Social Structure Theory and Crime

Structural functionalists believe that society is made up of institutions and groups that shift, move and alter their mutual influence. The aftermath of cooperation, competition, accommodation and conflict is characterized by a unified social system. This social system acts as a control for behavior within the society and is viewed as “in balance.”

Society, as it is defined within the physical boundaries of the United States is, by structural theory parameters, one of organic solidarity. That is, a society that requires an external force, the state, to create cohesiveness because a unified social system does not exist. Personal desires are highly encouraged in this country. The United States has distinct challenges when it comes to the idea of unrestrained ambition. America is considered by a portion of the world to be “the land of opportunity,” a place where anyone can achieve their goals and the opportunity to do so is inherent. The American Dream is to become wealthy, to “have it all.” The idea of moving from “rags to riches” colors our perspectives and permeates our media. Our own constitution promotes the rights of the individual, individual freedom of choice and the pursuit of happiness, as each individual defines it.

Given the diversity in the population of the United States and the ever changing world climate acting on it, it would seem that, according to a functional theorist, our society is, has been and will continue to be for years to come, in a state of imbalance. This imbalance allows for and normalizes unbridled individualism and the lack of social restraint makes this behavior even more possible. When this anomie (imbalance) exists, crime is more probable, because of the lack of constraint and the unrestrained appetites of individuals who “want more” and will use any means deemed expedient to satiate their desires.
Because there is such a focus on material possessions and a perceived intangible value of status placed on the obtaining of material possessions, individuals are driven to acquire. When this drive is strong and society encourages this drive through the acceptance or forgiveness of acts that are unlawful that are used to acquire material possessions, increased crime occurs. This crime may take the form of outright theft, corporate raiding, insider trading, embezzlement, scams, robbery, assault or even murder, when the individual involved “finds a way” to achieve their desires and has no control (internal or external) in place. It may take the form of substance abuse for those who are unable to achieve their desires, as a means of escaping the pressure to achieve.

Our society glorifies the individual with money, pays exorbitant amounts of money to “stars” and begrudges paying taxes to cover the salaries of those in public service. Our political system is so negative and competitive that few individuals (especially those with sound ethics) will chance running for office, because the truth is far less of an issue than spin and the least little indiscretion can be blown into an outrageous lie. Some (with fewer or less sound ethics) will simply put the right spin on even the most bizarre indiscretion and turn it into a virtue, though some will require a Presidential Pardon to excuse their actions. But remember where we are, they will still garner huge monetary rewards for hitting the talk circuit. The political system itself is perceived as corrupt (idiotic research funding – another reason we don’t like to pay taxesâÂ?¦just how many tsetse flies does it take to screw in a light bulb?). Individuals in public service are often looked down on in the belief that “that is all they are capable of doing.” We have only to look at reality shows to understand that our society is full of people who will quite literally do anything to acquire money or status.

It would seem unrealistic to consider structural theory without including the strain theory. While everyone in this country is supposed to be equal and it should follow that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, there appear to be conditions and restraints in place that block some individuals from success through normal avenues. They are then forced to use abnormal or deviant avenues to attain their goals, putting them in direct conflict with society as a whole and existing laws.

There would seem to be some behavioral theory at work in addition to structural theory in that individuals in a state of anomie learn from the behaviors of others. For example: CFO retires to Costa Rica, with full pension. Cashes 1.4 million in personally held company stock two months before a merger he or she has orchestrated that sends the stock price into the red and the company into bankruptcy. Salaried employee sees this and thinks, “if he or she can get 1.4 million and retirement out of this company and I’m probably going to be out of a job, I should be able to get away with taking everything from my desk before I go (stapler, phone, paper clips, tape, diskettesâÂ?¦heck I’ll just take the computer!). Martha got five months and she’s bigger than ever.

Looking back through the history of this country, there have been societal shifts, drifts and swings. In the sixties and seventies, individualism and unbridled behaviors were prevalent and there was much division within the country over foreign policy, yet the nation remained in tact. Some societies undergo revolutions that change the dynamics within the social structure, yet society reemerges. Most societies evolve. It is a necessary process of growth and change. As societies evolve what is and is not a crime also changes, so measuring criminal behavior over time will in some cases give relatively meaningless results if taken out of the context of the time and the forces at work.

While structural organization theory would seem to have some validity to explain some crime, it cannot stand alone. During theory exploration, the one thing that has stood out most profoundly is that no one theory can be viewed in a vacuum without taking into account at least some components of other theories. There is no one right answer about what causes crime and it seems one theory is built on or established to contradict another. It is this writer’s suspicion that there will be many more theories and derivatives of theories, as time goes forward. With the advent of information exchange through the Internet, theory development and challenge may increase over the next few years in many disciplines.

As human beings, we are always anxious to explain why things happen and this desire drives us toward theory development. We desire understanding and want to make sense and order of our own personal “universes.” While this may be a natural desire, in a universe of chaos, it is unlikely we will ever find that “magic button” that when pressed will explain all human action and thought. There is no concise formula to predict crime and most of our research is in hindsight rather than foresight. At the rate change takes place today, if we were to find a solution to the equation of crime today, it would most likely be out of date by tomorrow.

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