Social Structure Theories
The term structure has been applied to human societies since the 19th century. Before that time, its use was more common in other fields such as construction or biology. Karl used construction as a metaphor when he spoke of “the economic structure Struktur of society, the real basis on which is erected a legal and political superstructure Überbau and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond.” Thus, according to Marx, the basic structure of society is economic, or material, and this structure influences the rest of social life, which is defined as nonmaterial, spiritual, or ideological.
The biological connotations of the term structure are evident in the work of British philosopher Herbert Spencer. He and other social theorists of the 19th and early 20th centuries conceived of society as an organism comprising interdependent parts that form a structure similar to the anatomy of a living body. Although social scientists since Spencer and Marx have disagreed on the concept of social structure, their definitions share common elements. In the most general way, social structure is identified by those features of a social entity (a society or a group within a society) that persist over time, are interrelated, and influence both the functioning of the entity as a whole and the activities of its individual members.
The origin of contemporary sociological references to social structure can be traced to Émile Durkheim, who argued that parts of society are interdependent and that this interdependency imposes structure on the behavior of institutions and their members. In other words, Durkheim believed that individual human behavior is shaped by external forces. Similarly, American anthropologist George Murdock, in his book Social Structure (1949), examined kinship systems in preliterate societies and used social structure as a taxonomic device for classifying, comparing, and correlating various aspects of kinship systems.
Several ideas are implicit in the notion of social structure. First, human beings form social relations that are not arbitrary and coincidental but exhibit some regularity and continuity. Second, social life is not chaotic and formless but is, in fact, differentiated into certain groups, positions, and institutions that are interdependent or functionally interrelated. Third, individual choices are shaped and circumscribed by the social environment, because social groups, although constituted by the socialactivities of individuals, are not a direct result of the wishes and intentions of the individual members. The notion of social structure implies, in other words, that human beings are not completely free and autonomous in their choices and actions but are instead constrained by the social world they inhabit and the social relations they form with one another.
Within the broad framework of these and other general features of human society, there is an enormous variety of social forms between and within societies. Some social scientists use the concept of social structure as a device for creating an order for the various aspects of social life. In other studies, the concept is of greater theoretical importance; it is regarded as an explanatory concept, a key to the understanding of human social life. Several theories have been developed to account for both the similarities and the varieties. In these theories, certain aspects of social life are regarded as basic and, therefore, central components of the social structure. Some of the more prominent of these theories are reviewed here.
In the field of sociological criminology, social structure theories emphasize the relation between social structure and criminal behavior, asserting that disadvantaged economic conditions are primary influential factors in criminal activity. As an interdisciplinary approach, it combines an examination of the social dynamics of human behavior with the study of systemic barriers in place that drive crime increase, such as concentrated poverty, community frustration, and class struggle. Social structure theories for the most part identify poor educational resources, absence of marketable skills, economic hardship, and subcultural values as being the fundamental causes of criminal behavior.
Social structure theories bring a sociological (rather than biological or psychological) approach to studies of crime and deviance. Instead of focusing solely or primarily on individuals, these theories seek to explain how individuals are situated within and experience larger-scale social institutions such as schools, government, the labor market, cultural industries, and the criminal justice system. Over the years, theorists have proposed mainstream or consensus theories of social structure as well as critical or conflict theories of structure. According to mainstream or consensus theories, social structures serve to regulate and socialize individuals to conform to dominant social norms, rewarding some behaviors while penalizing others. In contrast, according to critical social structure theories, social, economic and political power serve as barriers that impede, constrain, or shape what is possible for people in specific societal contexts, largely based on characteristics such as class, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.
Three subtypes of social structure theories can be identified: social disorganization theory, strain theory, and culture conflict theory. Social disorganization theory encompasses the notion of social pathology, which sees society as a kind of organism and crime and deviance as a kind of disease or social pathology. Theories of social disorganization are often associated with the perspective of social ecology and with the Chicago School of criminology, which developed during the 1920s and 1930s. Strain theory points to a lack of fit between socially approved success goals and the availability of socially approved means to achieve those goals. As a consequence, according to the perspective of strain theory, individuals unable to succeed through legitimate means turn to other avenues that promise economic and social recognition. Culture conflict theory suggests that the root cause of criminality can be found in a clash of values between differently socialized groups over what is acceptable or proper behavior. “Social structure theories assert that the disadvantaged economic class position is a primary cause of crime. The theories state that neighborhoods which are lower class force of strain, frustration and disorganization that create crime” (Shanali-Justicia). Social Disorganization, Strain Theory and Culture Deviance are a few of the social structure criminology theories that are used to explain crime. Other social theories that fall into this category are Culture of Poverty and the truly disadvantage theory.
Because theories of social structure look to the organization of society for their explanatory power, intervention strategies based on them typically seek to alleviate the social conditions that are thought to produce crime. Social programs based on social structure assumptions frequently seek to enhance socially acceptable opportunities for success and to increase the availability of meaningful employment.
The theory of social disorganization is that crime and delinquency is caused when communities fail. There is a breakdown of families, church, schools and government in the community. Social disorganization theorizes that these relationships “reinforce positive behavior, a sense of community responsibility and concern for the social network within a close area” (Hardy, 2010). When these relationships breakdown or do not exist the communities and its inhabitants lose its sense of structure and this is believed to be the causation of crime and delinquent behavior. The cycle of Social Disorganization is thought to start with poverty, where there is lack of opportunities and racial discrimination. The lack of opportunities breaks down the social institutions and organizations and this leads to the erosion of traditional values. This breakdown leads juveniles to seek the acceptance from peers and a sense of belonging from gangs. Once these gangs form there is a loss of social control or it becomes less effective. When this control is lost neighborhoods become more prone to crime and this detracts from investors which reduces opportunities in the community. Eventually this becomes the norm and this way of life is passed onto the next generation. The formation of criminal careers if formed and the cycle continues for some while others grow out of their delinquent phase.
Populace in these disorganized areas can feel neglected, frustrated and ostracized from the economic mainstream, they develop feelings of hopelessness and anger which sociologist state are signs of strain (Siegel & Welsch, 2008, p. 89). This strain develops and theorist state it leads people to commit criminal offenses, because they lack the opportunities for success. The opportunity for a better life seems to be beyond their reach, so people turn to deviant behavior to achieve their goals because they feel that society has let them down. Cultural Deviance Theory is a combination of both the effects of social disorganization and strain. It is thought that the lower socio-economic populaces create an independent subculture where they have their own rules and values. Juveniles in lower class neighborhoods adapt to their environment, they become cynical and have no respect for authority. “Conventional values make little sense to a youth whose role models may include gun runner, drug dealers and pimps” (Siegel & Welsch, 2008, p. 91). Teachers and other authority figures become secondary citizens to these juveniles and they cannot conform to the rules as other members of society do. These juveniles experience a form of culture conflict as a result they never achieve their goals and eventually get caught up in the life of gangs and deviant behavior.
The populace of this poverty culture is marked by frustration of their environment. There is a lack of trust of police and government and this mistrust stalls people from this environment from seeking other advantageous opportunities or ones that are available to them. The results of this environment are depression and possibly psychological issues. Inner-cities that suffer from economic changes have an increase of crime; they become ingrained in a cycle of poverty, unemployment and crime. These people are considered the truly disadvantage living in “communities with poorly organized social networks, alienated populations and high crime” (Siegel & Welsch, 2008, p. 85)
Theorists such as Clifford Shaw, Henry McKay, and Robert Merton have similar views on social structure theories. While Elijah Anderson believed that juveniles committed crimes because of their socio-economic living conditions there were “rendered incapable of achieving success” (Siegel & Welsch, 2008, p. 92). A juvenile turned to crime because it was their only way of achieving success. They feel that their only option is to join gangs and engage in behavior that is deviant.
Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay believe that delinquency “is mainly the consequence of a collapse of institutional, community-based controls” (Wong, 2009). Shaw and McKay believed that people that lived in situations such as these responded to the disorganization of their environment. They believe that delinquent behavior was a result of social disorganization, because the neighborhoods they lived in were transitional neighborhoods. This was an area where there was a shift in population; the middle class neighborhood would transition to a mixture of lower class people. When this transition would occur the family would become rooted in the neighborhood and the values that they developed such as belonging to gangs and criminal behavior would be passed onto the next generation.
Similar to Shaw and McKay, Robert Merton believe that society was the cause of deviant behavior, because society put pressure on people to achieve the “American dream.” Merton believed that society expected an individual to conform or either work within its structure. When a person cannot conform they become members of a deviant subculture. Merton argued that upper class children are less likely to commit delinquent acts because they have the means and ability to obtain an education and stable employment. While lower class juveniles do not have the same means they feel the social and psychological strain or anomie. Merton believed this condition caused juveniles to commit criminal acts to achieve their goals and even if they were offered the means to achieve these goals legally, they would reject those acceptable means of deviant ones (Siegel & Welsch, 2008, p. 89).
According to Merton, individuals respond to this straininone of five ways. First, they may engage in conformism, in which they accept the socially encouraged means and ends. These individuals stay in school and sacrifice to become economically successful. The second option is Innovation, in which people accept the goals of wealth and status but reject the socially approved means of obtaining those goals. An example would be drug dealers or corporate criminals who pursue illegal means or cheat to achieve financial success. The third option involves ritualism, in which people become attached to the means but lose sight of the goals. A “professional student” or middle management bureaucrat might be considered examples of ritualism. The fourth possibility is retreatism, in which people reject both the means and the goals. A dropout or someone who pursues subcultural activities might be an example of this response. Finally there are rebels, those individuals who reject the socially defined goals and means but seek to replace them with alternatives. Revolutionaries, anarchists, and countercultural activists would exemplify rebellion. According to Merton, persons of lower socioeconomic status are most likely to experience greater strain and, therefore, to engage in deviant acts, perhaps taking the form of as retreatism or innovation.
Many theorists have developed structural theories building on Merton’s work. Albert Cohen focused specifically on working-class youth. He presented the notion of status frustration to explain higher rates of delinquency among youth from less wealthy backgrounds. In his view, frustration results from the fact that poorer youth lack sufficient access to legitimate means to achieve their goals and recognize their limitations. This recognition is expressed in social frustration, and a sense that they will be punished no matter how they behave; it is acted upon through acts of deviance.
Other social structure theorists have preferred to examine links between crime and levels of disorganization within specific neighborhoods or communities rather than more abstract cultural values or institutions. Social ecology theories, influenced by the Chicago School of Sociology and the work of Robert Park, suggest that in crime-ridden neighborhoods, local institutions such as schools and social services agencies have broken down and no longer perform their expected or stated functions. Residents experience conflict and despair and antisocial behavior results. High school dropout rates and high rates of youth unemployment are typical characteristics of breakdown leading to deviance and crime. According to “cultural transmission theory,” poor neighborhoods are marked by high population turnover rates, which disrupts informal social controls. Such areas are said to give rise to youth crime. Crime will be a constant feature in this environment, regardless of the personal character of the residents, because of existing structural conditions. According to “cultural transmission theory,” gang activity and youth deviance are normal and expected responses to adverse conditions in which legitimized alternatives are otherwise not available for youth who perceive themselves to be trapped without options. For these theories, crime is a strategy to deal with destructive social conditions.
More critical or radical proponents of structural theories reject the emphasis that is often placed on street crimes or the crimes of the working class. First, they point out, the most harmful crimes, socially and environmentally, are crimes of elites, such as toxic dumping, unsafe products, unhealthy working conditions, pollution, and food contamination. These crimes, they argue, should be given more attention than the small-scale crimes that consume most of criminal justice system resources. Second, the use of criminal justice statistics, such as police and court records, within some of the structural theories identified previously, misrepresents actual criminal activity. The use of police records in social ecology theories to calculate neighborhood crime rates, for example, reflects police surveillance of those neighborhoods rather than actual rates of criminal activity. Finally, while structural theories do a good job of documenting social inequalities, critical theorists argue that the point is to confront and end inequality.
Some aspects of these theories seem a bit outdated because there have been many community initiatives that promote culture pride and community involvement in the “disadvantage” neighborhoods which are not being accounted for in the theories.
But even more disturbing is how Institutional Anomie is focusing on the individual’s choice to leave their neighborhoods without considering the disruptions as if there were any choice in the matter.
Anyone who has the experience of immigration would disagree with this kind of portrayal. Family and community distance has a distinct expression in the Latino community. “We think everything and still have no choice but to leave”, would be a more appropriate choice of words in this particular scenario.
The theories are addressing factors and events in our neighborhoods that need constant attention, such as the choice to form gangs, drug trafficking (to a certain extent) and counter-cultures. However, there are as many forces that counter these crime inspiring situations as there are ones who may potentially foster it. The conditions of lower class neighborhoods are more diverse and in the gray area than some of the theories vocabulary have taken into account.