- The goal of social conflict theorists is to explain crime within economic and social contexts and to
express the connections among social class, crime, and social control.
- The conflict theory is a general sociological approach that sees criminal behaviour as caused by
economic inequality, and criminal law as being defined by those in power.
- Conflict theorists reject the view that the law represents the values of the majority.
Productive Forces and Productive Relations
- Marx believed that the economic conditions of capitalism had put workers at the mercy of their
capitalist employers. This led Marx to believe that this method of producing materials was
- Production has two components: 1) productive forces (Ex. technology, material resources); and 2)
relations of production (exist among people producing goods and services).
- The most important relationship in industrial culture is between the owners and the people who
actually do the labour.
- Marx believed that societies change through slow evolution or sudden violence.
- Engels believed that crime as a function of social demoralization: working people commit crime
because their choice is a slow death of starvation or a speedy one at the hands of the law.
Developing a Social Conflict Theory of Crime
The Contribution of Willem Bonger
- Willem Bonger believed that crime is social, lying within the boundaries of normal human
- The response of crime is punishment. No action is naturally immoral; what is considered antisocial
reflects the current morality.
- Bonger argued that all people desire wealth and happiness, however, only a few people can achieve
- Upper-class individual are less likely to be caught of crimes as the legal system discriminates
against the poor.
- Upper-class individuals will commit crime if: 1) they have an opportunity to gain an illegal
advantage; and 2) their lack of moral sense enables them to violate societal rules.
- Bonger concluded that almost all crime would disappear if society could progress to a form in
which property was distributed based on “each according to his needs”.
The Contribution of George Vold
- Social conflict theory was adapted to criminology by George Vold.
- Vold stated that laws are created by politically oriented groups who seek the assistance of the
government to help them defend their interests and curb the interests of others.
- Criminal acts are seen as a consequence of forces struggling to control society.
The Contribution of Ralph Dahrendorf - Dahrendorf believed that every society is based on the coercion of some of its members by others.
- He had a different, non-Marxist conflict orientation. He proposed a unified conflict theory which
o Every society is at every point subject of processes of change; social changes is everywhere
o Social conflict s everywhere
o Every society is based on the coercion of some of its members by others.
Modern Conflict Theory
- The objectives of conflict criminology are to describe how the control of the political and economic
system affects the administration of criminal justice, to show how justice in society is skewed so
that those who deserve to be punished the most (wealthy, white-collared criminals) are actually
punished the least, while those whose crimes are committed out of necessity receive stricter
- The unequal distribution of power produces conflict.
- The power to control people is exemplified by the relationship between the justice system and
minorities. (Ex. underrepresentations of minorities in police forces affect the ability of police to
address the needs of those groups).
- Stereotyping and unfair treatment towards minorities cause them to be alienated from the
mainstream, perpetuating a class- and race-divided society, where minorities are more likely to
think of “criminal injustices”.
The Social Reality of Crime
- Richard Quinney came up with the social reality of crime which talks about how power, society,
and criminality are interrelated.
- This theory has six propositions that state criminal definitions (law) represent the interests of those
who hold power in society:
1) Crime is a definition of human conduct created by politically authorized agents.
2) Criminal definitions describe behaviours that conflict with the interests of those that
have the power to shape public policy.
3) Criminal definitions are applied by those that have the power to shape the enforcement
and administration of the criminal law.
4) Conceptions of crime are constructed and diffused in society by various means of
- Quinney wrote that criminal definitions are based on such factors as: 1) changing social conditions;
2) emerging interests; 3) increasing demands that protect political and religious interests; and 4)
changing conceptions of public interests.
- Austin Turk referred to norm resistance as how interaction between authorities and subjects
eventually produces open conflict between the two groups.
- Norm resistance is highest under certain conditions:
o Authorities and subjects are both committed to opposing cultural norms; o People with group support will be resistant to authority or change;
o Assessing the strengths, weaknesses of opponents helps avoid conflict with authorities.
Research on Conflict Theory
- It is difficult to test conflict theory. Areas of interest include comparing the crime rates of
powerless and elite groups, examining the criminal justice system to uncover bias, and identifying
laws that were created to preserve the power of the elite classes at the expense of the poor.
- Some research results show that American states with significant poverty levels were also the most
likely to have the largest number of fatal shootings by the police, suggesting that police act more
forcefully in areas of class conflict.
- Other research shows that both white and black offenders are more likely to receive stricter
sentences in criminal courts if their personal characteristics give them the appearance of being a
member of the dangerous classes.
- Conflict theorists show that the criminal justice system is quick to take action when the victim of
crime is wealthy, white and male.
Criticism of Conflict Theory
- Studies of police discretion, criminal court sentencing, and correctional policy have not always
found indicators of class or race bias.
- Critics also say that crime is less likely to be a function of poverty and class conflict than a product
of personal needs, socialization, or some other related factor.
- Capitalism produces haves and have-nots, each engaging in a particular branch of criminality. More
importantly, those in political power also control the definition of crime.
- The only crimes available to the poor are the severely sanctioned “street crimes”: rape, murder,
theft. Members of the middle class engage in petty corporate crime, which are rarely punished.
- The wealthy are involved in acts that should be described as crimes but are not.
Fundamentals of Marxist Criminology
- Marxist criminologists ignore formal theory construction, with its heavy emphasis on empirical
value-free testing, arguing that criminological scholarship should have a political and ideological
- Crime and criminal justice must be viewed in historical, social, and economic context.
- Capitalism has always produced a relatively high level of crime and violence. Three implications
follow from this view:
1) Each society will produce its own types and amounts of crime;
2) Each society will have its own distinctive ways of dealing with criminal behaviour; and
3) Each society gets the amount and type of crime that it deserves
- Criminality is a function of the social and economic organization of society. To control crime and
reduce criminality is to end the social conditions that promote crime.
Economic Structure and Surplus Value - Social conflict is fundamentally related to the historical and social distribution of productive private
property and surplus value.
- One important aspect of capitalism is the effect of surplus value, which refers to the value
resulting from production when the cost of labour is less than the cost of labour is less than the cost
of the goods it produces.
- As surplus value increases, more people are margin