Social Criminological Theories: A Comparison of Theories, and an Exploration into the Causes of Gang Violence

Crime and the City Solution
Crime and the City Solution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Elizabeth Hall

When dealing with Social School of Criminological Theories, there are three main categories of theory developed on the subject.  The American society we live in is filled with social strata, caused by the imbalanced distribution of wealth and power in a capitalist system (Siegel, 2010).  These theories are comprised of Social Structure Theories, which asserts that the main cause of crime is belonging to the underprivileged poor class of society, Social Process Theories, which claim that the main cause of crime is because of interactions that people have with associations, institutions of society, and various procedures within that society.  The last theory is the Social Control Theory, which maintains that crime is caused; by people’s ties that bind, those to societal rules become weakened.  After comparing and contrasting the theories, we will then apply them to the growing problem of gang violence plaguing our nation’s cities and streets.  The fact that gang activity develops rapidly in poorer neighborhoods does not surprise many criminologists, simply because it is in these areas of town that the environment promotes disillusionment and despair in youth when faced with the prospects that they are not provided with the same economic advantages that people associated with higher economic status are given (Siegel, 2008).  Joining gangs gives these youth a sense of belonging, and another attainable avenue to pursue economic wealth and status.
Social Structure Theories
The main tenet of social structure theories maintains that crime is committed because they are poor (Siegel, 2008).  These theories consist of the Social Disorganization Theories, the Strain Theories, and the Cultural Deviance Theories.  While all of the theories contained under the heading of social structure theories maintain that crime is committed because they belong to the poverty-stricken poor classes they all differ on some principles.  The socioeconomic structure of American society is the root cause of crime for all of the theories in this section.  Today, more than 37 million Americans live in destitution, populating the lower class neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods are filled, with insufficient housing, poor quality health care, dysfunctional family life, more depression, less employment, less desire to achieve, and more prone to producing people more inclined to immediate gratification.  These values are given from older members of the neighborhood, down to the youngest, which in turn, does the same.  (Siegel, 2010)
Social Disorganization Theories
     This subset of social structure theories deals mainly with situations concerning the settings and atmosphere of lower class neighborhoods such as deteriorating structures, less than adequate social control methods, and values, and gangs and criminals in these areas.  Chicago sociologists Clifford M. Shaw, and Henry D. McKay first made these theories popular when they associated living in disordered, mostly urban, highly populated inner city neighborhoods with unusually high crime rates.  The subgroups include concentric zones, social ecology, and collective efficacy.  (Siegel, 2010)
Shaw and McKay looked into the zoning of Chicago, and noted that the transitional neighborhoods (high crime, densely populated areas with high degrees of turnover in population) were in the concentric (high crime rate) zones.  They noticed that there are five distinctive zones or concentric circles, which have individual ecological differences and higher crime rates.  The five zones are all located in the transitional neighborhoods associated with inner city circles, while the circles with the least crime remain the areas farthest from the city.  The analysis of the data shows a constant precedent of higher crime in these zones, going back as far as the last 65 years.  The conclusion by Shaw and McKay is that these transitional neighborhoods have such diverse cultural differences because of all the foreign settlers in the areas, and diverse moral values as well.  These result in the children growing up in these concentric circles to notice that often the most financially successful people around them are the criminals.  These children end up adopting values, which do not stand up to traditional middle class values.  When shunned by their middle or upper class peers, they dive further into deviant values.  (Siegel, 2010)
The social ecology school of criminology was first developed in the 1980’s by a group of criminologists trying to alter the path of social disorganization theory.  This subgroup continues to recognize that deteriorating structures in the community and economical factors cause crime, but ignore any thoughts that social values and norms having to do with crime causation.  Their main tenets are community deterioration and chronic unemployment and community fear, are the reasons for crime.
Collective efficacy supports social control.  Criminologists under this school of thought believe that there are three forms of collective efficacy.  Informal social control, which asserts that peers, and family members, wields informal control through the rewards or approval, and punishment or disapproval, along with levels of respect and admiration showed in regards to actions taken.  Institutional social control, maintains that involvement in church groups, school functions, and afternoon programs help to control crime.  (Siegel, 2010)
Strain Theory
Strain Theory maintains that it is the clash between resources, and goals, that is the main cause of crime.  This includes the capitalist system itself, because its’ irregular allocation of prosperity and affluence cause the lower class people in our society to commit crime.  These people feel alienated from the “normal” middle class people due to the inability to obtain wealth and power through traditional legal means.  In turn, lower class people begin to feel deprived because they still want to achieve normal status, and frustration sets in.  This frustration causes people to seek alternate methods of obtaining these goals.  (Siegel, 2008)
Robert Merton’s Theory of Anomie states that two components present in society must intermingle to cause anomic conditions.  Socially delineated goals, and means of achieving these goals, that is condoned by society, collide and create anomie (strain) in lower class areas.  He proposes that each person in society has their own ideas about what the societal goals are.  They also have their own ideas on which way to achieve them.  (Siegel, 2008)
According to Siegel (2010), Crime and the American Dream, properly known as Institutional Anomie, founded by Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld, applies Merton’s theory to the macro level, and theorizes that disruptive, anti constructive behavior serves a definite purpose in society due to cultural and institutional pressures.  They observe that because our American system, based upon capitalism, leaves all other social norms and configurations present but falling below the importance of the economy, in our society, the American Dream and our capitalistic society inherently cause people to feel the need to achieve these materialistic goals by any means necessary.
General Strain Theory, which is conducted on the micro-level, declares that crime is the consequence of numerous types of strain, which produce negative affective states.  These are emotions such as anger, frustration, and rage, which become part of people’s lives after they have had pessimistic and damaging social relationships.  Robert Agnew popularized this theory, and stresses that negative affective states are caused by many different causes of strain.  Some of these causes are; failure to accomplish goals that are encouraged by society, disconnection of hope and accomplishments, elimination of optimistically treasured stimuli, and the appearance of negative stimuli.  Strain and the more frequently it occurs, the larger effect it has on someone.  When people fall under strain, the likelihood of experiencing negative affective states is larger, and may cause continuing antisocial behavior, and effectively create gang members, and other career criminals.  (Siegel, 2010)
Cultural Deviance Theories
This division of social structure theory pairs the results of social disorganization with strain results to declare that crime is caused by living in depreciating areas, and experiencing strain during this time.  They respond to the societal segregation and monetary deficiency by creating a self-regulating subculture, with their own values and regulations.  This subculture places importance on values such as “excitement, toughness, risk-taking, fearlessness, immediate gratification, and “street smarts”” (Siegel, 2010).  People belonging to deviant subcultures may find that their loyalty lays more in deviant behavior and to the neighborhood gang members than they do are loyal to concerns about making the neighborhood or community better.  (Siegel, 2010)
Thorsten Sellin published Culture, Conflict, and Crime, which works on the premise that the criminal justice systems’ laws reflect the standards of the dominant parts of society, the middle class for example.  The wording that the law contains may present people with these values, which cause people with other sets of values to create their own rules of normal accepted conduct, which rules the day-to-day activities that these people live by.  (Siegel, 2010)
Walter Miller established that focal concerns were the main factors determining what lower class people used to define their value systems, and denote how they should conduct their lifestyles.  These people conform to these focal concerns to the point that they dominate their lives.  Miller maintains that it is the conformance to these focal concerns, which are the root cause of crime.  (Siegel, 2010)
Albert Cohen introduced the theory of delinquent subcultures, in 1955.  The tenet of this theory is that lower class youths use crime as a form of rebellion against the rules and regulations of the middle class.  Cohen theorizes that since they cannot achieve normal middle class success, they instead go through status frustration.  In order to relieve the strain, they join gangs and other criminal groups where their deviant behavior is accepted and rewarded.  (Siegel, 2008)
The theory of differential opportunity popularized by Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin states that social disorganization and strain cause people to form subcultures, which form and maintain gangs and other criminal groups.  They do this because they cannot achieve conventional success, so they join enterprises that reward deviant behavior to attain success.  This behavior is rewarded because it is the exact opposite of what normal society wants or accepts.  (Siegel, 2008)
Social Process Theories
These theories reflect that people having negative relationships with people and institutions they are around daily cause crime.  Family relationships play a critical role in determining criminality.  If the relationships are positive then people can succeed within the boundaries of the law.  It is when these relationships are not positive that the criminal element is formed.  Since they cannot realistically succeed in the conventional way, criminal measures may be the only practical way to achieve success.  This subgroup of theories include, social learning, differential association theory, neutralization theory, and social reaction theory.  (Siegel, 2008)
Social Learning Theory
Social learning theory emphasizes that people learn their behaviors by watching others either receiving rewards for bad behavior, or receiving punishment because of bad behavior.  The theory bases its assumptions on the principal that if we as people do not learn from each other, by example, we would never learn or accomplish anything.  The theory asserts that behavior is a thing that we learn through our experiences and the system of rewards or punishments that come with our particular lifestyles.  A person imitates media figures, family members, and mentors because they idolize them and want to be like them.  We ultimately are a product of our environment and lifestyles, because it is through these interactions with others, that we form our own individuality.  (Siegel, 2010)
Differential Association Theory
Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory asserts that anyone can commit criminal acts regardless of class or social standing.  He theorized that all criminal behavior is learned behavior, picked up from interaction with other people, or by mass media.  However, this learning takes place in personal small groups as people socialize.  Learning this behavior involves conforming to the techniques and ideals of the teacher.  When people go through culture conflict, after introduction, to both the right and wrong ways of the law, the decision to commit criminal acts is chosen, when the reward for committing the act outweighs the punishment.  (Siegel, 2010)
Neutralization Theory
Neutralization theory maintains that criminals go through the process of mastery in their criminal endeavors that allow them to counteract normal values and drift from normal to criminal values and back.  Criminologists within this school of thought view people as neither all good nor all bad.  The reasoning behind this theory is that America is divided by what is called subterranean values.  These are influences, which have been tweaked by values that are present in society that are part of the culture, yet still illegal, such as smoking marijuana.  This theory argues that criminals spend a good portion of their time engaging in legal activities and lifestyles.  When the need arises to “drift” into criminal behavior, these perpetrators do so, then “drift” back into conventional behavior.  These criminals use techniques such as denying responsibility, denying that they caused any harm to anyone, or rationalizing crimes committed by the idea that the victim asked for the victimization by some action that they have done.  They also rationalize their crimes by appealing to their loyalty to their peer groups, or condemning anyone responsible for condemning them.  This could be judges, police, teachers, or even parents.  The criminals just convince themselves that everyone else is wrong as well.  (Siegel, 2010)
Social Reaction Theory   
Social reaction (Labeling) theory operates under the premise that negative social interaction, destructive relationships, and social encounters are the reason for crime causation.  The theory maintains that people who engage in negative behavior are labeled by society by the negative behavior, and that this tag may remain with you for life because of the way this labeling affects people’s self-image.  Criminologists, who follow this school, believe that crime is characterized by the public’s reaction and the consequence of their reactions to the behavior.  This theory does not reflect on the morality of the actual behavior.  This theory also bases its ideas on the premise that the powerful and wealthy benefit from it, while the lower class is punished by it.  This theory also asserts that once you have been labeled, delinquency increases, and the labeling process diminishes one’s self-image.  (Siegel, 2010)
Social Control Theory
Social control theorists believe that any person has the propensity to commit crime.  The theory goes on further to state that crime is attractive and lucrative.  Criminologists ask the question when using this theory why not commit crime.  The answer that they have come up with is that some people obey the rules because of a sense of morality, while others conform to the socialization of society, and obey the rules out of a sense of commitment to that conformity.  Earlier versions of social control theory claim that people with weak egos, low self-esteem, and no self-control commit crimes.  (Siegel, 2008)
Social Bond Theory
     Travis Hirschi founded the social bond theory of crime causation.  This theory claims that it is our social bonds with others, which keep people from committing crimes.  Hirschi believed that all people could commit crime, but the motivation for not committing crime comes from the fear that teachers, parents, friends, peers, and mentors would not approve of their behavior.  He maintained that there are four main elements of social bonds: attachment, commitment, heavy involvement in social activities, and sharing moral beliefs with people who are in the same social standing as you.  (Siegel, 2008)
       While all of the social theories deal with crime causation, the differences are clear. With the social structure theories, it is the socioeconomic structure, which is responsible for causing crime.  The social process theories blame crime causation on the negative relationships with people have with peers, relatives, mentors and local institutions such as schools, or afterschool programs.  The last theories, the social control theories, claim that anyone has the capability to commit crime.  People refrain from committing crime in fear of upsetting the ties to normal society.  Criminals commit crime due to a lack of these ties.
An Exploration into Gang Violence through Social Theory
The American Society has a growing problem with gang activities and violence happening in our country.  Criminologists and sociologists have studied this problem through theory, and feel like the causation of gang involvement can be explained by five factors relating to the theories.  These factors are availability of firearms, having a low commitment to school, family history of problem behavior, having relationships with peers and parents that approve of negative behavior, and associating with people who display problematic behavior.  ( Battin-Pearson, S.R., Hawkins, J.D., Hill, K.G., & Howell, J.C., 1999)
The availability of firearms relates to differential opportunity theory.  According to this theory, all people have the same goals, but lower class people do not have the means to achieve these goals.  The frustration this causes makes them more susceptible to joining gangs, because of the desire to succeed somewhere.  In addition, this type of desire to succeed causes people to seek out deviant behavior because it makes them rebel against conventional norms.
Social reaction theory accounts for a low degree of commitment to school.  This theory claims that labeling people affects their self-esteem.  It focuses on the negative and destructive behaviors that lie on the fringe of acceptance.  It claims that once a person is labeled, they will always be associated with the negative behavior that they were labeled.  This produces apathy and depression, which produces low degrees of commitment to school and other institutions.  People then find other means than education to achieve their goals.
Social learning theory promotes that people learn negative behaviors from each other.  This is why a family history of problem behavior fits this theory.  Children, who grow up in violent, abusive homes, learn to abuse people and that resorting to violence solves problems.  Gangs only use violence to solve problems.
The theory that explains the cause of people joining gangs because they grew up in homes and environments with family and friends who approve of antisocial behavior is collective efficacy.  This theory assumes that family members and friends exert informal control with their approval or disapproval of actions.  Many younger gang members come from families of current and former gang members.  These parents do not see anything wrong with their children’s behavior because they did it themselves, and encourage the association with the gang.
The theory of deviant subculture explains why people join gangs.  They are nothing but groups of people intent on engaging in problematic behavior.  Association with these peers and condoning their behavior eventually leads to joining the gang and doing all of the violent activities right alongside of them
Because of the stratified society that Americans live in, our culture is in a constant state of struggle between the middle class and lower class people.  Street gangs are formed, and commit violence, because of these social strata and the effect it has on the community.  The social need to succeed in our society by obtaining power and wealth, overshadowed by the fact that only the wealthy and powerful create the rules of our capitalist society, causes strife within the ranks of people who cannot achieve normal successes.  These people then turn to gangs, and criminality to relieve the frustration that this causes, and to achieve success in their own subcultures.

Battin-Pearson, S.R., Hawkins, J.D., Hill, K.G., & Howell, J.C., (1999).  Childhood Risk Factors for Adolescent Gang Membership: Results from the Seattle Social Development Project.  Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 36 No. 3, August 1999.  Sage Publications, Inc.
Siegel, L. J. (2008).  Criminology: The Core.  Third Edition.  Belmont, Ca. Cengage Learning
Siegel, L.J. (2010).  Criminology: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies.  Tenth Edition.  Belmont:    
             Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

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