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The meaning of crime
The meaning of crime

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4.2 Structure and agency in the explanation of the crime problem

The social sciences are both united and divided by the debate over structure and agency. That debate turns on the degree to which people are either free to act as they choose or are constrained by forces beyond their control and possibly beyond their perceptions.

Structural explanations of human behaviour argue that an unrestrained freedom of action is an illusion. Human behaviour is neither random nor purely self-determined. There is always a range of constraints, rules, pressures, established beliefs, etc., which force, dispose or propel us to behave in certain ways.

Agency-driven explanations, on the other hand, argue that human behaviour is moved by real choices. However constrained an actor might be, there are always options and conscious decisions to be made.

This way of dividing up social science explanations comes with two intellectual health warnings.

  1. We have deliberately simplified the debate by focusing on social science explanations which are at the extremes of a spectrum. A spectrum that runs from explanations that are overwhelmingly structural to explanations that are overwhelmingly agency driven. Most work in the social sciences falls between the two, trying to strike the right balance between them.

  2. In our account of agency-driven explanations, we focus on individualistic explanations of human agency. An individualistic analysis takes individuals rather than groups or whole societies as its fundamental starting point. While, clearly, individuals act and choose, we cannot reduce the notion of agency to individual choice alone. Groups, collectives and institutions can also be thought of as actors and agents. Think, for example, of what is implied when a news broadcast reports that ‘the government said, did, or failed to do something’. The implication is that the government, as a body of people and a set of institutions and networks, acts in unison; that it possesses collective agency. Similarly, we can think of trade unions, pressure groups, credit unions, armies, etc., as collective agents.

In Sections 4.3 to 4.5 we look at three different structural explanations of criminal behaviour. They are similar to each other, in that they all argue it is possible to identify structures, constraining and determining forces which are beyond the control of individuals or groups, and that these structures dispose us to behave in certain ways. Moreover, they all argue that criminal behaviour is essentially abnormal (recall our discussion of the normality/abnormality of crime in Section 1.1). So research is oriented to finding the origins of abnormal structures, on the assumption, of course, that there are identifiable normal structures. Where the three explanations differ is over what kind of structures they believe are the most important. The three examples we have chosen focus on biological and genetic structures (Section 4.3), family structures (Section 4.4), and cultural structures (Section 4.5). We then turn to one version of agency-driven explanations, rational choice theory (Section 4.6). We conclude by beginning to consider whether these explanations clarify our understanding of the crime problem.