When attempting to explain the question of what is crime? Two predominate theories emerge, that of a structural explanation and that of an agency. These theories form one of the fundamental debates in Social Science and each offers its own perspective on how free individuals are to act as they chose with out social intervention. As such in this essay I intend to illustrate the key points of each explanation and in turn highlight key methods of evidence used to support them.
Those who would describe crime with the foundation on social structures, focus on the collective influences, which drive individuals to behave or conform in certain manners. These structures can vary from an individual’s family background and genetics to their cultural surroundings and beliefs. Even with in this one branch of explanation there may be several contrasting opinions. However, essentially they all believe that “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.” (Introductory Chapter, 2004, p28). This explanation can then be used to explain crime with the notion that people can be influenced into crime by structures, which exist around them. For example one structure, which could be considered to pressure people into crime, is the family structure.
Social Psychologist David Farrington has conducted in-depth research into the way that “pathological or problem families can transmit criminal carers within them.” (Farrington, D, 1994, p31). His claims put focus on the concept that families are able to pass criminal careers through generations and that children can from an early age display behaviour, which can predict a future criminal lifestyle. Before these claims can be considered a reasonable explanation there must be supporting fact and evidence to maintain them. With out the claims could be thought of as speculation and could be considered less reliable.
Evidence can be produced from a many different research methods. They may take the form of interviews, participant or non- participant observation, questionnaires, case studies, or even experiments. Evidence in social science is vitally important as it can on occasion provide the basis for an opinion or argument as well as provide support for a previously formed idea or opinion.
For example David Farrington supported the theory that a persons family can propel them into crime. He used longitudinal studies as a primary method of evidence, which proved to be most effective. The studies focused on several individuals’ family circumstances and the criminal behaviour they displayed. He found using these studies that a strong pattern emerged between those who shared similar “problem family” situations and those who committed criminal acts. This type of evidence provided qualitive data by conducting in-depth levels of research over a large period of time. Qualitative evidence provides information, which is not necessarily received when drawing conclusions from statistics. It can be used to highlight some of the under lying reasons which may led to crime more effectively than statistical methods which can be measured in terms of quantity.
Agency as an explanation for crime provides an entirely different assessment on why people commit offences. It focuses on each individual freewill and could be considered to have it roots based in the idea that people commit crime because they want to. It dismisses the idea that individuals are propelled into crime and simply argues that criminals make selected decisions to commit crime, as it is the best means for them to reach their desired ends.
Rational choice is an agency based explanation and believes that people choose to commit crime if they believe they means (crime) justifies the ends (i.e. stolen goods). As with the structural opinion this theory can only be considered relative if there is evidence to support the claims.
Open questioned interviews with criminals and observation methods are key approaches when trying to compile evidence for the rational choice theory. This is because they ask or observes first hand why criminals commit crime.
Again these are qualitative methods of research but the findings can be used to draw out statistical or quantitative evidence if required. Quantitative methods of research are useful when bring information together as it tends to be easier to draw conclusions and percentile information from.