Essay: Why do individuals commit crime?

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  • Why do individuals commit crime?
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This essay will explore and critically discuss why I, personally, think individuals commit crime. There are many arguments over the definition of what is a criminal act. Within this essay I am discussing acts which are a violation of the law and anything which deviates from the expected social norms (Dubber, 2014). I will look in detail at Life Course Theory in regards to primary socialisation, self control and social institutions such as marriage. I will also explore Relative Deprivation and the Social Exclusion of an individual. These, I believe are all important factors into why an individual feels the need to commit, or is drawn towards a life of crime. I will also explore the aspect of mental health issues in relation to crime and how that may have an impact upon my coined and developed theory.
Criminological thesis have stemmed through centuries of investigation and learning. Due to milestones such as the enlightenment, a rationalised and scientific notion of the understanding of crime has evolved. My theory however, strays from conventional understandings of crime and focuses mainly on cultural and macro scale factors which can affect an individual, opposed to the conventional micro scale argument of blaming the individual and their biological differences (Hodkinson & Biesta, 2008). Although Life Course theory mainly applies and focuses on lower class males, I feel this is justifiable as the majority of crime is committed by males, as shown within our criminal justice system, therefore I feel it is acceptable to use this theory in an attempt to explain why the majority of individuals commit crimes, without presenting it as a blanket theory that explains all crime (Farrington, 2010).
There are many reasons as to why an individual may feel driven to commit crime or engage in delinquent behaviour. The life histories and future trajectories of individuals were largely neglected by early sociological research which led to Life Course Criminology evolving in 1960s. Life Course Theory allows the crossing of disciplinary boundaries, such as psychology and sociology, and the expected cultural borders in order to develop a more explored and researched explanation (Elder et al, 2003). Distinctive themes of Life Course Theory include the relation between individuals and an ever changing society, the timing of lives; interdependent lives for example spouses, and human agency. It is a contemporary, longitudinal theory which is formed around its concern for three main topics: the development of offending delinquency from the ‘womb to the tomb’, the influence of risk and protective factors at different ages and finally, the effects of life events on the course of development. This theory does not attempt to explain crime as a whole, but focuses on more common crimes such as theft, robbery, violence, drug use and so on (Farrington, 2010).
The age-crime curve is of great importance in life course theory. It provides us with evidence that criminal or delinquent behaviour starts between the ages of eight and fourteen, and peaks in late teenage years between fifteen and nineteen. However, Farrington (2003) argues the age-crime curve is heavily reliant on change and he merely describes the meaning of age to be found within individuals comparisons. On the other hand, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1983) argue that is age-crime curve is so consistent; it should be regarded as a constant. Sociological, psychological, or economic variables that correlate with age for example marriage can explain this ‘age effect’ (Greenberg 1985).
Farrington (2011) discusses the ten tenets of crime that are widely accepted and discussed in Life Course Theory. Within these he acknowledges, again, that the onset of offending is typically within the ages of eight to fourteen, and peaks within the late teenage years of fifteen to nineteen. The reasons for offending range from excitement/boredom to utilitarian explanations, each reason however is related to a different age, and for example shoplifting tends to appear before burglary, which links us back to the age-crime curve. Diversity within offences increases until the age of twenty, then an individual tends to specialise in particular crimes.
A fundamental factor of my chosen theory, Life Course, is parenting skills, which have a large impact on a child’s development, for example, if a child is not shown right from wrong at an early age due to inconsistent punishments and minimal involvement from the parents in the earlier socialisation process, it has the possibility to set them up for a delinquent or even a crime filled future (Patterson, 1982). Moffitt (1993) argues negative child-parent bonds increase the risk of introducing a child to a delinquent path that starts in the early teens and develops and persists into adulthood. If a child displays a specific delinquent behaviour, this may not be enlightenment to the future crimes they may commit, but they may be associated to their earlier behaviour. These however, may not always be crimes; it may simply be things which are viewed in today’s society as delinquent, for example excessive drinking or harsh discipline (Caspi & Moffitt, 1991).
Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) go further to say that a child brought up in a nurturing and structured environment, learn their rights and wrongs as they develop and these become internalised. Their cultural norms, values and social controls become a part of their identity. They argue that adult life experiences cannot be responsible for a change in an individual’s self control levels as self control is expected to stay at a stable level throughout a person’s life. They expand on this by saying that those who have less self control, are less likely to succeed within marriage or holding down a good job. Marital attachment and job stability had significant effects in reducing deviant behaviour during adulthood, even among those with a history of delinquency in childhood (Warr, 1998).
However, Sampson and Laub (1992) argue that the social institution, marriage itself, does not increase social control itself, but the emotional bonds between spouses. These strong attachments lead to a reduction in delinquent behaviour, an individual would rather invest social capital into their work and family lives, resulting in deterrence. Furthermore, Matza (1964) would argue those who have fewer responsibilities, and lack self control; Katz (1988) argues that self control is the strongest antidote to the seductions of crime (Pakes & Winstone, 2013) are able to have the freedom to drift in and out of crime or delinquent activity, as they have less consequence than those whom, for example, are married and have a family; this is known as drift theory.
Sampson and Laud (1993) argue that social capital derives from a strong set of social realtions that develop in an individual’s life, whether that be in their childhood, in school, or in the workplace. Social capital includes an abundance of social networks, ranging from close family members to the state itself (Coleman, 1990). Individuals are socialised into a society controlled by social and cultural capital, meaning they must constantly adapt to current circumstances. At each point in an individual’s life, certain transitions, for example graduating from school and moving into the job market, increases vulnerability and social security within areas which are argued to be culturally deprived (Bartley et al, 1997).
Societies which are known for their high income inequality, Kaplan (1996) argues, reject the political interests of those in a lower class, and focus upon those of the affluent class. Communities with large economic inequality show evidence of reduced investment in education, resulting in social disorganisation and increased risk of delinquency and unemployment rates (Kawachi et al 1999). Farrington (1986) argues, unemployment rates correlate with crime increase, although only crimes of financial gain, such as theft. There is no evidence to suggest that unemployment has an effect on other crimes such as violence or drug use, merely crimes of acquisitive gain.

This brings us to what is known as Relative Deprivation which is explained as: ‘If A, who does not have something but wants it, compares himself to B, who does have it, then A is ‘relatively deprived’ with reference to B. Similarly, if A’s expectations are higher than B’s, or if he was better off than B in the past, he may when similarly placed to B feel relatively deprived by comparison with him’ (Runciman, 1966: 10).
Capitalist society ensures that those of the lower class are constantly made aware of the high standard of living which can be achieved by everyone, as the bourgeoisie claim, and they do this via organisations such as the media. Economic inequalities are reinforced persistently by social agencies that are encountered on a daily basis. Ironically, it is argued that the institutions designed to reduce crime and deviance by socialisation of the proletariat, are in fact institutions that intensify the inequalities and motivate the lower class to commit a disproportionate rate of crime. Although it has been argued that poverty alone is the root of imbalance, Chester (1976) argues that frustration produced by relative deprivation is the key variable.
Wootton (1959) discusses who in the lower class commits the most crime. She notes that extreme poverty is mainly experienced by the old, sick and widowed, yet they contribute the least to the crime statistics. Economically speaking, the old are poorer than the young, and the women are poorer than the men, so if by poverty we mean ‘lack of worldly wealth’ then poverty appears to correlate with honesty. This suggests why, due to the lack of correlation between crime and poverty, Britain has failed to reduce crime rates.
Relative deprivation theorists argue that heightened goals, and aspirations that are created by improving the economic status, and conditions of an area create confusion between expectations and capabilities. This can create frustrations among individuals that can find expression in collective action. However, relative deprivation theory offers no explanation for how an individual’s discontent is organised into collective action (McAdam, 1982). Moreover, the theory does not explain why protest occurs when institutions are stable and why protest does not occur when they are fluid (Morris & Herring, 1986).
This leads us, finally, to the issue of mental health and crime. The World Health Organisation defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (World Health Organisation, 1948:100). Individuals must be able to participate in the economy of their community and society in order to obtain life and health sustaining services such as healthcare and education, therefore having the income to do so is vital. In order to create a sense of belonging and value, access to social status and integration within society must be at the forefront of an individual’s life, or they may experience social exclusion or anomie (Compton & Shim, 2015). If an individual becomes isolated they are vulnerable to mental health issues, leading to possible abuse of drugs or alcohol (Mind, 8th April 2015), which in effect, may lead to criminal or deviant behaviour. One mental health issue I have chosen to briefly study is psychopathy as it is closely associated with criminal and deviant behaviour. Symptoms include impulsivity, irresponsibility and lack of guilt, empathy or remorse, which indicates that individuals who suffer from this illness are much more likely than other individuals in society to break the expected rules and laws (Gray et al, 2013).
I have explored all aspects of my chosen theories, which I feel are an explanation as to why individuals commit crime, this theory is not a blanket explanation for all crimes, but attempts to provide an explanation for crimes such as theft. As Life Course Theory is a micro scale theory, it allows the researcher to focus upon on individual and examine their reasoning and/or explanation into the crimes they have committed. As a result, I feel have come to a valid conclusion that for example, if an individual is brought up poorly by their parents or guardians and has experience of other intertwining factors such as relative deprivation or anomie they are more likely to be attracted or driven into criminal or deviant activity. However, I am aware factors such as mental health can have an impact upon my theory, such as illnesses like psychopathy; psychopathic individuals may be viewed as an outlier as they may have a ‘normal’ upbringing but somehow be lead astray. Therefore, further research needs to be carried out into the correlation of mental health and crime before I can come to a solid conclusion.

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