Midcentury Causal Theories

Some Topics[2]

Origins of Social Causation

  1. Émile Durkheim
  2. Social Facts
    1. Treat social facts as things
    2. Explain social facts with social facts
  3. Regulation and integration and suicide


e.g., jumping on grenade
e.g., honorific, ritualistic suicide such as hari-kari (SP?)
"excessive individualism," "cult of the individual," "goallessness,"
Sudden loss of sense of social regulation, e.g.:economic disasters and surges in prosperity

**TAKEAWAY: social environment, social world, surroundings as cause

Place Matters

  1. The Chicago School
    1. William Isaac Thomas and Florian Znaniecki: attitudes/values form in process of interaction with situation
    2. Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess: cities as environments, urban zones, natural areas
    3. Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay: mapping delinquency matched natural areas over time even though different groups — delinquency not group characteristic but zone
    4. Social Disorganization : in some areas, family, neighborhood, local institutions do not provide the necessary guidance, socialization, feedback, etc. necessary to avoid delinquency

Superseded by other theories, but big contemporary focus on neighborhoods, importance of local institutions, community policing, etc.

Subcultural Theories

  • Premise: Deviant behavior just as much a learned behavior as conforming behavior
  • Challenge: Need to explain process by which place matters

Cohen’s Subculture Theory[1]

Main book: Delinquent Boys (1955)

Predominance of non-purposive, gang related behavior, often malicious, irrational, deliberately hurtful.

This symbolic acting out reflects Status Frustration = conflict between achieved status and middle class values presented in school and the ascribed status and real obstacles they see in their family life.

Status frustration leads to reaction formation that involves substituting a set of "gang" values for those of middle class society. In place of mainstream norms that say one is supposed to have ambition, take responsibility, focus on achievement, delay gratification, be rational, use time constructively, respect property, we find rejection of ambition, excuse making, rejection of school, pleasure seeking, destructive behavior, and hanging out. These things are seen by Cohen as a rejection of middle class culture and replacement with a coherent set of values and practices.

Although superceded by theories that took a more nuanced view, these ideas survive in contemporary views of "gangsta" and "ghetto" culture.

Lower Class Culture as a Deviance Generating Milieu [3]

  1. Miller, Walter B. (see annotation)
  2. Pushed beyond taking middle class culture as norm for culture per se
  3. What it takes to survive/thrive in some contexts may be at odds with "middle class culture"
    • "trouble" is an everyday category
    • toughness, street smarts as survival skills
    • search for excitement/thrills
    • fatalism: what happens beyond my control
    • desire for autonomy - resentment of rules/authority
  4. Big focus on peer group as reference group — cf. Merton and others.

Sutherland’s Theory of Differential Association

  1. Focus shifts more to how than why
  2. Behavior and attitude learned in interaction in groups
  3. We learn techniques, values, attitudes, rationalizations, etc.
  4. One becomes delinquent if the balance of what one is exposed to is in that direction
  5. Both conforming and non-conforming behavior generated by same needs/desires

Strain Theories

Society puts people in a bind — you should want X but you can't have X. Psychologically, it's about wants/desires again, but values recognized as "universal" with addition of unequal distribution of access or means of achieving them.

Merton’s Theory of Anomie

  1. Robert K. Merton - major figure in 20th c American sociology
  2. the pursuit of legitimate ends by illegitimate means.
Adaptation Cultural Goals Institutionalized Means Examples
Conformity accept accept
Innovation accept reject Robber barons, "smarts," wheeling/dealing, tolerance for rogues, much white collar crime, organized crime. Expect among lower class?
Ritualism reject accept Is it deviant? Giving up. "I'm not sticking my head out?" "Don't aim high and you won't be disappointed." Expect among lower middle class?
Retreatism reject reject Probably least common. Psychotics, autists, pariahs, outcasts, vagrants, tramps, drug addicts. Failure leads to giving up on the goals as well as the means. Dropping out.
Rebellion replace replace Reject status quo and actively attempt to set up alternative goals and means.

Note: gist is "they want what they can't have"…

Robert Agnew’s General Strain Theory (GST)

  1. Merton said what you want is "normal" but you can't get it legitimately so you break the rules
  2. Agnew says situation/environment might be intolerable and what we see is attempt to escape.
  3. Argument starts with fact that as explanation of lower class deviance doesn't work so well and for other classes even less
  4. So, revise with short-term-ness of young folks' goals
  5. But still all based in idea that "blockage" happens with respect to pursuit of goals. Change focus to pain-avoidance. Situation is aversive but one cannot escape.
    • Cf. contemporary work on bullying.

Cloward and Ohlin’s Differential Opportunity Theory (c. 1960) [3]

  1. Building on Merton but taking "means" (both legit and illegit) as variables.
  2. One needs access to a criminal means — it's not just automatically a fall back if legit means not available
  3. Three possible outcomes
    1. Access to legit means blocked but illegit means available : criminal subculture (normal criminal behavior)
    2. No access to local criminal culture - leads to gang violence as release for anger/frustration - conflict subculture
    3. Some will, in the face of double failure go in the direction of retreatist subculture — dropping out, drugs, etc.
  4. Cloward, co-founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization, big force behind "motor voter"
  5. Wrote "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty" with Frances Piven in The Nation in 1966. It advocated ending poverty by pushing federal government to implement guaranteed minimum income. Some right wing activists treat this article as a founding document in the liberal effort to ruin America.
  6. Ohlin worked for Mobilization for Youth in the 1950s. It was forerunner of War on Poverty programs of the 1960s.

GIST: Delinquency not product of youth who are bad, but rather a product of poverty.

Matza’s Theory of Delinquency and Drift

  • Rejects ideas that (1) individuals are "committed" to delinquent life style or (2) forced into it by structural forces.
  • Rather, it's a biographical process of decisions and choices
  • If there are "subcultural norms" they permit deviation from dominant norms more than require it

Sykes and Matza "techniques of neutralization"

  • Rejects idea that delinquents have their own subcultural values. We know, we just need rhetoric and styles of thinking that allows us to blunt social norm voice in the head.
  • Sykes also wrote The Society of Captives, one of the founding documents of prison sociology.
  • Deviants and non-deviants share culture but deviant is able to redefine behavior so it fits with social values
  • These techniques are extensions of patterns of thought already expressed in society. Bending the rules is a normal social behavior that we find all across the social system.
  1. denial of responsibility
    • unintentional
    • due to causes beyond one's control
    • allows one to deviate without making a frontal assault on norms
  2. denial of injury
    • mala per se vs. mala prohibita
    • no one is hurt by action or victim can well afford it
  3. denial of victim
    • victim transformed into wrongdoer, into deserving it, etc.
    • perpetrator thinks of self as avenger
    • Robin Hood syndrome
  4. condemnation of the condemners
    • see condemners as hypocrites, etc.
  5. appeal to higher loyalties
    • conflict of loyalties solved at the expense of victim or loyalty to law and society in favor of smaller group to which purpetrator owes some kind of allegiance. Psychologically we sometimes see people trying to take credit for their being faithful to the smaller group.

Class Exercise — a variation on charades or the game show password

  1. Review 7 theories
  2. Break up into pairs
  3. Two decks of cards: one of theories and one of scenarios
  4. Turn over a scenario card and announce.
  5. One of the two players gets a theory card and only she looks at it. She then describes an explanation for the behavior in the scenario that illustrates the theory.
  6. Teammate has to guess the theory
  7. Provide that type of explanation for the deviant behavior in question
Durkheim Disorganization Subculture Differential Association Strain Neutralization Opportunity
14 yr old pregnant
Politician takes bribe
Personal asst steals
Transfer student cheats
Corrupt cops
Banker 2008
Slimy mortgage broker
Occ Oak gets violent
1. Hamlin, John. Sociology 3315 Notes. Retrieved 20120206.
2. Sage Publications Intro Text
3. Stow University (UK). Criminology Handouts. Retrieved 20120206.