Running Head: Crime and Society CCJ18
Crime is the result of individuals making choices to commit crime; it is not the result of their social circumstances. Discuss this statement. This paper will address sociological theories relating to why a person becomes a criminal. It has been suggested that a person may commit certain crimes for economic reasons and to provide for their families. Their personal circumstances and status in society might be the reason why a person feels their only option is to engage in criminal behaviour. Using empirical research demonstrating some reasons working class and upper-middle class convicted criminals have given for choosing to commit their crimes (Willott, Griffin, & Torrance, 2001) as well as identifying reasons why an individual may commit a violent street crime (Silverman, 2004), it will be argued that while society does influence the decisions a person makes, ultimately it is the individual’s choice as to whether they abide by the law or break it. Criminal offences can range from something as minor as a speeding ticket to more serious crimes like burglary, white-collar crime and violent crimes.
In fact it has been said that minor crimes occur so frequently that they can actually be viewed as normal. (Howitt, 2009). Theories surrounding why a person may commit a crime range from genetic reasons such as Eysenck’s biological theory of crime through to learned processes for example Bandura’s social learning theory or Sutherland’s differential association (Howitt, 2009). Some criminologists have claimed that social factors are completely irrelevant and people choose how to behave. Mehlkop and Graeff (2010) for example, have cited Becker and his view that criminal behaviour has nothing to do with an individual’s social status and that choosing to engage in criminal activity is a rational process whereby a decision is made in order to benefit the offender one way or another. Conversely, Robert Merton has claimed that people living in low socio-economic environments may resort to obtaining money and basic
Crime and Society CCJ18 needs through criminal means as legal opportunities are scarce (Bessant, & Watts, 2007). If it is to be assumed that a person’s social circumstances do determine whether or not they become criminal then it can also be assumed that those who are more financially privileged would have no need to commit crime in order to meet their financial needs, but as Willott et. al (2001) have demonstrated, this is not the case. In their 1999 study, Willott and Griffin identified that working-class men excuse their criminal behaviour by claiming sole responsibility for providing for their families. In semi-structured group interviews with working-class offenders the men identified that legitimate ways to earn an income were scarce, they had been let down by the State, and that they were forced to engage in some types of crime to provide for their families.
These men felt as if they are not real criminals, and it is the State and the government who are the real criminals by not providing them with opportunities to earn a legal income. They believed they were victims of circumstance. Interestingly, upper-middle class men who were interviewed in the same way excused their behaviour similarly. Willot et. al. (2001) discovered that these men used a similar excuse of having to provide for others, except in these circumstances the men felt that not only did they have to provide for their own families, but for the families of their employees too.
Like the working-class men, they shunned responsibility off themselves and blamed the legal system for their criminal status, believing that they should have received some sort of special treatment and their trials should not have been heard in the same courts as ‘real criminals’.
Like the working-class men, they believed they were victims of circumstance. Arguably, any adult with a family has a responsibility to provide for that family and would feel stress and pressure to provide adequately yet not everybody resorts to providing through criminal means (Slovenko, 2007). The men’s reasoning for their criminal activity
Crime and Society CCJ18 cannot be justified by their social circumstances. Both groups of men from different socio-economic backgrounds have chosen to engage in crime, no matter what their reasons are. Mehikop & Graeff (2010) identified rational choice theory where it is claimed that all crimes are thought through logically and specific laws are broken for very definite reasons designed to benefit the offender. They have stated that ‘actors choose a certain action if they positively evaluate it and if they expect their peers to advocate this behaviour’ (Mehlkop, & Graeff, 2010 p.195). This appears to be the case with the men in Willott et. al.’s studies. and it can be argued that this type of crime is not the result of their social circumstances, but rather an active decision that the individual has made.
While similarities in economic crime are apparent throughout different social conditions, other types of crime such as violent crime and property crime are more prevalent in poorer communities and these types of crime could occur more frequently as a result of social conditions. In the USA in 2000, violent crime made up around twenty-five per cent of all crime with the majority of these acts taking place in poorer communities. Silverman (2004), identified that the majority of these attacks were not for financial gain but rather for status.
The offenders commit assaults and robberies in order to create a reputation that they are to be feared or respected thus becoming less likely to be victims of violent crime themselves. Silverman identified three personality types in these violent communities. The ‘Streets’ who are very likely to involve themselves in violent acts as they perceive these acts as being beneficial to their reputations, ‘Decents’ who would rather not be involved in these types of activities but may become involved in order to protect themselves from falling victim themselves, and the ‘Weaks’ who would never engage in any type of violent crime.
Crime and Society CCJ18 Silverman has noted that the Weaks simply cannot engage in violence and have no choice to make about whether or not they get involved. Although it is not stated directly, this implies that the Streets and the Decents choose how to behave and is indicative that although the social circumstances of these people does influence their decision to commit a violent offence, it is ultimately still a thoughtful decision that they make. Actively choosing to partake in criminal activity stands in direct opposition to Paternoster and Pogarsky’s (2009) claims that people who are able to think in a thoughtful and reflective way are able to make better long term decisions and therefore not likely to be involved in criminal activity.
They claim that those who take part in thoughtfully reflective decision making are able to see alternative options to an action they may be considering and therefore will chose to behave legally. The Decents in Silverman’s study do not demonstrate this reasoning. They understand that if they do not build a reputation of fear and respect for themselves then they will fall victim to crime regularly as the Weaks do, and a criminal conviction is favourable to this although they may not think that their behaviour is acceptable (Silverman, 2004).
Additionally, this theory doesn’t relate to people who have committed traditionally higher-class crimes such as tax evasion or white-collar crime, which invariably take a lot of thoughtful planning and preparation (Mehlkop, & Graeff, 2010). Suggesting that every criminal act is a well thought out decision would be imprecise. Mundane crimes which have low visibility to the average person such as traffic offences or public order offences generally occur impulsively and may be due to genetic factors such as low self-control or learned behaviour (Gibbons, 1983). Claiming that a person becomes criminal by choice is quite a conservative view as demonstrated by law professor Ralph Slovenko (1999). He states that there
Crime and Society CCJ18 are many people who live in poverty and the majority of these people do not break the law for their own benefit, but more controversially suggests that one person might choose a criminal career in the same way another may choose a professional career. Both Willott & Griffin (1999) and Silverman (2004) have identified that some of the criminals that they studied would rather live a legitimate lifestyle and justify their actions as being a means to an end and they may not have broken the law under different financial or social circumstances.
They do not believe they chose a life of crime as Slovenko has suggested. To say that a person’s social circumstances will determine whether or not they become deviant is too much of a black and white view. In Willott et. al.’s 1999 and 2001 studies, both working-class men and middle-class men cited the same reasons for committing economic crime although their social circumstances are very different. In addition, Silverman has claimed that the Weaks in his study have no choice in their actions but the Streets and the Decents do, even if they do not like what they are doing.
Perhaps the Decents would choose to behave differently in a less harsh social environment but there is no evidence in this paper to support this. Furthermore, Mehikop & Graeff (2010) have identified rational choice theory claiming that those who have broken the law have chosen to in order to benefit themselves and as Slovenko rightly points out, not everybody who is under financial pressure resorts to law breaking. This is not to claim that a person’s social circumstances do not influence their lifestyle in anyway whatsoever, but it is certainly not the penultimate factor in determining what has made a person criminal.
Crime and Society CCJ18 References Bessant, J., & Watts, R. (2007). Sociology Australia, 3rd edition. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin. Gibbons, D. C. (1983). Mundane crime. Crime & Delinquency, 29(2), 213-227. Howitt, D. (2009) Introduction to Forensic and Criminal Psychology 3rd Edition. Essex: Pearson Education Limited. Mehlkop, G., & Graeff, P. (2010). Modelling a rational choice theory of criminal action: Subjective expected utilities, norms and interactions. Rationality and Society, 22(2), 189-222 Paternoster, R., & Pogarsky, G. (2009). Rational choice, agency and thoughtfully reflective decision making: The short and long-term consequences of making good choices. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 25, 103-127
Silverman, D. (2004). Street crime and street culture. International Economic
Review, 45(3), 761-786.
Slovenko, R. (1999). Criminals by choice. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 43, 248-249
Willott, S., & Griffin, C. (1999). Building your own lifeboat: Working-class male
offenders talk about economic crime. The British Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 445-460.
Crime and Society CCJ18 Willott, S., Griffin, C., & Torrance, M. (2001). Snakes and ladders: Upper-middle
class male offenders talk about economic crime. Criminology, 39(2), 441-466.
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