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Study Notes

Statistics on Social Class and Crime

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 30 Jul 2018

Sociologists are interested in why people from some social classes are more likely to commit crimes than others, and that the types of crime which people from different classes may commit differ significantly.

Social class is an identity based on shared socio‐economic status. Different sociologists approach class in different ways: traditional Marxists focus on the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and their separate relationship to the means of production; other sociologists consider class stratification more in relation to job roles and incomes.

The police and the Crime Survey of England and Wales do not collect data directly on the social class of offenders, although there is a range of data that can give some indication of this: comparing criminality in different postcode areas, for example, and from data about the prison population. These data suggest that working‐class individuals are more likely to commit crime than middle‐class individuals. Meanwhile, middle‐class individuals are more likely to commit crimes like fraud or tax evasion (see white‐collar crime) compared with the greater likelihood of theft or violent crime by those with lower incomes.

If the Crime Statistics Reflect Reality

Many of the functionalist and Marxist theories we have already looked at seek to explain why working‐ class individuals commit more crimes than others. Whether that be subcultural theories from functionalists, or the idea crime might be a proletarian response to capitalism, a great deal of criminology has investigated this particular social distribution.

New Right sociologist Charles Murray developed the idea of an underclass. He suggested that the welfare state created welfare dependency and that there were perverse incentives in the welfare system that created a criminal underclass of jobless, welfare‐dependent, dysfunctional people (see right realism above)

This analysis led New Right journalist Melanie Philips to blame the Labour Party (who were not in power at the time) for the 2011 London and UK riots, arguing that they had conducted a "social experiment" undermining family values and discouraging a clear moral code based on Christian teachings.

Some of the published data on the 2011 riots supports the idea of an "underclass" leading to criminality. While 12% of the working‐age population of the UK are in receipt of out‐of‐ work benefits of some kind or other, 35% of the adults prosecuted after the riots were. The vast majority of rioters prosecuted had previous convictions: however, this might be because these were the rioters the police could identify. (Interestingly, in terms of other sections in this topic, 90% of the rioters were male and nearly 50% black).

Of course, the statistics from the 2011 riots could also support both functionalist explanations and left realist explanations for the behaviour. The young rioters tended to be poor and struggling with education. From a functionalist perspective this could support both strain theory and status frustration. Left realists might point to the relative deprivation of those in low income families, particularly in London where very poor people sometimes live in very rich boroughs, and to their marginalisation and social exclusion.

If the Crime Statistics Are Misleading

Marxists in particular argue that many crimes committed by the wealthy do not make their way into crime statistics. The rich are less likely to be investigated or to become suspects and are more likely to be able to afford good lawyers who get them off or indeed even bribe officials so the investigation never gets that far in the first place. Marxists would also add that much of the harmful behaviour that the rich do engage in is legal because they are the class that make the laws.

As such, Marxists take an interest in white collar crime and corporate crime, as well as state crime.

White collar crime simply means crimes committed by the "middle class" (as opposed to "blue collar" workers). Although theoretically it could mean any crime committed by members of that class, it is generally used to describe the crimes most associated with the middle class, for example, fraud and tax evasion, rather than, for instance, violent crimes that happen to have been committed by a middle‐class individual.

There are less likely to be convictions in relation to many white collar crimes because they are harder to detect. Victims are often diffused (e.g. there might be thousands of victims of a fraud, who may never be aware that a crime has taken place) and remote ‐ the crime is often committed at a distance, perhaps by computer, rather than face to face. For both these reasons, victims are unlikely to report a crime and witnesses to the crime are less likely. Historically, these crimes have been treated more leniently, and sometimes the associates of white‐collar criminals will help to "brush it under the carpet" in order to avoid the negative publicity.

Corporate crime refers specifically to crimes committed by companies rather than individuals, although individuals might well be found to have ultimate criminal responsibility, e.g. the CEO. Most commonly, corporate crimes will involve fraud or tax evasion. Historically, these crimes have not been routinely prosecuted and, even where companies have been held accountable for these crimes, it is often through arrangements outside the criminal justice system: e.g. between large companies and governments in relation to their tax affairs, as with Starbucks in 2014.

Evaluating Sociological Explanations of The Social Distribution of Crime and Deviance by Social Class

It is quite possible that factors other than social class are much more significant and, in many cases, can account for similar statistical results:

  • Ecological explanations (do not confuse with green crime!): Ecological explanations for crime examine how crime is distributed among different geographical locations. Theorists are interested in understanding the urban and rural divide in terms of crime rates and the types of crimes committed. It is clear that there are significant differences between rural and urban areas, and between different neighbourhoods within towns and cities. The type of crime common to particular areas also varies. When examining crime among different areas of the same town, sociologists consider the "tipping point". One explanation (from Baldwin and Bottoms) for certain neighbourhoods or housing estates having a particularly high level of crime is that they have passed a "tipping point". One effect of raised levels of crime in a neighbourhood: law‐abiding residents try to move away and criminals move in attracted by the subsequently lower rents/house prices and opportunity to live among like‐minded people. The suggestion is: at some point in this process an area might pass a point of no return after which it becomes a hotbed of criminality. This process might produce an apparent correlation between crime and social class.
  • Nocturnal economy: As well as being interested in the location of crimes, sociologists are also interested in when they happen. Most crime occurs at night. One reason for this is the "nocturnal economy" ‐ the big growth in pubs and clubs and the selling of alcohol to young people. Many crimes occur when people leave such establishments, especially when everywhere closes at the same time and city centres suddenly fill with inebriated young men. This theory emerged from a study by Hobbs and Lister (2000). The idea was used as a justification for introducing 24 hours licenses in 2005, although studies suggest the only significant impact of the new licensing law was pushing the time of violent crimes back by a few hours. Perhaps the time that crimes are committed is more significant than the socio‐economic background of the offenders.

In recent years white‐collar and corporate crimes have begun to be treated more seriously, with significant media interest in high‐profile tax evaders, for example. Indeed, sometimes a wealthy criminal might be treated more severely to "make an example" (see evaluation of Marxist and interactionist explanations above).

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