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Crime Causation: Sociological Theories

Critical Theories

Critical theories also try to explain group differences in crime rates in terms of the larger social environment; some focus on class differences, some on gender differences, and some on societal differences in crime. Several versions of critical theory exist, but all explain crime in terms of group differences in power.

Marxist theories. Marxist theories argue that those who own the means of production (e.g., factories, businesses) have the greatest power. This group—the capitalist class—uses its power for its own advantage. Capitalists work for the passage of laws that criminalize and severely sanction the "street" crimes of lower-class persons, but ignore or mildly sanction the harmful actions of business and industry (e.g., pollution, unsafe working conditions). And capitalists act to increase their profits; for example, they resist improvements in working conditions and they attempt to hold down the wages of workers. This is not to say that the capitalist class is perfectly unified or that the government always acts on its behalf. Most Marxists acknowledge that disputes sometimes arise within the capitalist class and that the government sometimes makes concessions to workers in an effort to protect the long-term interests of capitalists.

Marxists explain crime in several ways. Some draw on strain theory, arguing that workers and unemployed people engage in crime because they are not able to achieve their economic goals through legitimate channels. Also, Marxists argue that crime is a response to the poor living conditions experienced by workers and the unemployed. Some draw on control theory, arguing that crime results from the fact that many workers and the unemployed have little stake in society and are alienated from governmental and business institutions. And some draw on social learning theory, arguing that capitalist societies encourage the unrestrained pursuit of money. Marxist theories, then, attempt to explain both class and societal differences in crime.

Institutional anomie theory. Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld's institutional anomie theory draws on control and social learning theories to explain the high crime rate in the United States. According to the theory, the high crime rate partly stems from the emphasis placed on the "American Dream." Everyone is encouraged to strive for monetary success, but little emphasis is placed on the legitimate means to achieve such success: "it's not how you play the game; it's whether you win or lose." As a consequence, many attempt to obtain money through illegitimate channels or crime. Further, the emphasis on monetary success is paralleled by the dominance of economic institutions in the United States. Other major institutions—the family, school, and the political system—are subservient to economic institutions. Noneconomic functions and roles (e.g., parent, teacher) are devalued and receive little support. Noneconomic institutions must accommodate themselves to the demands of the economy (e.g., parents neglect their children because of the demands of work). And economic norms have come to penetrate these other institutions (e.g., the school system, like the economic system, is based on the individualized competition for rewards). As a result, institutions like the family, school, and political system are less able to effectively socialize individuals against crime and sanction deviant behavior.

Feminist theories. Feminist theories focus on gender differences in power as a source of crime. These theories address two issues: why are males more involved in most forms of crime than females, and why do females engage in crime. Most theories of crime were developed with males in mind; feminists argue that the causes of female crime differ somewhat from the causes of male crime.

Gender differences in crime are said to be due largely to gender differences in social learning and control. Females are socialized to be passive, subservient, and focused on the needs of others. Further, females are more closely supervised than males, partly because fathers and husbands desire to protect their "property" from other males. Related to this, females are more closely tied to the household and to child-rearing tasks, which limits their opportunities to engage in many crimes.

Some females, of course, do engage in crime. Feminist theories argue that the causes of their crime differ somewhat from those of male crime, although female crime is largely explained in terms of strain theory. Meda Chesney-Lind and others argue that much female crime stems from the fact that juvenile females are often sexually abused by family members. This high rate of sexual abuse is fostered by the power of males over females, the sexualization of females—especially young females—and a system that often fails to sanction sexual abuse. Abused females frequently run away, but they have difficulty surviving on the street. They are labeled as delinquents, making it difficult for them to obtain legitimate work. Juvenile justice officials, in fact, often arrest such females and return them to the families where they were abused. Further, these females are frequently abused and exploited by men on the street. As a consequence, they often turn to crimes like prostitution and theft to survive. Theorists have pointed to still other types of strain to explain female crime, like the financial and other difficulties experienced by women trying to raise families without financial support from fathers. The rapid increase in female-headed families in recent decades, in fact, has been used to explain the increase in rates of female property crime. It is also argued that some female crime stems from frustration over the constricted roles available to females in our society.

There are other versions of critical theory, including "postmodernist" theories of crime. A good overview can be found in the text by George Vold, Thomas J. Bernard, and Jeffrey B. Snipes.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCrime Causation: Sociological Theories - Strain Theory, Social Learning Theory, Control Theory, Labeling Theory, Social Disorganization Theory, Critical Theories