8. Sociological Theories of Crime

Dr. Sean Ashley, Capilano University

Positionality Statement

All human lives are both constrained and enabled by social context. My own family history is situated within the Maritimes of Canada. I was born in Moncton, New Brunswick on the territory of Mi’kma’ki. My parents, Ron and Nancy Ashley, lived their entire lives in New Brunswick, close to where their ancestors had settled generations before. My maternal grandfather’s ancestors migrated from Ireland to New Brunswick in 1830. My maternal grandmother’s family were Acadians who arrived at Fort St. John, Acadia in 1657. My paternal grandparents’ ancestors were English Loyalists who settled in what is today southwestern New Brunswick on the territory of the Passamaquoddy and Wolastoqiyik people after the American Revolution.

As a young man, I benefited from the privilege that came from being an English-speaking, white settler. I attended Mount Allison University, a school that many members of my family had previously attended. I don’t recall ever making a choice to go to university; it was simply always expected given our family’s social position. Despite this privilege, Atlantic Canada is a poor region, and after graduation I found it difficult to find work, so like many young people I headed west in search of economic opportunities. I enrolled in Simon Fraser University for my graduate studies, where I completed my Master of Arts and PhD. I have remained in British Columbia ever since, settling on the unceded territories of the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueum, Stó:lō, Stz’uminus, and Qayqayt.

This chapter examines sociological approaches to the study of crime. Sociological theories of crime help us understand why some drug use is stigmatised while other use is not, why crime is over- and under-represented across social groups, and what alternatives may exist to the individualistic punishment models that have dominated the criminal justice system since the 19th century. Many of the theories we cover in this chapter were developed by white, male scholars who held particularly Western assumptions about the nature of crime and punishment. Nevertheless, by exploring crime in relation to social dynamics we open the door to new possibilities for dealing with crime in a diverse society.

Indigenous legal traditions are particularly important in this regard. While all traditions change over time, Indigenous nations in the territory that came to be known as Canada hold distinct conceptions of law and society that provide a path forward and articulate well with the sociological theories of crime explored in this chapter. For example, Anishinaabe/Ojibway legal scholar John Borrows (2016) explains that within Anishinaabe tradition, freedom is conceptualised not by the extent to which an individual is free from social constraints but rather by the health of a person’s interdependencies and relationships, be they with animals, humans, or the sun, moon, and stars. In Anishinaabewowin, the concept that describes this state is dibenindizowin, which means “a person possesses liberty within themselves and their relationships” (Borrows, 2016, p. 6). This conception of the relationship between the individual and society speaks to the complex ways that freedom and personal responsibility both exist within a network of social relations that not only constrain our behaviour but facilitate our freedom to act in the world.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Shereen Hassan and Dan Lett, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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