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From a sociological perspective, explanations for criminal-

ity are found in two levels which are the subculture and the

structural explanations.

The sociological explanations emphasize aspects of societal

arrangements that are external to the actor and compelling. A

sociological explanation is concerned with how the structure of

a society or its institutional practices or its persisting

cultural themes affect the conduct of its members. Individual

differences are denied or ignored, and the explanation of

the overall collective behavoir is sought in the patterning of

social arrangements that is considered to be both “outside”

the actor and “prior to him” (Sampson, 1985). That is, the

social patterns of power or of institutions which are held to

be determinative of human action are also seen as having been

in existence before any particular actor came on the scene.

In lay language, sociological explanations of crime place the

blame on something social that is prior to, external to, and

compelling of any particular person.

Sociological explanations do not deny the importance of

human motivation. However, they locate the source of motives

outside the individual and in the cultural climate in which he


Political philosophers, sociologists, and athropologists

have long observed that a condition of social life is that not

all things are allowed. Standards of behavior are both a pro-

duct of our living together and a requirement if social life

is to be orderly.

The concept of a culture refers to the perceived standards

of behavior, observable in both words and deeds, that are

learned, transmitted from generation to generation and somewhat

durable. To call such behavior “cultural” does not necessar-

ily mean that it is “refined,” but rather means that it is

“cultured”– aquired, cultivated, and persistent. Social

scientists have invented the notion of a subculture to describe

variations, within a society, upon its cultural themes. In

such circumstances, it is assumed that some cultural prescrip-

tions are common to all members of society, but that modifica-

tions and variations are discernible within the society.

Again, it is part of the definition of a subculture, as of a

culture, that is relatively enduring. Its norms are termed a

“style”, rather than a “fashion”, on the grounds that the former

has some endurance while the latter is evanescent. The quarrel

comes, of course, when we try to estimate how “real” a cultural

pattern is and how persistent.

The standards by which behavior is to be guided vary among

men and over time. Its is in this change and variety that

crime is defined. An application of this principle to crimin-

ology would find that the roots of the crime in the fact that

groups have developed different standards of appropriate

behavior and that, in “complex cultures”, each individual is

subject to competing prescriptions for action.

Another subcultural explanation of crime grows readily out

of the fact that, as we have seen, “social classes” experience

different rates of arrest and conviction for serious offenses.

When strata within a society are marked off by categories of

income, education, and occupational prestige, differences are

discovered among them in the amount and style of crime.

Further, differences are usually found between these “social

classes” in their tastes, interests, and morals. Its is easy

to describe these class-linked patterns as cultures.

This version of the subcultural explanation of crime holds

that the very fact of learning the lessons of the subculture

means that one aquires interests and preferences that place him

in greater or lesser risk of breaking the law. Others argue

that being reared in the lower class means learning a different

culture from that which creates the criminal laws. The lower-

class subculture is said to have its own values, many of which

run counter to the majority interests that support the laws

against the serious predatory crimes.

One needs to note that the indicators of class are not

descriptions of class. Proponents of subcultural explanations

of crime do not define a class culture by any assortment of the

objective indicators or rank, such as annual income or years of

schooling. The subcultural theorists is interested in pattern-

ed ways of life which may have evolved with a division of labor

and which, then, are called “class” cultures. The pattern,

however, is not described by reference to income alone, or by

reference to years of schooling or occupational skill. The

pattern includes these indicators, but it is not defined by

them. The subcultural theorist is more intent upon the variet-

ies of human value. these are preferred ways of living that

are acted upon. In the economist’s language, they are


The thesis that is intimated, but not often explicated, by

a subcultural description of behaviors is that single or

multiple signs of social position, such as occupation or educa-

tion, will have a different significance for status, and for

cultures, with changes in their distribution. Money and

education do not mean the same things socially as they are more

or less equitably distributed. The change in meaning is not

merely a change in the prestige value of these two, but also

betokens changes in the boundries between class cultures.

Generally speaking, whether one believes tendencies to be good

or bad, the point of emphasis should be simply that the

criteria of “social class” that have been generally employed-

criteria like income and schooling-may change meaning with

changes in the distribution of these advantages in a popula-

tion. “Class cultures”, like national cultures, may break


A more general subcultural explanation of crime, not

necessarily in disagreement with the notion of class cultures,

attributes differences in crime rates to differences in ethnic

patterns to be found within a society. Explanations of this

sort do not necessarily bear the title “ethnic,” although they

are so designated here because they partake of the general

assumption that there are group differences in learned prefer-

ences-in what is rewarded and punished-and that these group

differences have a perisistence often called a “tradition.”

Such explantions are of a piece whether they are advanced

as descriptions of regional cultures, generational differences,

or national characteristics (Hirschi, 1969). Their common

theme is the differences in ways of life out of which differ-

ences in crime rates seem to flow. Ethnic explanations are

proposed under an assortment of labels, but they have in

common the fact that they do not limit the notion of “sub-

culture” to “class culture” (Hirschi). They seem particularly

justified where differences in social status are not so highly

correlated with differences in conduct as are other indicators

of cultural difference.

Thus many sociologists in this field argue that in the

United States “economic and status positions in the community

cannot be shown to account for differences [in homicide rates]

between whites and Negroes or between Southerners and

Northerners” (Freeman, 1983). In relevance, an “index of

Southerness” is found to be highly correlated with homicide

rates in the United States. Therefore, there is a measureable

regional culture that promotes murder.

The hazard of accepting a subcultural explanation and, at

the same time, wishing to be a doctor to the body politic is

that the remedies may as well spread the disease as cure it.

Among the prescriptions is “social action” to disperse the

representatives of the subculture of violence. Quite apart

from the political difficulties of implementing such an en-

forced dispersion, the proposal assumes more knowledge than

what is available. We, as a society, do not know what pro-

portion of the violent people would have to be dispersed in

order to break up their culture; and, what is more important,

we do not know to what extent the dispersed people would act

as “culture-carriers” and contaminate their hosts.

While sociologists acknowledge the plausibility of med-

leys of causes operating to affect crime rates, their atten-

tion has been largely diverted to specific kinds of social

arrangements that may affect the damage we do to each other.

Among the more prominent hypotheses stress the impact of

social structure upon behavior. These proposals minimize the

facts of subcultural differences and point to the sources of

criminal motivation in the patterns of power and privilege

within a society. They shift the “blame” for crime from how

people are to where they are (Sampson). Such explanations

may still speak of “subcultures”, but when they do, they use

the term in a weaker sense than is intended by the subcultural


A powerful and popular sociological explanation of crime

finds its sources in the “social order”. This explanation

looks to the ways in which human wants are generated and

satisfied and the ways in which rewards and punishments are

handed out by the “social system”.

There need be no irreconcilable contradiction between

subcultural and structural hypotheses, but their different em-

phases do produce quarrels about facts as well as about

remedies. An essential difference between these two explana-

tions is that the “structuralists” assume that all the members

of a society want more of the same things than the “sub-

culturalists” assume they want (Herrnstein, 1985). In this

sense, the structural theses tend to be egalitarian and demo-

cratic (Herrnstein). The major applications of structuralism

assume that people everywhere are basically the same and that

there are no significant differences in abilities or desires

that might account for lawful and criminal careers. Attention

is paid, then, to the organization of social relations that

affects the differential exercise of talents and interests

which are assumed to be roughly equal for all individuals of a


Modern structural explanations of criminogenesis derive

from the ideas of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim.

Durkheim viewed the human being as a social animal as well as

a physical organism. To say that a man is a social animal

means more than the obvious fact that he lives a long life as

a helpless child depending on others for his survival. It

means more, too, than that homo sapiens is a herding animal who

tends to live in colonies. For Durkheim, the significantly

social aspect of human nature is that human physical survival

also depends upon moral connections. Moral connections are, of

course, social. They represent a bond with, and hence a bond-

age to, others (Christiansen, 1977). Durkheim states that “it

is not true, that human activity can be released from all re-

straint” (Christiansen). The restraint that is required if

social life is to ensue is a restraint necessary also for the

psychic health of the human individual.

Social conditions may strengthen or weaken the moral ties

that Durkheim saw as a condition of happiness and healthy

survival. Rapid changes in one’s possibilities, swings from

riches to rags and, just as disturbing, form rags to riches,

may constitute an impulse to volutary death. Excessive hopes

and unlimited desires are avenues to misery (Christiansen).

Social conditions that allow a “deregulation” of social

life Durkheim called states of “anomie”. The word derives

from Greek roots meaning “lacking in rule or law”. As used by

contemporary sociologists, the word anomie and its English eq-

uivalent, “anomy”, are applied ambiguosly, sometimes to the

social conditions of relative normlessness and sometimes to the

individuals who experience a lack of rule and purpose in their

lives. It is more appropriate that the term be restricted to

societal conditions of relative rulelessness for our purpose.

When the concept of anomie is employed by structurlists

to explain behavoir, attention is directed toward the “strains”

produced in the individual by the conflicting, confusing, or

impossible demands of one’s social enviroment. Writers have

described anomie in our “schizoid culture”, a culture that is

said to present conflicting prescriptions for conduct (Ferr-

ington, 1991). They have also perceived anomie in the tension

between recommended goals and available means. It is import-

ant to keep the word “anomie” in mind to all explanations

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