Related Fields: Criminology
Criminology is the scientific study of crime as an individual and social phenomenon. Sociologists are interested in crime for many reasons including that it reveals information about the norms of the society in which it occurs; is closely related in many cases to other social factors including poverty, gender, and unemployment; and is caused by a complex interaction of underlying causes. In addition to crimes against persons and property, there are many other types of crime including white collar crime and cyber crime. One area of research that is of interest to sociologists involves efforts to determine ways to reduce recidivism rates, or the frequency with which delinquent behavior or criminal activity recurs. Successful reentry and reintegration into society after incarceration occurs in stages, and support is needed for each stage. The literature suggests that this will require consideration of multiple underlying factors, including individual characteristics, family history and dynamics, community support, and state policy.
One way or another, crime in our society affects us all. This truth was brought home to me very graphically one evening a while back when shots rang out in the quiet, suburban cul-de-sac in which I live. No one was hurt, but the event spurred the community to start a neighborhood watch program, and we are now all on the lookout for suspicious situations and individuals. However, crime touches us all even when we do not hear shots under our bedroom windows or never have any first-hand experience of crime ourselves. Certainly, crime affects all our pocketbooks as we pay taxes to pay public servants to protect the community, enforce the law, and prosecute and incarcerate criminals. Crime also affects us when prices go up in local stores because of the high rate of shoplifting or when we are hesitant to go to the mall at night for fear of being mugged in the parking lot. On one level, crime is of interest to those in the law enforcement and legal professions who help enforce the norms of society. On another level, however, crime is of interest to social scientists who are interested in how crime affects society.
In addition to the type of violent crime that most people tend to think of when thinking about crime, there are other types of crime including white collar crime (e.g., embezzlement), victimless crime (e.g., gambling), cyber crime (e.g., identity theft), and organized crime. The scientific study of any type of crime as an individual and social phenomenon from a social science perspective is referred to as criminology. Criminology includes the insights from a number of different social scientists. From the sociological perspective, crime is analyzed in terms of societal causes and effects. From a psychological perspective, crime is analyzed in terms of personality types and personal characteristics. From a political science perspective, crime is viewed through the lens of the law, in particular as the cause and remedy for the problem.
As in other areas of interest to sociologists, there are different sociological perspectives on the causes and nature of crime. As shown in Table 1, the functionalist perspective attempts to explain the nature of social order and the relationship between the various parts (structures) in society and their contribution to the stability of the society by examining the functionality of each to determine how it contributes to the stability of society as a whole. When applied to the understanding of crime and criminal behavior, functionalists tend to explain criminal phenomena by positing that crime helps to clarify the norms -- standards or patterns of behavior that are accepted as normal within the culture -- by articulating what is considered unacceptable behavior. In fact, many functionalists believe that a certain level of crime is necessary for the stability of society. Symbolic interactionists, however, assume that one's self-concept is created through the interpretation of the symbolic gestures, words, actions, and appearances of others as observed during social interactions. Symbolic interactionists tend to be particularly interested in how individuals become criminals and how being labeled as a criminal tends to reinforce criminal behavior and increase the probability that the individual will continue to perform criminal acts (whether she or he is guilty or not). Conflict theorists, however, tend to look at crime from the point of view of the disadvantaged lower social classes. Conflict theorists assume that social behavior is best explained and understood in terms of conflict or tension between competing groups. Therefore, from a conflict perspective, it is often noted that individuals from the lower classes tend to be much more likely to turn to crime than individuals from the upper classes. As a result, conflict theorists see the phenomenon of crime as stemming from social conditions rather than personality traits or types.
Functionalist Theory Symbolic Interaction Theory Conflict Theory Crime and Society Societies require a certain level of crime in order to clarify norms. Crime is behavior that is learned through social interaction. The lower the social class, the more the individual is forced into criminality. Causes of Crime Crime results from social structural strains within society. Labeling criminals tends to reinforce rather than deter crime. Inequalities in society by race, class, gender, and other forces tend to produce criminal activity. Crime Reduction Crime may be functional to society, thus difficult to eradicate. Institutions with the power to label, such as prisons, produce rather than lessen crime. Reducing social inequalities in society will reduce crime.
As mentioned above, there are a number of different categories of criminal activity, all of which are of interest to sociologists. The type of crime that tends to get the most notice is the category of personal and property crime. This category comprises both violent and nonviolent crimes directed at individuals (e.g., robbery, aggravated assault, rape, murder). Included in this category are hate crimes, or assaults and malicious acts perpetrated against individuals because they are members of a particular group (e.g., racial or ethnic groups, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities). Property crimes include the theft or destruction of property without a concomitant threat of bodily harm (e.g., burglary, larceny, theft, arson). A third type of personal and property crime is victimless crime. This subcategory of crime comprises illegal activities in which consenting adults exchange desired but illegal goods or services (e.g., gambling, prostitution, illegal drug use). Some people advocate for the decriminalization of victimless crimes because they believe that such crimes only hurt the person perpetrating them. However, many observers argue that the term "victimless" is inappropriate since these crimes can lead to other types of crime or injury to other people (e.g., driving under the influence, sexually transmitted diseases).
Youth Gang Activities
Another classification of crime that is of great interest to sociologists is crime related to youth gang activities. Not only do members of youth gangs often participate in criminal activities, they often become career criminals or engage in activities of organized crime when they are adults. The criminal activities committed by youth gangs are not necessarily any less serious than those committed by adults. Crimes such as burglaries, robberies, drug dealing, and other offenses are also committed by adults. Crime committed by youths, however, is typically referred to as delinquency to distinguish it from crime committed by adults. Delinquency is typically treated differently than crime committed by adults. Juvenile offenders are often charged with vague crimes (e.g., vagrancy, truancy, incorrigibility) and treated with more leniency as a way to divert them from becoming career criminals. Unfortunately, in many cases this approach has only served to...
(The entire section is 3549 words.)