Early theories of deviance, particularly functionalist, tended to see official statistics on crime and deviance as an accurate reflection of acts of crime, crime-rates and its culprits. However, recent sociological analysis challenges their validity and therefore their usefulness in understanding and explaining both crime and criminals. Interactionists argue that they are more useful for studying the process of labelling that results in a picture of crime that is essentially working class, male, urban and committed by those under the age of 25. From all the current perspectives of crime, only Left realists are happy to concede that this may in fact be a fairly accurate picture of criminal deviants.
Few sociologists accept crime statistics uncritically. Central to their argument is that police recorded crime (PRC) only refers to crimes which are reported and recorded by the police. The usefulness of the statistics is undermined by the amount of unrecorded crime or the ‘dark side’ of crime statistics. Self-report and victimisation studies (themselves not entirely unproblematic) have both questioned the usefulness of official statistics on two grounds. First, the British Crime Survey (2010) showed that victims reported around 10 million criminal acts compared with the 5.5 million official criminal acts. Second, they reveal that crimes are perpetrated by groups outside the male, working-class stereotype. Such studies show a different picture: that crime can be carried out by middle-class people, women and South Asians, all of which are groups perceived by official statistics to have low offence rates.
The introduction flows nicely into the first paragraph with reference to the dark side of PRC statistics. Self-report and victim studies are used to question the usefulness of official crime statistics and discussed with reference to the recently published BCS.
Fluctuations in the rate of recorded crime may also tell us little about trends in the rate of actual crime. Since the mid-1990s, critics have questioned whether the declining official crime rate reflects a real reduction in crime or merely a change in how incidents have been classified for political purposes. This shows that the findings of the British Crime Survey often appear to contradict the official figures — thus questioning their usefulness for a sociological understanding of crime. However, sociologists have questioned the persistent rise in official crime since the Second World War. Under the banner of the ‘great denial’, Jock Young argues that this rise reflects a higher arrest rate and increased reporting of petty crime. Indeed, ‘radical criminologists’ argue that the police had a vested interest in publishing statistics reflecting rising crime, as this formed the basis of their claim for more resources from the 1960s onwards.
The reference to up-to-date findings shows that the student is applying sociological ideas to the real world. The issue of usefulness is also addressed in this paragraph, showing focus on the question.
Sociologists have thus found crime statistics useful — not so much for revealing the real rate of crime as for an illustration of how official statistics are a social construction. This shows that sociologists recognise how crime statistics are constructed from the complex processes of interaction, interpretation, negotiation and selection that occur between the agents of social control and the public. Labelling theorists argue that the police and courts work with strict ‘background experiences’ when defining whether a person was ‘criminal’ or ‘deviant’. It is argued that these expectancies include ideas about social class, education and home background, meaning that middle-class youths could ‘negotiate’ themselves out of becoming processed as ‘criminal’. Thus a criticism of the usefulness of official statistics is that groups denied such opportunities to negotiate become over-represented, leading official statistics to reflect crime as a working-class phenomenon.
The first line addresses usefulness, as does the last sentence of this paragraph. There is more analysis of the construction of official statistics. Application is mentioned with the reference to labelling theory. The paragraph ends with a good evaluative point.
Studies show that the professionalisation of the police means that they operate according to stereotypes (‘canteen culture’) and policies such as ‘stop and search’, which further contribute to the social isolation of the police, causing them to become anti-working class and racially prejudiced against groups such as black males and young Muslim males. This suggests that over-representation of black people in official statistics stems from labelling and moral panics that help to stereotype blacks as deviants. Consequently crime statistics become socially constructed (and thus less useful) since such groups are more likely to be stopped and searched by police officers who tend to hold similar stereotypical views.
There is more useful application with reference to the concept of ‘stop and search’ and labelling theory’s analysis of why some minority ethnic groups are over-represented in statistics. Usefulness is evaluated in the last sentence.
Anne Campbell and Lesley Shaklady-Smith have both conducted self-report studies on females and crime. Shaklady-Smith, in particular, found a close correlation between the young females in her study and the acts of deviance normally considered male-centred. This shows they both see women as grossly under-represented in official statistics and explain it through the fact that women are much more likely to be cautioned than charged. Agents of control are said to be influenced by a ‘chivalry factor’ resulting in women being less likely to appear in official statistics. Shaklady-Smith concluded that female deviants typically get processed when they fail to conform to images of passive femininity. With the rise in WPCs (who are more resistant to the chivalry factor) and the growth of female delinquency (as documented in the growth of ladette culture), we may see official statistics as more useful in reflecting the gender characteristics of deviance, but sociologists will still need to treat this area critically.
Following the previous paragraph on ethnic minorities, this paragraph examines the usefulness of statistics with reference to gender. Note the evaluation and focus on usefulness at the end of the paragraph.
However, Steven Box has criticised Campbell’s study for its over-emphasis on minor crime, and argued that the official statistics are, in fact, reasonably accurate in reflecting male/female crime ratios. He does, however, point out that official statistics do tend to reflect the values and attitudes of the judiciary. He argues that the elitist background of judges leads them to associate crime and deviancy with poverty; therefore the working class are more likely to be linked with crime. Juries too are also seen to operate according to class, gender and racial stereotypes, as well as being closely guided in their decisions by speeches from the judiciary.
In this paragraph there is more evaluation of Campbell’s study and Box’s interpretation of the construction of statistics through attitudes of judges and jurors.
Marxists have traditionally criticised official statistics for their failure to reflect the considerable amount, especially in financial terms, of white-collar or corporate crime. The concentration of the agents of control on working-class crime stems from ideological pressure to conceal the crimes of the powerful. The
neo-Marxist New Criminologists argue that perpetrators of crime are just as likely to be the rich motivated by greed as the poor motivated by poverty. Left realists, however, while accepting that official statistics do grossly underestimate the value of hidden white-collar crime, nonetheless accept that, in numerical terms, most deviants do appear to be male, working class and under 25 years of age.
This paragraph makes reference to the Marxist focus on the dark side of white-collar and corporate crime. This is followed with an evaluation from the Left realist standpoint.
Thus, to conclude, the sociological critique of official statistics suggests that they offer a poor reflection of the reality of real crime rates and deviants, but instead, as a social construct, are useful only in studying the policies, activities and values of those who compile them and process criminals. While accepting that they under-represent women and the middle class at the expense of over-representing male, working-class and black crime, realists argue that they nonetheless can be useful as an approximate picture of crime and deviance in modern industrial society.
This is a good conclusion that rounds off a detailed theoretical and empirical critique of official statistics contained in the essay. Note how the conclusion is not entirely negative about the usefulness of statistics to sociologists.
Topic 3 Theoretical, practical and
Ethical and practical considerations
1 Research ethics refers to the ethical and moral issues that occur and apply to sociological research. The British Sociological Association has produced an ethical code to guide sociological research and ensure that it is ethical. Key ethical issues are confidentiality and anonymity, informed consent, avoiding deception (as far as possible) and the avoidance of harm to the respondents and the sociologist.
2 Purposive samples break from the golden rule of sampling, in that they are not representative. However, they are chosen for a specific purpose (hence their name) whereby they provide for the researcher a group of people who fit the research requirement. Provided the researchers are aware that the sample may not be representative and can justify the reasons for using such a sample, then there is no reason why the resulting research should not produce high-quality data.
3 Informed consent involves getting the consent or permission from every person or group being studied. This is usually given following the briefing when a clear and detailed explanation of the purpose of the research, the methods to be used and the future use of the research are outlined. Respondents should always be able to refuse to co-operate and withdraw. Sometimes, as with the case of covert research, it is not possible to gain informed consent. Wherever possible, consent should be obtained retrospectively following the debriefing.
4 It is essential that all respondents in research are guaranteed anonymity and that all data collected are treated in the strictest confidence. It would be quite inappropriate and potentially harmful if people were unwittingly identified following the publication of research. Therefore it is important, when contextualising people’s comments or statements, that no supplementary information is given whereby they can be identified or recognised.
5 It is important that no respondents feel hurt or upset from taking part in research. This is particularly the case when research is being undertaken into sensitive areas that have the potential to upset, annoy or offend participants. Therefore research into issues such as domestic violence, eating disorders, rape and suicide should only be undertaken sensitively by experienced professional researchers to avoid harming respondents.
6 While it is important to build up a good rapport between researchers and respondents, close relationships between them should be avoided. As well as being unprofessional, it could result in biased data. One danger for researchers undertaking participant observation is the risk of ‘going native’ whereby they become so close to the people they are researching that there is a risk of their data being subjective and value-laden.
7 Researchers will inevitably have their own interests and ambitions, which could result in biased research. The fact that they find a topic area interesting and consequently worth researching is an indication of the potential for bias in itself. In addition, areas of research can move in and out of fashion, resulting in research not necessarily being carried out for the right reasons. Some sociologists, such as Marxists and feminists, are inevitably value-laden in the sense that they are committed to bringing about social and political change.
8 Clearly time and money are closely connected: the longer the research takes, the more expensive it is likely to become. This rules out long-term research, unless a long-term source of financing can be found. Unstructured and semi-structured interviews take considerably longer than structured interviews and questionnaires. Observation can take months or years, from the planning stage to the penetration of groups, observation and finally evaluation of data. Clearly the time required might become the main factor determining which method is used rather than the intrinsic qualities of the method.
9 Funding can play a significant part in the choice of method and also the nature and implications of the research findings. Those bodies that fund research, whether they are government agencies or big business, often have a preconceived idea of the findings they would like the research to come up with. Academics may at times feel their research has been ‘bought’ through the pressure to come up with findings that reflect the world-view or interests of the funding body. University-based research may offer the researcher fewer constraints and more freedom of choice. In terms of methodology, the level of funding may drive the research method used.