Delving into the ‘lived experiences’ of Criminality

Exploring the Criticisms of Rational Choice Theory and Sociological, Psychological Positivism

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Rational actor theory has been criticized by Cultural criminologists for its overemphasis on the individual’s exercise of free choice in committing crime, while psychological and sociological explanations tend to portray the criminal as one who is predestined to commit crime due to his or her personality traits or social background in which variables such as poverty, income inequalities and racial oppression feature.

This essay argues that Classical and Positivist explanations of crime do not go far enough in explaining the phenomena of crime, since they fail to fully explore the symbolic meanings that cultural practices and beliefs within society have for individuals, and the myriad ways such meanings shape and influence emotions, values and choices in life, including the choice to commit crime.

In arguing that there are ‘moral and sensual attractions in doing evil’, Jack Katz (The seductions of crime 1988) shifts the Criminological focus away from the background factors such as a person’s upbringing to the emotional dynamics and experiential attractions of crime that tend to be overlooked by Rational Choice and Positivists theorists.

Delving into the ‘lived experience of criminality’ arguably reveals a more nuanced understanding of the multifarious emotional, moral and cultural factors impinging on an individual’s exercise of choice in committing crime.

Cultural  Criminologists, Ferrell,Hayward and Young pose a thought provoking question:

‘’imagine if you will, the intractable problems RC theorists would encounter when trying to explain, or contain, offences such as gang related symbolic violence, stylistically -focused graffiti writing…hedonistic drug use..or drunken vandalism.’’ (Ferrell,Hayward and Young, p.67).

What may be condemned as a sheer disregard for the rule of law by officials of the Criminal Justice system denouncing graffiti drawn on public property may actually be perceived by offenders to be meaningful activity, expressing  an individual’s angst against repressive laws stifling creative expression.

The Cultural Criminologist, Mike Presdee talks about that part of life that is inaccessible and untouchable to the “official world” of the scientific rationality of modernity and its politics, parties and politicians’(M.Presdee, Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime, 2008, p. 8.);

inaccessible and unknowable perhaps to the official functionaries of the State due to an absence of interpersonal realtionships between them and particular groups in society, engendering a lack of communication and understanding of the views, aspirations and struggles of those who live their lives outside the rubrics of the Criminal law. (Nils Christie, A Suitable Amount of Crime, 2004).

Not much thought, for instance, may be given by law enforcement agents as to why a drug courier may risk his or her life and liberty to smuggle drugs such as heroin into a State mandating the death penalty for trafficking; Instead the focus of penal agents continues to be on the apparent rational choice made by the offender to violate the laws of the State.

The shortcomings of the Rational Choice theory and sociological/psychological Positivist approaches in explaining criminality

The Cultural Criminologist Keith Hayward (Situational Crime Prevention and its Discontents: Rational Choice Theory versus the ‘Culture of Now’ 2007) argues that the classical school’s focus on the offender’s exercise of free choice in committing crime reemerged in the 1970’s in the form of rational choice theories.

Classicism’s underlying assumption that crime is the result of free choice (Beccaria) and the weighing of pleasure against pain derived (Bentham) began to supplant welfarist notions that pervaded the earlier decades in certain western societies.

As Hayward notes, these approaches brought together the utilitarian notions of Beccaria and Bentham with contemporary deterrence theories of Gibb, Zimring and Hawkins to focus on the ostensibly rational decision making of individuals when committing crime; the advantage to them sought by engaging in such behavior and the weighing of risks and rewards before deciding to commit crime.

In one sense, rational choice perspective as explained by writers such as Cornish and Clarke, 1986 bears some similarity to the existential approaches to explaining crime: they attempt to understand crime from the perspective of the offender.

Yet, as Hayward argues: ‘’the growing tendency among many young individuals to engage in certain forms of criminal decision-making ‘strategies’ may simply be the by-product of a series of subjectivities and emotions that reflect the material values and cultural logic associated with late modern consumerism.’’ (Situational Crime Prevention and its Discontents: Rational Choice Theory versus the ‘Culture of Now’, 2007)

In this respect, Kubrin’s work exemplifies Cultural Criminology’s emphasis on how culture, in this case, the realities of daily struggles experienced by those within certain subcultures of street gangs, is understood through cultural expressions such as rap music. To Kubrin, Rap ‘creates cultural understandings of urban street life that render violence, danger and unpredictability normative.’’ (Kubrin 2005  quoted in Cultural Criminal, Ferrell, Hayward and Young, p.137).

One only has to only consider crimes such as drug trafficking or murder to realize that offenders do not always act in seemingly rational ways when committing serious offences which attract harsh penalties of life imprisonment or death by execution.

The lived experience’ of acting out of a sense of desperation to fund a life- long heroin addiction, or repay a debt to a brutal syndicate may feature as experiential factors that drive some individuals to risk their liberty or life by offending.

Such emotional dynamics such as despair, desperation and helplessness experienced by drug addicts negotiating the cultural values in societies depicting drugs as a scourge while demonizing drugs addicts within disadvantaged racial, socio-economic classes are largely overlooked by the those within the justice system imbibing the rational choice theory.

Ferrell, Hayward and Young note that ‘actual lived experience of committing crime, if concluding a criminal act, of being victimized by crime, bears little relationship to the arid world envisioned by RC theorists.’’ (Cultural Criminal, Ferrell, Hayward and Young, p.67);

while  the Cultural Criminologist Mike  Presdee (2004) argues that ‘’much crime, but not all ; much disorder, but not all, is no more or less than the everyday life of the oppressed and the ‘excluded’.

Individuals addicted to drugs, for instance, may resist oppressive cultural practices of stigmatizing, marginalizing and incarcerating them by funding their addiction through drug trafficking or other illicit activities instead of seeking medical treatment.

In one sense, therefore, Cultural Criminology seeks to go beyond the underlying assumptions of the rational actor theory that offenders always cognitively engage in rational decisions when committing crime and ‘’inquire into people’s live experiences, both collective and individual.’’ (Cultural Criminal, Ferrell, Hayward and Young, p.89).

It is submitted that a more nuanced understanding of why some people commit crime requires us to adopt Cultural Criminology’s critical questioning of assumptions and stereotypes depicting offenders.

As Ferrell, Hayward and Young argue: ‘’a commitment to engage with people on their own terms does not mean that those terms need be uncritically accepted’’; rather, ‘’we intend for Cultural Criminology not only to give voice to everyday accounts seldom heard, but to gather those voices into a chorus of condemnation for broad structures of violence, inequality and exploitation.’’ From this perspective, ‘a Cultural Criminology of our lives’ (Cultural Criminal, Ferrell, Hayward and Young, p.89) goes beyond the abstractions posited by some sociological positivists who argue that crime arises in the context of social disorganization and the breakdown of inter -area social control in areas of poverty, high community mobility and heterogeneity (Shaw and McKay, The Chicago school in Morrison, Theoretical Criminology, p.246).

We are invited to explore the lived experience of everyday lives, the “power of the situation” and the existential appeals that involve emotions, moral perceptions and seductions of the moment;

Consider, for instance, the way in which lived experience and struggles of those living within black inner cities is present in rap music . (Charis Kubrin 2005);  Kubrin’s examined the existing ‘ethnographic work on the way structural conditions in disadvantaged black inner city communities contributed to cultural adaptations that become embodied within codes and rituals of authenticity present on the streets as well as in rap music.

Such codes embed values such as the ‘willingness to use violence in reputation building, a valorization of sexual promiscuity and conquest, conspicuous consumption as a means of establishing self- image and gaining ‘respect’, and a pronounced antagonism towards the police and other authorities.’’ (Cultural Criminal, Ferrell, Hayward and Young, p.89).

One might argue that Cultural Criminology’s attempt to reconstitute reality through resources of ethnographic studies of sub-cultures, music, art and media portrayals of such cultures provide an authentic insight into to the study and the criminalization of some sub-cultures by the State; An authenticity that is sadly lacking in societies that rely on purely punitive approaches to maintaining law and order by assuming that every crime is the product of rational choice.

Patrick J.


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