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Criminology: Modern Controversies - Explanations Of Crime—social Distribution And Causation

gangs communities poor level

Scholars from several disciplines and professions focus on different levels of explanation as they study and theorize about crime and criminals, and participate in control efforts. These differing perspectives give rise to often bitterly contested disagreements concerning the causes and correlates of crime. The macrosocial level of explanation seeks to determine what it is about the structural conditions and cultural variations of societies, communities, and organizations that explains variations in crime rates among them. The individual level seeks explanation of the criminal (and other) behavior of individuals, focusing primarily on biological and personal variations among individuals, only occasionally seeking to understand how macro-level phenomena influence the behavior of individuals. Until late in the twentieth century macro-level perspectives were fairly clearly associated with social sciences such as sociology, anthropology, and political science, as were individual-level perspectives with psychological and psychiatric disciplines. Distinctions between disciplines became blurred when scholars began to realize that their disagreements often were the result of the sorts of questions they were asking; that they were often "talking past each other" as they contested explanatory principles and processes.

Several developments offer the hope, if not the promise, that disciplinary hegemony with respect to crime causation will further erode. Integrative theories necessarily must take into account both macro- and individual-level variables and processes. Emphasis on behavioral contexts brings into focus a third level of explanation that has heretofore been neglected: the microsocial, comprising both characteristics of situations and ongoing interactional processes (Short,1997). Bridging theoretical levels remains, nevertheless, difficult and contentious.

Theoretical and empirical controversies exist at each level of explanation. Two long-standing controversies seem especially important because they cut across levels of explanation: (1) the role of poverty in crime; (2) the nature and role of youth groups and other collectivities in delinquency, violence, and other criminal activity.

Clearly, poverty does not cause crime. The vast majority of poor people are law-abiding. Yet poverty is associated with crime, and social class and other stratification variables often associated with poverty figure prominently in theories of crime.

Controversy centers on measurement, methodological, empirical, and theoretical issues. Examination of the reliability and validity of measures of crime has generated a large body of research and interpretation. Challenges to the adequacy of official records have led to innovations in such records, such as the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reports, as well as to self and victim reports, the latter having been institutionalized in the form of the National Crime Victimization Surveys in the U.S. and in similar systems in other countries. Researchers often triangulate such measures, and supplement them with observational studies in order to achieve better representations of the nature of criminal activity. Measures of the correlates of crime—including poverty and social class—and of processes associated with criminal activity, are equally controversial (Hagan). Much depends on the assumptions and theoretical linkages that are made by those who study these relationships. We first examine Douglas Massey's interpretation of possible consequences of "concentrated affluence and poverty in the twenty-first century" (p. 395).

Massey's broad historical review notes that the industrial revolution radically changed both the amount and the distribution of wealth, leading to increased density of both affluence and poverty and behaviors and problems associated with each. Citing population trends and research on the ecological distribution of crime in U.S. cities, Massey argues that, in the future, the affluent and the poor will be increasingly segregated spatially, and separated socially. Because social separation typically results in cultural differentiation, crime and violence will increase among the poor, leading to further withdrawal of the affluent and greater isolation of the poor, in an accelerating cycle of alienation between social classes.

Massey's bleak scenario (which he deplores, but advances in hopes of galvanizing preventive research and action) depends on several assumptions: (1) the continuation of world trends toward urbanization; (2) increased urbanization will lead to increased segregation of the affluent from the poor; (3) crime and violence in poor communities will lead to further protective measures by the affluent, such as gated communities; and (4) that poor communities will be left to cope with disorder with only their own diminished resources. The first of these assumptions seems quite likely, and the second may well be. As Massey acknowledges, however, the last two are by no means inevitable. The association of urbanization with crime is also controversial (Gillis). Moreover, the Chicago research by Sampson and others suggests that proximity of poor communities to those that are more affluent is advantageous to poor communities' "collective efficacy" with respect to children. Collective efficacy (social cohesion among neighbors and willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good) is, in turn, linked to reduced violence in those communities (Sampson et al., 1997).

These arguments are not necessarily incompatible. Sampson and his colleagues suggest "that residents take a more active role in child supervision and intergenerational exchange when others around them are doing likewise" (p. 647). To the extent that the more affluent seal themselves off from the poor, with gated communities and other security measures, this spillover effect may not obtain.

Time and place limitations of these studies make resolution of controversy impossible. Thus, Sampson and colleagues find that residential stability, as well as concentrated affluence, are important to collective efficacy, and that the advantage of these relationships characterize white neighborhoods to a greater extent than black neighborhoods. Future interethnic, interracial, and social class relationships, as well as residential stability, remain quite uncertain. In addition, global urbanization and its impacts vary greatly along many dimensions, and will continue to do so as a result, for example, of different levels of technological development among nations and cities, access to global markets, political regimes, institutional, and structural and cultural traditions—each of which will influence crime and its control.

The nature and role of youth groups. Despite decades of research demonstrating that most delinquent behaviors are committed by young people in the company of others, the nature of youth groups and their role in such behaviors remain controversial. In large part this is due to the lack of a theoretically viable typology of youth collectivities—most notably, gangs. So confusing are the varying criteria used by law enforcement officials, academics, and the media even to define gangs that many who study phenomena so loosely grouped under that rubric do not use the term, referring instead to "cooffending" (Reiss; Reiss and Farrington), "bands of teenagers congregating on street corners" (Skogan), "unsupervised peer groups" (Sampson and Groves), "networks" of juveniles who violate the law (Sarnecki), or simply "delinquent groups" (Warr, 1996). Clifford Shaw and his colleagues, whose early work inspired much of the subsequent research and theory concerning gangs, had little to say about gangs (Shaw; Shaw and McKay; Shaw and Moore). Instead they emphasized patterns of friendship, association of younger with older offenders, and the coexistence in "delinquency areas" of organized crime and other forms of adult criminality. Even Frederic Thrasher's classic 1927 study presents a bewildering variety of descriptions of groups among the 1313 gangs he studied.

The goals of gang researchers vary, often determining the research methods they employ. The most common method used to count gangs in communities, for example, is to seek reports from police departments (Maxson and Klein, 1996; Curry et al., 1996; Moore and Terrett, 1999). Although this is reasonable, given the universality of law enforcement presence in communities, police resources and gang intelligence vary a great deal. It is significant that some participants in the Second Eurogang Workshop (an ongoing project involving researchers from many countries) asked specifically that planned surveys of gangs in their countries not be limited to inquiries of the police.

The consistency of police reports of gang activity suggests that street gangs have spread to many cities and rural areas throughout the United States; yet, many questions remain. For example, although violence accompanies the spread of gangs in nearly all reporting areas, the reported prevalence of other forms of criminal behavior varies greatly. Little is known about such variation. Nor is there agreement concerning criteria for classifying gangs and other youth groups. How, for example, do gangs relate to drug crews, "wilding" groups, milling crowds, networks involved in delinquency, "tagger crews," punks, socker hooligans, skinheads, bikers, and so on (Cummings and Monti; Klein)? Diversity of gangs—their behavior, organization, inter- and intra-gang relationships and relationships with their communities—hinders generalizations about them. Moreover, gangs change, as researchers who have studied them over time attest.

Police knowledge about change and diversity is variable and uncertain. Importantly, ethnographic studies document variations and changes that are not found in police reports. The age range of many gangs, especially among gangs in inner-city areas of the United States, has changed. Street gangs in some cities in the United States and Europe no longer consist entirely of adolescents, as many older members—unable to find attractive legitimate employment, or finding illicit sources of income attractive—remain active, often in leadership roles. Patterns of gang ethnicity vary among nations and change in response to patterns of immigration and settlement.

Ordinances targeting gang members also raise constitutional issues. Courts have in some cases upheld such laws, but some have been ruled unconstitutionally vague and restrictive (City of Chicago v. Morles). Sociologically, researchers note that gang membership may become a "master status" for police and others, and that it may serve to justify prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behavior toward minorities (Miethe and McCorkle 1997; Roleff ).

Although it is clear that violence among adolescents is not always attributable to gangs, however they are defined, both surveys and field observations in a variety of settings suggest that similar forces often are associated with the emergence and maintenance of gangs and other violent collectivities. They also share group and collective behavior processes that help to account for diversity and change, and for continuity in the forms taken by such collectivities.

Several characteristics are common to virtually all serious studies of gangs. Gangs are groups whose members meet together with some regularity, over time, on the basis of group-defined criteria of membership and group-defined organizational characteristics; that is, they are non-adult-sponsored, self-determining groups that demonstrate continuity over time. These elements do not include the characteristic of primary interest to law enforcement, that is, criminal behavior. Police are unlikely to be knowledgeable about all of these elements; nor should they be expected to be. Note, also, that defining gangs in this way avoids the logical inconsistency of including in the definition the behaviors that require explanation. Arguments that study of variations in criminal orientation and involvement among gangs avoids the tautology beg important questions regarding the conditions under which a criminal identity is acquired by gangs. Resolution of controversy concerning youth groups is unlikely, absent greater conceptual clarity and theoretical rigor.

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