Crime and Culture: Meaning & Conflict (2023)

Did you know that chewing gum was banned in Singapore? People caught by police selling, importing or eating chewing gum can be fined. However, in the UK and many other countries, chewing gum is not illegal. In fact, it's a common practice. These differences highlight that crime is not always defined by the actions itself but by rules, practices and unspoken rules of society. The social response is represented by culture. And therefore, culture impacts the perception and definition of criminal behaviours. Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between crime and culture.

  • In this explanation, we will start by looking at the meaning of crime and culture.

  • Moving on, we will delve into the relationship between crime and culture.

  • Next, we will examine the conflict between crime and culture.

  • And lastly, we will explore knife crime and gang cultures.

Crime and Culture Meaning

Although crime has significantly decreased since the 1990s, crime is still a concerning topic in most countries. Let's start by defining what exactly crime is:

Crime is an illegal act punishable by law, e.g. murder, assault or theft.

But are laws equal, regardless of culture? The answer is no, and before looking into the relationship between culture and crime, let's define culture:

Culture refers to a society's values, beliefs, knowledge and language, which are passed on from generation to generation.

Relationship Between Culture and Crime

The relationship between culture and crime can be defined as interdependent. What this means is that culture affects crime, and crime can also affect cultures.

You may be reminded of previous historical times when individuals suffering from mental health illnesses were categorised as anti-social individuals. Back then, these 'anti-social behaviours' were seen as a nuisance to society, and they did what they thought was logical; they got rid of them. E.g., people were imprisoned and even killed for it.

With time, culture and people's attitudes toward mental health have evolved. Furthermore, legislation concerning mental health has also changed.

The Mental Health Act was introduced in 1959 to protect and give rights, such as equal opportunities, to those diagnosed with mental health illnesses.

The act was introduced after people believed that patients were being treated inhumanely and with the rise of treatment options for mental illnesses. Thus, having a mental health illness is no longer seen as a criminal act because of changes in people's attitudes.

This is an example of how crime and culture are interdependent. Legal acts are defined by culture, and the culture at the time may perceive different actions as criminal or not criminal due to different motivations, such as the intellectual spirit. This is because crime can be defined as a social construct. Let's look further into this.

Crime as a Social Construct

Since crimes are not classed as the same thing in different cultures and societies, crime can be identified as a social construct.

A social construct is something that emerges from and is accepted by a given society.

To consider crime as a social construct, we would expect to see cross-cultural differences between crimes.

Let's look at an example showing cross-cultural differences between crimes. The majority of Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, do not allow people to consume or have alcoholic drinks in their possession. Conversely, in Europe or the US, the same behaviour is not punished by law - unless you are underage. Another example is euthanasia.

Euthanasia is the assisted death of a person in a terminal stage due to a health condition, e.g. cancer.

While there are countries like Switzerland, Spain and Colombia where this practice is legal, other countries consider the act illegal, e.g., the UK, Argentina and Italy.

Crimes, however, differ not only across countries. Within one country, criminal actions can change. Homosexuality, for example, was illegal in Wales and England, which both countries later legalised in 2013.

All these examples highlight the interdependent relationship between crime and culture.

Cultural Differences in Crime

The relationship between crime and culture can also be in conflict or present discrepancies.

Did you know that in the UK, it is considered illegal to pay with a phone at a drive-through while the engine is still on? However, many people across the UK do it every day!

Crime and Culture: Meaning & Conflict (1)Fig 2. An unknown fact that many people are unaware of is that it is illegal to be on your phone whilst your cars engine is on, even if it is stationary.

Generally speaking, there are two types of culture; individualistic and collectivist. And how crime is understood in these two cultures differs from one another.

Individualistic cultures are identified by societies where individuals focus on themselves rather than their community. In these cultures, it is generally understood that individuals have the freedom to choose their actions. Therefore, individuals committing crimes are seen as fully responsible for the crimes committed and expected to deal with the consequences. In collectivist cultures committing a crime is understood differently. Collectivist cultures focus on the shared interest of cultures - e.g. harmony and respectfulness - over the interests of the single individuals who compose it.

Let's take espionage, for example. In an individualistic culture, the person who committed the crime would be punished.

However, in a collectivist culture, the person who committed the crime would be punished, and the person in charge of the financial department and the individual's manager may also be penalised for missing that the person was committing a crime.

There are also different types of crimes that take place. For now, let's focus on knife crime and gang culture.

Crime and Culture Conflict

Culture, however, does not only influence crime but also deviance. Therefore, deviance has been in the spotlight of psychological research.

Deviance refers to behaviour that a given social group would classify as atypical or inappropriate.

Criminal behaviour falls under the category of deviance, even though deviance refers to broader types of behaviours. Lying, bullying, or a male figure wearing a dress are not behaviours that would get anyone in legal trouble. But these behaviours can be judged as atypical or inappropriate.

The culture of the individual lives plays a vital role in whether a behaviour is seen as deviant or not.

There are several deviance theories in psychology. Here you will be presented with the Psychoanalytic and Learning Theories of Deviance.

The Psychoanalytic theory states that every person has repressed urges and desires hidden in their unconscious mind, the psyche. And these hidden feelings sometimes influence our behaviour. Among these drives, there may be criminal tendencies. People often do not carry out deviant behaviours because they go through the process of socialisation. When a person is socialised, then the person learns to control these urges.

For example, a school child may have the impulse to bully a peer. If the child successfully went through the process of socialisation, the child would have learned that the behaviour is unacceptable by society's standards.

The Learning Theory states that deviant behaviour is learned by observing others engage in it and seeing the consequences. If an individual sees another person engaging in deviant behaviour that does not lead to negative consequences, the observer is more likely to engage in such behaviour themself.

Someone may see a friend cheating during an exam. If the friend does not receive negative consequences for engaging in such deviant behaviour, the person is likely to imitate the same deviant behaviour.

Other examples of the learning theory of deviance are gangs. Let's explore these further.

Knife Crime and Gang Culture

You probably have heard of gangs before, but what is exactly a criminal gang?

A gang is defined as a group of individuals who engage in criminal and anti-social behaviour together.

Gangs usually put pressure on others, especially young people, to recruit them. Once an individual is in a gang, social influence and social pressures make it hard for individuals to leave the gang.

People in gangs are more likely to observe deviant behaviours often, which according to the learning theory, makes them more likely to engage in deviant behaviour. If they see others rewarded for their behaviour, e.g. they may make a lot of money, they may be popular or be confident individuals, the individual may imitate it so that they can be rewarded in the same way.

If, in a specific culture, many believe that weapons, such as carrying guns or knives, are acceptable, e.g. because it provides protection, then it may make weapons more accessible and increase crime rates.

Carrying a gun is legal in many states of the US but illegal in the UK. From 1990-2015, there was a 4.20 death rate per 100,00 as a result of firearms in the US, but in the UK, this rate was 0.08.2

This is further evidence of an existing relationship between crime and culture. In this specific example, you learned how culture could also impact the extent to which individuals commit crimes and the type of crimes they commit.

Crime and culture - Key takeaways

  • Crime is an act that is punishable by law.
  • Culture resembles the values and beliefs of societies.
  • The relationship between crime and culture is interdependent, meaning crime influences culture and culture influences crime; since criminal behaviour resembles ideas from society, it is a social construct.
  • The Psychoanalytical Theory and the Learning Theory have been applied to understand social deviance and anti-social behaviour.
  • Knife Crime and gangs is an example of the Learning Theory of deviant behaviour.

References

  1. Marczack, L., O'Rourke, K., Shepard, D., & Leach-Kemon, K. (2016). JAMA. GBD 2015 Morality and Causes of Death Collaborators. 316(22).
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