Vol. 17 No. 2 (February, 2007) pp.81-86


SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY AND CRIMINOLOGICAL RESEARCH: VIEWS FROM EUROPE AND THE UNITED STATES, by Mathieu Deflem (ed.). Amsterdam: Elsevier Ltd, 2006. 302pp. Hardbound. £57.99 / $99.95 / €82.95 ISBN: 0762313226.


Reviewed by Sawyer Sylvester, Department of Sociology, Bates College. Email: ssylvest [at] bates.edu.


At the beginning of this volume, Mathieu Deflem states that the book’s purpose is “to show that some of the very best criminological work is distinctively informed in useful and varied ways by sociological theory” (p.2) and exemplifies his claims in the first chapter with an essay by Karl Schumann on how the relationship between work and crime can be explained by reference to Max Weber’s thesis on the protestant ethic. Schumann begins by showing the theoretical inadequacy of such other explanations as anomie theory, control theory, and rational choice theory and also points out their weak empirical support. Schumann’s own explanation is based on data from the Bremen school-to-work study. He hypothesizes that failure to complete successfully an apprenticeship program in Germany was related to higher delinquency rates; but this hypothesis was not supported. However, it appears that in later life a relationship between work and crime might exist because of interruption of a career trajectory by a criminal sanction or because of differential targeting of lower levels of the work force by law enforcement.


The study is informative but perhaps less successful in establishing the immediate relevance of Weber’s theory. In addition, the author’s wishing to “look for a theoretical framework to understand why law enforcement agencies have everyday routines which discriminate against persons who lack working skills” (p.24) might be better informed by modern routine activities theory.


The second essay by Imke Dunkeke is an attempt to show the relationship between family structures and school truancy through the use of Robert Merton’s anomie theory. Dunkeke begins by associating Merton’s five ways of adapting to anomie (conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion) with five types of truancy and shows how the four “deviant” modes of adaptation might individually lead to one of the types of truancy – but she then concentrates on the student “innovator.” She finds that the truant-by-innovation is primarily from a low SES family, is thus less likely to succeed in school, and will seek achievable goals outside of school. Dunkeke also includes in her thesis the elements of expected value theory,  that low SES children soon realize the touted benefits of formal education will be unproductive for them. To this she adds Bordieu’s concepts of social and cultural capital and discusses how the low level of these in low SES families may be related to school achievement.


Dunkeke refers to the results of a study done using data from the German PISA survey (Program for International Student Achievement) and self-report [*82] data on truancy. These data initially support the hypothesis on the relationship between SES and truancy but through the intervention of social and cultural capital. All this is seen as a more explanatory thesis than the unmodified version of Merton’s anomie theory.


Merton’s theory is likewise the focus of the article by Sanjay Marwal and Mathieu Deflem. These authors suggest that among the criticisms of Merton’s original theory was that it lacked specificity and was empirically untestable. They suggest that this was in part due to the fact that Merton actually does not present a single theory but two: anomie theory and strain theory. They also feel it should be noted that Merton’s concept of social structure included the essential elements of structured opportunities.


The authors then go on to cite – and refute – what they believe are several misunderstandings of Merton’s theory. First, the theory is seen by some social control theorists as explaining deviance primarily at the micro level, ignoring the fact that Merton sees structured opportunities as a determinant of deviance. Second is the claim that it is the cultural structure that explains anomie. The authors suggest that all cultural structures must be imbedded in a social structure and that people are variously distributed throughout it and, hence, differently exposed to its cultures. Finally, there is the criticism that Merton’s theory overlooks human agency. But the authors point out that social and cultural structures have no sociological meaning unless they are “mediated by human agents” (p.67).  Human interests become social facts only as they are worked out in some social structure – especially an opportunity structure. It is in large part the differential availability of opportunities that constrains and shapes human agency.


Ross Matsueda provides a detailed examination of the nature and influence of the theories of George Herbert Mead on the symbolic interactionist focus in American criminology. One of the significant features of this paper is its demonstration of how symbolic interactionist theory is useful in explaining the etiology of crime, since hitherto the principal example of that perspective – labeling theory – has been mainly applied to secondary deviance. Matsueda notes that Mead locates social control in an individual’s ability to take the role of the other, and this is done as part of a sequence in human action involving “impulse, perception, manipulation, and consummation” (p.80). In this process, the actor takes on the roles of significant others and incorporates these as contingencies of action. A social self is formed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Matsueda discusses the significance of Mead’s theory for life-course perspectives on crime, suggesting that the temporal aspects of the reflexive self can be a frame for both the genesis and the desistence of crime. Especially in regard to the latter, the physiological aspects of aging and their effects on the capacity for active predatory crime have to be interpreted by the reflexive self with all the role-taking and role transition that is constantly a part of it. [*83]


Just as Matsueda attempts to illuminate the relationship between age and crime, Karen Heimer, Stacy De Coster and Halime Unal examine another master variable for crime: gender. They suggest a theoretical design for understanding the gender gap in crime through a study of gender socialization. They begin by noting that a system for gender-based expectations for appropriate behavior is established in several social settings. In families, parents judge the acceptability of children’s behavior based on established gender expectations. They also assign household chores in accordance with stereotypic role expectations. Peer groups do the same in play and games. Both teachers and texts in school may encourage boys to be “strong, active, aggressive, and independent” (p.114), and girls to be “passive, dependent, and nurturant” (p.114). And the media reflect these stereotypical expectations as well.


However, it is not only that the accepted roles for females may be intrinsically those that would be less likely to lead to crime, they may also be those which make girls more amenable to parental instruction. It has been widely noted that girls are more closely supervised at home; but it may also be the case that, because of female role expectations, parental supervision is also more effective. The authors mention several other implications of female socialization for crime, including that gender definitions may result in differential acceptance of risk and that men’s traditional preparation for competitive careers in the marketplace may make risk-taking more attractive.


Nigel Fielding’s article deals with formal and informal socialization processes for police careers in Great Britain. He is particularly concerned with police training required by the shift in policy toward community policing after the riots in the 1980s. Among the problems in community policing which his study highlights is whether a community, in any conventional sense, exists – at least in those areas where such policing has been deemed necessary. And even if there were something recognizable as a community, does its nature not differ sufficiently from place to place to make any standard community policing program widely inapplicable? Finally, if communities do differ significantly, and to further community policing they must be treated differently, what does this imply for the ideal that law enforcement should treat all persons equally?  In the end, Fielding notes the consequences of these issues for program implementation and especially for program evaluation. He also notes that proponents of community policing have done very little to develop a community policing theory.


Max Weber’s interest in the growth of rationalism as a system of ideas led him to suggest two types of rational law – formally rational and substantively rational. Joachim Savelsberg uses these ideal types to examine sentencing policy in twentieth-century America. He sees a trend in the legal history of the United States from a formally rational perspective in the eighteenth century to a more substantively rational view in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – and then a return to a more [*84] formally rational position in the late twentieth century, the era of sentencing grids and severe constriction of judicial discretion.


The Enlightenment in Europe gave birth to the Classical School of criminology as exemplified by the writings of Beccaria and Bentham. In the nineteenth century, with the rise of the Positivist School of criminology in Europe and the beginnings of social science in Europe and America, the idea became widely accepted that sentencing could be instrumental in bringing about substantive results – reformation, treatment, correction.

Later, when it appeared to many that policies designed to treat and rehabilitate offenders had an unacceptably low success rate – especially when evaluated in the light of the very science which produced those policies – the discretion given to judges to fit sentences to the offender and not exclusively the offense seemed misplaced. 


Mandatory sentencing, three strikes, and sentencing grids – in short, a return to formal rationality – were seen as the answer. Savelsberg describes three studies which he believes show that this return to formal rationality has been counterproductive. In addition, in one of the studies, he seems to find that one function of contemporary sentencing was not contemplated by Weber’s scheme – that of “organizational maintenance” (p.192), sentences constructed to further the smooth flow of cases through the bureaucratic structure. I would only remark that Weber himself emphasized that the actual elements of the real systems designated by ideal types are often mixed and that even in a formally rational system, formality can retreat enough to accommodate substantive ends.


An article by Robert Crutchfield explores another of the master variables of crime: class. However, he notes at the beginning that the relationship holds more clearly with serious crimes and, even then, it may proxy for location. He sees two theories as being useful in explaining the relationship between class and crime – social reproduction theory and dual labor market theory. Crutchfield explains that the influence of class on crime is stronger to the degree that class position can be seen as intergenerational, and that social reproduction theory explains the mechanisms of intergenerational transfer. As parents in underclass locations tend to have reduced ability to support their children’s education and have weaker social bonds with their children, they tend to perpetuate the characteristics of their class structure in their children. The same parents are forced to take jobs which are poor paying, part time, and without opportunity for advancement. This tends to fix families in areas of low-cost housing with similarly situated families in a community which does not present to children the image of work as rewarded or as a step toward a career. For both parents and children, life on the street presents a social space with values, rewards, and risks which may be more realistic and attractive.


In her article,Susanne Karstedt suggests that in an era where rational choice theory and routine activities theory [*85] picture a rational offender dealt with by a rational criminal policy, we should not ignore the relationship between emotions and crime.  She begins with references to Durkheim and to his claim that the function of punishment has less to do with the offender and more to do with a collective reaction of the community to the violation of its norms and an effort to re-establish solidarity around those norms. She reminds us that, paradoxically, even in modern systems of “actuarial justice” there may be outlets for community anger toward the offender in the long mandatory sentences which are often a part of such systems. She advocates a “return to emotion” in criminal justice which she claims has already taken place with victim impact statements at sentencing hearings. Karstedt also sees promise in the various forms of restorative justice.


In the final essay, Rene van Swaanigen deals with the overall problem of criminological knowledge and knowledge acquisition. He begins with the claim that the discipline’s “epistemological threshold” is too low, that its methodologies are mostly borrowed, and its findings too subject to political influence. He sees this as a product of the historical development of criminology, and uses as an example the history of criminology in the Netherlands. It is a history which, in rough outline, parallels the history of criminology in other countries. But van Swaanigen uses this account to demonstrate how Dutch criminology in the 1980s increasingly became a problem-solving discipline whose theoretical base was, to a large degree, occupied by control theory, rational choice theory, and routine activities theory. These, in turn, would inform such policy initiatives as situational crime prevention, risk analysis, and problem-solving policing.


The temptation to judge an academic discipline by its practical applications alone became a strong one. But van Swaanigen warns that this has its dangers. Academic criminology can easily become the captive of criminal justice policy – especially through the influence of research funding. Intellectually stimulating theories lose out to those having immediate practical applicability, and criminology forfeits its position to act as an independent critic of criminal policy on empirical as well as normative grounds. The solution he proposes is a major improvement in the depth and scope of the discipline’s research methodology so that criminology’s claims about the nature of crime have solid epistemological credentials. Still, as the author states:


There will, for example, always remain a paradoxical relationship between the wish to develop a solid, empirically based criminology and the attempt to deal with topical, not yet fully crystallized themes. When the former is dominant, we will inevitably run behind, but when the latter dominates, we run the risk of delivering free opinions with no more value than a journalistic piece. (p.267)


In the end, we have to ask whether the book’s overall thesis, that sociological theory informs the best criminological work, is supported.  I think, overall, it is; although some of the articles do a better job at this than others. In one sense, it [*86] does not matter, since most of the papers make strong individual contributions in their own right. Paradoxically, they seem to do better at this latter task to the degree they are not as involved in establishing the central thesis.


© Copyright 2007 by the author, Sawyer Sylvester.