Social structure theories bring a sociological (rather than biological or psychological) approach to studies of crime and deviance. Instead of focusing solely or primarily on individuals, these theories seek to explain how individuals are situated within and experience larger-scale social institutions such as schools, government, the labor market, cultural industries, and the criminal justice system. Over the years, theorists have proposed mainstream or consensus theories of social structure as well as critical or conflict theories of structure. According to mainstream or consensus theories, social structures serve to regulate and socialize individuals to conform to dominant social norms, rewarding some behaviors while penalizing others. In contrast, according to critical social structure theories, social, economic and political power serve as barriers that impede, constrain, or shape what is possible for people in specific societal contexts, largely based on characteristics such as class, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.
Mainstream or consensus-based social structure theories trace their roots to the work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). For Durkheim, crime was a social rather than psychological phenomenon and the product of a specific kind of social order. Specifically, according to Durkheim, a society without shared norms and values will function poorly. Societies are regulated by a conscience collective–that is, shared norms, beliefs, rituals, and customs–that holds their diverse members together, providing a shared worldview or value system that defines acceptable and unacceptable social behaviors. This framework shapes and regulates social interactions. For Durkheim, small-scale societies, such as horticultural or agricultural societies, with a low level of social differentiation and a minimal division of labor, where the majority of society share similar life experiences, exhibit the strongest and most durable conscience collective and, therefore, have the fewest occurrences of crime and deviance. Within industrial capitalist societies, which are characterized by a broad and diverse division of labor, the conscience collective is more difficult to sustain given the great social and cultural differences and the vast disparities in wealth and social opportunity. A breakdown of shared values, increased by a growing division of labor, leads to what Durkheim called anomie, or a condition of normlessness. Anomie results in increased crime, deviance, and suicide rates.
Durkheim’s work has informed a range of social structure theories, including the influential work of Robert K. Merton and Albert Cohen. During the 1950s and 1960s, structural theories represented the dominant sociological perspective on crime and deviance. First among these was Merton’s “strain theory.” According to Merton, individuals in capitalist societies such as the United States share essentially the same cultural goals–namely, wealth, status, and financial success, collectively dubbed the American Dream. These goals are encouraged and reinforced by the major social institutions, such as schools, government, media, and corporations. In turn, culturally preferred and encouraged means to achieve these goals are defined–education, hard work, thrift, and personal sacrifice. These become culturally valued attributes or practices, expressed in notions such as the “work ethic.”
Of course, people have differential means available for achieving these culturally supported goals. Some have blocked opportunities, perhaps because of class location or socioeconomic status, but also because of race, ethnicity, or gender discrimination. As a consequence these individuals are unable to achieve their goals through legitimate means. Society offers members of different social groups very different institutional means of achieving its proscribed goals, such as unequal opportunities for education regardless of ability, fulfilling work, or financial aid. Strain develops from this means-end discrepancy between culturally encouraged goals and structurally available means for achieving them; if intense enough, it can result in deviance. A gap between effort and reward makes it impossible for some people to set realistic, achievable goals or to plan legitimate ways of achieving their goals.
AccordingtoMerton, individualsrespondtothisstraininone of five ways. First, they may engage in conformism, in which they accept the socially encouraged means and ends. These individuals stay in school and sacrifice to become economically successful. The second option is Innovation, in which people accept the goals of wealth and status but reject the socially approved means of obtaining those goals. An example would be drug dealers or corporate criminals who pursue illegal means or cheat to achieve financial success. The third option involves ritualism, in which people become attached to the means but lose sight of the goals. A “professional student” or middle management bureaucrat might be considered examples of ritualism. The fourth possibility is retreatism, in which people reject both the means and the goals. A dropout or someone who pursues subcultural activities might be an example of this response. Finally there are rebels, those individuals who reject the socially defined goals and means but seek to replace them with alternatives. Revolutionaries, anarchists, and countercultural activists would exemplify rebellion. According to Merton, persons of lower socioeconomic status are most likely to experience greater strain and, therefore, to engage in deviant acts, perhaps taking the form of as retreatism or innovation.
Many theorists have developed structural theories building on Merton’s work. Albert Cohen focused specifically on working-class youth. He presented the notion of status frustration to explain higher rates of delinquency among youth from less wealthy backgrounds. In his view, frustration results from the fact that poorer youth lack sufficient access to legitimate means to achieve their goals and recognize their limitations. This recognition is expressed in social frustration, and a sense that they will be punished no matter how they behave; it is acted upon through acts of deviance.
Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin suggest that marginalized youth seek alternatives or innovations to seek their goals. According to these theorists, youth face “differential opportunity structures” that limit their life options and possibilities for personal development. As a result, these individuals form and join subcultures to help themselves achieve their goals or develop alternatives. The work of Cloward and Ohlin focuses on the emergence of deviant subcultures among youth.
Over the last few decades. a variety of authors have focused on economic structures and the emergence of deviance. Robert Agnew’s “general strain theory” explains deviance as a coping mechanism to help adolescents deal with the negative emotional states related to their experiences of socioeconomic problems. Proponents of “institutional strain theory” note that throughout the neo-liberal era, roughly from the 1980s to the present, economic issues have come to dominate non-economic spheres, weakening the informal control mechanisms exerted by the family, school, church, and communities. In this environment, politics becomes about the economy, trade, and investment, rather than about social policy, civil rights, or democratic practice. School, for example, is now dominated by considerations of the job market, and future employability, rather than concerns about developing critical thought or citizenship. Programs that are viewed as contributing to personal enrichment rather than employability, such as music, drama, art, classical studies, or philosophy, face cuts or cancellation in favor of trades and technology or business training. According to institutional strain theory, the heightened emphasis on success in economic terms increases social strain (anomie). The emphasis on the most expedient path to economic success means that crime may be viewed as the most efficient means to financial gain. The celebrity status achieved by corporate criminals, such as Michael Milken, during the Reagan era provides but one example of institutional strain theory in action.
Other social structure theorists have preferred to examine links between crime and levels of disorganization within specific neighborhoods or communities rather than more abstract cultural values or institutions. Social ecology theories, influenced by the Chicago School of Sociology and the work of Robert Park, suggest that in crime-ridden neighborhoods, local institutions such as schools and social services agencies have broken down and no longer perform their expected or stated functions. Residents experience conflict and despair and antisocial behavior results. High school dropout rates and high rates of youth unemployment are typical characteristics of breakdown leading to deviance and crime. According to “cultural transmission theory,” poor neighborhoods are marked by high population turnover rates, which disrupts informal social controls. Such areas are said to give rise to youth crime. Crime will be a constant feature in this environment, regardless of the personal character of the residents, because of existing structural conditions. According to “cultural transmission theory,” gang activity and youth deviance are normal and expected responses to adverse conditions in which legitimized alternatives are otherwise not available for youth who perceive themselves to be trapped without options. For these theories, crime is a strategy to deal with destructive social conditions.
More critical or radical proponents of structural theories reject the emphasis that is often placed on street crimes or the crimes of the working class. First, they point out, the most harmful crimes, socially and environmentally, are crimes of elites, such as toxic dumping, unsafe products, unhealthy working conditions, pollution, and food contamination. These crimes, they argue, should be given more attention than the small-scale crimes that consume most of criminal justice system resources. Second, the use of criminal justice statistics, such as police and court records, within some of the structural theories identified previously, misrepresents actual criminal activity. The use of police records in social ecology theories to calculate neighborhood crime rates, for example, reflects police surveillance of those neighborhoods rather than actual rates of criminal activity. Finally, while structural theories do a good job of documenting social inequalities, critical theorists argue that the point is to confront and end inequality.
For critical structural theorists, including those who favor explanations based on structural Marxism and anarchism, the main structures in society that must be understood in reaction to crime and deviance are the state and capital. These institutions fundamentally control social resources and have the power to define specific acts as crimes and certain individuals as criminals, often on the basis of class or other factors. According to the critical structural perspective, the capitalist state and its institutions exist to preserve the interests of the dominant economic class, the capitalist class of those who own and control the means of production. The main concern of this dominant class is the preservation of an economic and social order that maintains their privilege and allows them to continue the accumulation of wealth. Behaviors that threaten the existing socioeconomic regime are most likely to be targeted, ideologically as well as practically, for punishment. As a consequence, most resources of the criminal justice system are directed toward (often minor) property crimes such as petty thefts and shoplifting. Similarly, moral panics are most often directed toward the activities of the working class and poor, particularly working-class youth–for example, raves, squeegeeing, hip-hop music, punk music. By comparison, crimes of elites, such as corporate crime, ecological crimes, and government misconduct, receive far less attention from the criminal justice system and result in fewer, and less severe, punishments.
The main focus of the criminal justice system, according to critical structural theorists, is to prohibit behaviors that threaten the unequal distribution of property under capitalism or the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Thus one sees the criminalization of union organizing, strikes, protests, and rebellion. The inherent conflicts that exist within a system of broad socioeconomic inequality are controlled through the structures of government and the criminal justice system in a way that inhibits disadvantaged classes and sustains dominant classes’ capacities to rule. For structural Marxists, the state must be taken over and controlled by the working class to serve their needs. For anarchists, the state, as an inherently authoritarian and hierarchical institution, is always a force of domination and cannot be used to achieve equality. Instead, the state must be replaced by community-based direct democracy and participatory decision making.
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