This paper seeks to explore the usefulness of Sociological Theories in explaining crime and whether in doing so there arises implications for probation practice. I shall begin by providing a brief explanation for the historical development of criminological thinking, starting with Classicism and moving onto Positivism both which lay the foundations for the development of sociological theories in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Analysis of the literature has highlighted the vast array of theories to which my attention will be paid.

However, due to the limitations of this piece of work and in order to provide an in-depth account of the usefulness of particular theories I have chosen to focus on two; Labelling Theory and Subcultural Theory. I will provide a thorough account of how they attempt to explain crime and how offenders are propelled into crime and the usefulness of such theories. Finally my analysis will focus on the role of these when working with offenders and will highlight the implications for probation practice. Different writers have attempted to construct historical connections for the development of criminology.

I will begin with the emergence of Classicism, which grew out of the Enlightenment movement in the eighteenth-century. This was influenced by the work of Cesare Beccaria and his publication the Dei Delitti e Delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishment) in 1764 (Beccaria, 1963, cited Cavadino and Dignan 2002, p46). This book provided a critique of the Criminal Justice System in Europe, which was deemed arbitrary and harshly retributive, dominated by capital and corporal penalties. Beccaria’s philosophical movement called for clarity in the law and due process in criminal procedure, combined with certainty and regularity of punishment.

Classical thinking viewed individuals as free-willed rational decision-makers whose choice to commit crime was guided by hedonism, in terms of maximum pleasure for minimum pain. The focus of Classicism was on the crime and not the social or physical chrematistics of the offender. It was also based on what Beccaria termed a ‘social contract’, a contractual relationship between the individual and the state to which individuals within society were bound. He believed that a social contract drawn up by rational people would create ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ (Rosher 1989, p5) and would mean that, individuals would be willing to grant Governments the power to punish to the extent that was necessary to protect themselves from the crimes of others’ (Cavadino & Dignan 2002, p46).

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The social contract required individuals to sacrifice a portion of their personal liberty in the interest of common good and the purpose of the law was to ensure that common interest were met. Beccaria proposed that ‘perpetual servitude’ had a greater deterrent effect than capital punishment and would therefore deter individuals from committing crime.

Criticisms of this school of thought spurred the emergence of Positivism. In contrast to Classicism, Positivism aims to search for the cause of crime within individual biology rather than free-will and relies upon a ‘scientific commitment to gathering the facts which cause crime’ (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner 2002, p623). Positivists believe that the causes of crime can be discovered by scientific investigation and that these are not necessarily genetic but may include environmental factors, for example upbringing, social acquaintances and education whose effects are beyond our control.

Lombroso was the founding father of Positivist criminology and his ideas were heavily influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution. He believed that those who became criminal were throwbacks to an earlier stage of biological development and that criminality was seen to be ‘no more the fault of the offender than illness is the fault of the invalid’ and both require ‘treatment and not blame’ (Cavadino ; Dignan 2002, p50). Positivists failed to see the reliability of deterrence as a form of punishment and favored methods of incapacitation and reform.

In contrast to Classicist thinking, the idea was not that punishment should fit the crime, but that treatment should fit the individual, this highlighting what is referred to as the ‘individualized treatment model’ (Cavatina ; Dignan 2002, p50). Despite development of these schools of thought, there was no consensus, only a diversity of values. As a result there spurred a wave of interest in ‘New Deviancy Theories’, whose focus was on the meaning of behaviour and led to the development of a range of new sociological theories, one of which being Labelling Theory (Becker 1963).

This theory originally based on ‘Symbolic Interactionism’ (Mead 1918, cited Roshier 1989, p42) and with tenets in the work of the Chicago School during the 1920’s and 1930’s, viewed criminality as socially produced behaviour influenced by the modernisation of society. According to Mead, stereotypical labels are used to make sense of other people based on cues and knowledge we have about them. Therefore in order to understand crime we must also concern ourselves with the activities of the individuals who appoint these labels as with the recipients (Roshier 1989).

Labelling Theory proposed that for an act to be considered criminal, it firstly had to be committed and secondly a group or individual with different values had to label the act as deviant. The emphasis was on the role of shared norms and values within society as it was these, which determined which behaviours came to be understood as deviant. This idea contains elements of Classical thinking as it was assumed that deviance was created by society, not in terms of the individuals social situation but in the fact that, social groups created deviance by making rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those to individuals’ (Becker 1963, cited Maguire, Morgan & Reiner 2002, p256) According to Lemert (1964), the consequence of being labelled a deviant means that the labelled person is treated differently and hence is cut off from the conventional setting within society. This in time is said to encourage the delinquent to develop a different conception of their self, otherwise known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Following this they often decide to live up to the label and act as the ‘thing he is described as being’ (Tannenbaum 1938, p19) which often leads to ‘secondary deviance’ (Lemert 1964, cited Roshier 1989, p44). This may be useful to understand why a particular offender embarks on a criminal career as seeing themselves as ‘once a criminal always a criminal’ may make them fee that there is no escaping a life of crime and hence they will revert to this. Concerns have risen as to the usefulness of labelling as a tool for reducing crime.

According to Schur (1973) and his book ‘Radical Non-intervention’ use of the law to criminalise particular individuals actually seems to increase crime. Schur (1973) believed that for those crimes where there were no victims, for example prostitution and gambling, the state should not interfere, as by incriminating individuals for these activities they actually make the situation worse. However, it was argued that each of these crimes do have very real victims, for example families of those gambling their earnings are likely to suffer.

Also critisisms of intervention by the state must be considered in terms of the time they were developed. For example, much of the idea of non-intervention was spurred during the 1960’s at a time when individuals had lost trust in the Government following the exposition of Government racism and an unwillingness to address injustice during the civil rights movement. This social reaction revolution did some good, for example it encouraged a level of tolerance of diversity and encouraged members of the community to think about the dangers of overreacting to deviance.

However, Labelling Theory provided no advice as to the limits of tolerating diversity (Roshier 1989 p40). Labelling Theory also fails to identify why individuals become involved and therefore is more reactive than proactive and is contingent, as many deviant acts are not witnessed or reported and therefore some individuals are likely to escape conviction. The implications for probation practice initially lie with the fact that labels are social constructs developed by those in powerful positions within society.

The labelling of specific acts as criminal is often determined by ‘moral panics’ which is spurred by extensive media coverage and sensationalism. Therefore, who is labelled and the impact of this is therefore out of the control of probation staff. Probation intervention will occur once the individual has acquired this label and therefore staff must be aware of not making assumptions about the offender based upon the label and must undertake work with this in mind. Those offenders who have come to accept the criminal label may see no way out and may be resentful towards probation, holding the opinion that nothing and no one can help them.

Many offenders once labelled see themselves as targets by officials and therefore negative experiences of dealings with the law may mean that they have little respect for authority. These negative attitudes are likely to lead offenders to justify and neutralise their offending behaviour via condemnation of the condemners (Sykes ; Matza 1957). This reduces the likelihood of them accepting responsibility for their actions and may mean that they are uncooperative and show little respect for officers, which will limit the effectiveness of work undertaken.

Probation’s ability to successfully re-integrate offenders into the community will be limited as once labelled it is significantly harder for offenders to find work, and housing and hence they are likely to remain excluded. Whilst referrals to partnership agencies, for example Housing, Employment, Drug Agencies can be made, these are only the fist step towards re-integration and it is down to the individual organisations, employers, educators and members of the public who will ultimately allow inclusion.

Labelling Theory is limited in terms of the control of crime as once labelled it is noted that offenders are more likely to re-offend (Lemert 1967). However it is noted that the threat of being ‘labelled’ may act as a natural deterrent, as it is only natural that we would prefer to avoid being stigmatized and hence may encourage people to consider their behaviour. Attention needs to be paid to ways in which labelling may help to reduce crime. According to Tyler (1990), the focus has shifted towards re-integrative shaming, a form of labelling which is seen to reduce crime.

This is said to be most effective when practiced by someone whose opinions matter to the offender. These ‘significant others’ may include parents, partners and probations officers, providing that they have had a positive experience in dealing with these individuals. The idea is that offenders will refrain from re-offending in order to meet the approval of these highly influential individuals. However, the idea of shaming is not without consequences as it relies upon the understanding that offenders have ‘significant others’.

If these fail to exist or the bonds are too weak then this proposed method of crime control could do more harm than good. There is a strong link between Labelling and Subcultural Theories of crime, and it is to the latter that my attention will now turn. Labelling Theorists view the formation of subcultures as arising from the fact that society creates similar types of outcasts with a common fate, who are stigmatized, or labelled in some form and as a result are forced at band together.

In doing so they create a unique culture that provides them with a status that members can live to and also a ‘venue where reinforcement, rationalizing, modeling and social learning if criminality occur’ (Braithwaite 1998, p21). According to Cohen (1955) and Miller (1958) (cited Braithwaite 1998, p21) subcultures are said to develop within the lower classes where there is said to be a ‘milieu of male delinquency’. Cohen (1955) made the assumption that whilst lower and middle classes begin their careers with a commitment to traditional success goals, lower class socialisation equips lower classes less adequately than middle class counterparts.

He states that as a result more lower class individuals become failures and hence develop feelings of shame, resentment and bitterness. It is at this point that those who experience similar rejection turn to like individuals and form their own ‘status system’ with values in opposition to those of the middle classes. This status may involve delinquent behaviour and support for this will exist as members of subcultures have a desire to satisfy and meet with the expectations of others.

According to Braithwaite (1998, p23) class differences are not an adequate explanation for greater delinquency. He argued that delinquent gangs are not consistently endorsed by lower class people and not all delinquents exhibit attitudes somewhat more tolerant of delinquency. Many serious repeat offenders place a higher value on conventional accomplishment than on success at breaking the law (Braithwaite 1998, p23), therefore this relates to Positivist thinking on how crime can be influenced by circumstances beyond our control.

However it is impossible to say that criminal subcultures do not exist as we are familiar with groups such as The Mafia, British Skinheads and Hell’s Angels. Whilst these are the more profound and organized groups, there still exists an array of subcultures within society who form on the basis of a common bond and in which illegitimate opportunities arise from peer support and from knowledge transmitted from other subcultural groups. To assess the usefulness of Subcultural Theory I will focus on violent crimes.

Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1964, cited Maguire et al 2002, p721) made an attempt to explain violence using Subcultural Theory. Whilst if failed to provide an account of why the subcultures develop initially, it was revealed that many acts of violence arise from trivial incidents, for example insults or jostles. It is the significance of these trivial incidents which is blown out of proportion when individuals from poor areas who have low self-esteem wish to demonstrate machismo, a ‘toughness’ and stance that ‘no one is going to push me around’ to rectify this.

This low self-esteem is said to develop from the fact that those within poorer areas lack legitimate opportunities to achieve success. For example, many youths fail to attend school or are disruptive which leads them to be rejected and means that their free time is spent mixing with like individuals. This rejection and alienation from conventional society has a profound effect on the development of group norms and values as they are inclined to feel anger and resentment toward those in authority (Cloward ; Ohlin 1960).

Once the group has developed a set of values and norms individual members will act in a way which adheres to these so that they are accepted, whether this involves committing crimes or covering for others in the interest of group solidarity. There is some usefulness in Subcultural Theory as it demonstrates how some individuals become involved in crime as a result of their own socialisation process, shaped by the area in which they live, their educational attainment and financial situation.

However, if fails to consider why some groups become involved in offending and others resist. The theory pays makes little reference to female offending , being of the opinion that females pursue less criminogenic and more attainable goals than men, namely marriage and family life and are therefore insulated from the social sources of delinquency (Downes ; Rock 1998). However within today’s society changes in family structures and the role of women means that females like males are at risk of becoming subsumed by subcultural groups and forced or encouraged to commit crimes.

The assumption that lower class individuals are most likely to form subcultures is not necessarily the case. The use of this thesis as the basis to explain crime and the control of crime is unreliable as there is no one homogenous group and how and why they come to be formed will vary dramatically. The use of Subcultural Theory to predict crime and the control of crime has implications for probation as subcultures develop in areas where individuals are forced to bond together following rejection by conventional society.

The factors which cause this are often related to personal circumstances, for example living in poor areas, being unemployed and mixing with like individuals. Probation has no control over the wealth and regeneration of particular communities and therefore individuals who remain within these areas are unlikely to escape involvement in criminal behaviour. However, probation can attempt to discover why offenders become part of groups by analysis of their personal circumstances and can seek to understand how they justify their behaviour (Sykes & Matza 1957).

Probation intervention is limited because advising an individual to avoid troublesome peers may require relocation to another area, which may be infeasible for a number of reasons, be it financial, ties to family or responsibilities. It would also mean that they would have to disengage themselves from the group. Individuals often develop a strong attachment to other group members as friendships would have developed over time, therefore they may not want to risk losing these friends or may fear that in going against the group their safety may be threatened.

Furthermore, once labelled criminal, individuals are forced to remain part of their subcultural group as integration into conventional society is difficult. The focus of probation is primarily on changing attitudes and values via referrals to programmes and by undertaking Cognitive Behavioural approaches, however this in itself will fail to prevent re-offending. Probation must also attempt to increase their opportunities in society, in order to encourage re-integration.

This can be done by focusing on areas such as employment, education and housing all of which will help to develop and maintain links with the community, however the success of this lies with society and whether they will accept offenders. In conclusion, the foundations of criminological thinking reside in the historical development of Classical criminology which reflected contemporary ideas about the social contract, rationality and utility and Positivist criminology, which celebrated what seemed to be the successful application of science and technology to human beings.

Both of these have played a role in the development of Sociological Theories. This paper has discussed the usefulness of two major Sociological Theories, that of Labelling and Subcultural and has identified that whilst both of these provide some insights into crime and the causes of crime they are not without limitations. Particularly they both fail to address how the individuals come to be labelled or to why some subcultural groups commit crimes and others do not.

Furthermore, both theories are based upon lower class males and therefore their applicability to women offenders and offenders of other classes and cultures is limited. Attempting to control crime using these theories is difficult as the circumstances under which offenders come to be labelled criminal or involved in criminal subcultures are deeply rooted in the macro environment, something which as Probation Officers, we have little control over.

Whilst we can attempt to address aspects of offenders lives, for example by making referrals to partnership agencies who are able to assist in finding employment and suitable housing, this will not and does not address the person’s problems immediately or the wider social conflict, for example area degradation and social disorganisation. However, it may act as a stating point, directing the offender in the right direction and may provide them with some hope to encourage them to make changes for themselves.


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