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The Blog, now in its 10th year, features resources for teachers and students of Sociology, Psychology and Criminology and contains a mix of Revision Resources, Notes, Lesson Plans, PowerPoint Presentations, Films, Digested Research and more.

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Situational Action Theory

Click to download copy of SAT
Situational Action Theory

Most a-level teachers and students will probably be most familiar with Per-Olof Wikstrom’s work on the Peterborough Adolescent Development Study (PADS), a longitudinal study of youth crime in a “provincial English town”. One that sits mid-way between the teeming Birmingham metropolis and Norwich. Which, with the best will in the world, can neither be described as “teeming” nor metropolitan. Trust me. I’ve been there.

What you may be less familiar with is situational action theory (SAT), the theory that, among other things, underpins the study.

In basic terms, SAT represents an attempt to understand crime and criminality by integrating two levels of analysis:

  • The individual: this refers to the various processes, such as family socialisation and formative experiences that shape individual moralities – the way in which they see and think about the social world.
  • The situational: this refers to the specific social situations through which the individual moves at various points in their life. It represents, as it were, the contexts against which individual moralities are played-out.

Both an awareness of the significance of these two levels and, perhaps more importantly, how they are integrated is, for Wikstrom, the key to understanding youth crime (an idea we explore in more detail in subsequent posts: Situational Action Theory: Crime and Social Disadvantage and Crime and Social Disadvantage: The Evidence).

This short introduction to Situational Action Theory covers the basic ideas involved and includes examples you can use to sensitise your students to how the theory works.

The subsequent posts noted above can be used to show how the theory has been applied to both understand youth crime and the limitations of various New Right crime theories (such as Routine Activities).

Crime and Social Disadvantage: The Evidence

One of the more-interesting things about the use of Situational Action Theory (SAT) to explore the relationship between crime and social disadvantage is that it developed alongside Wikstrom’s Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study (PADS+). This longitudinal study of young people’s behaviour in the early part of the 21st century has proven to be both a valuable resource in its own right and, more-importantly perhaps, a rich source of empirical evidence with which to test many of the hypotheses Wikstrom developed out of his application of SAT to an understanding of how and why youth crime occurs.

Peterborough courts

In this final part of what no-one is calling the SAT Trilogy we can examine some of this evidence (the previous parts – Situational Action Theory [coming soon] and Situational Action Theory: Crime and Social Disadvantage – will also be available if you’d like to read them).

As Wikstrom and Trieber (2016) argue, the objective here is “to advance knowledge about the relationship between social disadvantage and crime involvement through the application of situational action theory (SAT) and the analysis of data from a random sample of U.K. adolescents from the longitudinal Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study (PADS+).”. To this end we can have a look at a broad overview of what, according to Wikstrom, PADS+ data tells us about both criminal involvement and its relationship to social disadvantage.

Wikstrom’s longitudinal study followed a randomly selected sample of 716 young people, aged 12 – 16, living in and around the English city of Peterborough over a period of 13 years (roughly 2002 – 2015). One of the unique features of the study was that, in line with Wikstrom’s focus on the idea of situational action, it was interested in studying the participants as both individual actors (their sense of moral purpose in particular) and the social environments (situational settings) in which they lived and moved.

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Situational Action Theory: Crime and Social Disadvantage

While the relationship between social disadvantage and crime  has long been known, an important question that’s often ignored is why only a relatively small proportion of the socially disadvantaged seem to engage in persistent criminal offending?

Wikstrom’s Situational Action Theory provides an interesting, thought-provoking, possible answer…

The Crime Paradox

Most A-level crime and deviance students will quickly come to understand the relationship between social disadvantage – what Wikström and Treiber (2016) term “the comparative lack of social and economic resources”- and various forms of persistent, mainly low-level, criminality, overwhelmingly committed by young, lower class, males. Crimes that involve relatively small levels of economic reward (arson, vandalism, theft, shoplifting, robbery, car crime and burglary) or which involve routine low-level violence (assault). In basic terms, social disadvantage is generally seen as a cause of crime.

Professor Per-Olof Wikstrom

The problem with this characterisation, however, is that it’s both true – statistically, most persistent offenders do come from a socially-disadvantaged background (at least as far as the kinds of crimes we’ve just listed are concerned) and not true: social disadvantage doesn’t, in and of itself, cause crime because only a relatively small proportion of those classified as socially disadvantaged become persistent offenders. The majority do not. Which is not something we would expect if the relationship was a causal one.

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GCSE Sociology: Terms and Concepts Visualised

Free online Introductory Sociology Flipbook aimed at GCSE students.

As you may be aware – I may have mentioned it once or twice – I really like the idea of a visual sociology that involves integrating text and graphics to create narratives for students that have much greater appeal than the simple textbooks of yore (or even the more-complex Textbooks of Today that plonk a few pictures next to some text and call it innovative…).

Maybe it was the distant echo of childhood comics – both the bog-standard British and, very, very, occasionally the wonderful world of Marvel and DC – that appealed to my sense of sociology as story-telling.

Until very recently it certainly wasn’t the idea of dual coding information in a way that made it accessible and memorable. That, as they say, was an unintended bonus.

Anyway, while there have been a couple of reasonably-successful attempts to produce visual sociology books, such as Sociology in Pictures (2012) which covers Theories and Concepts and a follow-up (2016) covering Research Methods, the main drawback with these is that they’re print books and hence rather expensive for what you get. Although, given their relative age, you can at least pick up cheap 2nd hand copies.

My favoured format for this kind of endeavour is, of course, Flipbook and Free. I don’t know why but there’s something about being able to flip online pages as if they were a real-world magazine that appeals to my infantile sensibilities.

The “free” part is, of course, optional and it’s rare to come across a publication that combines the two, which is why I was interested to discover Sociology: Terms & Concepts Visualised. Created by Sanjana Saxena for the Indian Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) the flipbook combines interesting visuals with short descriptive text on a range of Introductory Sociological Terms (mainly  around the idea of different groups – primary, secondary and the like) and Concepts such as Stratification, status and role. Both the style and content fit the English GCSE curriculum.

One drawback is that the flipbook was published in 2017 and since then Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Which is a bit of a shame because the flipbook is beautifully drawn and will definitely appeal to GCSE students (and teachers) looking for a different, potentially more-interesting, way to get into Sociology.

Crime and Victimisation: 1. Victimology

This section of Crime Notes focuses on a number of different aspects of victimisation with the initial emphasis on the concept of victimology, the social construction of victims and a range of victim-orientated policies introduced into England and Wales in the 21st century.

Over the past 50 or so years there has been a growth of interest in what Maguire et al. (2006) called the ‘experiences and needs of crime victims’ that has informed debates about ‘the relative rights of victims and offenders, policing policy, crime prevention and court processes’. This change of focus, particularly in the UK, from the offender to the offence and the victim, is significant for how crime impacts on three types of victimisation:

  • primary – individual victims
  • secondary – people such as family and friends close to the victim
  • tertiary – the communities in which victims live.

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Dynamic Learning: Metacognition

The 7th film in our Dynamic Learning Series designed to introduce students to a range of important ideas and skills related to the science of studying.

Understandably perhaps, most students spend the vast majority of their study time thinking about what they’re learning, rather than how they’re learning it, on the not-too-questionable  basis that if they can’t learn something they’re unlikely to succeed in examinations that test them on their knowledge of that information.

But there’s increasing evidence that understanding how we learn things can play an important part in actually helping us learn stuff.

And over 30 years of educational research has shown that metacognition – in broad terms, an awareness of how we think – helps students take more control over their learning, improve their grades and become more independent and confident learners.

The objective of this short film, therefore, is to show students how to develop a metacognitive outlook in their your by using three simple interrelated processes – planning, monitoring and reflecting – that can boost their understanding of whatever subjects they’re studying.

Dynamic Learning: Metacognition is available now to Buy or Rent (7 days).

Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 6. Left Realism

Short set of Notes on a kind of complementary, albeit less revolutionary, approach to understanding crime and deviance that you can either lump-in with Critical Criminology or treat as a separate, neo-critical, perspective.

Your choice.

But let’s just hope it’s the right one, for everyone’s sake…

Left Realism: A Young Man’s Game?

Young (2003) suggests the job of realism is ‘to tackle all three sides of the deviancy process’. This three-cornered approach addresses the multidimensional nature of crime in terms of the relationshipbetween:

  • offender
  • victim
  • social reactions

Only by understanding their interaction – how each impacts on the other – can we understand crime as both a

  • private problem, in terms of its effects on victims
  • public issue, in terms of how it impacts on the quality of community life

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Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 5. Marxism

A broad overview of a range of different Marxist interpretations of crime and deviance in words and pictures Or, if you want to be picky, film.

Marxist (or critical) theories of crime assume that no behaviour is inherently deviant. Behaviour only becomes criminalised through the creation and application of laws – and in capitalist societies to understand how and why criminal forms of deviance occur we must understand the economic relationships that give rise to class-based laws. As Croall (2001) argues, for Marxists ‘the criminal law and its enforcement reflect the interests of the powerful and are a means of controlling the activities of powerless lower-class offenders’.

Rule of law

Milliband (1973), for example, suggests that laws favouring the general interests of a ruling class are an extension of its political and ideological dominance – an instrumental form of Marxism that sees the law as a tool used to control the working classes. Poulantzas (1975), however, argues that while contemporary capitalist societies need laws that benefit the interests of the ruling class, these laws have (lesser) benefits for subject classes. This form of hegemonic Marxism sees a ruling class as able to head-off class conflicts by co-opting subject classes into the ‘benefits’ of capitalism and the ‘rule of law’ (as opposed to the reality – the rule of capital).

For Marxists, laws are framed to protect both social order and property relationships:

  • Social order relates to the legality of killing people, violent behaviour and the like. Everyone benefits from being able to go about their daily lives unmolested, but a ruling class gains additional benefits; an orderly society is one where those making the greatest profits gets to keep their wealth safe and sound.
  • Property/contract laws relate to the requirements of capitalism as an economic system; they exist to enshrine in law certain rights, such as private property ownership. While everyone benefits from a law against theft, those with the most to lose reap the greatest benefit.

For Marxists, crime is part of a structural process that sees the working classes as both more criminal and more criminalised. The working class experiences greater social pressures (higher levels of economic deprivation coupled with constant ideological injunctions to consume) that lead to higher levels of crime, while their behaviour is more closely defined, surveilled and policed as criminal. While these related processes go some way towards explaining crime, they do not excuse it.

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Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 4. Feminism

A short overview of Feminist perspectives on crime and deviance combining a bit of text with quite a lot of video.

Feminist approaches are many and varied, but all, to varying extents, focus on women as both offenders and victims — partly as a response to what Sharp (2006) suggests has been the male bias of traditional criminological research and partly because ‘the study of crime became equated with the study of male criminality’.

Feminist criminology attempts to redress this ‘malestream bias’ in two ways:

  • by confronting the conventional wisdom of greater male involvement in crime — what Maguire (2002) argues is a ‘universal feature…of all modern countries’
  • by exploring the reasons for female criminality. In this respect, knowledge of female offending is largely based around two main sources, official crime statistics and offender surveys, and we can use these as a way of exploring feminist criminology and explanations for female offending.

Statistical accuracy

Official crime statistics consistently show that men, in terms of raw numbers, have greater involvement in crime than women. Self and Zealey (2007), however, make the important point that males and females commit similar typesof crime. Theft, drug offences and personal violence are the main offences for both sexes.

From a feminist standpoint these observations are interesting, mainly because most explanations for crime have focused on explaining male criminality by using women as a form of control group. Where women are considered more likely to conform to social norms, the criminological focus is switched to the search for the attributes – biological, psychological and sociological – not shared by women and which supposedly explain male criminality.

An example here is the notion of males and females having different attitudes to risk-taking, which, in turn, explains greater or lesser involvement in crime. In basic terms, risk-taking is bound up with cultural ideas about masculinity, while conformity is held to be a cultural feature of femininity.

McIvor (1998), for example, argues that greater male involvement in youth crime is ‘linked to a range of other risk-taking behaviours which in turn are associated with the search for [masculine] identity in the transition from adolescence to adulthood’. Lyng’s (1990, 2004) concept of edgework also argues that many young males are attracted to crime precisely because of the risks involved; risk-taking affirms their masculinity.

There are two objections to this argument:

  • women are defined negatively in such theories, ‘by the absence’ of something men have (a need to take risks) rather than as individuals in their own right
  • there is an ecological fallacy: while many women are not involved in crime the same is true for men – yet significant numbers of each do offend.
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Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 3. Interactionism

A quick’n’dirty overview of the Interactionist perspective on crime and deviance.

Two ideas closely associated with Interactionist approaches are those of deviance as both relative and socially constructed.

Relativity refers to the idea that the same behaviour can be considered deviant in one context (or society) but non-deviant in another. A simple example here might be punching someone in the face. If you do this in the street you could be arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned. If you do it in a boxing ring people might cheer…

This suggests, as Durkheim argued, that “if societies make the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance” then deviance is socially constructed – and this is important, as Becker (1963) argues, because it means deviance is not a quality of what someone does but rather a qualityof how others react to what they do.

And if this argument is valid it means that looking for “solutions to the problem of crime” in the behaviour or demeanour of ‘criminals’ is pointless because ‘criminals’ are only different from ‘non criminals’ when they are publicly labelled as such.

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Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 2. New Right

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a general political perception that the ‘fight against crime’ was not only being lost, but that attempts to explain and solve offending behaviours were largely ineffective. The best that could be done was to develop ways that limited the impact of crime on communities and this led to a range of policies aimed at preventing crime, developed under the umbrella of New Right approaches to reflect a more conservative approach to dealing with crime. These approaches involved crime-reduction polices that drew on ecologicalideas about people’s relationship to their immediate environment – specifically in terms of their impact on encouraging or discouraging deviant behaviour.

Crime prevention

Indicative of this general perspective, Clarke (1980) argues that crime theory should focus on a realistic approach to crime prevention and management, rather than search for the ‘causes of crime’. He argues that criminal behaviour takes many forms – property theft, for example, is very different from rape – and it makes little sense to assume they have similar causes or outcomes. However, the majority of crimes had two important characteristics that made them amenable to prevention: first, the majority are opportunistic, and second, crime is territorial.

  • Opportunistic crime is the outcome of what Clarke terms, ‘the immediate choices and decisions made by the offender’. In other words, most crime is unplanned and carried out ‘on the spur of the moment’; if an opportunity occurs (a purse left unattended, for example) an offender may be tempted if the chances of being detected are less than the likely benefits. This reflects what Right Realists call a cost / benefit analysis of crime.

Analysis of Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) data for 2020 suggests that opportunistic crimes are not restricted to relatively small-scale thefts. Around 50% of all home burglaries, for example, were spur-of-the-moment decisions by the perpetrators as they responded to favourable opportunities to commit a crime that hadn’t necessarily planned or prepared to commit.

  • Territorial crime is, Wiles and Costello (2000) argue, generally local to the offender. Their research showed the ‘average distance travelled to commit domestic burglary was 1.8 miles’, which confirmed Forrester et al’s (1988) research into patterns of burglary in Rochdale.

While this “average” does, of course, hide wide individual behaviour discrepancies – some burglars, for example, target properties well outside this average – recent CSEW (2020) data has shown that around 50% of burglars knew their victims.

Territorialism is important for crime prevention and control since offences committed outside the offender’s local area are mainly related, as Wiles and Costello argue, to opportunities presenting themselves ‘during normal routines’, rather than being consciously planned (a ‘routine activity theory’ of crime). If measures are taken to reduce opportunities for crime in a particular area, crime rates will fall. The denial of opportunity, allied to territoriality, means the majority of crimes will not be displacedto other areas (although there are exceptions – activities like drug smuggling and prostitution, for example, are sensitive to displacement).

These ideas led to a range of crime prevention strategies, designed to make crime more difficult, less attractive and more costly for the potential offender, based around changes to the cultural and physical environments.

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Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 1. Functionalism

A short set of Notes covering a range of Functionalist explanations for crime and deviance, largely based around the concepts of anomie (both the Durkheimian and Mertonian interpretations) and Strain (Merton again plus Agnew’s General Strain Theory). There’s also a little bit of subcultural stuff thrown-in for good measure.

Traditional Functionalism

Functionalist approaches are based around an understanding of how societies solve what Durkheim (1938) called two problems of existence: how to create order and maintain social stability in a situation where millions of unique individuals, each with their own particular (self) interests, must be persuaded to behave collectively.

The simple answer involves the notion of collective sentiments – shared beliefs about society and the development of behavioural rules designed to reinforce this collective consciousness. However, the existence of behavioural rules, in the shape of formal and informal norms, presupposes that some will break the rules, because if they didn’t, rules would be unnecessary.

For Durkheim, therefore, deviance was normal, by which he meant functional (as opposed to beneficial). Deviance contributed to social stability because when people act ‘as a group or society’ against deviants it becomes a mechanism through which the collective conscience is both recognised and affirmed.

Behavioural boundaries

In complex societies, for example, the fact some people ‘break rules’ tells everyone where the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour lie. The public condemnation of deviants, through media, for example, establishes and reinforces consensual boundaries. In this respect, crime promotes social integrationand social solidarity through its ‘public naming and shaming’ function. Popular alarm and outrage at criminal acts serve to draw people closer together ‘against a common enemy’.

Testing tolerance

Deviance is also a mechanism for social change because it tests the boundaries of public tolerance and morality. It is a social dynamicthat forces people to assess and reassess the nature of social statics(such as written laws). Laws criminalising homosexuality in our society, for example, have gradually been abandoned in line with changing social attitudes.

Moral values

Matza’s (1964) study of juvenile delinquency provides empirical support for Durkheim’s basic argument when he suggests young people have little commitment to deviant (or ‘subterranean’) values that threaten the moral consensus. Matza found that, when caught, people employ techniques of neutralisation in an attempt to explain or justify their deviance. They deny, for example, personal responsibility (‘I was drunk…’), injury (‘no one was hurt’) or victimisation (‘they hit me first’) and by so doing show a commitment to conventional moral values. If they did not respect those values there would be little point trying to justify their guilt.

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Crime Trends and Patterns in England and Wales

A short set of Notes looking at crime trends and patterns in England and Wales over the past 50-odd years. While students don’t require a detailed factual knowledge of trends and patterns they do provide a useful introduction to the next set of Notes covering theoretical explanations for crime and deviance.

One reason for measuring crime is to identify trends and patterns in the data, based around the categories of class, age, gender, ethnicity and location, that can then be explained sociologically.

There are two main sources of official crime data generally used to identity patterns and trends:

  1. Police-recorded crime statistics are, as the name suggests, recorded by the police each time a crime is reported.
  2. Official Crime Surveys: Ther initial type of official crime survey covering the years 1982 – 2012 was the British Crime Survey consisting of face-to-face interviews with a representative population sample. In 2012 the BCS was renamed as the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) to reflect the fact the data only covered England and Wales and not Scotland. During the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 the Survey switched to carrying-out telephone-based representative samples.

Crime Trends

Over the past 50 years official (police-recorded) crime statistics and the BCS / CSEW have both shown an initially upward trend that peaked in the mid-1990s and then gradually declined. Both sets of statistics have, however, shown a recent upward trend in crime that reflects the influence of Internet-based crimes – particularly varieties of fraud. In 2023, for example, an estimated 2 million additional crimes were attributed to computer-based fraud in the police-recorded statistics.

Crime Trends in England and Wales

YearBCS / CSEW (millions)Police-Recorded (millions)
1981113
1995196
20109.64
20147.03.8
20238.36.7
Office for National Statistics
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Defining and Measuring Crime

Some Notes that have been hanging around on my hard drive doing nothing useful that I’ve finally got around to posting. There are plenty more where these came from but whether or not I’ll ever get around to digging them out is anyone’s guess.

Defining Crime and Deviance

Deviance

‘To deviate’ means ‘to stray from the path’ and the path here is behaviour that a society considers normal – something that is always a matter for debate. In our society, for example, it’s normal to maintain a circle of space around our body extending roughly 60 cm, and we feel uncomfortable if people enter this ‘personal space’ uninvited. In other cultures, concepts of personal space are different – in Argentina, for example, personal space can be so small as to be almost non-existent. This example illustrates that:

  • all cultures develop ideas about ‘normal behaviour’
  • the rules – or norms – governing normal behaviour can be different from culture to culture (and frequently within the same culture at different times)

Deviance, therefore, refers to actions that deviate from the norm – the ‘underlying rules of social interaction’ that take two basic forms:

  • Formal norms involve laws and organisational rules that represent official standards of behaviour. They are usually written, formally policed and punishment (or ‘negative sanctions’) for deviance is clearly specified as part of the rule. If you break the law, for example, you risk being arrested and imprisoned. Unlike laws, organisational rules apply to a particular group or organisation, rather than society as a whole. School pupils, for example, may have to wear a uniform, but this rule doesn’t apply to their parents.
  • Informal norms are unwritten, informally policed and carry informal punishments that vary from group to group. This means the same behaviour may be seen differently depending on its context; swearing when with a group of friends may be considered acceptable behaviour, while swearing in front of your parents may be considered quite differently.

Crime

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The Psychology Teacher’s Resource Guide

Lesson Plan…

The Resource Guide is a compendium of 50 “Standards-Based Lesson Plans” created by  Amanda Vanderbur and aligned with the US National Standards for High School Psychology. These, as you might expect, have evolved somewhat between the year this Guide was published (2014) and the year in which this post was published (2024).

If you’re an American High School Psychology teacher you will, hopefully, be aware of both the current standards and how they’ve changed. But in case you’re neither of those I’ve included a link that explains the difference. Because I’m nice like that.

The Guide also helpfully aligns the NSHSP standards to AP Psychology standards (for non-US readers, Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology is broadly equivalent to A-level standard).

Now we’ve got the standards-stuff out of the way, the Lesson Plans are organised into 7 sections:

  • Scientific Inquiry
  • Biopsychology
  • Cognition
  • Development and Learning
  • Sociocultural Context
  • Individual Variation
  • Application of Psychological Science

and each Plan provides you with details of the objectives they’re designed to achieve, details of the procedures involved and the preparation they require (including things like Handouts that are included in the Guide).

And that’s about it, really. All you have to do is download the Resource Guide and spend some time browsing its pages to see if there’s anything within you want to use.

And if you’re in the market for more-of-the-same-but-a-bit-different then why not have a gander at The Psychology Teacher’s Toolkit – a UK-based collection of Notes, Starter, Plenaries, Strategies and Sims with nary a Standard in sight.

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Archived Posts

Situational Action Theory

Most a-level teachers and students will probably be most familiar with Per-Olof Wikstrom’s work on the Peterborough Adolescent Development Study (PADS), a longitudinal study of

Dynamic Learning: Metacognition

The 7th film in our Dynamic Learning Series designed to introduce students to a range of important ideas and skills related to the science of

Dynamic Learning: Metacognition

Over 30 years of educational research has shown that metacognition – an awareness of how we think – helps students take more control over their

Defining and Measuring Crime

Some Notes that have been hanging around on my hard drive doing nothing useful that I’ve finally got around to posting. There are plenty more

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