Aspects of crime have existed ever since the socialization of mankind began, ranging from theft and burglary of local tribes, to the murdering and torture of warring chiefdoms. However, it was not until mankind realized the need for governing rules, or laws, as well as a system of enforcing them, that crime by today’s standards and definitions have actually come into existence. It is interesting to see that aspects of crime have been around for thousands of years, yet the social conditions in which they are perceived has changed drastically. For example, murder in the 13th century would only result in a frown or two, as well a head turned the other way. Today, a murder results in losses of freedom, through the processes of incarceration into the prison system. A major question that has plagued the minds of criminologists and other crime related professionals is “why does crime occur in the first place?” Many people, prominent in their specialized fields of criminology, as well as many sociologists and philosophers, have attempted to answer this riddle, in various, several ways. The brilliant men and women who are the experts in their fields have thought up many solutions, which range from social and economic factors that result in crime, to crime being a “rationalized” behavior by the individual. Unfortunately yet, there is still much debate. I find it important to point out that no single theory is capable of explaining the causes of crime, because crime is such a general area in itself that it is impossible to explain why there are so many different types of crimes being committed by so many different types of people.
The theory that is described and evaluated in this paper is
I think that Miller’s theory is a valid one, as I think all sub-culture theories are valid. I think that they do a good job at explaining how different groups of people commit crimes, as well as the reasons behind the deviant behavior. Obviously there are more strains/stressors present in the lives of lower-class citizens, such as monetary issues, educational issues, employment issues, as well as health issues, which in effect lead to a different mind set of the lower-class culture. These sub-culture theories, such as Miller’s, outline a good explanation of how these different mind sets and mentalities cause deviance within the specified parameters of the social class. The Focal Concerns Theory emphasizes the roles of social networks by explaining how other people of the lower-class influence people from the lower-class. The importance of adhering to the learned focal concerns, or the resulting consequences of stigmatization if they are not followed, are proof of this. Similarly, Miller’s theory takes into account the role that reputation plays within the lower-class culture, and how that affects individuals’ behavior/actions within the lower-class environments and situations5. On the other hand, while Miller’s theory, as well as many other sub-culture theories, takes into account customs and values of the lower class population, he fails to take into consideration the issues of money and gender differences. The Focal Concerns Theory does not take into account that the lower-class has less money than the middle and upper class as a factor in why crimes are committed. I am sure that many reports of criminal behavior from a member of the lower-class stem from a lack of money, and them simply attempting to acquire some. The focal concerns that Miller outlines all have to do with the individual and how the eyes of other lower-class members perceive them, not how they are perceived by other class members. Also, the fact the focal concerns (toughness, trouble, excitement) are primarily male oriented, Miller’s theory does not take into account why females commit crimes. Finally, this theory cannot account for the reasons why middle-class members commit crime, as well as the white collar crimes from the upper-class population.
Everything may be evaluated based on certain criterion that is relevant to the topic. In the case of evaluating criminological theories (or any theory for that matter), it relies on five basic criteria; empirical validity, internal logical consistency, scope, parsimony, and testability6. When it comes to Miller’s theory, there is not too much empirical validity present. The little amounts of research that have been conducted in favor of this theory have proven to be complicated to assess its effectiveness in terms of quantity, and even quality, because the theory focuses on beliefs and attitudes of lower-class males. On the other hand, I think the Miller’s theory exhibits good internal logical consistency. It makes sense that lower-class youths are going to learn how to act by the adults in their social atmospheres, as humans are solely “products of their environments”. His theory states that the lower-class youth learn these focal concerns, and then act accordingly (although the carry them out to the extremes at times), which in turn leads them to act deviantly because they come into conflict with the norms of society, including the laws. His concepts are clearly defined, as well as fairly plausible. Thirdly, however, the scope of Miller’s theory is fairly limited. His solution to the explanations of crime focuses only on the lower-class, in specific lower-class males. Perhaps if Miller were to incorporate reasons and explanations for female deviance, and perhaps even make note of race and ethnicity as a factor, than the scope would widen, in turn only strengthening his theory. In a positive light, the Focal Concerns Theory is highly parsimonious. I say this because of its solid logical consistency, as the assumptions of his theory are fairly concrete. Because he states that “X” leads to “Y”, Miller’s theory is fairly simple, therefore abiding to the rule of Ockham’s Razor, by allowing his theory to operate on as few assumptions as possible, while still doing a good job at providing a reasonable explanation of delinquency and crime. If judged by the levels of testability allowed by Miller’s theory, it would probably not be considered that strong. In order to test his hypothesis that crime is committed because these focal concerns are learned in the lower-class culture, we would have to take surveys to see where and when these focal concerns were learned, and how/why do they come into conflict with societal norm, as well as the law. Experimenter’s inability to get inside the heads of lower-class criminals is also a problem, because humans are not mind-readers.
While there have not been many significant studies assessing the validity of this theory, there have been some tests done incorporating this theory into other criminological related issues. For example, a study has been conducted on how the Focal Concerns Theory influences the sentencing outcomes by Judges within their courtrooms7. Judges are humans, and humans are judgmental by nature. People are going to bring their own biases into account when they must judge something of importance, especially severity of crime. Statistics show that female offenders usually get sentenced more leniently than male offenders, based on the lack of perceived threat of dangerousness of females as well as other factors that are associated with females and not males. Today, the application of this theory has expanded beyond the judging disparities between males and females to include race, ethnicity, and age. The study states that judge’s sentencing decisions reflect three primary concerns: “(1) their assessment of the blameworthiness or culpability of the offender; (2) their desire to protect the community by incapacitating dangerous offenders or deterring potential offenders; and (3) their concerns about the practical consequences, or social costs, of sentencing decisions” This shows why judges develop “perceptual short-hands”, because they do not have enough information on the criminals’ background to correctly and fairly declare a sentence, even though they might have the best intentions at heart. The primary findings of the study indicate that sentencing tends to be harsher for males than females, blacks than whites, and lower-class citizens more than upper or middle-class citizens. This is significant because findings and qualitative results support the Focal Concerns Theory because “the interconnected effects [age, race, and ethnicity] culminate in the disproportionately severe sentencing of young black, lower class males.”8 While this does not directly support Miller’s theory by directly supporting that it is these learned focal concerns that cause lower-class members to commit crime, but it does show a tendency towards the inequity of sentencing of the lower-class members. This in turn is significant because it emphasizes the importance for lower-class members to adhere to the six focal concerns, exerting more reason for them to be tough and street-smart so that they may avoid the law, while still upholding their reputation of a lower-class member and avoiding stigmatization. This study indirectly supports Miller’s theory by giving lower-class members more incentives to not get caught, yet at the same time they must live up to, and incorporate, the six focal concerns into their everyday lives.
Due to this study, which emphasized a focal concern perspective on the sentencing by judges, researchers have been able to make some suggestions about possible policy implications. First, because it examined an analytic model of how sentencing is affected by certain characteristics (age, gender, race, and class), it shows judging disparities, suggesting that future actions could be taken by judges to eliminate those biases. This is a hope that in the future, “extralegal variables will diminish or disappear.”9 This may consequentially help to reduce the need of the lower-class focal concerns, ultimately reducing the amount of crime as produced by them.
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- 1.) Cohen, Albert. Delinquent Boys (New York: Free press, 1995)pg.19-25
- 2.) Cultural Theories for Crime and Delinquency. On-line http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/w/m/wmm11/Cultural%20Theories%20of%20Crime%20and%20Delinquency.htm
- 3.) Miller, Walter. “Lower-class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency,” Journal of Social Issues 14 (1958): 5-11
- 4.) Miller, Walter. “Lower-class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency,” Journal of Social Issues 14 (1958): 14-17
- 5.) Flowers, Barri R. The Adolescent Criminal: An Examination of Today’s Juvenile Offender. McFarland & Company, Inc. 108-109
- 6.) Bachmann, Michael. Class Lecture, July 5, 2007
- 7-9) Hartley, Richard D., Maddan, Sean, and Spohn, Cassia C. “Concerning Conceptualization and Operationalization: Sentencing Data and the Focal Concerns Perspective” Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice Vol.4, No.1 / 2007 URL: swjcj.cjcenter.org/archives/4.1/Sentencing_data.pd