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Modernization and Crime

Theorizing Crime Increases During Rapid Modernization

How can we explain such trends in periods of rapid modernization? What accounts for the differences between these experiences and the decline in violence during the long-term European civilizing process? Classic sociological theorists and contemporary research suggest potential explanations.

Robert K. Merton's strain approach, recently revived for an explanation of newer U.S. crime trends (Messner and Rosenfeld), appears applicable to the post-Communist situation (Savelsberg, 1995). We expect rates of crime to increase with the proportion of people who have internalized material goals but do not have access to legitimate means of achieving them. The breakdown of communism (just like rapid development elsewhere) tends to be accompanied by intense hopes for economic improvement. Yet the economic situation has deteriorated for many groups in formerly state socialist societies. Basic goods have become much more expensive, unemployment rates have soared in some countries, and pension payments have been cut or fallen victim to high inflation rates (Gerber and Hout). In addition to material hopes, democracy and political liberty do not simply appear when so ordered by proclamation or constitutional change. Frustration with political conditions is widespread. John Hagan and others demonstrate in an empirical analysis of survey data on post-unification Berlin youths how East Berlin youths were much more exposed to anomic aspirations than their West Berlin counterparts. Related periods of rapid transformation are typically associated with a massive loss of legitimacy of major government and economic institutions. Recent research for the United States has provided evidence that such loss of legitimacy may result in increases in crime rates (LaFree).

Durkheim's classic argument and contemporary extensions provide further theoretical orientation. Durkheim discusses the trend of modernizing societies from segmentary to functional differentiation. He argues that segmentary differentiation is associated with mechanical solidarity, a fundamental agreement on norms and values shared by all members of society. This collective conscience is likely to be weakened in modernity. Individuality grows and traditional bonds loose their effectiveness. Yet, Durkheim does not assume a necessary breakdown of social order as mechanical solidarity is replaced by organic solidarity. Anomie, the lack of normative orientation, is only likely to occur under two conditions. First, functional differentiation is imposed by force. Second, modernization occurs at a speed that does not allow for new forms of association to develop (see Lewis Coser in his introduction to Durkheim, 1984). This argument is of particular interest for societies that undergo modernization as they emerge from autocratic rule. Totalitarian political systems typically repress civil society. They instead impose a set of organizations from professional associations to labor unions to youth organizations, all under the control of a centralized political leadership. The dissolution of such associations leaves a dramatic vacuum in social organization.

Only some elements of social organization prevail, some adverse, others welcoming to crime. Hagan et al. demonstrate how East Berlin youths are somewhat protected from engaging in excessive delinquency as they are, more than their western peers, embedded in tight social networks that provide massive social capital. Such networks were either an intended result of Communist policies, for example in schools that more strongly fostered community than western schools; or partly an unintended consequence of a state in which an omnipresent police, aided by secret police and informant systems (Shelley), played a central role. In a world characterized by mistrust in the public sphere, people withdrew into small social networks of trust, often centered on close kin. These networks continued to exert a sense of social control according to Hagan et al. (1995). They appear to initially dampen the crime wave that accompanied the end of communism.

Other survivals of the authoritarian, specifically Communist past direct our attention to the concept of partial modernization. From this perspective crime waves after totalitarianism may be less explained by the features of modernity but by surviving structural elements of the totalitarian past in the context of modern institutions. First, the demise of communism neither resulted in the eviction of the old elite (nomenklatura) from leading positions in politics and industry nor in the elimination of old networks between members of the former elite. The continuation of such networks provides fertile ground for corruption (see media reports, e.g., The New York Times, 9 September 1999, pp. A1, A14; 15 September 1999, p. A8; 7 October 1999, pp. A1, A6; 19 October 1999, pp. A1, A8). A second survival from the Communist era, especially in Russia, is organized crime. Under conditions of a centrally planned economy, segments of organized crime often played a central role in the shadow economy; they filled in where central plans could not satisfy demands. In the transformation period organized crime benefits from the insufficient functioning of new market institutions and from involvement with corrupt practices of members of the former nomenklatura (Handelman).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawModernization and Crime - Definitions: Complex Phenomena, The Long-term European View, Rapid Modernization In The Twentieth Century