This paper analyzes the reading “Social Power and the Construction of Crime.” It examines several different theorists, beginning with the economic influences as studied by Marx and Engels up through the turbulent 1960s and how the events of that decade influenced criminal theory. This paper shows how Bonger built on Marx and Engels and how Sutherland highlights how economic stability is no guarantee that a person will not engage in criminal behavior. It discusses the work of Turk and Sellin as well. It also mentions how criminal organizations make connections between the elite and how such organizations represent an opportunity for non-elites to ascend to elite society.

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When one considers crime in the context of social power and conflict, crime seems more straightforward. While the discussion in chapter 4 about anomie and strain made a lot of sense (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015), it seemed to locate criminal behavior almost entirely with the individual and the individual’s inability to cope with certain social structures. Of course, it acknowledged the role of society in the individual’s response, but it didn’t seem to hold society quite as responsible as it ought. Holding society responsible for its influence on individuals and their behavior seems to be the focus of the work of Marx and Engels as described in chapter 7 (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015). Marx and Engels seem to have oversimplified the problem, locating it firmly in capitalism (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015). And their belief that social solidarity would naturally emerge from the conditions of communism (as a contrast to capitalism) seems naïve, given what can be observed from the economic instability and social and political unrest of Cold War-era Russia. Social solidarity is certainly a desirable goal, but asserting that communism would necessarily give rise to that solidarity ignores how other circumstances give rise to conflict, such as cultural or religious differences. It also seems to ignore how corruption can undermine social solidarity (Schulte-Bockholt, 2001). However, there is something to be said for the influences of economics on conflicts and how that gives rise to criminal behavior.

Bonger’s extension and application of the work of Marx and Engels clarifies the issue in a more meaningful way. Bonger agreed with their notion regarding the influence of the economic system on conflict and criminal behavior but did not necessarily locate it in capitalism (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015). In fact, crime seems sufficiently able to thrive in a variety of societies that “differ politically, economically, and culturally” (Schulte-Bockholt, 2001, p. 225). Some scholars even emphasize the way in which “economic infrastructures” contribute to criminal activity, particularly criminal organizations (Schulte-Bockholt, 2001, p. 225). Furthermore, just because an individual is a member of the haves, instead of the have-nots, does not guarantee that the individual will not engage in criminal behavior. The work of Sutherland acknowledges that individuals who are wealthy will engage in criminal behavior (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015); that is, individuals who are likely in power socially speaking and who do not struggle with poverty may also engage in criminal behavior. Individuals who are financially and socially powerful are often called elites (Schulte-Bockholt, 2001). Sometimes individuals engage in criminal behavior to become elites or to serve elites as a means of obtaining more financial security (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015).

The chapter provides an overview of the social, political, and economic turmoil of the 1960s as a significant period in providing insight into how these elements contribute to criminological theory (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015). This overview leads right into the work of Turk and the notion of criminalization, a sort of relativity theory for criminal behavior (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2015). This relates to notions of authority, hearkening back to the work of Sellin and culture conflict.

It is clear that social and cultural conflicts can give rise to criminal behavior. While Marx and Engel’s criticism of capitalism and their notions of social solidarity are admirable they do not necessarily acknowledge other social factors. And capitalism cannot fully be blamed, as other economic systems enable criminal behavior, too. The work of Sutherland demonstrates that having material wealth is no vaccine against criminal behavior since even elites (socially and economically speaking) engage in criminal behavior. Sellin and Turk demonstrate how other social elements like culture and the relativity or context of criminal behavior influence theory.

  • Lilly, J.R., Cullen, F.T., and Ball, R.A. (2015). Criminological theory: Context and consequences (6th ed.). Sage Publications.
  • Schulte-Bockholt, A. (2001). A neo-Marxist explanation of organized crime. Critical Criminology, 10(3), 225-242.