8. Sociological Theories of Crime

8.1 Crime and Social Norms

Dr. Sean Ashley

The Canadian nation-state is diverse, so much so that some scholars use the term super-diversity to describe the growing metropolitan areas of Vancouver and Toronto (Smith, 2018). One of the earliest scholars to explore the connection between social diversity and criminal justice systems was the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917).

Durkheim was critical of the atavistic explanation proposed by the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso and was suspicious of the idea that crime was the result of a stunted evolutionary condition (Durkheim, 1893/2014). This proved to be a prescient critique, as eugenicists would soon attempt to eliminate crime by attacking its biological foundation, an approach that led to widespread sterilisation programs in Canada, with many Indigenous women being subjected to such procedures (Stote, 2015).

Durkheim understood that crime was a normal part of society and not something that could ever be eliminated completely. He asked us to:
Imagine a community of saints in an exemplary and perfect monastery. In it crime as such will be unknown, but faults that appear venial to the ordinary person will arouse the same scandal as does normal crime in ordinary consciences. If therefore that community has the power to judge and punish, it will term such acts criminal and deal with them as such. (Durkheim, 1895/1982, p. 100)

For Durkheim, it is society that determines what is criminal, not our biology or some universal moral standard. While crime is normal, it is not desirable; it is normal because it establishes the moral boundaries of a community. Morals might differ from society to society, but this relativism does not mean that morality is not important. People need these rules; they need to internalise the norms of the community in order to live a good life together.

Durkheim’s approach represents a consensus view of crime. The norms emerge out of a communal consensus and, in more complex societies, are codified into law. These norms act upon people as social facts in that they are external and constraining upon the individual, but they are also internalised, giving us a collective conscience of how we ought to behave.

Durkheim’s sociology is much broader than the study of crime, but his work set the foundation for the future of criminological theory (Boyd, 2015). His book Suicide is particularly important and reflects well the Anishinaabe concept of dibenindizowin discussed earlier in that it emphasises the importance of social relations as the source of well-being. Using statistics, Durkheim (1897/2002) demonstrated that suicide rates differed across social groups and that this pattern was relatively stable over time. Suicide rates were higher among industrial and commercial professions than agricultural ones, higher among urban city dwellers than people who lived in small towns, and higher among divorcees than married people. His macro-level explanation for differences in suicide rates was the relative degree of social integration and social regulation. People who had weaker social bonds were more likely to take their own lives. He called this state of deregulation and disorientation “anomie” (Durkheim, 1897/2002).

We can see this effect today in the increased use of drugs and alcohol in societies that have undergone rapid transformations that disrupted the previous norms of social life. Take for example the collapse of the USSR. As countries radically transformed from state socialism to free-market capitalism, there was a sizeable increase in substance abuse, which became a major factor in driving down life expectancy (McKee, 2002). A similar situation was seen in British Columbia during the COVID-19 pandemic. As social life was disrupted and people became socially isolated, the province saw a spike in opioid overdose deaths (Azpiri, 2020).

Within the context of the colonial state of Canada, Durkheim helps us understand the tragic effects the residential school system has had on Indigenous communities. Beginning in 1834, the Canadian government, in partnership with several Christian church organisations, instituted a program of genocide with the aim of assimilating Indigenous persons into the European-derived settler culture. Approximately 150,000 children were stolen from their homes and placed in boarding schools where they were prohibited from speaking their language or practising their traditions. Many of the children suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of teachers and clergy. The last residential school closed in 1996, but as Tanya Talaga (2017) points out, many young Indigenous boys and girls are still forced to attend schools far away from their home communities. Her book Seven Fallen Feathers examines the death of seven of these students in Thunder Bay, Ontario during the first decade of the 21st century.

First Nations suffer suicides at twice the average Canadian rate (Monchalin, 2016). While the psychological trauma of the residential school system is an important factor, Durkheim reminds us that the destruction of culture likewise contributes to high rates of anomic suicide, and that the imposition of an alien, colonial system of regulation gives rise to fatalistic incidences of self-destruction. Fortunately, Durkheim’s work also suggests a path forward: ensuring the transmission of cultural knowledge can restore the conditions necessary for human beings to flourish and is a right guaranteed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (United Nations General Assembly, 2017).

Durkheim’s (1893/2014) work also points to a way of thinking about criminal justice that is less focused on retribution and more focused on restitution. He argued that complex societies—those comprised of diverse people with different values and goals—produce legal structures that aim to foster social integration and cohesion. While banishment or public hangings may have been characteristic of smaller, more homogenous societies in the past, to live in a diverse world the law must work more towards restitution or restoring society to its normal state.

Although Durkheim’s work is now over 100 years old, his reasoning resonates with contemporary Indigenous approaches to criminal justice. Take for example the Qwí:qwelstóm Justice program. This program is rooted in Stó:lō cultural traditions and epistemology, where justice means living harmoniously with others. The aim of the Qwí:qwelstóm Justice program is to repair these relationships, not simply to punish the offender (Stó:lō Nation, 2018). Justice is not pursued through an adversarial court system, where victims have little role to play and the individual is treated in isolation, but rather through circle work, which creates a space for discussion, in-depth interaction and better understanding overall (Palys & Victor, 2007). While the offender may still be punished, the overall aim is to restore society to a healthy condition.



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Sean Ashley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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