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The meaning of crime
The meaning of crime

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4.5 Structural explanations III: cultures

An early and influential body of research by the Chicago School of sociology explained criminal behaviour in terms of cultural structures. The school studied American male juvenile delinquents – or young offenders – in inter-war American cities (Shaw and McKay, 1969). Here we use the term culture to describe the web of meanings and values that individuals live their life within. (Recall from Section 1.1 how important every-day norms and conventions were in defining the meaning of crime.) There were two stages to the Chicago School's work, stages which required different kinds of research and produced different kinds of evidence.

First of all, the researchers collected quantitative data on where young offenders lived in the big cities of the United States. They found them to be young men concentrated in those areas of the city characterised by low rents and physical deterioration; geographically, the inner cities. In these areas – which the Chicago School termed zones of transition – there was also a rapid turnover of population. Immigrants would arrive in the areas of lowest pay and cheapest housing. Then, as soon as they were able, those that could would move on. Community structures and institutions were transitory. The opportunities for social mobility, improved pay, better housing, etc., for those that remained were minimal. The normal structures of a community that monitored and checked anti-social behaviour were weak.

But the Chicago School did not leave the matter with quantitative evidence alone. They also looked for qualitative evidence. They asked what the meaning of community and crime were for the young offenders who lived in these zones of transition. To investigate this, they initiated a programme of participant observation. This is a method of research in the social sciences in which the social scientist observes their subjects at close quarters and may actively participate in routine activities, i.e. joining a gang, taking a job in a factory, etc. In short, researchers actively sought out young offenders and the gangs that they were often part of, and spent a great deal of time just hanging out, talking with them and watching them.

They argued that street gangs provided the main community for young offenders. Furthermore, gangs possessed their own distinct web of meanings and values about what community they belonged to, and what actions counted as criminal. They possessed a distinct criminal sub-culture. Put briefly, the Chicago School's idea of a sub-culture assumed first, that there is a wider, established majority or mainstream culture against which a sub-culture stood out. Second, that these criminal sub-cultures emerged as forms of resistance to the mainstream culture; a culture whose goals and norms of regular work, law-abiding behaviour, and prospects of social mobility were not available or attainable for ghetto youth. In this context the gang provided an alternative set of values and goals that were attainable. Crime in this sub-culture appeared acceptable, attractive, an act of pleasure as well as an act of protest or enrichment. Later developments in this approach have stressed the culture of masculinity which encourages compliance with these goals and values.


What is the explanatory claim at work here?

What weaknesses might this approach carry? What problems might there be with participant observation?


Two interrelated explanatory claims appear to be at work in this account: (a) young offenders are immune to the normal cultural prohibitions on criminal behaviour because they embrace alternative existing male sub-cultures; however (b) the reason that these cultures come into existence and appear attractive must be understood in economic terms. Young offenders appear concentrated in areas of employment and economic deprivation – economic structures and life chances over which they have little control.

It seems to us, then, that the Chicago School's cultural explanation of criminal behaviour tells us nothing about how people ended up joining gangs in the first place. Not every youth in the zones of transition did join a gang. Can this be explained in cultural terms, or do we need to look at other structures and decisions made by the people concerned? In particular, how can we clarify the impact of economic structures on criminal behaviour? In any case, can the reports of participant observers be relied upon? Is it possible that the Chicago School's presence altered the way gangs spoke about crime? Is it possible that their presence encouraged bragging about crime and a deliberate indifference to social norms?