Let’s face it the A2 Crime and Deviance syllabus is looking old. The years of blocked aspiration, anomie, unjust labelling and misplaced radicalism have taken their toll. A recent shopping mall poll put most the major theories at pensionable age, and even the dynamic ‘young’ radical ones were seen as ‘pushing 40’!

But we have to teach them no matter how old and run down they look and so we should because underneath those theoretical wrinkles and conceptual decay, there’s a good body of ideas that still have some life in them.

So what these ageing theories need is a make-over to see if we can make them look at least ten years younger. One of the best ways of doing this is to import some newer developments that reduce some of those wrinkles and surplus bulges. Examiners will also appreciate students trying to link the old with new, or at least with the newer.

A useful class exercise, therefore, is to help students give these “classic explanations” a new coat of paint through the use of contemporary connections and examples – here’s a few to get you started:

Ecological theory may date back to the Chicago School and the 1930’s, but the idea of socially disorganised areas, where formal and informal social control has broken down, was a key idea in Wilson and Kelling’s famous ‘Broken Windows’ theory which was the basis for more recent environmental control theory and a number of policy initiatives, including zero tolerance policing. So don’t leave ecological theory in the 1930s.

Robert Merton’s Strain Theory may be pre-war but its key idea of rising crime and relative deprivation was not only incorporated into radical crime theory, but was also one of the pillars of ‘left realism’. It also continues to be the key finding of contemporary comparative studies of crime in affluent societies – the greater the inequalities in the distribution of wealth the higher the crime rate. 

Labelling theory dates back to the 1960’s but we don’t have to stay in the 60’s with Jazz musicians, Mods and Rockers and Notting Hill bohemians to illustrate it. Many of its key concepts, such as stigma, secondary deviance and deviant careers are fundamental to more recent work, such as John Braithwaite’s study of crime and reintegration and the pioneering of restorative justice. So you can get interactionism out of those dated 60’s fashions.

So there’s life in the old theories yet and with this kind of make-over they can be applied to the more recent, rather than the distant, past and made to look at least 10 years younger.

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