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The Functional Perspective: Social Structure Theories



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The Functional Perspective: Social Structure Theories


Social structure theories all stress that crime results from the breakdown of society’s norms and social organization and in this sense fall under the functional perspective outlined in . They trace the roots of crime to problems in the society itself rather than to biological or psychological problems inside individuals. By doing so, they suggest the need to address society’s social structure in order to reduce crime. Several social structure theories exist.

Social Disorganization Theory


A popular explanation is social disorganization theory. This approach originated primarily in the work of Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay (1942),[1] two social scientists at the University of Chicago who studied that city’s delinquency rates during the first three decades of the twentieth century. During this time, the ethnic composition of Chicago changed considerably, as the city’s inner zones were first occupied by English, German, and Irish immigrants, and then by Eastern European immigrants, and then by African Americans who moved there from southern states. Shaw and McKay found that the inner zones of Chicago consistently had the highest delinquency rates regardless of which ethnic group lived there, and they also found that the ethnic groups’ delinquency rates declined as they moved to outer areas of Chicago. To explain these related patterns, Shaw and McKay reasoned that the inner zones of Chicago suffered from social disorganization: A weakening of social institutions such as the family, school, and religion that in turn weakens the strength of social bonds and norms and the effectiveness of socialization. Research today confirms that crime rates are highest in neighborhoods with several kinds of structural problems, including high rates of residential mobility, population density, poverty, and single-parent families (Mazerolle, Wickes, & McBroom, 2010). [2]

Anomie Theory


Another popular explanation is anomie theory, first formulated by Robert K. Merton (1938) [3] in a classic article. Writing just after the Great Depression, Merton focused on the effects of poverty in a nation like the United States that places so much emphasis on economic success. With this strong cultural value, wrote Merton, the poor who do not achieve the American dream feel especially frustrated. They have several ways or adaptations of responding to their situation (see ).

Table 8.3 Anomie Theory






Goal of economic success




Accept

Reject

Value of working







Accept

Conformity

Ritualism

Reject

Innovation

Retreatism

First, said Merton, they may continue to accept the goal of economic success and also the value of working at a job to achieve such success; Merton labeled this adaptation conformity. Second, they may continue to favor economic success but reject the value of working and instead use new, illegitimate means, for example theft, of gaining money and possessions; Merton labeled this adaptation innovation. Third, they may abandon hope of economic success but continue to work anyway because work has become a habit. Merton labeled this adaptation ritualism. Finally, they may reject both the goal of economic success and the means of working to achieve such success and withdraw from society either by turning to drugs or by becoming hobos; Merton labeled this adaptation retreatism. He also listed a fifth adaptation, which he called rebellion, to characterize a response in which people reject economic success and working and work to bring about a new society with new values and a new economic system.

Merton’s theory was very influential for many years but eventually lost popularity, partly because many crimes, such as assault and rape, are not committed for the economic motive that his theory assumed, and partly because many people use drugs and alcohol without dropping out of society, as his retreatism category assumed. In recent years, however, scholars have rediscovered and adapted his theory, and it has regained favor as new attention is being paid to the frustration resulting from poverty and other strains in one’s life that in turn may produce criminal behavior (Miller, Schreck, & Tewksbury, 2011). [4]


The Interactionist Perspective: Social Process Theories


Social process theories all stress that crime results from the social interaction of individuals with other people, particularly their friends and family, and thus fall under the interactionist perspective outlined in . They trace the roots of crime to the influence that our friends and family have on us and to the meanings and perceptions we derive from their views and expectations. By doing so, they indicate the need to address the peer and family context as a promising way to reduce crime.

Differential Association Theory


One of the most famous criminological theories is differential association theory, first formulated at about the same time as Merton’s anomie theory by Edwin H. Sutherland and published in its final form in an edition of a criminology text he wrote (Sutherland, 1947). [5] Sutherland rejected the idea, fashionable at the time, that crime had strong biological roots and instead said it grew out of interaction with others. Specifically, he wrote that adolescents and other individuals learn that it is acceptable to commit crime and also how to commit crime from their interaction with their close friends. Adolescents become delinquent if they acquire more and stronger attitudes in favor of breaking the law than attitudes opposed to breaking the law. As Sutherland put it, “A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of law over definitions unfavorable to the violation of law.” Crime and delinquency, then, result from a very normal social process, social interaction. Adolescents are more or less at risk for delinquency partly depending on who their friends are and what their friends do or don’t do.

Many scholars today consider peer influences to be among the most important contributors to delinquency and other misbehavior (Akers & Sellers, 2009). [6]One problem with differential association theory is that it does not explain behavior, like rape, that is usually committed by a lone offender and that is generally the result of attitudes learned from one’s close friends.



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