How Social Class and Crime Are Intertwined

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Using material from Item B and elsewhere, assess sociological explanations of the relationship between social class and crime.

When looking at crime statistics, it is clear to see that social class plays a key role in who gets prosecuted for criminal activity, with some social classes having higher rates of criminality than others. However, “sociologists disagree about the reasons for these differences”, with some stating reasons such as “some statistics on crime focus on those who have been prosecuted” showing who is more likely to caught than who actually commits the crime. Sociologists such as Cohen suggest different reasons such as the media being to blame for stigmatising the working-class.

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Some sociologists argue that the media is used as a tool to distinguish the working-class as criminals, for example, by labelling working-class teenagers as ‘typical delinquents’. One way in which they achieve this is by causing ‘moral panics’ in which the media display an exaggerated over-reaction to a group they deem are a threat to society and its values. One case of this was the reaction to the 1964 Clacton riots, in which teenage ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ were labelled by the media as folk devils. Cohen argues that this then creates a self-fulfilling prophecy which amplifies the original problem, therefore creating a deviance amplification spiral meaning more deviants are identified, there are more calls for tougher action and more people feel labelled. Cohen, however, assumes that these deviants are passive victims of the media, instead of individuals who actively choose to commit these crimes for their own benefit. Also, many of these young people may have not partaken in the riots with any intent to commit serious crime, but rather because it provides them with a ‘buzz’ which they may not get from their ordinary lives, perhaps due to material deprivation.

Cicourel argues that police officers’ ‘typifications’ of the ‘typical criminal’ mean that they are more likely to focus their resources on working-class areas as these contain the people that fit these typifications. This class bias means that working-class areas are policed more heavily, leading to more working-class arrests and confirming their stereotype as criminals. Because the middle-class aren’t seen to fit this profile, their areas of living aren’t as heavily-policed, and although they could perhaps commit the same amount of crime as the working-class, because officers do not actively look to patrol and monitor middle-class areas, they are less likely to be arrested and prosecuted. This therefore shows that crime statistics present a non-valid picture of crime patterns, which paint the working-class out to be more likely to commit crime than those of a middle-class status.

Cohen also attempts to explain why the working-class commit more crime than the upper-class through his concept of ‘status frustration’, whereby young working-class boys are unable to achieve status through legitimate means such as education. They therefore resolve their frustration by turning to illegitimate means to gain status such as vandalism, which is not something that middle-class boys would have to do, as their status is already guaranteed through being part of the bourgeoisie. Another reason as to why the working-class may commit crime is that it may be the only way they can survive, as Marxists argue that in a ‘criminogenic’ society, to obtain the consumer goods working-class people are encouraged to own, crime is the only option. Therefore the exploitation of the working-class means that crime is their only way to source products, as being materially deprived, they cannot achieve this otherwise. This concept of ‘criminogenic capitalism’ does not affect the middle-class because they can use money to get goods and therefore do not have to resort to utilitarian crimes such as theft. Through needing to gain status in terms of the goods you have and your position in society, working-class people commit more crime, resulting in a clear difference in crime statistics.

A Marxist explanation of the relationship between social class and crime is that “crime statistics appear to show higher rates of criminality in some social classes compared with others”. The middle-class have been proven to commit crime, however, their crime can be described as ‘invisible’ as it is less likely to be reported/recorded. The ‘secretive’ nature of crimes such as fraud means that the policing of white-collar crime is not as heavy as working-class crime, which tends to be more visible and therefore results in more prosecutions. For example, Carson’s research into companies breaking health and safety laws using a sample of 200 business firms found that only 1.5% of cases were prosecuted. This shows how companies will do their upmost to protect their image by perhaps bargaining terms of the crime so as to not appear untrustworthy to the public. An example of why typical middle-class crimes such as fraud aren’t accurately recorded in official crime statistics is because companies may deal with cases internally to avoid public humiliation of the company and to avoid the process of firing an employee that may perhaps be in a top positon. This shows that the middle-class do in fact commit crime, but because of their typically higher occupational positions, they are less likely to face repercussions for their crimes.

When looking at the relationship between social class and crime, it is obvious that there isn’t one clear-cut explanation as to why the working-class are seen to commit more crime than the middle-class. Instead, we have to look at the various explanations such as those provided by Cohen and Cicourel which help show how the working-class are targeted by institutions such as the media and the police. Also, the invisible nature of white-collar crime shows how the middle-class get off with much lighter punishments than those below them.

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