Revision:Aqa sociology a2 crime and deviance traditional marxist explanations

  • On a theoretical level, Marxists believe that society is divided into the two fundamental classes, those that “have”, and those that “have not”. They believe that the superstructure (the state, the police, the legal system, the family) maintain and reflect ruling class ideology.
  • The state (an agent of the ruling class) pass laws which serve those at the “commanding heights of power”. These laws coerce the subject class and create a “false class consciousness”.
  • Laws are made by the state, which represents the interests of the RC.
  • CHAMBLISS – “The heart of the capitalist state is the protection of private property” – the state pass laws that protect property, not people.
  • SNIDER – The state is reluctant to pass laws that regulate large capitalist concerns, as they may scare off investors and damage profitability.
  • This overvaluing of “property over people” is justified through the education system and the media, which transmit the values of materialism and the “right” to own private property. This can be seen across the media, from television shows that give advice on buying houses, to programmes such as “crimewatch” and “watchdog”. As such, the superstructure plays a significant role in our secondary socialisation.
  • Sometimes laws are passed that appear to benefit all classes, but they are rarely enforced.
  • GRAHAM’S study of drug abuse prevention highlights this. He studied the government attempts to crack down of illegal amphetamine use in the USA. However, pressures from the pharmaceutical companies that produce the drug lead to the “failure” of stricter drug control. Graham concluded that “the end result is an all out war on all drugs that are not a source of corporate income”.
  • PEARCE points out that some laws are passed that appear to benefit the subject class only (e.g. health and safety legislation), but actually serve a hidden purpose; they keep the subject class loyal to their superiors and ensure that the workforce is healthy and efficient.
  • CHAMBLISS – “non decision making”. Many other things may be considered criminal if the RC did not define what should and should not be (e.g. movie magnate – people starving a few blocks away).
  • ANGELA DAVIS – Black panthers – “the real criminals of society are not those that populate the prisons, but those that steal the wealth of the world from its people.

Who breaks the laws/gets caught?

  • Crime is widespread in all social strata, it is not “class bound”.
  • SNIDER – The RC commit most crimes, although this is masked through selective law enforcement. 20,000 people are murdered in USA per year. This figure is over quadruple the amount for workplace deaths (i.e. due to violation of health and safety laws, industrial diseases). However, such deaths rarely come to the attention of the criminal justice system.
  • SNIDER – USA street crime costs $4 billion per year. Losses from corporate crime are 20 times greater. Despite the enormous costs of corporate crime however, the penalties and chances of prosecution for those involved are small. Quoting from various statistics, she points out that over a period of 70 years, only1, 551 prosecutions were made against corporate criminals, with only 4.9% of these criminals receiving a jail sentence.
  • CHAMBLISS’S SEATTLE STUDY – Study of criminal activity spanned over a decade (1962-1972). Consisted of interviews with all members of the social strata, from police and legal officials, to prostitutes. He argued that it is money + power that determines who gets arrested and who does not. He found that although crime stats were indicative of high rates of working class crime, it was actually the ruling elite that were the “criminals”. Their crime syndicate (which consisted of leading businessmen, legal officials and politicians) was responsible for the organisation of pornography, prostitution and illegal gambling. Profits were boosted through tax evasion (which was “ignored” by the bank manager) and anyone threatening to “blow the whistle” on their activities was murdered. Chambliss concluded that those who operate organised crime are not members of a “criminal class”, but are members of the ruling elite, who exploit their power and wealth (e.g. through bribing policemen to overlook their activities) in order to serve their interests.
  • This study has been extremely influential, although cross referencing with methodology, it can be criticised. The study is based on using interviews, and it is impossible to tell whether the responses given by participants were genuine. They may have been conforming to a desirability bias (giving the answers they think the researcher wants) although giving the nature of such information, this seems unlikely. Also, the actual questions Chambliss asked may have skewed the findings, as he may have asked “leading questions” (provoking a particular response).

Why break the law? Why enforce it?

  • Marxists believe that capitalism causes crime for four main reasons;
    1. The economic infrastructure of society emphasises the accumulation of wealth, wealth which some people will go to any length to obtain.
    2. In a capitalist society, economic self-interest motivates behaviour rather than public duty, which facilitates the occurrence of crime.
    3. Capitalism is based on the private ownership of property. Personal gain is therefore valued over collective well-being.
    4. Capitalism is a competitive system in which a “survival of the fittest” view of the world is assumed. Competition breeds hostility, and for the losers, frustration.
  • CHAMBLISS argues that the greed, hostility and aggression that is generated by the capitalist system motivates behaviour within all levels of society. Thus “the pimp, mugger and prostitute use what they have to get what they can, whereas those in higher income brackets have more effective means to grab a slice of the cake”.
  • GORDON – crime = a rational response to the capitalist system. In a “dog eat dog” world where competition is the order of the day, people will go to any lengths to survive. This is particularly evident in America – minimal welfare services.

Selective law enforcement

  • SLE has a number of consequences. By prosecuting the occasional RC criminal, the fiction that laws are passed for the good of society as a whole is maintained.
  • GORDON – 3 ways the practice of SLE supports capitalism;
    • Reinforces prevalent ideology that individuals are to blame for crime, not the superstructure. By punishing individual members of the SC, the system which is responsible for their deviance is protected.
    • The imprisonment of certain individuals facilitates the “legitimate” neutralisation of those opposing the system.
    • Defining criminals as “animals, misfits and enemies of the state” justifies their incarceration in prisons. The most embarrassing extremes produced by capitalism are conveniently swept under the carpet.
  • 4 further arguments that can be added to GORDON’S
    • SLE creates illusion that most crimes are committed by WC, which draws attention away from the crimes of the RC.
    • SLE diverts the attention of the SC away from their exploitation and inequality.
    • Those prosecuted provide a scapegoat for the alienation of the masses. SLE directs the frustrations of the working class onto other members of the working class, thus acting as a safety valve which diverts the blame f crime from the ruling class.
    • SLE serves to divide the subject class, thus reducing their unity and the likelihood of revolting.

Criticisms of conventional Marxist criminology

(Unfashionable, but has influenced neo Marxism)

  • Feminists – Marxism places undue emphasis on class inequality, ignoring the role of patriarchy in shaping how the criminal justice system operates.
  • Marxists overestimate the extent to which “capitalism causes crime”. Marxists assume that in a communist utopia, crime would be eradicated, but historically, this has not been the case. Before the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, crime was plentiful and had not been eradicated by the abolition of class conflict.
  • Jones – disputes that capitalism always causes crime – points to Switzerland, which has long embraced the capitalist system yet as a low crime rate (although on a methodological level, this could be down do hw crimes are reported and recorded differently).
  • Marxists have an oversimplistic view of crime. Although there are clearly some people with more power than others, this does not mean that they can pass any law that benefits them. E.g. “insider trading” = highly lucrative for the RC, but is a criminal offence that is punishable by prison term.
  • “Left realists” claim Marxism places undue emphasis of corporate crime, arguing that robbery, burglary and other violent crimes cause more harm than Marxists recognise. The victims of these crimes are usually WC, and the consequences can be devastating for them. Thus, left realists criticise Marxists for giving a one -sided picture of crime which does little to deal with the crimes that the majority of society face.
  • Postmodernists reject Marxist criminology as a “metaarrative” that is neither believable nor defensible.


  • Suitable for: AQA A2 Sociology
  • Written by: 8owman
  • From this post.