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Race and Crime

Sociological Theory

During the early part of the twentieth century, sociological explanations of crime causation grew in popularity. The sociological approach emphasized the environment and social interaction as causal factors in the study of crime and delinquency, rather than individualistic biological and psychological factors. A collection of social scientists in Chicago is credited with starting this trend, and their cohort of researchers came to be known as the Chicago School.

Members of the Chicago School accused existing individualistic theories of myopic reasoning, and proposed a broader approach acknowledging how societal factors play a role in causing crime and delinquency. The social landscape in the United States was changing rapidly, as people left rural farm communities for industrial urban centers. No place better represented this migration than the city of Chicago. The city's population grew rapidly throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, and virtually every racial and ethnic group came to be represented in the Chicago demographic. Members of the Chicago School saw this rapid change as a major factor in causing crime and developed a number of theories to explain the relationship between various societal factors and crime.

Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay are most clearly identified with starting this line of inquiry. Their work in the area of social disorganization explained how areas characterized by poverty and constant social change experience a breakdown in a number of social institutions, such as the family, employment, religion, education, and community. This breakdown results in a weakened value system, and the ability of disorganized communities to discourage deviant and criminal behavior is compromised. Once this disorganized environment, characterized by social instability and crime, takes hold, it is difficult to eradicate, as the compromised value system and resulting crime are passed along to subsequent generations. Many minority neighborhoods experienced social disorganization and increases in crime, which explains the disproportionate representation of certain races in official crime statistics and the criminal justice system.

In addition to social disorganization, learning theory and differential association explain how society plays a role in causing crime. Once the seeds of crime are planted in a community, delinquents and criminals either directly or indirectly teach others how to commit crime and the criminal substructure is passed on to future generations. Researchers, such as Edwin Sutherland, Donald Cressey, and Ronald Akers, have made profound contributions by explaining how crime is learned. Some minority communities seem to experience a disproportionate amount of crime, and communities with a lot of crime are rich in learning environments for future criminals. Therefore, learning theory plays an integral role in explaining why some races are disproportionately represented in crime statistics.

Anomie/strain theories are also helpful in explaining this phenomenon. Researchers, such as Robert Merton, Albert Cohen, Richard Cloward, Lloyd Ohlin, Steven Messner, and Robert Agnew, have made profound contributions in explaining why some societies experience more crime than others. Some societies like the United States place a relatively heavy emphasis on monetary success without emphasizing the merits of legitimate means of achieving this end, such as hard work, honesty, and education. These societies are said to suffer from anomie or normlessness, and indirectly encourage their citizens to seek monetary success without adhering to legitimate means. People who have limited access to the legitimate means of achieving monetary success have to disproportionately resort to illegitimate means. Society generates and conveys an expectation of what represents "success," but does not afford all its citizens the opportunities necessary to achieve "success" via legitimate means. This gap between the legitimate means and societal goals produces a strain in the lives of groups and individuals as they actively seek what is deemed "success" by society. This strain can cause people to employ illegitimate means in the search for monetary success, or indulge in other deviant and criminal behaviors as a way of rejecting the stated expectations of society. Anomie/strain explain why some races, who are often not afforded the same educational, employment, and social opportunities as other races, are disproportionately represented in crime statistics and the criminal justice system.

Control theory also plays a prominent role in explaining why some races are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Control theorists, such as Travis Hirschi, Albert Reiss, Ivan Nye, and Walter Reckless, contend that numerous factors act to "control" human behavior. While control theories have been presented a number of different ways, the basic message is that some people, who have fewer or less effective controls, are more likely to indulge in unconventional behavior, which sometimes takes the form of crime and delinquency. Hirschi specified four types of control: attachment to others and caring about their perspective and wellbeing; commitment to conventional norms; involvement in conventional activities; and belief in the moral validity of conventional norms. Some people and some groups simply have more controls in their lives than others. Some groups seem to have fewer controls, which explains why some races are disproportionately represented in official crime statistics.

Out of the Chicago School blossomed numerous theories that explained how social factors play a role in producing crime and delinquency. Many of these social factors affect certain neighborhoods more than others, and as a result, affect certain groups disproportionately, so many neighborhoods are racially homogenous. The biological and psychological theories attempt to explain why some races are disproportionately involved in crime. Similarly, the sociological contributions go a long way in explaining what role environmental and social factors play in explaining this phenomenon. However, the approaches discussed thus far seem to ignore the pervasive economic and racial inequality that characterize the American experience.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRace and Crime - Data Sources And Meaning, The Nature And Direction Of The Race And Crime Relationship, Bio-psychological Theory - Conclusion