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June 10, 2008 / C H Thompson

Marxist, Functionalist and Subcultural perspectives of crime (part 1)

The two main broad perspectives that explain crime are Marxism and functionalism. Each covers a range of theories and explanations such as subcultural theory in both Marxism and functionalism, and status frustration in functionalism.

From a Marxist perspective crime and deviance can only be understood in terms of capitalism and class struggle. Capitalism creates inequalities which lead to conflict. Greed, selfishness and want are associated with capitalism, and it is these which lead people to committing crime. In a capitalist society there are pressures to break the law, which affect people from all sections of society from the wealthy to the poor. Crimes are often motivated by financial gain. However, there also crimes which are not motivated by financial gain, which are also called non- utilitarian crimes.’ These crimes can be seen as an expression of the frustration and aggression which the capitalist society produces. For example someone might vandalise public property purely out of frustration.

Marxists claim there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. The law is enforced systemically, and it is biased in favour of those at the top. Corporate crime costs society much more than benefit fraud committed by the lower classes, and yet it is those at the bottom who are targeted more. The working classes are targeted more by the police as they often commit crime which is easily visible and therefore they are easier to prosecute. This could be explained in terms of the self fulfilling prophecy .

Police believe young working class males are more likely to commit crime and therefore they target them more often, for example with stop and searches. This in turn makes them actually commit more crime, and so the prophecy fulfils itself.
The sociologist Phil Cohen uses Marxist subcultural theory to explain crime and deviance amongst young, white working class males. He argued that these young working class males reacted to their changing economic circumstances. For example, the 1960s Mods reacted to the new idea of affluence. Even though they were working class, they aspired to be middle class. They wanted to show that they had money, so they wore clothes that they believed to be middle class, and drove expensive Lambrettas. They often got into fights with the Rockers, another youth subculture .
Cohen argued that youth develop a cultural style as a means of coping with their particular circumstances and of resisting the dominant values of society. For example, when the 1970s Skinheads were faced with unemployment, they continued to wear traditional working class style clothes to resist against society. They had built up frustration against society and this often led to rebellion and conflict.


Marxist approaches have the advantage of combining explanations of crime which cover people of all social classes and a wide variety of offences. It also clearly explains why there is selective enforcement of the law in capitalist society. However some sociologists disagree with the Marxist perspective. They reject the view that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between the ruling and subject classes in capitalist society, and the exploitation of one by the other .

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2 Comments

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  1. Psychology@twynham / Jun 11 2008 2:52 pm

    The excellent film ‘Quadrophenia’ staring Phil Daniels (Eastenders / Blur ‘Parklife’) charts the escapades of a young group of mods and rockers. The ‘feel’ of the film will get you understanding this aspect of youth crime. Plus it has some excellent music from the Small Faces and the Who. Mods rule.

  2. Psychology@twynham / Jun 13 2008 11:12 am

    For more on this try http://www.quadrophenia.net

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