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NCJ Number: 72417 Find in a Library
Title: Merton's Theory of Crime and Differential Class Symbols of Success
Journal: Crime et/and Justice  Volume:7-8  Issue:2  Dated:(1979-80)  Pages:90-94
Author(s): J Braithwaite
Date Published: 1980
Page Count: 5
Format: Article
Language: English
Country: Canada
Annotation: Robert K. Merton's theory of social structure and crime is analyzed within an international context to discover whether a more egalitarian society might have less crime.
Abstract: Merton's theory proposes that any society has important cultural goals which provide a frame of aspirational reference. When an individual has internalized a goal and the legitimate means of achieving that goal are blocked, the individual is under pressure to resort to illegitimate means to achieve the goal. The explanatory power of the theory is contingent upon the existence in society of common symbols of success shared by all social classes. In societies where success goals do not transcend class divisions, even though the poor may be blocked from legitimate access to the goals, they may accept this as inevitable and normal, and direct their aspirations toward more realistically attainable goals. Yet, a thorough review of evidence from countries as diverse as Australia and Argentina, Japan and Sardinia, leads to the conclusion that traditional criminal law offenses involve more lower class people than other community groups. This accumulation of evidence rejects the interpretation that in some types of societies, those where the poor accept their lot as deserved, the class differential in crime rates will disappear. Some theorists' interpretation is that a policy of equality of opportunity rather than equality of results is implied. Yet to the extent that crime arises from a semirational weighing up of the rewards and costs of criminal activity, lower class people will have a higher reward-cost ratio for crime than middle class people (the rewards are proportionately higher and the costs much lower). From a 'power' interpretation of criminal activity, if powerlessness contributes to crime, then a situation where the poor accept their fate as deserved but remain powerless, cannot be assumed as one that will necessarily be low in crime. No doubt, how inequality is subjectively justified could be important in attenuating the impact on crime of changes in objective economic conditions. But to suggest that such subjectivity can completely negate the effect of objective forces seems difficult to sustain, both empirically and theoretically. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that a move to greater equality is to be associated with reduced crime. Twenty-four footnotes are provided.
Index Term(s): Cultural influences; Social classes
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