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From a sociological perspective, explanations for criminal-
ity are found in two levels which are the subculture and the
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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