance of authorities is assumed to be an effective strategy for bringing attention to the rottenness of the social order and to mobilizing public outrage and support.
Recognizing the limited success of confrontation (indeed its likelihood of reinforcing the conservative bias of public debate and policy on crime control), ‘‘left realists’’ and allied proponents of constitutive, critical, humanist, and peacemaking criminologies have adopted an incremental strategy of promoting short-term ‘‘progressive’’ measures to alleviate the immediate situational problems of the socially disadvantaged. In practice, this has meant overlapping and even cooperating with liberals. However, the ultimate objective remains the transformation of the current social order into the radical ideal of a society combining the best features of participatory democracy, socialist economics, and cultural emphasis on the free expression of human creativity.
Leftist radicalism not only has affinities with theories emphasizing the significance of social conflicts in crime causation, but also has directly inspired some of them. ‘‘Labeling theory’’ and ‘‘conflict’’ theories grounded in Marxism or anarchism have been developed not simply out of intellectual interest to understand the world, but with the aim of changing the world.
Labeling theory is based on the premise that definitions of crime, and of criminal responsibility, are socially constructed in interactions between more and less powerful people.
Emphasizing the problematic outcomes of creating and interpreting laws, and of applying them to individuals, labeling theorists such as Howard Becker and Edwin Lemert have concluded that individuals should, as far as possible, be shielded from the criminal process. It is argued that the experience of being treated and labeled as a criminal negatively affects the offender’s selfimage, with repeated experiences likely to result in an alienated and brutalized person whose identity is that of a criminal.
Marxist criminologists have generally moved from instrumentalism (positing a conspiracy model of political and economic capitalist domination) to structuralism (locating the mechanisms of domination and the sources of crime in the structuring and functioning of institutions). The theoretical contributions of William Chambliss (Chambliss and Zatz; Turk) exemplify the shift, and have contributed significantly to it. In brief, Chambliss argues that liberal democratic capitalist society has basic structural contradictions that are evident in the discrimination built into criminal and civil laws. The alienating impact of such institutionalized discrimination on the disadvantaged precipitates conventional street crime, while the relative immunity afforded the advantaged encourages white collar (including governmental) crime.
Beginning with a Marxist approach, Richard Quinney (see also Pepinsky and Quinney; Turk) has refined his views to set out a Judeo-Christian socialist theory, which posits the criminogenic impact of the conflicts of values fomented by the impersonal oppressiveness of the liberal democratic capitalist order. Nonviolent peacemaking measures are necessary to prevent or resolve the conflicts underlying criminal events. Violence and oppressive social institutions must be ended; people and institutions must become more compassionate.
Constitutive criminologists (Henry and Milovanovic) offer the most philosophically radical theory, linking the definition of criminality to the biases intrinsic to prevailing legal, criminological, and other languages of social control. Various types of critical ‘‘discourse analysis’’ reveal the discriminatory and repressive meanings of criminality contained and perpetuated in such languages. Crime causation is a highly problematic notion, neither determinate nor predictable in terms of measurable variables, and can only be inferred from the totality of all aspects of social reality.
Theories of Crime and Explaining Political Crime
Given that any theory of crime may be shown to have an affinity with some political ideology, it follows that any theory may be used for political purposes. In this general sense, therefore, any theory of crime is a political theory. And any form of crime may be given political significance. Indeed, radical criminologists have sometimes argued that all crimes are political, as are all theories of crime. And some theorists have offered explanations of crime (and criticisms of one another’s views) that obviously support conservative or liberal political perspectives and agendas. Their theories may thus be considered political theories (e.g., Wilson and Herrnstein; Currie).
An alternative conception of political theories of crime causation is that they are characterized by their emphasis on social conflict and power relationships. Although such theories, as we have seen, may be applied to any form of crime, they have not historically focused on explaining individual criminal behavior, but rather have focused on explaining variations in crime rates, and especially on the differing risks (among class, racial, and other population sectors) of being labeled as criminal. Insofar as the criminal justice system is seen as an instrument of political control or repression, the politicization of all crime is implied. More narrowly, it is occasionally argued that political crimes, as such, are especially amenable to explanation by labeling and conflict theories; but the counterargument is that any theory with an affinity to a political ideology can be invoked to account for political criminality.
Given affinities between political ideologies and crime causation theories, it may be conjectured that the more explicitly political the theory, the more likely it is to assign political significance to criminality. Theories having affinities with conservatism and radicalism appear to be more likely than theories with affinities to liberalism to explain crime and criminals in political terms, whether as threats to political stability or as resistance to political oppression. As previously noted, theories having affinities with conservative images of crime and criminals tend to encourage the view that crime threatens the political order, while radical Marxist theories assert or imply that crimes may either be acts of accommodation or resistance, to oppression or oppressive acts by agents of governmental and corporate domination (Quinney). In any event, how theorists define and explain political criminality, and what policy options are favored, vary with whether their theories have greater affinities with conservatism, liberalism, or radicalism. Accordingly, conservatives will assume the pathology of political offenders (especially violent ones), liberals will assume that political offenders are mostly normal but misguided people who are reacting to the stresses imposed on them by faulty social institutions, and radicals will assume that political offenders are reasoning people who perceive and resist the oppressive and exploitative nature of liberal democratic capitalist society.
This research paper provided an overview of the various political theories of crime, which may be summarized as follows:
- Criminology has always been a politically oriented discipline.
- Differences among theories of crime causation are associated with their affinities with conservative, liberal, or radical political ideologies.
- Any crime may have political significance, whether as a source or a consequence of political instability.
- Explanations of political crimes are not necessarily the province of labeling and conflict theories but may be derived from any theory.
- Every theory of crime causation is at bottom a political theory.
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