The view that crime is a working-class problem is reinforced in many sociological perspectives and supported by official crime statistics. The criminal justice system — in the form of policing, the courts and the prison system — is overwhelmingly dominated by working-class criminals. However, Marxists in particular challenge the validity of this picture, arguing that there is a considerable amount of hidden white-collar and corporate crime. While the incidence of white-collar and corporate crime is less, they argue that it significantly outstrips working-class crime in terms of value and hence could be viewed as a bigger problem.
This introduction lays its cards on the table. It shows how and why crime may be perceived as a
working-class problem, but evaluates this from the Marxist point of view.
The functionalist perspective has long maintained that crime is a working-class problem. Merton’s strain theory makes a link between those who can aspire to the American Dream legitimately (middle class and above ‘conformists’) and those who use illegitimate means to move closer to this goal (working-class ‘ritualists’). However, this does not explain why rich people who have the dream still commit crime. In an interesting development, Steven Box used Merton’s idea of goals and means to explain the motivation for corporate crime: if firms could not maximise the goal of profits legitimately, then this encouraged them to use illegitimate means. This shows crime is not confined to the working class.
This answer outlines functionalists’ support for the idea of crime being a working-class problem. The ideas of Merton are discussed here in relation to class, which is then evaluated. Box’s interpretation of Merton’s ideas illustrates an example of non-working-class crime.
Functionalist subcultural theorists reinforced the idea that crime is a young, male working-class problem. Both Cloward and Ohlin and Walter B. Miller used the lower working class as the focus of their analyses. They both implied that within this location there exists a distinctly different set of subcultural values that drives deviant and criminal behaviour. However, Miller’s assumption that focal concerns only apply to the working class can be challenged. For example, Boris Johnson describes how the behaviour of the Bullingdon Club members (made up of the progeny of the wealthy upper class) at Oxford University frequently resulted in them being pursued by the police.
Subculturalist functionalists locate juvenile delinquency firmly in the working class but they have little to say about other types of crime or indeed adult crime. However, they are only concerned with subcultural deviance.
Labelling theorists, although their analysis is not specifically class-based, would broadly support the idea that crime as a working-class problem is socially constructed through the process of labelling. For example, Ciçourel found that the police share a collective stereotypical view of who constitutes a ‘typical’ criminal — a delinquent, working-class male — which undermines the ability of such people to negotiate themselves out of the label. Chambliss found in his study of two gangs that the ‘Saints’, who came from respectable middle-class homes, had not received so much as a parking ticket, even though they had committed more serious acts than the working-class ‘Roughnecks’.
Labelling theory and a discussion of how the problem of working-class crime is constructed is unpacked in this paragraph using the work and ideas of Ciçourel and Chambliss. There is not much explicit AO2 content in this paragraph, which should ideally occur in every paragraph.
Both Right and Left realism support the view that crime is a working-class problem. For example, in an approach that marries subcultural theory with Right realism, Murray sees crime as concentrated in an underclass. However, by describing the underclass as living ‘outside society’ (compare with Becker’s ‘outsiders’), Murray could be seen as linking crime not to the working class as such but to a deviant subcultural group beneath the working class. In contrast, Left realists, Lea and Young, see crime as specifically associated with young, black, working-class males. This group is particularly prone to crime because of its subculture and the relative deprivation and marginalisation it faces. However, Left realism has been criticised (like Right realism) for ignoring the crimes of the more powerful sections of society, and for concentrating on street crime.
Both realisms are covered in this paragraph. Although they are very different in their focus, note how the last sentence enables an AO2 evaluation of both.
Of all the perspectives, it is only really Marxism that would challenge the view that crime is a working-class problem. Marxists emphasise the scale of corporate crime and white-collar crime, arguing that thieving and burglary by the working class pales into insignificance in comparison. Croall points out that the seriousness of corporate crime is softened through words like ‘cons’, ‘rip-offs’ and ‘fiddles’. However, critics like Left realists argue that there is a real fear of crime, and it is working-class crime that ordinary people perceive as the problem. Consequently critics argue that victims of robbery and burglary are simply ignored by the traditional Marxist approach.
The examiners like it when candidates recognise different and contrasting views. Marxists clearly challenge the assumption that crime is a working-class problem. This view is explained and evaluated in this paragraph, gaining AO2 marks.
In conclusion it can be seen that the bulk of sociologists would support the view that crime is a working-class problem. The only significant exception to this view is that held by Marxists who argue that corporate and white-collar crimes are not recognised as a problem because they are largely invisible. With growing awareness of green crime and organised global crime, it is possible that in the future the simplistic link between crime and the working class will be challenged more.
This is a focused conclusion that refers back to the question. While it is not recommended to bring new material into a conclusion, the reflective thoughts of the last sentence could in this case be accepted as they show recognition of social change and thinking ‘outside the box’. Examiners will reward such thinking provided it is relevant to the question.
Gender and crime
1 The ratio of male crime to female crime is over four to one.
2 Ladette culture is where females adopt the characteristics of males behaving badly.
3 They mean that issues such as female offending and women as victims have until quite recently been largely ignored by most sociological theories of crime. The focus of theory and research has been on male offenders.
4 She explains the invisibility of females by the fact that most sociologists are men, that they are preoccupied with macho working-class deviance, and that a lot of female crime, such as prostitution and shoplifting, is invisible or hidden.
5 Sex-role theory explains differential levels of gender crime as stemming primarily from socialisation. Females are socialised into different roles and values, which result in them being more conformist. In addition, being tied as adults to family and children, they have less opportunity and more to lose from being involved in crime.
6 Several sociologists, such as Pat Carlen, have used social control to explain lower levels of offending. She argues that women are controlled by both a ‘class deal’ (material gain from work) and a ‘gender deal’ (rewards from family and home). Carlen points out that young females in court often have a broken ‘gender deal’: they have often been brought up in care, run away from home or been thrown out of home.
7 This is a term originally associated with Otto Pollak, referring to the more lenient way females are treated by the police and criminal justice system. However, Carlen points out that women who come across as unfeminine, promiscuous or ‘bad mothers’, or are assumed to have committed serious crimes, get treated more harshly than men.
8 Connell, like many other sociologists, sees a lot of crime linked to ideas of ‘machismo’ and being a ‘real man’. Hegemonic masculinity is such a dominant form of maleness based on toughness, physical fighting and the subordination of women that it empowers all men who operate in its shadow, but at the same time is a benchmark to put down males who do not conform to it.
9 When legitimate means of asserting masculinity are blocked, Messerschmidt argues that some males turn to ‘masculine-validating resources’ whereby they assert themselves through violence against other males by fighting and against females in the form of domestic violence. Like Walter Miller, he saw those most in need of ‘masculine-validating resources’ as coming from the most deprived areas.
10 Katz explains crime in terms of a search for pleasure; this becomes meaningful in explaining masculine crime when additionally crime is understood as a means of achieving macho status, control over others and success. Lyng argues that young males often engage in ‘edgework’, whereby they seek pleasure through risk taking behaviour that takes them to the edge between security and danger. This explains activities like joy riding and drug taking. However, it would be wrong to see edgework as exclusively male — some females are attracted by risk taking activities as well