thoughts on criminology

I have been reading a criminology Reader, I like to read up on the theory of a policy area when I get started, and a Reader is actually a pretty good way of doing it.

Basically a Reader assembles a lot of key texts into the same book, so that lecturers can simply ask students to get the Reader, and then they can ask them to compare the theories of different writers. Thereby saving the task of hunting down articles in obscure journals.

Well this is Criminological Perspectives - essential readings, by Eugene McLaughlin, John Muncie, and Gordon Hughes.

What do I make of it so far? It is incredibly dense, even for a reader, which obviously will assemble short texts from a variety of writers and times, on a variety of related subjects. In the past I have found readers on Cities/urbanism, a lot easier to read. That said it is useful, just not something that you can casually pick up and read. I rather like the way that reading all these different theories, is like humour, subtly rearranging your sense of what is real, and what you think.

It is clear that criminology is a discipline without compelling paradigms, that is, unlike say economics, there is not an overarching theoretical framework that everyone can at least agree on.

In part this is because it is the subject deals with people, and people are variable. In part it is because, like archaeology, the lens through which the subject is viewed, is a very subjective one. What is crime? Is middle class crime, the same as working class crime, the same as upper class crime. Is an act criminal because it harms others, or because it harms society. Is the undetected crime still crime, what about the unreported crime?

Often people use a discussion of crime as an arena to discuss something else, such as the class struggle.

On the basis of my reading so far, I am struck by the theory that crime is a prioritisation of short term gain over long term costs. Thus the drug addict is a criminal, and any ultimate conviction is not relevant. What is relevant is the ultimate harm to the individual and society. The criminal frame of mind is to live in the present, seeking short term pleasures. Thus drugs and drink associate themselves with the criminal frame of mind. That is not to say that everyone who drinks is a criminal, or that it is wrong to seek short term pleasures. However the theory is that by excessively seeking the short term, failing to apply restraint or postpone gratification, you tend more towards the criminal frame of mind. This intuitively applies to the scale that runs from decent hard working people at one end, to the feckless and selfish at the other, regardless of class or background.

Another problem in criminology is that you tend to assume that everyone operates in the way that you think you do, a sort of extended empathy. However people can live such different lives that we cannot use our own lives as a reference point. For example for those caught up in the gang culture, there are few points of similarity with most of our lives. Clearly this is not a society based on money or the pursuit of money, it is a society based on respect. These are often people who feel that they lack status and respect, and such activity is a way of gaining respect among their peers. The currency is respect and humiliation. Often the behaviour is intimidating just because it is supposed to be, it is supposed to intimidate and humiliate others, because the participants feel that they are humilated by society. When respect and humiliation are the currency, you take what you can when the opportunity presents itself. Are recent muggings really based on monetary gain, or simply the pleasure in humiliating the victim.

But the currency in that culture does not readily translate into currency in the wider society. There is a divide, you might choose to succeed in that culture, or in the wider society, but not in both. You end up deciding which tribe to belong to and which rules to play by.

Of course all the theory in the world is no good if it does not take you anywhere. On the individual level, or the tribal level, how can you change, should you change.

There has to be freedom of choice, we cannot constrain people and compel them to do as we do. However, it is possible to offer better choices. When should we do this? Most criminal activity is caused by people in their teens, most of these people are set on this path earlier in life. So improving the job prospects in an area will not directly affect the cohort you are trying to impact on, except to the extent that it affects their family environment. However improving the schooling in an area, supporting families in the area, will have a much more direct affect.

We need to look at what works, look at people who do well in the area, look at organisations that are decent, families that do well. As much effort needs to go into support for those that are not a problem, as trying to sort out those that are. Their good example, and good work can ripple outwards. Some people will always choose a criminal path, and there might well be little that they can teach us. We need to focus on those that simply run with the crowd, which is always the majority.