Vold’s Theoretical Criminology
Chapter 12: Conflict Criminology
- Two contrasting views of sociologists
o Consensus theorists place a consensus of values at the very center of human societies, -
that is, shared beliefs about what is good, right, just, important, or at least excusable.
o Conflict theorists in contrast, place conflicts of interests at the very center of human
societies – that is, competitions over money, status and power.
- Consensus theorists recognize that there inevitably will be at least some value conflicts among
different individuals and groups in every human society
- Consensus theorists argue that the role of the organized state is to mediate these conflicts and
to represent the common values and interests of the society
- Conflict theorists argue that interests ultimately determine values
- They argue that the organized state does not represent common interests, but instead
represents the interests of those with sufficient power to control its operation. As a results
more powerful people are legally freer to pursue self-interests, while less powerful people who
pursue self-interests are more likely to be officially defined and processed as criminal
Early Conflict Theories: Sellin and Vold
In 1938, Thorton Sellin presented a theory of criminology that focused on the conflict of “conduct
- Conduct norms are cultural rules that require certain types of people to act in certain ways in
- Sellin defined “primary cultural conflicts” as those occurring between two divergent cultures
- “Secondary cultural conflicts” occur when a single culture evolves into several different sub
cultures, each having its own conduct norms.
Twenty years after Sellin, Vold presented a group conflict theory in the original edition of the present
- His theory was based on a “social process” view of society as a collection of groups held
together in a dynamic equilibrium of opposing group interests and efforts.
- In Vold’s theory, groups in society more or less continuously struggle to maintain or improve
their place in an ongoing interaction and competition with other groups.
- Vold described criminal behaviour as the behaviour of minority power groups – that is, groups
that do not have sufficient power to promote and defend their own interests and purposes in
the legislative process
- Vold’s group conflict theory suggested that a considerable amount of crime is intimately related
to the conflicts of groups.
- Vold argued that group conflict theory was strictly limited to those kinds of situations in which
the individual criminal acts flow from the collision of groups whose members are loyally
upholding the in-group position. The theory doesn’t explain many kinds of impulsive and
irritational criminal acts that are unrelated to any battle between different interest groups in
Conflict Theories in a Time of Conflict
- Ten years after Vold wrote his theory, the U.S. was embroiled in enormous social and political
turmoil surrounding the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Three important conflict
theories were published within three years.
In 1969, Austin Turk proposed a “theory of criminalization” that attempted to describe “the
conditions under which… differences between authorities and subjects will probably result in
conflict and the conditions under which criminalization will probably occur in the course of conflict. - Turk argued that the organization and sophistication of both authorities and subjects affect the
likelihood of conflict between them.
- Turk defined sophistication as “knowledge of patterns in the behaviour of others which is used
in attempts to manipulate them”
- Given the conditions that affect the likelihood of conflict between authorities and subjects, Turk
discussed the conditions under which conflict is more likely to result in the criminalization of the
subjects. The primary factor will be the meaning that the prohibited act or attribute has for
those who enforce the law. The second factor will be the relative power of the enforcers and
- Criminalization will be greatest when the enforcers have great power and the resisters are
- The third factor is what he called the “realism of the conflict moves” and it is related to how
likely an action taken by the subjects or authorities may improve the potential for their ultimate
In 1970, Richard Quinney published his theory of “the social reality of crime”
- He argued that the legislative process of defining criminal laws and the criminal justice proves of
enforcing criminal laws occur in a political context in which individuals and groups pursue their
- He discussed conflicts among “segments” of society. Segments are said to be people who share
the same values, norms, and ideological orientations, but who may or may not be organized in
defense of those commonalities.
- Quinney argues that irrational and impulsive people represent a segment of society with
common values, norms, and ideological orientations, even if this segment is not organized into
any interest group.
- The social reality of crime according to him, is that powerful individuals and groups promote
particular conceptions of crime in order to legitimate their authority and allow them to carry
out policies in the name of the common good that really promote their own self interests
In 1971, Chambliss and Seidman published a conflict analysis of the functioning of the criminal justice
system entitled Law, Order, and Power.
- They examined the day to day functioning of that system to determine which of the two theoies
is correct (consensus or conflict)
- They sought to determine whether the power of the state is a “value neutral framework within
which conflict can be peacefully resolved”, or whether, as conflict theory would have it, “the
power of the State is itself the principal prize in the perpetual conflict that is society.”
- They maintained that “the higher a group’s political and economic position, the greater is the
probability that its views will be reflected in the laws.”
- They also examined day to day functioning of criminal justice agencies to see if their functions
reflect the arguments of consensus or conflict theories.. their analysis focused on the
bureaucratic nature of those organizations and their connections to the political structure
- They argued that because law enforcement agencies depend on political organizations for their
resources they can maximize their rewards and minimize their strains if they process those who
are politically weak and refrain from processing those who are politically powerful
- They concluded that “it may be expected that the law enforcement agencies will process a
disproportionately high number of the politically weak and powerless, while ignoring the
violations of those with power.”
- They concluded that both in structure and in function, the law operates in the interests of
power groups. The public interest is represented only to the extent that it coincides with the
interests of those power groups. Black`s Theory of the Behaviour of Law
In 1976, Donald Black published a sociological theory entitled the Behaviour of Law in which he
attempted to explain variations in the quantity and style of law.
- Argued that the quantity of law varies in time and place, that is, there is more law at some times
and places and less law at other times and places
- Black explored five social dimensions of social life
o Stratification – the vertical distance between the people of a social setting
o Morphology – the horizontal aspect of social life, the distribution of people in relation to
one another, including their division of labour, networks of interaction, and intimacy
o Culture – the symbolic aspect of life, including expressions of what is true, good, and
o Organization – the corporate aspect of social life, the capacity for collective action
o Social control – the normative aspect of social life, defining responses to deviant
behaviour and specifying what ought to be.
- Black argued that law varies directly with organization
- He doesn`t mention conflict theory in any of his works on the behaviour of law, yet some of his
ideas are consistent with conflict notions
Testing Conflict Criminology
- The major problem with testing conflict criminology is distinguishing between conflict
explanations and the other possible explanations
- Theories of conflict criminology imply that greater equality in the distribution of power among
groups in society should result in greater equality in the distribution of official crime rates.
- Groups that presently have high official crime rates should have lower rates as they use their
newly acquired power to pursue and defend their values and interests legally.
- Conflict criminology asserts that there is a general tendency for power and official crime rates to
be inversely related.
Vold’s Theoretical Criminology
Chapter 13: Marxist and Postmodern Criminology
- The term critical criminology has been described as an umbrella designation for a series of
evolving, emerging perspectives that are characterized particularly by an argument that it is
impossible to separate values from the research agenda, and by a need to advance a progressive
agenda favouring dis-privileged peoples.
- Critical theories share the view that inequality in power is causally related to the problem of