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Friday, September 3, 2010

Criminology - Conflict Criminology


“History without sociology is like hard work with the brains taken out, and sociology without history is like brains with the hard work taken out.”
(Raymond Michalowski)

Conflict criminology is best understood by reference to the various domain and background assumptions behind the various traditions. All conflict theorists have in common a conflict view of society, that is, that society is held together, not by consensus, but by competition and conflict between incompatible values and interests. One implication of this idea is that people with less power are more likely to be defined and processed as deviants and criminals.


While in the popular imagination, Marxism is associated with communism, Marxism as a scientific tradition is best distinguished by a particular ontology (view of human nature) and epistemology (way of knowing). The various adherents can then be distinguished by methodology and models. The closer one gets to models of society and crime, the more theoretical differentiation can be made.

Marx held to ontology of homo faber, not homo sapiens . Quinney (1965) elucidates this conception best as the idea of human nature being essentially unfinished and constantly realizing its potential. Explanations of crime based on socialization experiences, normative structures, and cultural demands are therefore incompatible with Marxism because humans are never completely socialized, claim higher loyalties than societal norms, and are culture-builders not culture-products. This ontology, like Rousseau’s conception of native goodness, is a rejection of both classical and positive traditions. It’s also part of the deep structure of romantic thought in Western philosophy . The methodology of Marxism is dialectical historical materialism. Hegel was the idealist philosopher who first popularized this method, and it is sometimes said Marx turned Hegel on his head. Hegel was interested in looking forward to a progressive future when thesis and antithesis would result in synthesis. Turning Hegel on his head means that the starting point for Marxian analysis involves looking backward, and tracing the centuries-old conflict between the group that produces the means of material survival and the group that lives off that production . This methodology attempts to discover the total, fundamental, and indispensable source of conflict -- economic relations. Such economic reductionism is at the heart of the Marxian tradition. The invention of capitalism is often taken as a starting point in Marxism because capitalism is believed to be inherently contradictory and the point in history where the forces of production (equipment, technology) increased while the relations of production (means of distributing produced goods) remained fixed . Lastly, the evolving, non-organic whole model of society and criminal behavior in the Marxian tradition is utopian and revolutionary. Social institutions such as laws and the state as well as ideologies are only reflections of economic realities. Because the surplus population created by an increasingly efficient capitalism is seen as a threat, the economically powerful use the laws and state to protect their interests. Economic powerlessness translates into political powerlessness. In response to the expropriation of their labor and the exploitation of their potential in commercialized relationships, criminals come to recognize their true objective interests and engage in protorevolutionary action to bring about the end of capitalism and the start of socialist or guaranteed freedom from want and misery.

Conflict Criminology in the Marxist Tradition

There are many interpretations about what Marx said or meant. The two-class model of social stratification, while still popular as an explanation of fiscal crisis , is today seen as a form of vulgar Marxism . Similarly, only instrumental Marxism views law as a tool of the ruling class . The dialectical interplay between capitalist business cycles and crime rates was his focus. Using a two-class model, Bonger saw conflict as likely to continue indefinitely because capitalism creates a climate of motivation for crime. Offenders are motivated by self- rather than social interests. Chambliss (1975) formulated a theory of lawmaking, lawbreaking, and law enforcement based on ideas that law expands as class gaps widen and both crime and crime control divert attention from real economic problems. His theory, elaborated in Chambliss & Seidman (1982) and to some extent encapsulated in Reiman (1984), presents a picture of confused humans pretending to think in terms of living law while the logic of capitalism curtails any new institution-building. The view is one of the State presenting images and ideologies that function as bread and circuses for the population. Spitzer (1975) focuses upon surplus populations created by capitalism. Skid-row alcoholics and others who do not pose a threat to the system are called social junk. Dangerous acts and people who do pose a threat are called social dynamite. The contradiction is that the more capitalists try to control these populations, the more exposed becomes the fiscal crisis. Social dynamite are seen as protorevolutionary. Quinney’s writings tend to center upon the notion of class fragmentation, or how the ruling class gets the lower classes to fight amongst themselves. Quinney is critical of the increasing efficiency of repression. Increased repression brings increased resistance. Repression also results in manipulation of consciousness, another of Quinney’s main concerns. Resistance can also be accommodating, a concept Quinney uses to argue that all working class crime is more-or-less conscious rebellion. Politicization of prisoners will pave the way for a crime-free socialist future. Pepinsky & Quinney have recently suggested that new ideas, like peacemaking, and religious or moral thought, may bring about desired change.


Weber held to an ontology of homo sociologicus where humans are seen as benevolent and brotherly. Flesh and blood (realpolitik) individuals are both actors and agents of society. They pursue a variety of ends, not always in a rational manner. The most important of these ends is the power to affect decisions of authorities. Norms and values are internalized to the extent that authorities have legitimacy. Legitimacy can be obtained by personal charisma, an appeal to past tradition, or by what Weber (1964) considered the most important, rational-legal authority, appeal to value systems or practical consequences. He believed bureaucracy to be the finest example of rational-legal authority. The Weberian tradition squarely implicates authority structures and how they act in socialization and social control processes.

Conflict Criminology in the Weberian Tradition

Dahrendorf (1959) presents a theory of interest group formation which is quite consistent with the Weberian tradition. His approach relies on concepts such as “quasi-groups” and “imperatively coordinated associations” . The former concept describes a fragmented and multidimensional stratification system, and the latter describes if and when classes would form. Dahrendorf uses Weber’s concepts of power and authority to state the conditions when interest groups form. These include sharing a culture and the requirement of a liberal State. Conflict is inevitable given competing interests and occurs systematically in the struggle to obtain the prize of State power. Norms are simply reflections of these power struggles, not of consensus . Mobility systems de-intensify conflict, and the absence of conflict is due to effective coercion.
Turk’s theory of criminalization is an account of how people are conditioned into roles of domination and deference and capable of more-or-less conscious disagreement with laws or the way they are enforced. Turk’s focus is on realistic conflict with moves and tactics increasing chances for success. Conflict between authorities and subjects leads to the opening up and closing off of probabilities for success, and in a later work examines the anomalous category of mental disorder as a substitute for criminality. He adds the concept of sophistication to his theory which increases conflict when either subject or authority is less sophisticated. Criminalization is explained by a pluralist conflict model of statuses and norms rather than class . These ideas are similar to the notion of status contests or stigma contests in labeling theory.
The sociologist Collins offered a Weberian theory of social organization. People are seen as preferring to give rather than receive orders, with prestige being their main interest, and conflict is inherent in competition for scarce resources. Collins makes use of game theory, especially zero-sum, negotiated, and compliant relationship games. A pluralist, non-utopian model of society is presented which is based on factional fights between occupational, educational, and political groups.
Hagan’s power-control theory and structural criminology focus on the fact that criminal acts as well as the defining of crime represent power relations. People are seen as conditioned to be more-or-less risk-takers, perceiving better chances for pursuing their interests the more egalitarian the power structures they find themselves in. According to this view, juvenile delinquency is more likely to be found in homes where the parents are lenient, but sometimes also when parents are strict, for the same reason that it is the consistency in power structure which matters.
McGarrell and Castellano provide a theory of differentiation consistent with the Weberian tradition. Differentiation is defined as a societal condition where people are vastly different in race, ethnicity, religion, urbanization, and inequality. Greater differentiation is associated with greater interpersonal and intergroup conflict. The higher the level of conflict, the greater the use of criminalization as a method to deal with the conflicts. Media accounts of this criminalization result in more fear and vicarious victimization within the population, leading to more repressive police measures to stem the fear, and a more unstable political arena in which any vocal opportunist can trigger events to enact crime policy. This approach provides a good example of how fear of crime studies is tied in with conflict criminology.


Simmel held to an ontology of homo homini lupus, where people are seen as wolves to others . Their true selves are only visible as fragments that come out in the course of group involvement, that is, when they want something from somebody. The self is always situated, and there are as many selves as there are layers of situations or groups in society. Because the self is social, there can be no antisocial interests because this would be self-destructive. People experience feelings like love and contempt at the same time. Anytime they think they are being a loner, they are really thinking of others. These insights led Simmel to focus on group conflicts where envies, wants, and desires are expressed. Groups provide more-or-less enduring interaction and relative constancy of pattern, but they do not exhaust all there is about an individual.

Conflict Theories in the Simmelian Tradition

Sellin’s culture conflict theory falls in the Simmelian tradition because of an emphasis on group codes or rules for behavior in certain situations. While not the first to extract the concept of culture conflict from Simmel’s interests in assimilation and ethnicity, Sellin differed from Wirth’s emphases on psychological reactions and vision of a homogeneous, crime-free future by saying that conflicting cultural norms just simply give more occasion for crime and deviance to occur. This was largely a sociological re-expression of the Simmelian idea that society exists as a fiction in people’s minds. Sellin’s key concept was conduct norms, certain rules about what a person is supposed to do if they find, for example, their wife in bed with another man. While a few less modern societies might specify exactly what you’re supposed to do (kill your cheating wife and the other guy), more modern societies offer less by way of guidance. This state of confusion and contradiction is what causes crime in modern societies.

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