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Class and Crime

Shifts In Focus

In the 1940s and 1950s there was a shift in focus in criminology. The first aspect of the shift came when Edwin Sutherland introduced the notion of "white collar crime" to call attention to offenses committed by high status people in conjunction with their occupations. As he saw it, this occurred in two ways. Some high status individuals, acting alone, engaged in large-scale theft by embezzlement or fraud. In addition, groups of high status individuals, acting in concert, engaged in what he called "corporate crime." This frequently involved corporate efforts to reduce competition through some form of price-fixing. It sometimes involved the intentional manufacture and sale of toxic or dangerous products. Thus, "white collar crime" shifted the focus from the poor to the wealthy and is sometimes used to argue against the notion that poverty increases most forms of crime.

A second shift in focus came at about the same time when some criminologists fixed their attention on young people and on middle-class delinquency. Two research procedures were important in this shift. One was the development of self-reported crime studies (Nye and Short). The other was the use of techniques that required researchers to spend time with and observe the actions of middle-class young people. Both of these developments led investigators to conclude that there was a great deal of unreported criminal and delinquent conduct committed by middle-class children. Interest in the observation of middle-class children waned but interest in confessional studies was strong in the 1960s and 1970s and remained strong through the end of the century.

Almost all of the self-report studies used samples of young people in school who were assured of anonymity. Some national samples of minors were selected along with a few studies of adults. In some studies, the children were interviewed more than once and some were followed into adulthood. Most of these studies found weak or nonexistent links between social class and juvenile delinquency or crime. However, some studies using national samples to measure the frequency of self-reported delinquency found that lower-class youth reported nearly four times as many offenses as middle-class youth and one and one-half times as many as working-class youth (Elliott and Ageton).

In trying to reconcile the conflicting results of a number of individual-level confessional studies with those comparing area characteristics with area crime rates, some questioned the accuracy, representativeness, and scope of the surveys. Others played down or ignored the problems presented by the survey approach and concluded that the impact of social class on crime was a myth (Tittle, Villemez, and Smith).

In 1979, John Braithwaite published a careful review of a large number of area and confessional studies and a balanced discussion of the advantages and limitations of each. After reviewing studies carried out through the mid-1970s, he concluded that lower-class children and adults commit the types of crime handled by the police at higher rates than middle-class children and adults. On the "myth" of the class-crime relationship, he warns us "be wary of reviews that pretend to be exhaustive but are in fact selective" (p. 63).

Braithwaite also discussed a related shift in focus that called attention to discrimination in the system of justice. In general, researchers focused on police or court bias and argued that most of the differences in economic background that appear when offenders were compared with people in the general population do not reflect a difference in criminal conduct but reflect biases in the operation of the system of justice. After a lengthy review, Braithwaite felt in 1979 that the tide of evidence was "turning against the assertion that there is an all-pervasive bias against the lower class offender in the criminal justice system" (p. 143).

These shifts in focus and the development of national crime victimization surveys in the 1970s prompted some criminologists to play down or dismiss official measures of crime as biased and misleading. While this approach made it easier to reject the class-crime link shown in most studies of official crime data, it created a need to rely more heavily on surveys, anecdotes, estimates, and ideology in discussions of the topic. In addition it led some to conclude that victimization surveys are more accurate sources of data on crime than police records. Such a focus ignores the great absence of information on suspects and offenders in the victimization data and the many other limitations of the approach. National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) results are reported only for the country as a whole. And only a small set of offenses are used. Even then, the sizes of the samples used make the responses on rape, for example, very shaky. No information is collected on homicide.

However, the NCVS does identify each victim's reported income. These data usually suggest that low-income respondents are more likely to report being victims of burglary and assault than high-income respondents. Unfortunately, the NCVS collects very little information on the offenders involved. Still, the social class of the victims and the characteristics of urban residential patterns suggest that the offenders are also people with low incomes.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawClass and Crime - Definition Of Crime, Measuring Crime, Definition Of Class, Early Work, Shifts In Focus