Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gang crime, and crime as a hobby

Is crime really about wealth?

One persistent idea, chiefly advocated by strain theory, is that crime is motivated by the pursuit of wealth or opportunity. That is, a person commits a crime in order to better his life. We may not approve of his methods, but after all, don’t we all want the same thing in the end? And some crimes do involve either increasing the offender’s wealth or his perceived status among peers. Take the example of gangs. The gang some argue offers friendship and, through drug dealing or theft, the potential for riches - riches the member feels are otherwise beyond his ability, due to limited education or unjust discrimination.

However despite its lucrative reputation, the benefits of the drug trade to the average gang member are pitiful even compared to opportunities in poorer neighborhoods. Steven Levitt, one of the authors of Freakonomics, wrote a paper with a sociology graduate student to determine the workings of a large drug operation. The student had received the financial records from a gang he was interviewing in 1989. This gang was one of 100 branches of a drug trading organization. Those at the top, the 20 "bosses", each received a $500,000 annual salary from the total revenue, and the head of each branch received $100,000. However a "foot soldier" would earn only $3.30/hr, or less than minimum wage. This, he jokes, is why drug dealers still live with their moms. Add to this the risk of arrest, and clearly a job at a drive-thru window is both safer and more profitable for most than work in a drug gang.

Why, then? Because they enjoy it.

Most gang crimes are not aimed at any material gain at all, nor are all gangs involved in the black market. An early study conducted by Albert Cohen in his book Delinquent Boys found that the gang activities observed were instead an exhibition of “gratuitous hostility”.

A group of boys enters a store where each takes a hat, a ball or a light bulb. They then move on to another store where these things are covertly exchanged for like articles. Then they move on to other stores to continue the game indefinitely. They steal a basket of peaches, desultorily munch on a few of them and leave the rest to spoil. They steal clothes they cannot wear and toys they will not use.

In Lower Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency, Walter Miller observed that gangs act on certain ideas of "toughness" or "smartness"; entertainment would come at the expense of others either through intimidation, baiting and violence, or swindle. Miller notes the disdain of delinquents for honest work and formal education, the latter being “overtly disvalued and frequently associated with effeminacy”.

Whatever benefits a youth gains from a gang, material prosperity is low on the list. Furthermore, the crime is not a means to obtain benefits; the opportunity to commit crime is a benefit - a benefit enjoyed because of certain attitudes and beliefs not shared by the general population.

Scratching the surface

A gang is a group of young people which enjoys similar delinquent activities, much as other groups are formed based on shared interests, such as sports or video games. The crimes they commit are not a means to some other universal goal, but are a form of entertainment in themselves. In fact why they should find crime entertaining is a question that receives very little attention. Instead, we have an endless parade of theories suggesting that the criminal is merely a victim of pressures from his community, the “inequities of capitalism”, or from television and video games. He is either lashing out because he’s been made poor and helpless, or because we’ve brainwashed him with violent impulses beyond his control.

Of course not all crime shares entertainment as the motivation. Some crimes are recreational, while others are outbursts of anger or attempts to act out perverse fantasies (such as in the case of serial violent crimes, including murder, rape, and arson). Underlying these emotions are attitudes and worldviews – such as a victim mentality or worship of physical force and violence. The criminal behaves differently, unsurprisingly, because he thinks differently.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The error of putting yourself in a criminal’s shoes

Many people develop natural but erroneous assumptions about motives for crime. These include:

1) The crime was committed to fulfill a need.
2) The crime was a response to unique stress or emotional distress.
3) The criminal believes what he is doing is right.

For example, when we fiction readers think of a thief, our mind might go to the character Jean Valjean, from Les Miserables; in other words, to a criminal created from the desperation of poverty and human suffering. And street criminals are far more likely to win the sympathy of listeners than a wealthy embezzler or extortionist. The presence of suffering invites sympathy as a reflex, and we end up putting ourselves in the criminal’s shoes. When we do this we imagine scenarios where even we might break the law.

This begins what is known in intelligence analysis as “mirror-imaging” - when a person processes information about an event through his own experience. By substituting his experience and personality for the other person’s, this can lead to a greatly distorted understanding of behavior.

Seeing someone suffering commit a crime, one imagines himself in a similar position and draws conclusions about what might have caused the behavior. For example he decides that a criminal without a job would be less likely to recidivate if he had work skills or a better education. But because he is extrapolating from his own psychology, these conclusions only blind him to facts. He doesn’t notice that the criminal had a job, but lost it for mouthing off to his boss and missing work; that he was in school, but dropped out. And the underlying reasons for those behaviors are invisible, because they aren’t being studied.

This is why psychology is such a valuable tool for criminology. To avoid carrying assumptions to an analysis of crime, we have to fill in that blank space titled “why did he do it?” with research, not role play.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What is terrorism, really?

The word “terrorism” refers to acts of destruction used against groups to compel them to make changes in behavior or policies. Examples of terrorist groups range from the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) to Al Qaeda. The climate of terror during the aftermath of an attack, due in part to the trauma of victimization and also to the threat of future attacks, is intended to cow communities and leaders into submission.

However, the use of fear to control others is not a tactic particular to “terrorism”, making the term a somewhat inappropriate identifier. Fear and intimidation are also used in acts such as kidnapping, ransoming, and rape. This fear might be used to extort money, favors, or silence and passivity from the victim. The common denominator is not any particular form of demand - which will vary by the offender - but the desire for the power to make those demands.

When concerning rape this point is generally understood. The ultimate goal of the rapist is not sex, but the submission of the victim. According to the FBI's Crime Classification Manual, "for some rapists the need to humiliate and injure through aggression is the most salient feature of the offense, whereas for others the need to achieve sexual dominance is…" Stanton Samenow writes that,

At stake in a rape is the criminal's affirmation of his image of himself as powerful and desirable...Her attempts to ward him off only heighten his excitement. Then he tries to reduce her to a quivering, pleading speck of humanity and helps himself to what he believes was rightfully his from the start. Brute force is rarely necessary because intimidation works.

The victim's humiliation not only excites him, but serves as his protection. A humiliated and demoralized victim is less likely to report the crime or resist future attacks.

As the goal of a rapist is the subjugation of an individual to his wishes, terrorists seek to subjugate a community, business or government to theirs. This is accomplished, as it is with rape, through a combination of physical attacks and intimidation.
Understanding terrorist statements to the public

One obstacle to understanding the motives of terrorists is that even when their violent actions are almost universally condemned, the grievances and demands they present usually resonate with the mission of some peaceable activists. This clash of values creates debate and mixed sympathies. And this is not accidental, but by design. Demands are used by terrorist groups to cast themselves as victims of their target's unjust policies. It is important to view any public statement made by terrorists not as the ultimate reason for their actions, but as an attempt in itself to assert moral superiority and diminish the confidence and moral certainty of their target. Essentially they attempt, as rapists do, to "reduce [their victim] to a quivering, pleading speck of humanity". This is pursued through public statements and even flyers containing moral denouncements of the target group.

However for a moral denunciation to be effective, it must be rooted in a belief held by the victim. A rapist uses a woman’s insecurities against her. Denouncing her in the language of his own misogynistic world-view would be ineffective. Similarly, many times the grievances of terrorists are presented in a way to exploit moral controversy.
For example, in The Al Qaeda Reader, Raymond Ibrahim analyzes and compares communications by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to audiences in Muslim countries and to audiences in the West. The narratives differ completely. Al Qaeda urges Muslim audiences to kill Americans as part of their duty to religious jihad. Religious scripture is quoted extensively to justify violence in the name of compelling infidels to submit to the word of Allah. The West, and America especially, are villainized because they dare to write their own laws, defying religious commandment. The government of Saudi Arabia is denounced as corrupt for its alliance with the secular US, and for allowing American presence on its holy soil. However if this reasoning had been directly communicated to the US and to American Muslims, it would have emboldened Americans to fight against a tyrannical ideology not unlike that of the Christian Church during the Dark Ages.
Instead, bin Laden chose to confine his public rebuke to America’s military presence, its strikes against targets in the Middle East, and support for Israel - policies that have been the subject of serious controversy and public uncertainty in America for decades. While Al Qaeda certainly wishes the US to break its alliance with Israel, it was not expedient to also explain the underlying and much broader goal of spreading state Islam and subjugating or killing non-believers.

Interestingly, the picture bin Laden painted of America is one of a despotic world bully, which seems hypocritical in light of his own support for the truly barbaric and brutal rule of the Taliban. It seems hypocritical, that is, unless you consider that public statements and propaganda issued by Al Qaeda are intended to advance its goals as much as any planned attack. A victim who feels guilty, who believes he is responsible for the attacks against him, will lack the strength to resist.

Terrorists are not freedom fighters

It is sometimes said that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", suggesting that the actions of a terrorist could be viewed as monstrous or heroic depending on the side one is on. Following 9/11 the question ringing in the air was, "why do they hate us?" Perhaps projecting their own experience and morality onto our attackers, some (such as Ron Paul) believed that the attacks were retaliation for American policies violating freedoms in the Muslim world. However, terrorists do not act to advance their own freedoms, but to deny the freedoms of others. They are not fighting for the betterment of their lives, but for power over the lives of others. Certainly they represent a "side", but theirs is the side of rapists and dictators who thrill in breaking the spirit of their victims.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Conservative vs. liberal criminology

Two perspectives on crime

So far I’ve spent much time in the blog reviewing (and criticizing) what are sometimes referred to as “conservative” theories of crime. While these theories are described as defending individual responsibility, individual choice and rationality, they do these things in name only. From the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham to the social control theories of today, I’ve argued that conservative models are in fact deterministic. Mandatory sentencing and drug prohibition are examples of policies attempting to manipulate criminal thinking, treating criminals as machines whose behavior can be changed with pokes and prods. Alter the punishment for a crime and, it’s argued, that crime will cease to be appealing. Clean his body of drugs and, it’s argued, the criminal will no longer feel violent impulses. At no point is the criminal’s actual motivation and thinking engaged or challenged.

And sadly, no better theories exist within the “liberal” schools to address this deficit. At first, there seem to be a variety of theories that present motivations for crime, motivations that would set criminals apart from other individuals. However these motivations are not derived from psychological research or interviews, but are instead deduced from a sociological worldview. While I won't fully explore each theory in this post, I do want to introduce that worldview.

If I were to name the essential premise of the conservative school of criminology, it would be that humans are criminal by nature, and must learn to suppress or otherwise disincentivize this behavior.

If, then, I were to name the essential premise of liberal theories, it would be that “crime” is backlash caused by social injustice. “Crime” is in scare quotes here because these theories treat criminal behavior as a symptom, a consequence of problems in society. To punish an offender, according to this school of thought, ultimately “ignores the disease”.


What are examples of the "disease"? According to strain theory, inequalities of wealth and status. These inequalities create feelings of envy and frustration that are relieved by means of criminal activity, such as theft.

Labeling theory argues that crime can be caused by the internalization of negative labels. A juvenile who is repeatedly called a “delinquent” by authority figures may feel forced to accept the label and the role.

Others argue that many criminals are simply mentally ill, and that crime results because we are punishing offenders rather than seeing that they get the treatment they need.

So while conservatives subscribe to a psychological determinism, liberal theories subscribe to a social determinism. In other words, these theories hold that crime is caused by social forces, not individual choice. For an example on how this approach is used to study crime, see my blog post on the article, "Dropout and Delinquency". Rather than studying the mind of juvenile delinquents or criminals, social determinists attempt to predict social forces that would account for behavior, and measure their presence. Just as conservative research measures the presence of alcohol or drugs, or discipline in the home. In this way, the two perspectives don't appear so different in their treatment of the criminal, as a person moved like a puppet by outside forces.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

White collar crime and feelings of entitlement

Myths surrounding white collar criminals

In "The Perils of Fraud Detection", an article published recently in The Forensic Examiner, Frank Perri exposes misperceptions about white collar criminals. Generally they are regarded as "one-shot" offenders. They have the reputation of being "'good people' who committed a 'bad act'". You might have in your mind characters from the comedy "Office Space", who fantasized about and then carried out an embezzlement scheme against their "evil" employer that quickly got out of hand, with humorous results and one-liners about prison rape.

In fact, according to Perri, white collar criminals are often repeat offenders and share the same attitudes toward crime as non-white collar criminals. The article reviews six cases in which individuals under investigation for fraud or embezzlement committed murder in the attempt to avoid detection. In one case, the head of a diamond company fabricated invoices to get advance payments and then hired a hitman to kill co-workers who could implicate him. Perri is clear that such cases are rare, yet they shatter the myth that white-collar criminals are innately nonviolent or otherwise averse to criminal behavior.

The article then describes warning signs that can be used to spot potential for workplace violence, using profiles of white-collar criminals. Personality traits he warns of include: "blames others for his or her problems, displays a sense of entitlement, exploitative, egocentric, grandiosity, difficulty taking criticism, and feels victimized." Offenders believe that they are entitled to commit fraud and feel victimized when that entitlement is challenged. Narcissistic psychopaths are more likely to then retaliate with violence or homicide.

I should call special attention to feelings of entitlement and victimization, which appear common among the criminal population, as explored in a previous post. Also, in Inside the Criminal Mind, Stanton Samenow described an exchange with a teenage delinquent he believed was characteristic of the criminal's lack of empathy for their victims. The teen had robbed a bank at gunpoint. Because he had not fired the gun, he could not understand that any harm was caused.
Even though he knew full well that he had done something very wrong, serious enough to land him in detention and perhaps to be tried as an adult, he did not think of himself as having inflicted any real harm. From his perspective, he was the only true victim because he was incarcerated.

Entitlement mentality vs. Strain theory

Strain theory is one popular explanation of criminal activity. The theory argues that crime is the result of inequalities of wealth and opportunity. An individual commits a crime, according to this theory, in order to satisfy universal needs and wants. Because of his own poverty or due to prejudices in society, he lacks access to education and high paying work. He sees others living richly - driving expensive cars, wearing expensive clothes, using the latest gadgets – and is frustrated that his own position keeps him from having these things. Since he cannot pursue these comforts by legitimate means, he resorts to crime.

Yet millions of dollars are extorted and embezzled by highly educated men who are themselves symbols of “white privilege”, who had the opportunities to earn wealth legitimately but took to crime instead. In fact, in their capacity for manipulation and violence they have more in common with their street crime cousins than with coworkers.

The mindset of white collar criminals seriously discredits the notion that crime is a phenomenon of "the poor" inviting economic explanations. Whatever a person's income, they may choose to earn their way honestly or take the "shortcut" to wealth by stealing from others. Just as crime models based on family breakdown cannot explain why one child of abusive parents turns to crime while another does not, strain theory is unable to explain why most residents in poor neighborhoods do not become robbers and thieves despite suffering the same conditions. The common denominator of criminal behavior here is not income or social barriers or prejudices, but lack of personal responsibility for ones own actions, and feelings of entitlement to the work and property of others.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Desistance and the “aging out” phenomenon

One of the most fascinating topics in crime is the “aging out” phenomenon. The number of offenders recorded across gender and race spikes in the early twenties, before sharply declining. (The example from UK data shown here is taken from a Cambridge article on the subject ) The number of offenses also decreases sharply, meaning that this curve cannot be explained only by a spike in one-time adolescent offenders; repeat offenders, responsible for the majority of criminal activity, also appear to begin desisting from crime at that time.

What during those early years is most responsible for turning individuals away from crime? There are many possible reasons, including:

1) Guilt. Remorse for the harm caused to others is a powerful motivator for change.
2) Lifestyle incentives. Career success and relationships are incompatible with criminal activity, which may create incentives for young adults to change their ways.
3) Perception of risk. Offenders may become more aware of the risk of personal injury, or physical aging may present limitations to the commission of crimes.
4) Increased skill. Over time, criminals may learn to avoid detection and capture, reducing recorded crime.
5) Incarceration. Offenders cannot commit crimes if they have been removed from society, and this may deter them from future offenses.

Item 4, if a significant factor, would imply that the age curve is inaccurate since it would not reflect a real desistance trend. However crime we cannot detect by definition cannot be factored into a measure of desistance, so this possibility is currently a dead-end.

Item 5 also has limited value for explaining desistance. 2009 prison inmate statistics reveal that 209,100 inmates were ages 20-24, dwarfing the 23,800 reported for ages 18-19. Assuming that these 20-24 year olds were not incarcerated for a first offense, this would help to account for a reduction in recorded crime from ages 18-24. Yet incapacitation is not “desistance”, and for some categories of crime imprisonment appears to have little if any deterrent effect. According to one BJS study, robbers, burglars, larcenists and motor vehicle thieves were the highest re-offenders at 70-75%. Overall, 67.5% of prisoners were rearrested within 3 years. While incarceration reduces crime for its duration, it cannot explain reduction over the life-course.

A valuable distinction that is frequently overlooked in literature is criminal activity and criminal psychology. Desistance is defined as the cessation of criminal activity, yet this can only be measured by reported crime. How, then, would you distinguish between a reformed criminal and a criminal biding his time? Neither are maintaining a criminal record, and both may be attending required therapy, reporting to work, and following their parole; yet one intends to re-offend. The most important indicators of criminal reform are psychological, not behavioral. For this reason I focus on the attitudes and thinking of offenders, and consider items 1-3 to be the best contenders for explaining desistance, and therefore the best areas for research.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Victims of crime and their recovery

Heaven's Rain

For this post I decided to focus not on criminal choices but on the choice of victims during their recovery. I recently attended a small premier for a movie based on a true story, titled “Heaven’s Rain”. A synopsis of the film can be found here.

For the survivors of violent crime, the greatest damage is psychological rather than physical. The film tells of siblings Brooks and Leslie Douglass, who were left for dead after their parents were murdered during a home robbery. The official site notes that Brooks “struggled through high school and college, repeatedly failing out, drinking heavily, and given to bouts of rage”. Leslie, “once a beauty queen with a beautiful voice, fought to put her life together as she dealt with recurring nightmares and struggled in relationships.”

How the victim responds to this suffering can determine whether happiness in their life will be possible, or whether they will remain consumed by grief, anger, and undeserved guilt. Brooks went to law school and became a Senator in Oklahoma. At the start of the film he is shown sponsoring a bill for victim’s rights. However in his private life he remains obsessed and miserable. The movie, influenced strongly by the Christian background of its creator Brooks Douglass himself, proposes forgiveness as the answer.

Letting go

The meaning and impact of forgiveness in the film, however, is not completely clear. In the climactic scene, Brooks forgives one of his two attackers during a visit to the prison. This follows a tense exchange in which he admits he is incapable of granting forgiveness, even knowing that his father would have done so in his place. He is visibly angry and grief-stricken, at one point giving the prisoner the keys to his handcuffs, as if daring him to start a physical confrontation. The scene culminates when he stands and announces that the anger and suffering need to end, suggesting that the decision to forgive was prompted less by the credo that one should “love the sinner” than by the need to heal.

Since we had the pleasure of a Q&A with Mr. Douglass at the premier, I did receive some elaboration. One audience member had asked what effect the death penalty has on crime victims. He said that with the execution of one of the attackers, Steven Hatch, he felt deep relief that he would never be brought again to relive the events of his parents’ death in court. It gave him final resolution. He also related a sense of betrayal when the shooter, Glen Ake, received a retrial and was sentenced to life imprisonment. My personal takeaway from these comments is that “forgiveness” used here does not relieve the criminal of culpability, but helps the victim to move past his suffering to live again.

His success in getting over the pain of his past gave Brooks Douglass a new life and inspired his sister’s own recovery. He not only started the movie project but acted in it as his own father, pursuing an old dream to make movies while finally telling his story and serving his passion for justice and victims’ rights.

Further thoughts

Although I started this post noting that my focus would be on victims during recovery, it also provides interesting food for thought on the behavior of criminals. Many criminals were at some point victims of violent crime or abuse by their own parents. And it would be grossly unfair to expect anyone, especially as vulnerable as a child or adolescent, to suffer violence without wanting to lash out in anger and pain.

As I discussed in a previous post, however, criminals do not appear to deal with victimization by attempting to overcome their feelings of anger; instead, this pain is embraced and used to excuse the harm they inflict on others. Real victimization mingles in their mind with imagined conspiracies, Jack Abbott's "hostile world". Child victimization alone is not a reliable predictor of crime in adulthood. However, perhaps how a child deals with trauma could be an indicator of that potential.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Criminal “toughness” and victimhood

In From Hard Time, Understanding and Reforming the Prison, Robert Johnson studies accounts of institutional life.

The “tough and menacing pose”, state-raised convict Jack Abbott argues, is the only way “to keep a hostile and rejecting world at bay”. He defends his malice and capacity for violence as the result of persecution by an “uncaring and impersonal” society. In fact, Abbott was the victim of physical and sexual abuse while in foster homes as a child. Yet he experienced a long line of “failures to adjust”: first by dropping out of the sixth grade, being committed to a training school for six years, leading later to alcohol abuse, fraudulent check printing, stabbing a fellow inmate during incarceration for his crime, throwing a water pitcher at his judge and attempting to choke a juror. After escaping prison during his 20 year sentence he robbed a bank, again “failing to adjust” to the institutional life he was confined to by an allegedly “hostile world”.

Abbott bemoans an institution that is “uncaring and impersonal”, that fails to show empathy and understanding for his lifetime of criminal actions. He may rail against the behavior of others, their lack of understanding or compassion, but he holds his own behavior to no such standard. Violence, he explains,

is what makes us effective, men whose judgment impinges on others, on the world…Here in prison the most respected and honored men among us are those who have killed other men…It is not merely fear, but respect.

An ex-inmate, Shroeder, went even further, claiming that

if you could convince inmates and guards that you had absolutely nothing to lose and that your countermeasures…would be totally unrestrained…then you were given respect and a wide berth, and people looked to you for leadership and advice. “He’s crazy,” they’d say admiringly, even longingly, when the name came up. “He’s just totally, completely insane”.

In civilized society, a person might demonstrate his independence by developing a special skill or knowledge to bring to the job market. Such a skill is then a commodity to trade with others. In convict culture, however, the only commodity is “respect”, developed by openly demonstrating ones capacity for wanton, indiscriminate violence and destruction. To the outside world, a convict may plead for understanding, may defend his behavior as self-protection; among his fellow convicts, however, violence is not regarded as something to be excused or defended, but is praised and encouraged as a sign of efficaciousness and strength.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"Making Good"

I am currently reading a fascinating book called Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives, by Shadd Maruna. The book focuses on one element referred to as the “self-narrative”, defined as how individuals make sense of their lives. According to Maruna, “sustained desistance most likely requires a fundamental and intentional shift in a person’s sense of self.” His research set out to compare the self-narratives of those who persist in committing crimes, and those who have desisted from crime.

Some aspects of the author’s approach I find mistaken. For example, he does not attempt to understand or acknowledge that crime is the result of criminal thinking. In fact he shows open disdain at attempts to differentiate the psychology of criminals from the psychology of the law abiding, calling such views a belief in the “bogeyman” or “mark of Cain”. He argues that the “bogeyman” is a fascination of Americans, who prefer to think of criminals as irredeemably evil. They draw comfort from the fact that they have nothing in common with such monsters. Maruna, on the other hand, treats criminal activity as merely one form of addiction, a condition from which one can recover with work.

This emotional response to the study of criminal thinking seems to be based on a soft determinism. He describes reformed offenders as having an “exaggerated sense of control over the future and an inflated, almost missionary, sense of purpose in life.” Maruna refers to this as the “process of willful, cognitive distortion” or “making good”. The process is a distortion because the offender is rejecting the notion that he is doomed or fated to his situation, a fate Maruna himself calls “rational realism.” Persisting offenders
felt they had little chance of achieving success in the "straight" world’…[and] from what we know about the causes of criminal behavior, they might just be right.
Certainly if criminals are fated to be so because of their social circumstances, it is unfair to stigmatize them. Yet if the offender can change after shifting his “sense of self”, is this not proof that he is not fated and that the core of his condition is his thinking and not his environment? In fact while he presents a world that an ex offender cannot succeed in as “rational realism”, Maruna admits this view “probably does the individual a disservice”. If you can only succeed in life by rejecting your view of reality, you might want to rethink that view.

It is interesting, then, that an author with this outlook could offer such a promising idea as the “self-narrative”. And I agree with him that understanding how ex-convicts maintain their efforts to desist from crime would help greatly in rehabilitative efforts. It would also help to identify early the signs that a juvenile is headed down that path. I will write a follow-up post to review the results of his research.

Sociology and the criminal mind ignored

“A priori” dead ends

In the study “Dropout and Delinquency” (Sweeten, Bushway & Paternoster, 2009) on the relationship between school attendance and delinquency, the authors argued that the researcher’s role is “to generate meaningful a priori theoretical predictions”. Theories are not developed from observation, but essentially from imagination, projecting possible explanations to be measured. Survey results are then used to either lend weight to or disprove these theoretical predictions.

In their research, Sweeten, Bushway and Paternoster requested that respondents classify their reasons for dropping out using one of the following categories: school reasons, such as expulsion, suspension, poor performance or social difficulties; personal reasons, such as getting married or pregnant, or having conflicting responsibilities at home; economic reasons, such as being offered a job, entering the military, or having financial difficulties; or other unclassified reasons. This range of reasons was developed using popular sociological theories on the influence of stress and social control.

The challenge of taking an a priori approach is sometimes embarrassingly clear. Only “unclassified reasons” for leaving school appeared to have a criminogenic effect, suggesting that the researchers were unable to anticipate any valid causal explanations for the behavior of their subjects. They concluded that “concern about the event of dropout may be misplaced. Instead, attention must be focused on the process that leads to dropout and criminal involvement” – ignoring that this was precisely the subject of their own study.


Of course there is a challenge with all surveys in attempting to understand human behavior. Individuals may not themselves be fully aware of the reasons for what they do, or they may give dishonest reasons to prevent personal embarrassment. There is a great uncertainty, therefore, about what is really going on in the mind of the subjects.

Yet some theories do not regard this as a limitation. A juvenile delinquent may have developed unsuccessful approaches to dealing with stress or responding to authority, but these cannot be captured in a questionnaire. What can be captured is whether he is receiving failing grades. If you believe that individuals are programmed to behave as they do by their environment, then his thoughts and motivations are of marginal importance. We only need to study a person’s behavior and how it is affected by various stimuli, according to this perspective. It is the grades that then lead him to drop out of school, and the resulting poverty that leads him to crime. Even when the evidence fails to validate the theory, the underlying cues to a person’s behavior – his thoughts and beliefs – remain ignored.