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#BlackLivesMatter & Theories of Crime

If you look hard enough, or get good at it, sociological theory can be found in the everyday. In this post, Ami Stearns explains how audience and panel members at a public forum about crime used language reflecting criminological theory to address issues between the police and the African-American community.

Woman Holding Black Lives Matter Sign

One of the hazards of being a professional sociologist is you can’t stop seeing social theory everywhere you go. For example, I recently attended a #BlackLivesMatter public forum and heard criminology theories in almost everything the panelists and forum attendees said. The forum was a response to the police shooting deaths of unarmed African-American men and the protests that followed in Ferguson and other cities. The discussion quickly turned into a debate on how to best address crime in the African-American community and thereby avoiding conflicts with the police altogether.[1]

By far, the most common theme running through all of the comments were built on a criminological theory called Social Control. This theory, as postulated by Gottfredson and Hirschi in the 1960s, places the responsibility for socially acceptable behavior on parents, teachers, and other authoritative figures. According to Social Control theory, adherence to social norms begins in infancy and childhood and is reinforced through socialization. Here are some Social Control theory examples from the public forum:

  • A self-described former troublemaker said the children in the community suffered from poor morals and had no respect for authority.
  • A single mother said parents should be able to physically discipline their children again (without getting accused of child endangerment) while another audience member talked at length about parents needing to have better control over their children.
  • A local coach said that children needed to learn to obey and respect their parents.
  • A pastor said that the churches should be leaders in the community and that this leadership could solve many issues associated with crime in the African-American community.
  • A policewoman said that youth needed to attend church more often and rely on God to solve their problems.

These Social Control arguments pointed to a belief that morals, values, and discipline taught early in life by parents, teachers, and religious leaders would lead to citizens who essentially adopted non-criminal behaviors.

The second most popular response at the forum carried a definite Chicago School/Ecological Theory undertone. One of the first U.S. departments of sociology emerged at the University of Chicago, and this group of researchers (Burgess, Park, Shaw, and McKay, most notably) theorized that it was the “type of place” that mattered in reproducing crime. Disorganized neighborhoods, neighbors who did not know one another, and decrepit buildings were just a few of the factors leading to increased crime. Here are some examples of statements that reflected a Chicago School type of response:

  • A government official on the panel said that more community members needed to become homeowners and business owners.
  • A landlord said that neighbors needed to get to know one another and watch out for each other.
  • The leader of a local non-profit said that the community should work together to get rid of slumlords, should organize block parties, and beautify yards.

These statements reflect a belief that the problem of crime is best addressed by organized neighborhoods- meaning communities where people know one another, keep their properties pleasant-looking, and spend time together.

The third most common response I heard at this public forum illustrated Strain Theory. Based on Durkheim’s work, Strain Theory was popularized by Robert Merton. According to Merton, American society is structured in a way that leads some groups to experience frustration and strain when they try to obtain valued goals. Those that can’t achieve financial success through legitimate means (education, inheritances, or/and working at a white-collar job, for example) may commit crimes to try and gain financial success.

  • The uncle of a young man killed by police a few years ago said that hunger drove many people in the community to commit crimes like burglary or stealing.
  • An older audience member said that too many vocational schools had been closed in favor of funding universities and colleges. The implications were that learning a skilled trade would lead to less crime among the population.
  • A former felon noted that those with a criminal record could not easily get a job, and that this led to further criminal activity.
  • A father said that he knew someone whose family members depended upon him for survival, yet no jobs were available for his skill set. Illegal activity was the only way that this family was able to eat and pay bills.

I saw the statements above as echoes of the theorizing done by Merton. Our society is set up to reward those who are born advantaged, but claims that all can succeed through hard work. Many of us know that this simply isn’t true . Audience members and panelists believed that financially-secure households would curb crime.

Although the forum as a whole never directly addressed racial issues between communities and police, it was interesting to hear how the attendees theorized why crime happens and how to stop it.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Ask five people why crimes are committed and see if you can fit the answers into one of the three theories discussed above.
  2. Have you ever broken a rule, regulation, or a law (whether or not you were caught)? How did you rationalize what you did? Does your answer fit into one of the three theories above?
  3. There are a number of alternative criminological theories presented on this blog page . Can you think up an everyday statement on why a crime was committed that fits with each theory?
  4. Isn’t it peculiar that a forum sparked by multiple police shootings of unarmed African-American men didn’t focus on how race and racism affects police and civilian interactions? Think like a sociologist; come up with a few reasons that explain why this happened. Explain your answers.

  1. First, a quick disclaimer. I do not claim to understand the experiences of people in different social locations, nor do I intend to speak on behalf of any social group. My presence at this public forum was one of support for all citizens in the city where I live. Theory sometimes seems to live in an abstract land of thoughts and ideas, so it’s useful to recognize it in the everyday statements of people who are reacting to specific actions or behaviors.  ↩