The police would argue that their role is to help to maintain social control and to treat everyone equally in terms of upholding the law. However, sociologists would argue that the whole criminal justice system, which includes policing, is biased against the working class. This is partly because crimes committed by the middle and upper classes are largely invisible and receive far less police time and resources and partly because of a mindset within the police and society generally that assumes that crime is a working-class problem.
This introduction attempts to unpack the question. It makes a useful point by seeing policing as just one part of the CJS. The implication is that the police are not alone in being preoccupied with those at the bottom of society. There is some attempt to explain why those at the bottom are targeted.
The view of the police is shaped by sociological perspectives. For example, functionalists see the police as drawn from the community and reflecting consensus norms and values. The police, they argue, simply concentrate their resources on deviant law-breakers; the fact that most of these come from the working class simply shows where criminals are concentrated in society. However, Marxists would argue that this view of policing is simplistic and naïve, based on fundamentally preconceived ideas that cause prejudice in police officers, causing them to concentrate on working-class problems rather than the misdemeanours of the rich.
The functionalist view of policing is explored here in terms of explaining their focus on the working class. This is evaluated from a Marxist perspective, gaining AO2 marks.
In contrast, Marxists see the police as agents of the state, exerting controls over and oppressing the proletariat. Louis Althusser regards the police as an element of the ‘ideological state apparatus’ (ISA) when they are portrayed as defenders of law and order. However, when the police adopt the role of overt agents of social control, as with riot policing, he describes them as a ‘repressive state agency’ (RSA). Althusser’s point here is that the police can be viewed superficially as the citizen’s friends, but ideologically their real purpose is to reflect the interests of the capitalist class. Either as part of the ISA or as an RSA, their role as defenders of the interests of the rich and powerful means they will channel their resources towards the working class.
The work and ideas of Althusser are explored in this paragraph. A distinction is made between the police as an element of the ISA and as an RSA, but either way they serve to oppress the working class and protect the interests of the capitalist class. There is no AO2 evaluation point in this paragraph.
Examples of policing that target the working class come from two US Marxist sociologists: William Chambliss and Frank Pearce. Both studied elites in the USA and found that the police turned a blind eye to crime at the top of society. Chambliss found that policing policy concentrated on the criminal actions of the working class and working-class areas rather than the suspect activities of the social elites. Pearce found that while the behaviour of the social elite would ‘not creditably survive close legal scrutiny of their business or professional lives’, a prevailing ideology that crime is a working-class problem had been constructed within the police.
Although dating back to the 1970s, both these studies illustrate how the deviant and criminal activities of the rich elites tend to be ignored by the police, who have a culture of targeting the working class and their areas.
The neo-Marxists Hall et al. view the police as preoccupied with those on the margins of society, such as youth, ethnic minorities, and those living on the street. They argue that the police regard such groups as the biggest threat as, in contrast to the rest of society, they have not established strong bonds with capitalism through mortgages, hire-purchase debts etc. This supports the idea of marginalisation held by Left realism.
The Marxist ideas of Hall et al. are explored here. Policing is seen as concentrated on those who are viewed as the biggest potential threat to capitalism as they are not locked into the system. Note how the AO2 point at the end links into the next paragraph.
Left realism supports the idea that crime is concentrated in deprived areas of the working class. Through victim surveys, they have linked crime levels to locality and see them highest on estates and in rented accommodation. It is in such places that those at the bottom of society are located. Left realists argue that the police target ethnic minorities within the working class, through what they refer to as ‘military policing’ (stop and search).
This paragraph flows nicely from the previous one. It brings in some empirical findings from victim surveys carried out by Left realists. The idea of targeting groups at the bottom of society is a useful inclusion here as it shows how the police differentiate among those at the bottom of society.
Finally, labelling theorists would explain the concentration of policing on the bottom of society as reflecting a widespread view held and reinforced in the police force as to where criminals are located. This view is created and reinforced through the ‘canteen culture’, which could also emphasise certain groups at the bottom of society as particularly deviant, such as black working-class males. By operating according to this stereotype, the police help to reinforce it by turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So while the Marxist perspective on policing is seen to be ideologically driven, the view here is that it is driven by a widespread belief in the police force itself that criminals are located at the bottom of society.
This answer has covered ideas from functionalism, Marxism, Left realism and labelling theory. An examiner would reward the breadth of this answer in relation to the question. Labelling theory is explained here, with a useful AO2 comparison to Marxism made in the last sentence.
In conclusion it can be seen that there are a variety of reasons why the police are seen to target those at the bottom of society. There is a perception that this is where crime is concentrated. However, there is a danger that focusing on crime in this area creates a self-fulfilling prophecy while allowing white-collar and corporate crime to remain generally free from police scrutiny and investigation.
This conclusion refers back explicitly to the question. It is often a good idea to use the wording of the question in your conclusion.
Topic 5 The sociological study
1 Genuine suicide refers to behaviour where the intended result of an act of self-harm is death. False suicide refers to risk-taking behaviour where the intended result of an act of self-harm is not to die but to survive.
2 The ‘social suicide rate’ is the term given by Durkheim to refer to the number of deaths from suicide in a given society. He derived this rate by examining the quantitative data of 26,000 suicide records collected by the public record departments of countries across Europe.
3 Durkheim discovered, firstly, that significant differences existed between suicide and societies/social groups and, secondly, that these differences remained stable and consistent over time.
4 Egoistic suicide (associated with insufficient social integration) and altruistic suicide (associated with excessive social integration).
5 Anomic suicide (associated with insufficient regulation) and fatalistic suicide (associated with excessive regulation).
6 Douglas questions whether official statistics about suicide can be relied on, by identifying four key criticisms of statistical analysis of suicide rates. These are: that they underestimate the true level of suicide; that comparisons between countries are not viable due to different data-collection procedures; that systematic biases exist due to different interpretations of coroners; and finally that the statistics cover only ‘completed’ suicides as opposed to all suicidal behaviour.
7 According to Atkinson the key to understanding suicide is to attempt to measure it quantitatively but to approach it through a qualitative study of the process of how deaths get categorised in the first place. As an ethnomethodologist, he argues that official statistics are largely meaningless and claims that coroners adopt a ‘common-sense theory’ in their approach to classifying deaths as suicide. For example, if the information surrounding a death appears to support the idea of suicide then they are more likely to classify such deaths as suicide. He believes that coroners rely on certain ‘cues’ such as the presence or absence of suicide notes, the method used, the location and related circumstances of death. In addition, coroners use clues such as the mental state of the deceased, their experiences in childhood, unhappy relationships and recent traumas like bereavement and unemployment, as markers for or against suicide.
8 People seen to have jumped in front of London Underground trains.
9 Taylor adopted a realist approach that is midway between the positivist and interpretive approaches. His basic argument is that suicide (or attempted suicide) stems firstly from the degree of certainty or uncertainty individuals have about themselves and secondly from the quality of their relationships with others (‘attachment’). He differentiates between ‘inner-directed’ and ‘other-directed’ suicides. For example, ectopic suicides are what Taylor refers to as ‘inner-directed’ suicides. He identifies two types. Submissive suicides occur when a person regards their life as over and wants to die. Examples might include the terminally ill or severely depressed. Thanatation suicide refers to suicide attempts where people dice with death such as playing Russian roulette.
Symphystic suicides are what Taylor refers to as ‘other-directed’ suicides. Again he provides two examples: sacrifice suicides occur when an individual has the desire to make others feel guilty following death. The reasons for suicide are often clearly outlined in suicide notes. Appeal suicides are normally false suicides in the sense that they are an attempt to find out how friends, relatives and perhaps work colleagues will respond. Taylor regards them as acts of both despair and hope.