Lecture 8: Anomie and Social Process Theories of Crime

Welcome to the eighth lecture in the undergraduate criminology course of the University of Maine at Augusta. In readings and lecture this week, we briefly reconsider biological theories of crime before we start our deep dive into sociological theories of crime. Sociological theories of crime do not tie criminal behavior to mere genetics, and they do not insist that crime must make some kind of rational sense. Instead, sociological theories connect criminal behavior to the social environment — the culture surrounding individuals, the networks of social ties that communicate expectations for behavior, the extent of control over behavior exerted by individuals’ social environment, the organization of one’s neighborhood, and the power that flows through all of those environments. There’s a lot to cover here, and we’ll take our time to do it.

This week’s lecture assumes that you have read the first half of Chapter 7 in Frank E. Hagan’s Introduction to Criminology; if you are looking for a way to review while commuting or otherwise occupied, you may also find it useful to listen to Hagan’s special podcast recorded for this chapter. Our lecture subjects this week are:

Looking Ahead to Exam 2

The time is approaching for the second criminology exam, so let’s revisit the structure of exams in this course. The closed-book, pen-and-paper exam is scheduled for the period October 24 – October 28, it counts for 20% of your final grade, and you already should have taken action to arrange for the exam, as the course syllabus and our first lectures made clear. Specifically, you should have contacted the location at which you have signed up for an exam to arrange a specific day and time during the exam week which is practical for both you and the site staff. If you haven’t done this, you should do it right now. If you live close by, you may head physically in to the University College center nearest you. Otherwise, call the University College switchboard at 1-800-868-7000 to arrange a scheduling plan for the exam.

As you know from taking the first exam, there will be three kinds of questions on the second exam: multiple choice, definitions and short-answer questions (the sort that you should be able to answer in three sentences or less). No true or false questions, no matching, and on the other end of the complexity scale no essay questions either. I won’t test you on your memory of names or dates, since knowledge of those is trivial. What’s much more important is that you understand the facts, terms and theories you’re exposed to in criminology texts and lectures. You may be tested on all readings and lecture materials from Weeks 5 through 8. The second half of Chapter 7 is new material next week, and I will not test you on that material.

Another Look at Crime and Biology: Twin and Adoption Studies

In last week’s readings, textbook author Frank Hagan gave fairly short shrift to a tradition of research with far greater empirical support than phrenology or race-based Hootonism. Over decades, a consistent pattern in research results has suggested a biological link to crime through twin studies and adoption studies. The following video reviews the design and outcomes of twin and adoption studies, and considers what the consistent pattern in results implies for our understanding of crime:

Who’s a Criminal?

Last week, you were assigned the task of looking at this set of photographs of various people and guess whether they were convicted criminals. I worded the introduction to that assignment very carefully: “None of these people has been convicted of more than one crime, and some of these people have not been convicted of any crime.” I actually didn’t say that any of the people pictured had been convicted of a crime — and that’s because none of the people pictured have actually been convicted of a crime. Rather, the page I sent you to features official pictures of members of the United States Congress. Go ahead, cue the jokes about politicians being as good as convicted criminals — but if you follow these members through their daily lives in office, you’ll actually notice they are accorded a great deal of respect, deference and authority, the opposite treatment that we give to criminals.

Not one student noticed that these individuals are members of Congress (one of them is Maine’s 1st District Representative, as a matter of fact — can you figure out which one?).  A few students, however, rejected the notion of previous generations of criminologists that it is possible to tell who criminals might be just by examining their physical appearance…

  • “I think that it is impossible to tell who is a criminal and who is not simply from looking at them.”
  • I think ‘criminals’ come in all different shapes,sizes, and molds, but my guesses are as such:
  • “Assuming someone is a criminal or not based on their ‘appearance’ is SO wrong!  Just because someone dresses nicely in nice clothes does not mean they aren’t or are not capable of being a criminal nor does having old tattered clothes make someone criminal either.  However, that’s the whole point of this lesson I’m guessing……I’m really looking forward to seeing the correct answers in this exercise to see just who is and who isn’t a criminal from these photos and what crime they are guilty of.  Don’t make us wait too long!””

The last student hit the jackpot: one of the whole points of this lesson was to point out that when we’re primed to look for crime within a group of people, we’ll tend to assume a great deal of crime in others. Most students guessed there was quite a bit of criminal activity in this group of non-criminals.  One student wrote, “I think my husband may be on to something when he claims I watch too many crime shows.”  I think her husband may be right! The following is a graph in that shows how many students guessed what share of members of Congress were actually criminals:

Student Guesses about the Criminality of Members of Congress

No student made the correct guess: that none of these individuals is a criminal.  In fact, no student guessed that a quarter of fewer of the individuals were criminals. More than three-quarters of students guessed that a majority of those pictured were convicted criminals, a rate of criminality staggeringly far above the actual rate of criminal conviction among Americans. The high rate can be explained as a particular type of cognitive bias consistently found among humans, called “selective perception bias.” Selective perception bias is the tendency of people to perceive patterns in reality that they expect to see, even when those patterns do not exist. Conversely, thanks to selective perception bias, we tend not to see what we don’t expect (Guenther and Christen 2002). I didn’t tell you that any of these people were criminals. But asking students to look for convicted criminals, I set subtly but powerfully expectations, and students found convicted criminals, even where none existed.

Think for a moment about what other situations in our society creates an unspoken, subtle but powerful expectation that criminals are present. The same cognitive bias present in the completion of this classroom assignment can create serious problems when we look for criminals in real life — in court proceedings, in police lineups, and in police patrols. When we expect to find criminals, we may see them, even when they are not there. Because “criminality” is itself a socially defined term, this can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy — we find what we expect to find.

Another striking pattern in the pattern of guesses reinforces Frank Hagan’s contention that there is an “androcentric bias” in our perceptions of crime. The lineup of members of Congress reviewed in last week’s work featured 6 women and 12 men. Not one of these people, it is important to remember, have actually been convicted of a crime. Nevertheless, the men in the group were guessed to be criminals 18.2% more often than the women in the group.    These constitute gender-based prejudices regarding crime.

Finally, the kind of crime being imagined is overwhelmingly violent: 131 acts of violent crime were imagined, but only 38 acts of property crime were imagined. This is the opposite of the actual trend in the United States, in which property crimes happen far more often than violent crimes.

These patterns aren’t unique to this semester’s class; they’ve emerged repeatedly as I’ve asked these questions over the years.  Based on what we expect to see, we selectively perceive what we actually see.  For people placed before the eye of criminal justice professionals, this may be a significant problem.

Who are those placed before the eye of the police in America? Disproportionately speaking, people of color.  The tendency to identify criminality among people of color looked at with particular scrutiny, and to fail to identify criminality among white people who tend to escape special scrutiny, may explain why, even though young white people are slightly more likely than young black people to use marijuana (Johnston et al. 2014; ACLU 2013)…

Marijuana Use by 12th Graders, by Race/Ethnicity

Marijuana Use Among 18-25 Year Olds for Whites and Blacks

… and even though black adults are only slightly more likely than white adults to use marijuana:

Marijuana use by Adults, white and black

… nevertheless arrest rates for marijuana use, indicating intervention by the criminal justice system, are much higher for black people than for white people:

marijuanaarrestratesbyrace2001to2010

What is the Culture of Poverty?

If rational choice theories of crime insist that individuals commit crimes as the result of shrewd calculation (or as the result of some process that looks exactly like shrewd calculation), anomie theories insist that crime results from the breakdown of the upwardly-mobile, emphasis on individualistic rationality and the cultural embrace of other approaches and other concerns in areas of high poverty and great inequality. An entire generation of research has developed the idea that a distinct subculture — a “culture of poverty” in opposition to the cultural mainstream — is responsible for crime. Researchers in the “culture of poverty” tradition contrast mainstream ideals of opportunity, independence and optimism in low-crime neighborhoods to values of defeatism and dependence and in high-crime neighborhoods (Lewis 1961, 1968; Murray 1984; Ogbu 1981; Wilson 1987).

The starting point for “culture of poverty” theories is poverty. Over the past fifty years, income inequality has increased considerably in the United States, with the rich getting richer and the poor struggling to get by. The graph uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau to track the share of all income in the United States received by the lowest-income fifth of Americans, the middle three-fifths of Americans, the highest-income fifth of Americans and a special group, the five percent of Americans who earn the most. From 1967 to 2011, the period covered by this graph, there has always been a lowest-income fifth of Americans and a highest-income fifth of Americans; there always will be. But the top fifth has seen its share of all income increase, while the bottom fifth (along with the middle three-fifths) of Americans has seen its share of all income slide downward. The middle class and the poor, in the meantime, are getting poorer (U.S. Census Bureau 2015).

Oscar Lewis’ original theory of a culture of poverty focuses on coping strategies that emerge not only in reaction to individual poverty, but also in reaction to high poverty environments. Rather than subscribe to a system of beliefs leading inevitably to failure, residents of poor neighborhoods will subscribe to an alternative set of beliefs that, if not providing a means to success, at least are consistent with the experience of poor outcomes. These beliefs are articulated in your Hagan textbook with reference to Walter Miller’s theory of focal concerns. Notice that the idea of fate is associated with pessimism. While autonomy may be valued in high-poverty neighborhoods according to Miller, dependence is according to “culture of poverty” theorists a frequent experience and therefore a prominent concern.

Another way that a neighborhood may end up with a “culture of poverty” is that certain people who tend to be possessed with optimism a sense of accomplishment obtain success and are able to leave while their poorer neighbors, more likely to be pessimistic about their chances for individual success, remain. Wilson (1987: 137-138) argues that the departure of middle-class families from poor neighborhoods is also an exodus of resources which in turn leads to the collapse of the local institutions that sustain norms of individualistic aspiration and optimism. With the drain of money also comes a flowing away of hope in succeeding on society’s legitimate terms. One remaining alternative, as Robert Merton pointed out in his extension of anomie theory, is crime.

Differential Association Theory and Piracy

Your second reading for the week is Scott Wolfe and George Higgins’ “Explaining Deviant Peer Associations: An Examination of Low Self-Control, Ethical Predispositions, Definitions, and Digital Piracy.” This article is interesting because what it attempts to explain isn’t crime itself, but the prevalence of crime among friends. Specifically, Wolfe and Higgins wanted to know the answers to the following questions based in Differential Association Theory:

“How many of your best male friends copied software in the last 12 months without paying for it?” “How many of your male friends that you have known the longest have copied software in the last 12 months without paying for it?” “How many of your male friends whom you are around the most copied software in the last 12 months without paying for it?”
“How many of your best female friends copied software in the last 12 months without paying for it?” “How many of your female friends that you have known the longest have copied software in the last 12 months without paying for it?” “How many of your female friends whom you are around the most copied software in the last 12 months without paying for it?”

Respondents would answer with 1 for “none,” 2 for “just a few,” 3 for “about half,” 4 for “more than half” and 5 for “all or almost all” (Wolfe and Higgins 2009: 47). The authors added the resulting numbers up for all six questions.

The two most significant explanations the authors arrived at had to do with Ethical Predispositions and Definitions.

Ethical Predispositions were assessed by asking for agreement or disagreement (1 = “strongly disagree,” 2 = “moderately disagree,” 3 = “moderately agree” and 4 = “strongly agree”) with the following statements (Wolfe and Higgins 2009: 47-48):

1. “All individuals deserve equal treatment before the law.”
2. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
3. “To no man will we sell, or deny, or delay right or justice.”
4. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Definitions favorable to or opposed to digital piracy were assessed by asking for agreement or disagreement (1 = “strongly disagree,” 2 = “moderately disagree,” 3 = “moderately agree” and 4 = “strongly agree”) with the following statements (Wolfe and Higgins 2009: 55):

1. “I do not think it is okay to use copied software because it may create a negative image.”
2. “I think copied software helps people, include me, save money.”
3. “I think it is okay to use copied software to improve my productivity.”
4. “I see nothing wrong in giving friends copies of my software in order to foster friendship.”
5. “I think it is okay to use copied software if it improves my knowledge.”
6. “I think it is okay to use copied software because the community at large is eventually benefited.”
7. “I believe that copying software helps to increase my computer literacy.”
8. “I think it is okay to use copied software for entertainment.”
9. “I see nothing wrong with using copied software if it is badly needed for the success of a project.”
10. “I think it is okay to use copied software for research purposes, because everybody shares the benefits.”
11. “I think copying software is okay to punish software publishers who charge high prices.”

The notion of definitions favorable to or opposed to digital piracy should be familiar to you from Hagan’s textbook Chapter 7, which outlines the nine propositions of Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory. Sutherland proposes that people learn to embrace the law as a result of interacting with people who embrace the law, and that people learn to reject law as a result of interacting with people who reject law. Specifically, Sutherland’s sixth proposition in Differential Association Theory asserts that “a person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law.”

If Differential Association Theory is correct, then people who are surrounded in their social environment by other people who have rejected some aspect of law will themselves be more likely to reject the law. Is this true? Wolfe’s and Higgins’ paper is one attempt to answer that question. As part of this course, I’ve decided to run my own test. At the beginning of the semester, I posed a simplified set of related questions regarding copied software, and added references to copied movies, cheating on tests and plagiarized papers. Those questions were:

Question 15. To the best of your knowledge…

Have any of your best friends copied movies or software in the last 12 months without paying for it? _________
Have any of the friends you have known the longest copied movies or software in the last 12 months without paying for it? _________
Have any of the friends you are around the most copied movies or software in the last 12 months without paying for it? _________

Questions 17-18

Please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statement: “I think it is OK to copy movies without paying for them.”

Strongly Agree | Agree | Neither Agree nor Disagree | Disagree | Strongly Disagree | Not Applicable

Please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statement: “I think it is OK to copy software without paying for it.”

Strongly Agree | Agree | Neither Agree nor Disagree | Disagree | Strongly Disagree | Not Applicable

Because I asked you sensitive questions, I made sure that the answers you provided were not, and could not be, associated with your name. There’s no way you’ll get in trouble — so let’s move right on to considering the results.

Question 15 asks three “yes/no” questions. We’ll count the number of times a student answers “yes,” and the higher that count rises, the more we can say that a student is surrounded by others who define the law regarding copying of movies and software unfavorably. Questions 17 and 18 ask about a student’s own regard for the laws about copying movies and software. We’ll count whether a student is neutral or favorable toward breaking these laws (that is, selects “neither agree nor disagree,” “agree” or “strongly agree”).

Is being surrounded by those who reject these laws associated with the tendency of a student to reject the same laws? To get to the point, the answer appears to be yes. In more detail:

  • Of those who answered “no” to all three parts of Question 15, only 5.6% reported feeling neutral toward or supportive of copying movies, and only 11.1% reported feeling neutral toward or supportive of copying software.
  • Of those who answered “yes” to one part of Question 15, 33.3% reported feeling neutral toward or supportive of copying movies, and 16.7% reported feeling neutral toward or supportive of copying software.
  • Of those who answered “yes” to two parts of Question 15, 60.0% reported feeling neutral toward or supportive of copying movies, and 40.0% reported feeling neutral toward or supportive of copying software.
  • Of those who answered “yes” to all three parts of Question 15, 72.7% reported feeling neutral toward or supportive of copying movies, and 54.5% reported feeling neutral toward or supportive of copying software.

In short, the more that a student is surrounded by others who break these laws, the more a student considers the breaking of these laws in favorable terms. These results are consistent with Differential Association Theory.

TALK ABOUT IT: WHAT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY FOR SOCIAL FORCES?

In the above sections, we’ve discovered that those who are surrounded by criminal behavior are more forgiving of it. That’s a social rule, but now that we know it to be true, what does that mean for the responsibility of the person surrounded by criminal behavior to maintain a non-criminal mindset? After all, we know that like all cultures, a criminal culture (consisting of beliefs about harm and values about what is acceptable) is spread through socialization.  Do you expect a person surrounded by criminal culture to engage in anti-criminal culture? If so, how would that happen?  What cultural forces would counter that?

If, on the other hand, you believe that criminal culture is created by the experience of poverty, are anti-poverty efforts the best anti-criminal efforts? Or is poverty not to be remedied but rather the sense of diminished hope that comes from poverty?  Which matters more to you: the eradication of poverty or the eradication of crime?  Why?

Finally, as you ask yourself about the effect of culture upon the creation of criminal behavior, what role do you think culture has to play upon the creation of stereotypes about criminal behavior — stereotypes which come through in the pattern of responses to an assignment completed for this class?  If stereotypes lead to increased scrutiny, arrest, prosecution and incarceration, how can the self-fulfilling prophecy that ever strengthens our stereotypes be broken?

These are not hypothetical questions.  If we care about crime, they are real questions that face us today.  What are your answers?  Share them in the comments section at the end of this lecture.  Let’s start a discussion with the humility of knowing that generations of leaders have not reached a final answer to these questions.  Remember, if you would like your identity to remain private on this publicly-available lecture page, you should use a pseudonym or simply use the name “Anonymous.”

References

American Civil Liberties Union. 2013. “The War on Marijuana in Black and White.” https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/aclu-thewaronmarijuana-rel2.pdf

Guenther, Albert C. and Cindy T. Christen. 2002. “Projection or Persuasive Press? Effects of Personal Opinion and Perceived News Coverage on Estimates of Public Opinion.” Journal of Communication 52(1): 177-195.

Johnston, Lloyd D.,  Patrick M. O’Malley, Jerald G. Bachman, John E. Schulenberg and Richard A. Miech. 2014.  Demographic Subgroup Trends Among Adolescents in the Use of Various Licit and Illicit Drugs 1975-2013. University of Michigan: Institute of Social Research.

Lewis, Oscar. 1961. The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family. New York: Random House.

Lewis, Oscar. 1968. “Culture of Poverty.” Pp. 187-200 in On Understanding Poverty, edited by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. New York: Basic Books.

Murray, Charles. 1984. Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980. New York: Basic Books.

Ogbu, John. 1981. “Origins of Human Competence: A Cultural-Ecological Perspective.” Child Development 52:413-29.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2015. “Historical Income Tables: Income Inequality.” accessed September 2015 at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/historical/inequality/.

Wilson, William Julius. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner-City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wolfe, Scott E. and George E. Higgins. 2009. “Explaining Deviant Peer Associations: An Examination of Low Self-Control, Ethical Predispositions, and Digital Piracy.” Western Criminology Review 10(1): 43-55.

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