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Outline and assess the role of the police in the social construction of crime (50 marks) Essay

Social construction refers to the way in which crime and deviance in society might be created and shaped by society and social institutions. This can occur in a number of different ways. For example, they can influence public perception and definitions of what establishes crime and deviance, deviants or non-deviants. They can also influence the amount of crime in society by amplifying it therefore clamping down on it. They can add pressure for changes in legislation which can then alter definitions of crime and can criminalise activities previously regarded as legal. They can also influence the extent, trends and patterns of recorded crime in how they operate.

Interactionism is an action approach which views society in a micro perspective. It argues that the definitions of deviance and normality are social constructions and are relative, meaning it will depend on a range of factors such as the time, place and social context in which the act takes place whether the behaviour is defined as a crime or deviant.

Marxism is an example of the conflicting view as they argue that the law and social rules reflect the interests of the rich and powerful groups in society who have managed to impose their ideas and way of thinking on the wider population through coercion and ideological control. Therefore they are able to get their assumptions of crime to stick as opposed to the opinions of an ordinary person on the street.

Functionalism however argues the consensus view that law and norms about acceptable behaviour in any society are simply a reflection of the wider collective conscience and these laws and social rules are created and enforced to the benefit of everyone. Therefore deviance is behaviour that breaks these agreements on what is acceptable. Functionalists view this defining process as straightforward and objective.

The police are an institution that is assigned the duty to enforce the law and take action to those breaking these rules, in order to achieve order and safety in society. They are therefore considered as having a key role in the social construction of crime. The main way the police display this is through the use of discretion in the enforcement of the law. This refers to when police officers have to apply their own judgement to decide which laws are suited for the given circumstance. The choices individual police officers make would be greatly influenced by their own concerns and interests. Colman and German found evidence in their study which showed that there were individual racist police offers who apply the law more harshly to certain ethnic minorities.

Reiner also suggested an explanation on the basis of police discretion which refers to culture. It is noted that the police force are overwhelmingly white males. Officers work long hours in each other’s company, being largely isolated from the public. This therefore results in the development of a very specific occupational culture. This is referred to as ‘canteen culture’. Skolnick suggested three of its components. The first being suspiciousness. This talks about the fact that officers, whilst carrying out their training, are taught to discriminate between ‘decent people’ and ‘potential troublemakers’. According to Reiner, they categorise and stereotype certain people as ‘police property’. For example, they regard young males, particularly youths from ethnic minorities as potential troublemakers. A second component is internal solidarity and social isolation.

This causes police officers to rely on one another in terms of support when physically threatened and when denying accusations made by the public. Lastly, conservatism refers to those who join the police in the first place are rarely politically radical. However while the job of policing emphasises a non-political attitude, police officers must uphold the law; it also upholds the traditional values and nature of the state. There is a strong sense of conservative values evident in the police. A final component of masculinity was suggested by Graef. He noted how most police officers are male and drawn from the working class. Their culture therefore ultimately reflects traditional working class values of heavy drinking, physical prowess and heterosexuality. Racial stereotyping is also heavily emphasised and linked with assuming the role of the police officer.

Cicourel attempted to discover what deviance is by examining the way in which some acts and individuals become defined or labelled as deviant. Cicourel therefore looked how a young person is defined as delinquent. The first stage is a police officer deciding to stop and interrogate the individual based on meaning held by the policy about what is ‘suspicious’ or ‘unusual’. These can be related to particular geographical areas for example. If the individual portray themselves as the ‘typical delinquent’ in ways they speak and in their demeanour, they are more likely to be arrested. The second stage applies if the young person has been arrested, resulting in being referred to a juvenile (probation) officer. The suspect’s background is then looked at. Coming from a ‘broken home’ and showing bad attitude towards authority are factors that would increase the likeliness of them being charged with an offence.

Cicourel identifies how social classes can alter the way the juvenile probation officer would consider their choice of action. When a middle class juvenile is arrested they are less likely to be charged with an offence due to their background not fitting the typical criteria of a delinquent. Moreover, middle class parents are better able to negotiate successfully on their child’s behalf.

Due to this, middle class juvenile is often defines as ‘ill’ or accidently straying from the path of righteousness, allowing them the chance to reform. Middle class juvenile are more likely to be released with just a warning. Cicourel concluded that justice is negotiable and his theories reveal the power and control both the police and the juvenile probation officer have over a young individual’s life. This therefore implies that it is these two agents who contribute towards the social construction of crime as they are given the authority to select certain individuals and undergo the process of labelling them as deviant.

Taylor, Walton and Young however criticise Cicourel’s conclusion as he fails to explain how subjective meanings held by the police and juvenile probation officers of the ‘typical delinquent’ originate in the first place.

Marxists agree with considering the police as a key agent in social construction of crime and deviance but they believe it reflects the ideology of ruling class. Gordon argues that crime is rational and individuals must fend for themselves in order to survive. This is particularly true of the American poor as America has minimal welfare services compared to many other advanced societies. Gordon stated that most crimes in the USA share the similarity of representing rational responses to the competitiveness and inequality of life in capitalist societies.

Gordon argues the law enforcers in the USA support the capitalist system in three ways. Firstly they select members of the subject class and punish them as individuals – they are viewed as ‘social failures’ and responsible for their criminal activities. By placing this focus on an individual, it draws away from capitalism which is primarily responsible for their criminal deviance. Secondly the imprisonment of members of the subject class is a way of eliminating those who may have shown opposition to the capitalist society – reducing the opposition of the system.

Finally by imprisoning the criminals who are ‘enemies of the state’, they are sweeping away an embarrassing extreme outcome of capitalist society. If something was done to help these people, if their difficult situations were made public then it would throw doubt on the capitalist society – as it produced them initially. This reflects the idea that enforcers of the law serves to maintain ruling-class power and ideology. Therefore suggesting that the police and courts exert their power and control to further strengthen the ruling class and continue to force submission of the subject class. The laws and the ideas of crime and punishment are argued to have been constructed based on the ruling class’ preferences.

It is also argued that the police are not a significant factor of the social construction of crime and the informal agent of social control which is media has a greater influence. The media shape wider social definitions of what is criminal and deviant. They can also configure the public’s perceptions and fears in terms of what they choose to report and how they choose to represent this. This therefore implies that what is considered as deviant is linked to the influence that the media has on the public, causing them to react in a certain way. The police can therefore be argued as just victims of the media as it pressures them to act against these negative social groups which have been categorised as public enemies, and if they don’t choose to take action, the reputation of the police could be threatened.

‘Moral panics’ is a concept used to describe the media’s reactions to particular social groups or acts that threaten societal values. Their reaction is often out of proportion to the real threat and puts pressure on authorities to control the problem. Marxists believe that moral panics serve an ideological purpose. Stuart Hall studied the media coverage of black muggers in the 1970s and concluded that it served the purpose of dividing the working class, diverting attention away from the mismanagement of capitalism by the ruling class and justified severely restrictive laws and policing that could be used against other problem groups. Stuart Hall’s theory however is criticised for being too deterministic and ignoring the centre of activity.

Functionalists would argue the influence of the role of police in the social construction of crime is wrongly exaggerated. They would describe the police as having a close relationship with the local area being policed. Therefore the role of the police force is being to represent the shared interests of the majority of law abiding people to defend them against the minority of offenders. They would disagree that the enforcements made by the police are revolved around the interests of the ruling class as they argue that police officers are drawn up from the community therefore ultimately reflecting its characteristics. They also believe that individual offenders are caught as a result of complaints made by the community not due to the individual police officer’s view and attitudes affecting the decision.


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