Some people, particularly from the lower middle classes, may abandon the ultimate goal of wealth but continue to conform to the standards of the middle-class respectability.
Retreatists are ‘drop-outs’ who have rejected both the shared value of success and the means provided to achieve it.
Rebels reject both goals and means but replace them with different ones. They wish to create an entirely new kind of society.
Evaluation of Merton
- Taylor criticises Merton for failing to consider wider power relations in society – that is, who actually makes the laws and who benefits from them.
- Merton assumes that there is a value consensus in American society and that people only because of structural strain in society.
- Merton’s theory exaggerates working class crime.
- Taylor, Walton and Young (1973) argue that the theory cannot account for politically motivated crime where people break the law because of commitment to a cause.
- Merton has been defended by Reiner (1984) who believes that Merton’s theory can be adapted to take into account most of these criticisms.
- Merton’s theory can be applied to some contemporary trends in crime. For example, it can be argued that Thatcherism in the 1970s and 1980s created a greater emphasis on individual success and contributed to a rise in property crime.
Most of the theories considered up to now have looked at the factors that supposedly direct the behaviour of deviants. This emphasis on the idea that deviants simply react to external forces is similar to a positivist position. Interactionists take a different approach. They examine:
- How and why particular individuals and groups are defined as deviant.
- The effects of such a definition on their future actions.
Becker (1963) suggests that there is really no such thing as deviant act. An act only becomes deviant when others perceive it as such. He gives the example of a brawl involving young people:
- In a low-income neighbourhood this may be defined by the police as delinquency.
- In a wealthy neighbourhood it may be defined as youthful high spirits.
The acts are the same but the meaning given to them by observers is different. If youngsters are defined as delinquent and convicted then they have become deviant. In other words they have been labelled as deviants.
Once an individual or group is labelled as criminal, mentally ill or homosexual, others see them only in terms of that label. It becomes what Becker calls a master status. Labelling also causes the labelled group or individual to see them in terms of the label. This may produce a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the label actually makes itself true. Becker identifies a number of stages in this process:
- The individual is labelled as deviant and may be rejected from many social groups.
- This may encourage further deviance. A drug addict may turn to crime because employers refuse to give him/her a job.
- Ex-convicts find it difficult to get jobs and may be forced to return to crime.
- The deviant career is completed when individuals join an organised deviant group, thus confirming and accepting their deviant identity.
- Now a deviant subculture may develop which includes norms and values which support their deviant behaviour.
Becker’s approach is used by Jock Young (1971) in his study of ‘hippie’ marijuana users in London.
- The police see hippies as dirty, lazy drug addicts.
- Police action against marijuana users unites them and makes them feel different.
- As a result they retreat into small groups.
- Deviant norms and values develop in these closed groups. Hair is grown longer, clothes become more unconventional and drug use becomes a central activity.
Thus a self-fulfilling prophecy is created.
Lemert (1972) distinguishes between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ deviance.
Primary deviance consists of deviant acts before they are publicly labelled. Trying to find the causes of primary deviance is not very helpful because:
- Samples of deviants are inevitably based only on those who have been labelled, and they are therefore unrepresentative.
- Most deviant acts are so common that they may be, in statistical terms, normal. Most males may at some time commit a homosexual act, engage in delinquency and so on.
The important factor in creating ‘deviance’ is the reaction of society – the public identification of the deviant. Secondary deviance is the response of the individual to that societal reaction.
Evaluation of the Interactionist approach
Labelling theory enjoyed great popularity in the 1960s but provoked strong criticism in the 1970s. The key criticisms were:
- Taylor, Walton and Young (1973) argue that labelling theory is wrong in suggesting that deviance is created by the social groups who define acts as deviant. Some acts – such as premeditated killing for personal gain – will always be regarded as deviant in our society.
- Many sociologists claim that the interactionist approach fails to explain why individuals commit deviant acts in the first place (primary deviance).
- It is claimed that labelling theory is too deterministic. It assumes that, once a person has been labelled, their deviance will automatically increase. Ackers (1975) suggests that individuals might simply choose to be deviant, regardless of whether they have been labelled.
- Interactionists fail to explain why some people are labelled rather than others and why some activities are against the law and others are not. In other words it ignores the wider issue of the distribution of power in society.
Interactionists such as Plummer (1979) have strongly defended labelling theory against these criticisms. It is certainly true that the interactionist approach has had a significant influence on the sociology of deviance, particularly more recent approaches such as new left realism.
From a Marxist perspective, laws are made by the state which represents the interests of the ruling class.
- Snider (1993) notes that the capitalist state is often reluctant to pass laws that threaten the profitability of large businesses. Often the state has worked hard to attract large corporations and does not want to risk alienating them.
- Pearce (1976) argues that many laws which appear to benefit only the working class, in reality benefit the ruling class as well. Factory legislation protecting the health & safety of workers benefits capitalists by keeping workers fit for work and loyal to their employers.
- Chambliss (1976) suggests that much of what takes place I the creation of rules is ‘non decision making’. Many issues – such as the way wealth is distributed – never reach the point of decision.
Marxists argue that crime is widespread in all parts of society. There are many examples of illegal behaviour by white-collar criminals and corporations.
- Snider (1993) argues that many of the most serious deviant acts in modern societies are corporate crimes. She claims that corporate crime costs more in terms of loss of money and life than crimes such as burglary and robbery.
- In a study of crime in the USA Chambliss (1978) concludes that:
- Those who operate organised crime in America belong to the economic and political elite.
- The ruling class as a whole benefits from organised crime as money used from crime is used to finance legal business operations.
- Corruption of local politicians and law enforcement agencies is essential for organised crime to flourish.
- Criminal acts that favour ruling class interests will not be penalised.
Many Marxists see crime as a natural ‘outgrowth’ of capitalist society.
- Chambliss (1976) argues that the greed, self-interest and hostility generated by capitalist society motivate crimes at all levels within society. Members of all classes use whatever opportunities they have to commit crime.
- Given the nature of capitalist societies, crime is rational. Gordon (1976) argues that in a society where competition is the order of the day, individuals must fend for themselves in order to survive. Gordon goes on to suggest that law enforcement in the USA supports the capitalist system in three main ways:
- Individuals who commit crimes are defined as ‘social failures’ and seen as responsible for their actions. In this way blame and condemnation are directed at the individual rather than the capitalist system.
- The imprisonment of selected members of the working class neutralises opposition to the system. For example, American blacks are heavily over-represented amongst those arrested for street crimes such as robbery and aggravated assault.
- Defining criminals as ‘animals and misfits’ provides a justification for their imprisonment. This keeps them hidden from public view and so the embarrassing extremes produced by the capitalist system are swept under the carpet.
Evaluation of Marxism
Marxist theorists have come in for some heavy criticism:
- Feminists have argued that Marxist theories ignore the importance of patriarchy in influencing the criminal justice system. Marxists have also been accused of neglecting the importance of racism in the enforcement of law.
- Crime has not been eradicated in communist societies based on Marxist principles.
- Stephen Jones (1998) points out that capitalism does not always produce high crime rates. For example, in Switzerland the crime rate is very low.
- Perhaps the distribution of power is not as simple as some Marxists suggest. Jones gives the example of insider trading (taking advantage of ‘insider’ knowledge to make huge profits on the stock exchange). This is illegal, which suggests that capitalists do not always get the laws they want.
- ‘Left Realists’ believe that Marxists put too much emphasis on corporate crime. Other crimes such as burglary cause greater harm than Marxists imply. Their victims are usually working-class and the consequences can be devastating for them.
- Post-modern Criminology rejects Marxist criminology as being neither believable nor defensible.
Despite these criticisms, Marxism has been an influence on a number of critical perspectives on deviance. Some have drawn their inspiration from Marxism and can be referred to as neo-Marxist approaches. Others owe less to Marxism and are better defined as radical approaches.