Conflict theories have their roots in radical political movements such as Marxism and anarchism. Since the 1960s, they have also been influenced by the feminist and anti-racist movements as well as post-structuralism and anti-imperialist theories.
Conflict theorists argue that the roots of modern crime problems are linked with those of modern capitalist economies. Capitalist societies, which are founded on a broad division of labor and highly stratified with vast disparities of wealth and poverty, are grounded in often sharp conflicts. As a system based on economic inequality, capitalism has long been characterized by profound struggles over social resources and political decision making. The central conflict occurs between those who own and control property and resources (the bourgeoisie or capital class) and those who have to sell their labor to survive (the proletariat or working class). Extreme differences between “haves” and “have-nots” give rise not only to conflict, but also to sociopolitical institutions that serve to regulate that conflict, typically in ways that secure the success of elites and dominant classes. For conflict theorists, the criminal justice system is a mechanism for enforcement of elite social control and the preservation of economic inequalities to maintain elites’ interests.
Conflict theories argue that the state ministers largely to capitalist interests. Agencies of government target not only the underclass for enforcement of policies, but the working class as a whole. Working-class crime is more visible, whether it takes the form of school crime or street crime. In addition, working-class people lack access to the necessary resources to get away with “invisible crimes,” such as fraud, tax evasion, insider trading, or influence peddling.
Capitalist ideology even conditions the very ways in which crime is perceived– that is, largely in terms of an ethic of individualism that separates the understanding of social problems from their social structural contexts of inequality and power. Individuals, who are presented abstractly without reference to specific histories and experiences, are blamed for acts and attention is diverted from the socioeconomic structures in which the acts take place and are perceived. Institutions within capitalist societies, such as government, the media, the police, and the courts, tend to individualize highly complex issues and depoliticize the emergence of deviant activities by referring such activities back to “damaged” or deviant individuals who are in need of treatment or punishment. Indeed, for conflict theorists the very notion of “the individual” is a recent modernist notion.
Conflict theories are often contrasted with “consensus theories,” which suggest that the basis for society is social consensus–an unspoken general agreement on broad social issues. For conflict theorists, notions of consensus serve to cover up or diminish inequalities and relationships of power that determine, or at least condition, the social opportunities, capacities for decision making, and positive action within people’s lives. Consensus suggests that decisions made by powerful and influential members of society–those individuals and groups who have the resources needed to influence social development in a way that benefits their interests–are willfully accepted or agreed to by those lacking power. Where non-elites contest or challenge inequality, their efforts are often met with criminalization, oppression, or repression.
In fact, for conflict theorists, it is not consensus, but rather something more akin to fear or compulsion that drives social action. In this manner, elites are able to assert that their very particular interests are synonymous with the interests of society as a whole, largely because opposition is marginalized or silenced. This construction of particular elite interests as “common interests” is a process that some conflict theorists term “hegemony.” Drawn from the writings of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, hegemony refers to the manner in which dominant groups are able to condition non-elites to accept their subordinate status. Media theorist Noam Chomsky modifies this concept to speak of the “manufacture of consent,” as elites are able, largely through mass media but also through schools, to secure and maintain the capacity to govern over subordinate groups. For conflict theorists, consensus theories of crime and deviance serve this process of hegemony by deflecting attention away from social structures of inequality and power, which conceivably might be opposed and changed, and toward the failings of individuals, who are targeted for punishment or medicalization.
Conflict theorists prefer to focus on elite deviance, involving acts that are socially, economically, and ecologically harmful, rather than on minor street crimes and the nuisance activities and survival strategies of the poor. They also reject short-term disciplinary approaches administered by the state, such as police, prisons, and punishment. Instead. conflict theorists emphasize restorative justice and reconciliation via community-based processes such as healing circles–a process that brings victims, offenders, and community members together to seek mutual understanding and restore social relations.
Powerful groups are able to mobilize public opinion on behalf of their interests. The law is itself created by economic elites who control the production and distribution of major resources in society, including intellectual and educational resources. Legislators are influenced by powerful segments of society through lobbying groups, political action committees, and campaign contributions.
Dominant groups shape public perceptions of crime and its definition. As a consequence, focus is shifted to “street crimes” and the crimes of working-class youth, such as drug use, petty theft, shoplifting, and minor assault, rather than to corporate crimes or government crimes, which are the crimes committed by elites. Dominant institutions also create “worthy” and “unworthy” victims of crime. Affluent victims receive more press coverage; minority and low-income law breakers are more likely to be publicized as criminals than are corporate leaders, whose crimes may actually be more harmful to individuals, society, and the environment.
Perpetrators of corporate deviance, who profit from unsafe working conditions for their employees, the release of dangerous toxins into the air and water, the sale of faulty products, and fraudulent business practices, among other acts, present ongoing economic, social, and physical threats. Yet those responsible for such activities rarely appear in the media or court records. They receive far less attention than deviant youth, whose actions may be much less harmful. The crimes of major corporations, where they are given attention, are typically dealt with through less visible and less punitive civil procedures rather than criminal trials. Whereas school crime and deviance undertaken by working-class youth become the subjects of moral panics and strict policing and have relatively large amounts of social resources directed toward stopping the offending behavior, corporate crimes receive relatively little media focus, public outcry, or legislative response. Conflict theorists question why it is that the waters are being filled with harmful chemicals, yet attention is directed toward arresting youth for minor drug offenses.
For conflict theorists, authorities should not be assumed to be acting on behalf of society at large, but rather serving their own interests and acting on behalf of other dominant groups. According to this view, rather than being expressions of general will or social contract, laws are methods for a privileged group to oppress or exploit an underprivileged one. Laws against theft, squeegeeing, or squatting prevent a redistribution of social wealth, a point that is highly relevant given that most crimes are actually property crimes.
Conflict theories emphasize that some people and groups wield power and are able to make their definitions of situations stick, whereas others lack this capacity. Thus the definition of deviance is a form of social control exerted typically by more powerful actors over less powerful actors. As part of this process, authorities (the dominant) learn norms and practices of domination, while subordinates (subjects) learn norms and practices of deference.
Conflict theorists do not take rules and regulations as given, but rather view them as part of a sociopolitical process. Labeling of crime and criminals is part of a process of conflict that excludes subordinate actors, particularly poor and working-class youth, from social participation or from power. It can marginalize those who challenge or reject the status quo that leaves them in positions of unequal status.
According to this perspective, the key factor is relative power. Within capitalist societies, the poor have the least power. Thus we might expect them to have the highest rates of criminalization, which is not to say that they exhibit the highest rates of deviance or crime. This understanding helps to explain, for conflict theorists, why poor African American youth are the most criminalized group in North America and are given the most negative attention by the state.
Conflict theorists argue that contemporary criminalization processes work to ensure that those who are brought within the criminal justice system are typically of the lowest socioeconomic standing. Deviants, in a society that demands material accumulation, are those who are not succeeding or who do not accept their diminished status. The poor are more likely to be arrested, formally charged, go to trial, be convicted, and receive harsher sentences. Poor communities are often treated by government and police as though they are enemy territories subjected to sustained and intrusive surveillance.
For conflict theorists, working-class youth within capitalist divisions of labor are socialized, from early ages, to accept subordinate positions within society, including unsatisfactory labor within jobs that offer little satisfaction and few opportunities for personal growth and advancement. Without that socialization, which is a necessary part of the process of hegemony, working-class youth would rebel and pose a challenge to the inequalities of the status quo social relations and their place within them. Numerous studies from within conflict perspectives, including the work of Peter McLaren and Paul Willis, explain how public schools are structured to prepare working-class youth for manual labor. Part of this preparation includes the targeting and punishment of recalcitrant youth who rebel against the bleak prospects that their futures are deemed to hold. Such subcultures become markers for resistance against the apparent gap between the promise of upward mobility and the reality that this is beyond working-class youths’ reach.
To quell this rebellion, authorities wield formal rules and laws and informal normal discourses to reintegrate working-class youth within the dominant structures of inequality.
- Rieman, J. (2006). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class and criminal justice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Taylor, I., Walton, P., & Young, J. (1988). The new criminology: For a social theory ofdeviance. London: Routledge.
- Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. Aldershot: Gower.