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The meaning of crime
The meaning of crime

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4.4 Structural explanations II: families

Our second example of structural explanations of criminal behaviour takes a different starting point. It looks at pathological or problem families and the transmission of criminal careers within them. This work is most closely associated with the social-psychological research of David Farrington (1994).

Farrington's argument has two core components. First, he argues that criminal offending is part of a larger syndrome of anti-social behaviour. A syndrome is a medical term for a set of symptoms indicating the existence of a condition or problem. This syndrome is a collection of anti-social dispositions and patterns of behaviour. Second, he argues that the early onset of criminal offending predicts a long and serious criminal career: ‘For example, hyperactivity at age two may lead to cruelty to animals at six, shoplifting at ten, burglary at eighteen, robbery at twenty, and eventually spouse assault, child abuse and neglect, alcohol abuse, and employment and accommodation problems later on in life.’ Early anti-social behaviour suggests what Farrington terms ‘an underlying criminal potential’ (Farrington, 1994, p. 566).

The questions these claims raise are:

  1. How do people acquire the antisocial personality syndrome in the first place?

  2. Under what kinds of circumstances is the criminal potential it holds translated into a long and sustained criminal career?

Farrington has investigated these questions by doing longitudinal studies: this is a form of long-term empirical research in which social scientists follow the progression over time of many individuals’ criminal behaviour and their familial circumstances. He found that there was a strong correlation – a type of statistical relationship – between criminal offenders and particular family experiences.

Criminal offenders tended to exhibit socially disruptive behaviour within their families at an early stage. They also tended to possess, for a range of reasons, early cognitive deficits – poor reasoning abilities, for example. Finally, they tended to experience poor patterns of parenting and a troubled family life including alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, truancy and school failure, unemployment, and marital disharmony. Criminal careers, over which they have little or no control, originate, then, in specific types of personality, particular types of families and their modes of socialisation. Socialisation is the processes by which children learn the language, culture and norms of the society in which they live. ‘It is clear that problem children tend to grow up into problem adults, and that problem adults tend to produce more problem children’ (Farrington, 1994, p. 569).


What is the explanatory claim at work here?

What weaknesses might this approach carry? Are there any kinds of crime it might have difficulty explaining?


The core explanatory claim appears to be: (a) criminal careers stem from an anti-social personality syndrome; (b) this syndrome emerges within, and is transmitted by, problem families who exhibit poor or inappropriate parenting, over which children have little control; and (c) the origins of poor parenting are less clear and appear to be transmitted from one generation to the next, they are entrenched by economic and social circumstances over which individuals and their families have little direct control.

Again, this explanation might work for individuals but it has real problems with corporate crime, or indeed with most kinds of white collar crime. Second, what exactly is poor parenting, and conversely what is good parenting? Are there clear and agreed meanings over this term? Even if there are, how would we explain criminal behaviour by individuals who did not come from a background of family problems or non-criminal behaviour of individuals who do come from a background of family problems?