The two main broad perspectives that explain crime are Marxism and functionalism. Each covers a range of theories and explanations such as subcultural theory in both Marxism and functionalism, and status frustration in functionalism.
From a Marxist perspective crime and deviance can only be understood in terms of capitalism and class struggle. Capitalism creates inequalities which lead to conflict. Greed, selfishness and want are associated with capitalism, and it is these which lead people to committing crime. In a capitalist society there are pressures to break the law, which affect people from all sections of society from the wealthy to the poor. Crimes are often motivated by financial gain. However, there also crimes which are not motivated by financial gain, which are also called non- utilitarian crimes.' These crimes can be seen as an expression of the frustration and aggression which the capitalist society produces. For example someone might vandalise public property purely out of frustration.
Marxists claim there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. The law is enforced systemically, and it is biased in favour of those at the top. Corporate crime costs society much more than benefit fraud committed by the lower classes, and yet it is those at the bottom who are targeted more. The working classes are targeted more by the police as they often commit crime which is easily visible and therefore they are easier to prosecute. This could be explained in terms of the self fulfilling prophecy. Police believe young working class males are more likely to commit crime and therefore they target them more often, for example with stop and searches. This in turn makes them actually commit more crime, and so the prophecy fulfills itself.
The sociologist Phil Cohen uses Marxist subcultural theory to explain crime and deviance amongst young, white working class males. He argued that these young working class males reacted to their changing economic circumstances. For example, the Mods reacted to the new idea of affluence. Even though they were working class, they aspired to be middle class. They wanted to show that they had money, so they wore clothes that they believed to be middle class, and drove expensive lambrettas. They often got into fights with the Rockers, another youth subculture.
Cohen argued that youth develop a cultural style as a means of coping with their particular circumstances and of resisting the dominant values of society. For example, when the Skinheads were faced with unemployment, they continued to wear traditional working class style clothes to resist against society. They had built up frustration against society and this often led to rebellion and conflict.
Marxist approaches have the advantage of combining explanations of crime which cover people of all social classes and a wide variety of offences. It also clearly explains why there is selective enforcement of the law in capitalist society. However some sociologists disagree with the Marxist perspective. They reject the view that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between the ruling and subject classes in capitalist society, and the exploitation of one by the other.
There are also functionalist explanations for crime and deviance. The functionalist sees crime as a threat to social order. Someone who commits a crime or a deviant act has gone against the shared norms and values of society. Some people are socialised into crime. However, some functionalists see crime as being normal' and also, an integral part of all healthy societies.' While too much crime constitutes a threat to social order, too little crime or deviance is unhealthy. It shows that the norms and values of a society are so strong that they prevent the innovation and change necessary for a healthy society. Crime and deviance can be viewed as functional. Durkheim argued that by having public punishments and executions for criminals, society was reminded of its shared norms and values. Also, Kingsley Davis, (1961) argued that crime and deviance can act as a safety valve. He claimed that there is a conflict between a man's instinctual need for sexual satisfaction and society's need to restrict the legitimate expression of sex to within the family. Therefore, prostitution is functional because it provides sexual satisfaction without threatening the family as an institution.
However, it is argued that suggesting functions for crime and deviance is not the same as finding an explanation for them. Downes and Rock, (2003) said, It is one thing to assert that crime can be made to serve some social end or other once it has occurred- for example, to heighten solidarity by uniting against the offender. It is another step altogether to explain crime as promoted in advance by society to bring about that end.'
There are subcultural theories which lean towards functionalism. In 1955 Albert Cohen came up with status frustration.' Many working class youths who cannot gain status legitimately, become frustrated and therefore try to gain status through illegitimate means. They create their own subculture and reject the norms and values of mainstream society. Although they have failed in mainstream society, they can solve their problems by gaining status and respect from their peers within a delinquent subculture. The crime committed within these subcultures is often non-utilitarian, i.e. it is done for no financial gain. For example vandalising a building does not make money for the criminal. However, the criminal will gain status among his peers.
Cohen's theory offers a good explanation for non-utilitarian crime, and why crime is committed in groups. However, there are other explanations for working class delinquency.
Cloward and Ohlin provide other explanations for working class delinquency. Cohen could not explain why delinquent subcultures take different forms, for example some are mainly concerned with theft while others focus on violence. Cloward and Ohlin identify 3 types of delinquent subculture. The first is criminal subculture. It tends to develop in areas where an illegitimate opportunity structure is present. Adolescents use crime for material gain. Adult criminals teach the youths the tricks of the trade.' There is conflict subculture, which tends to develop in areas where an illegitimate opportunity structure is absent. Delinquents often form conflicting gangs out of frustration at the lack of available opportunity structures. Finally there is the retreatist subculture, which emerges among those who have failed to succeed either by legitimate means or by being part of a criminal or conflict subculture. They tend to retreat to drug and alcohol abuse.
Cloward and Ohlin's theory is good in that it shows that working class delinquency is not just concerned with material gain. The theory also identifies and explains a number of different subcultures. However, Cloward and Ohlin fail to realise that the different subcultures can overlap. For example gangs involved in conflict subculture often deal in drugs, and make large sums of money in the process.
According to Walter Miller, lower class subcultures have a number of focal concerns. They are:- fate, excitement, autonomy, smartness, trouble and toughness. Lower class delinquency results from young men acting out the concerns of lower-class subculture. In doing this, they often break the law. Miller argues the norms and values of the lower classes are different from the mainstream ones, and they are more likely to lead to crime. For example, one of the focal concerns is autonomy. The lower classes believe in freedom and independence, and do not like being told what to do. This may bring them into conflict with authority figures, such as police. The focal concerns theory has been criticised. Miller pictures lower class subculture as a distinctive tradition, many centuries old.' It assumes all lower class males are seen to act out this subculture with little reference to mainstream society. While a lower class subculture may exist, it can't be true that all working class males have norms and values that are all different from mainstream ones. For example, not all working class boys want to fail in education.
There are other explanations for crime an deviance, such as David Matza's techniques of neutralisation,' theory. According to Matza, many express guilt and shame for their delinquent actions, and they hold at least some mainstream values. Nevertheless, they still commit crime because they believe it is justified. Neutralization is defined as a technique, which allows the person to rationalize or justify a criminal act. There are five techniques of neutralization; denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victim, condemnation of the condemners, and the appeal to higher loyalties. To explain one of these, denial of injury is the belief that the crime was justified because no one was really hurt, for example, stealing from those who could afford it.
Matza also argues that delinquent behaviour is often directed by subterranean values which are found throughout society. These underground values,' are only expressed in particular situations. They include an emphasis on excitement and toughness. In mainstream they may be expressed through competitive sports, for example on the football field. But, delinquents may express their underground values in a criminal way.
Subcultural theory suggests that many young males are committed to a distinctive subculture and a deviant lifestyle. Matza is against this view. He argues that many men drift in and out of delinquency. Their delinquent acts are casual and intermittent rather than a way of life. This seems to tie in well with the fact that most young people stop committing deviant acts as they get older. In general Matza sees the delinquent as being little different to other young people.
Matza's theories are good in that they answer the criticisms of subcultural theory. Delinquents are no longer seen as prisoners of the social system directed by their position in the social structure. Also, according to Downes and Rock, (2003) Matza's view describes the criminal behaviour of many young men in Britain. The most frequent reason they give for their delinquency is boredom; and delinquency offers plenty of opportunity for risk and excitement to relieve boredom.
In conclusion, I would say that I am more convinced by the Marxist perspective in general than the functionalist one. Marxist says that it class struggle that leads to crime. This approach is successful in explaining many of the crimes committed by the working classes. For example someone who is working class who feels oppressed by the capitalist system may try to steal the car of someone who is wealthier or break into their house. They may even commit non-utilitarian crimes such as vandalism as an expression of their frustration at the system.
However, both Marxist theories and functionalist theories tend to ignore white collar crime, committed by those of higher social status. The financial cost of white collar crime is in fact several times higher than the cost of working class crime.