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Asked by sensualman | Dec 5, 2007 | KS1 Level > Sociology > Homework
sensualman asks:

how functionist and social in teractionist and conflict theorist differ in their analyses of crime

etutor answers:

A very big question! The three perspectives you mention are very broad schools of thought. There are also overlaps, as will become clear in what I have written below. Essentially, functionalists consider crime to be dysfunctional - i.e. a threat to order and thus to the survival of the social system. Subcultural theory is a branch of functionalism and tends to focus on working class deviance from what are seen as established social norms. Interactionism denies that there is agreement over what forms of behaviour constitute crime or deviance, and instead focus on why certain groups are more likely to be defined or classified as criminal or deviant. The key approach here is generally described as labelling theory. For conflict theorists, who often tend to adopt a Marxist approach, crime is a product of capitalism and the class struggle, with the structures and institutions of society largely determining how people behave - so crime is systematically generated by the economic structure of capitalist society.

Below I cover some of the main theoretical approaches under all these headings, often focusing upon the issue of youth criminality, since most sociologists seem preoccupied by it.

The starting point is perhaps cultural transmission theory. Cultural transmission is the process by which a set of values that allow crime and deviance to take place are passed on through generations. This idea was developed by Shaw and McKay, who suggested that in the most disorganised and poor areas of cities, successful criminals provide a role model for younger generations. They argue that this younger generation is socialised into believing that criminal behaviour is normal and easily achieved. The functionalist sociologist, Merton, criticises the theory of subcultural transmission through use of his own Strain Theory. Merton suggests that people are socialised into wanting particular things, such as nice houses or cars. However, plenty of people lack the means to achieve these goals. It is this that causes a strain in the structure of society (I.e. there is a conflict between what people have been socialised to expect and what they can realistically achieve through legal means) which leads people to crime and deviance in their attempt to find an alternative route to gaining what they want. Sutherland and Cressey developed Differential Association theory, criticising cultural transmission theory for being too vague. They suggest that individuals are more likely to become involved in criminal activities if they receive positive definitions from others around them. This means if people socialise with others involved in criminal activities, they are likely to imitate them. It is possible that people who provide the definitions for the individual are family members (especially where there is no male role model) or, more likely, peer groups (younger people tend to be particularly impressionable - and also prone to rebellion against authority), and they are then socialised into believing crime and deviance are the norm. The theory relies very heavily upon the group nature of crime, and also implies that youths are able to keep community bonds in places where adults cannot.

Cohen drew on Merton’s strain theory to develop Status Frustration theory. Not all crimes are committed for economic gain - for example, vandalism. Cohen suggested that working class boys strive to copy middle class norms and values, but lack the means to achieve success. This leads them to believe that they are failures. Hence they reject 'normal' behaviour, and in an attempt to cover humiliation and to gain status they engage in crime and anti-social behaviour. There is a link with education - the negative labelling of working class boys within the education system would increase the probability of their failure, adding to the feeling of worthlessness and resulting in crime and deviance. Often then the aim is the achieving of instant gratification. The lack of educational success on the part of many working class youth means they look for other avenues to success (material and status-based); their status frustration leads to a delinquent sub-culture, in which a high value is plaed on stealing and vandalism, which necessarily involves antagonistic relationships with the police. Delinquency (and gangs) is seen as a means of acquiring status in a more accessible form, and to hit back at a system that has branded people as failures. Later work saw deviancy as a way of reconciling competing cultures - working class (stress on solidarity and community) and middle class (stress on ambition and opportunity). Hence the importance of creating an image (especially true of younger people), which gives individuals (and their groups) status - so deviancy and the resistance that accompanies it becomes a ritualised solution to cultural contradictions.

Cloward and Ohlin developed Illegitimate opportunity structure theory, based largely on Merton’s strain theory, but arguing that Merton failed to consider the existence of an illegitimate opportunity structure i.e. the possibility of an illegal career in some subcultures. They suggested that an illegal career was readily available for some individuals, and provides easier illegal means of obtaining social goals. Criminal subcultures exist where there is an established pattern of organised adult crime, so young people grow up in a learning environment with criminal role models. One of the things they learn is to mistrust the police; the greater the contact with the police, the greater the scope for mistrust becoming hatred. There are three main adaptations within the illegal opportunity structure:: Criminal (where there are successful role models for younger children to imitate), Conflict (where there is no career opportunity, and instead small social groups turn to violence against other small social groups), and Retreatist (where there is no career opportunity whatsoever, nor the ability to take part in violence. The result is the individual turns to alcohol or drugs). One criticism is that the work disregards female deviance. The third form of sub-cultural reaction - i.e. retreatism - is all that is left for people unable to engage in criminal or conflict behaviour. This accounts for the retreat into alcohol and/or drugs. The authors also stress the key role of schools as 'a cockpit of delinquency'.
The problem with both of the above studies is that they are derived from a functionalist view of society, which of courses stresses a consensus of values, and in particular the acquisition of monetary success. An alternative view is that society in reality consists of different social classes, each with its own distinctive set of values. So Miller argues that delinquency is an attempt by male adolescents to conform to the values of 'lower class' culture - and this explains the search for excitement, the macho masculinity and the fatalistic view of life. Often it is a reaction to boring work (or school) or unemployment.

Becker argues that certain groups are labelled by society as 'deviant', often via stereotypes. So, for example, some middle class youth who, say, take drugs, join the 'deviant' group and accept the deviant identity, hence increasing the scope for conflict with the police. The same might be true of young working class males who reject formal education (and certainly beyond the age of 16) and therefore behave in stereotypical ways (street gangs, excessive drinking, etc), hence drawing the police's attention to themselves.

Cicourel claims there is an inbuilt police bias against young people in groups, especially if they are from ethnic minorities; hence more police time and effort is focused on such groups rather than elsewhere (e.g. on middle class financial swindles). So the police are much more likely to view young people as delinquent; they are therefore much more likely to be stopped, searched and interrogated, especialliy in inner city, low income areas with high crime rates. They are also more likely to be arrested, charged with an offence, and prosecuted. This is all the more likely at times of media 'moral panics' when a great deal of attention is paid to robberies, assaults, muggings, car jackings and vandalism, all crimes associated with young males in particular. This accounts for the 'hatred' of the police found in many cases, and particularly where those apprehended are doing nothing unlawful. So there are stereotypical perceptions on both sides. It is made worse by the fact that ethnic minorities are severely under-represented in the police force, which then adds a racial dimension to the hatred where ethnic groups are involved.

Marxists focus on the break-up of traditional working class communities and the decline in manufacturing industry as a source of employment, hence putting the emphasis on the consumerism associated with capitalism. Teenagers often cannot afford the (heavily advertised) fruits of consumer society. So teddy boys/punks/etc don't simply reflect traditional working class values (as Miller suggests), and neither is this simply a means for school failures to gain status among their peers (as Cohen suggests). Rather their behaviour should be seen as a continuing tradition of working class resistance to domination.

The biggest problem with all sub-cultural theory is that it is hard to establish whether or not the distinctive meaning systems of the various subcultures are in reality those attributed to them. So, for example, when skinheads beat up Pakistanis or gays, or football hooligans smash up trains, sub-cultural theorists would tend to interpret this behaviour as a threat to shared community values or an expression of traditional stereotypes of masculinity. But the behaviour is just as easily interpreted as highly conformist (indeed over-conformist), and reflecting the dominant norms and attitudes in society towards race and sex, rather than as resistance to dominant values. In other words, society is itself racist and sexist, and the deviant group simply fives this racism/sexism more explicit, and often violent, expression.

I hope you can see what I mean about overlaps!

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