Crime and Conflict Theory

By Keith Preston

Crime and Conflict Theory

“Crime” As a Manifestation of Economic, Cultural, and Political Conflict

in 21st Century North America

“Crime” is not a phenomenon that can be defined according to any objective set of criteria. Instead, what a particular state, legal regime, ruling class or collection of dominant social forces defines as “crime” in any specific society or historical period will reflect the political, economic and cultural interests of such forces. By extension, the interests of competing political, economic or cultural forces will be relegated to the status of “crime” and subject to repression,persecution and attempted subjugation.  Those activities of an economic, cultural or martial nature that are categorized as “crime” by a particular system of power and subjugation will be those which advance the interests of the subjugated and undermine the interests of dominant forces. Conventional theories of criminology typically regard crime as the product of either “moral” failing on the part of persons labeled as “criminal,” genetic or biological predispositions towards criminality possessed by such persons, “social injustice” or“abuse” to which the criminal has previously been subjected, or some combination of these.  (Agnew and Cullen, 2006) All of these theories for the most part regard the “criminal as deviant” perspective offered by established interests as inherently legitimate, though they may differ in their assessments concerning the matter of how such “deviants” should be handled.  The principal weakness of such theories is their failure to differentiate the problem of anti-social or predatory individual behavior per se from the matter of “crime” as a political, legal, economic and cultural construct. All human groups, from organized religions to outlaw motorcycle clubs, typically maintain norms that disallow random or unprovoked aggression by individuals against other individuals within the group, and a system of penalties for violating group norms. Even states that have practiced genocide or aggressive war  have simultaneously maintained legal prohibitions against “common” crimes. Clearly, this discredits the common view of the state’s apparatus of repression and control (so-called “criminal justice systems”) as having the protection of the lives, safety and property of innocents as its primary purpose.

PART ONE: The Theoretical Framework


The Orthodox Marxist View of Crime and Marxist Class Theory


The orthodox Marxist view of the phenomenon of “crime” in terms of conflict between social classes and socio-economic groupings has much validity. However, crime in a society such as twenty-first century North America cannot, for a variety of reasons, be explained in terms of conflict between property owners and non-property owners, or between the industrial proletariat and the holders of capital. Indeed, the conventional industrial proletariat (for instance, so-called “blue-collar workers”) often hold rather “conservative” (e.g. moralistic) views of criminality. Yet the difficulties involved with applying a conventional Marxist analysis to the question of crime in an advanced industrial society does not eliminate the possibility of understanding crime as a manifestation of class conflict per se. Instead, a sharp revision and modification of Marxist class theory is required, perhaps one that includes concepts offered by schools of class theory and/or conflict theory that rival Marxism. Essential to such a revision would be an understanding of the “middle class” versus “underclass” dichotomy as the principal foundation of class conflict in an advanced capitalist society.

Max Weber: Class, Power, and Status

Max Weber observed that social hierarchies are rooted not only in material relationships of the kind critiqued by Marxists, but also in relationships of power and status that cannot be defined as purely material or economic in nature. For example, conflict theorists influenced by the legacy of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s will point out that systems of social stratification can exist with regards to matters of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, sexuality, physical handicap, and many other such characteristics. Feminists, for instance, will argue that systems of gender subordination can exist even among persons of the same class position or background.

Several concepts postulated by Weber are particularly important to a conflict theorist’s analysis of crime. One of these is formal rationality, or the view that the modern, Western orientation towards the supremacy of reason and efficiency has produced a situation where means are separated from ends. Efforts at the rational management of society through scientific principles has generated the side effect of a permanent, self-perpetuating bureaucracy operating on the basis of this formal rationality, but one where the bureaucracy, operating according to formalized, impersonal rules and institutional mechanisms, has become an end unto itself. Additionally, it was Weber who formulated the definition of the modern state that is perhaps the most penetrating, that of the state as an institutional entity claiming a territorial monopoly on the use of violence, a definition that is particularly important to the study of “crime.” As a further consideration of Weber’s differentiation of power, status and class, it must be pointed as that while police agents are typically not particularly wealthy in an economic sense, they function as a legally protected caste with an abundance of special rights and powers. For instance, police agents frequently kill civilians with impunity, but the killing of a police agent by a civilian is one of the most serious of legal offenses. The police have power and status, but they do not necessarily have wealth. Likewise, persons possessing wealth and/or status can run afoul of those possessing power. The fact that immensely wealthy persons such as Bill Gates, Martha Stewart, Charles Keating, or Leona Helmsley have been subject to prosecution by the state is evidence of this.

The Philosophical Anarchist Critique of the State, Class Theory and Critical Criminology

The anarchist critique of the state closely parallels the Marxist critique of capitalism. For the Marxists, capitalism rests on naked exploitation of the working classes, and any claims to the contrary are simply a manifestation of the self-serving ideological superstructure utilized as a justification for the privileged position of the capitalists. Anarchists take a similar view of the state and, by extension, institutions of law, police, and punishment. For the anarchists, the state is simply bold oppression. The state exists to control territory, monopolize resources, protect an artificially privileged ruling class, expand the power and privilege of individual members of the state, and exploit subjects. The state does this through taxation, repression, military conscription, persecution, massacres, and warfare. Any claims to the contrary on the part of the state are simply a matter of self-serving propaganda. (Bakunin, 1870; Kropotkin, 1897; Tucker, 1926; Rothbard, 1974; Block, 1976; Hess, 1969; Carter, 1971; Gambone, 1996)

The anarchist view of crime is perhaps best summarized by the nineteenth century German philosopher Max Stirner: “The State calls its own violence law, but that of the individual crime.” (Stirner, 1844) Just as Weber described the state as an institution claiming a territorial monopoly on violence, the anarchists would regard the state as an organization whose real purpose is the monopolization of crime. The state claims the right to engage in behavior that would be considered criminal if engaged in by any other organization or any private individual. While interpretations of crime derived from Marxist theory are among the most prevalent in critical criminology, there are others branches as well. (Chorbajian, 1998). The most radical of these is so-called “anarchist critical criminology,” whose leading theorists include Jeff Ferrell, Harold Pepinsky, Larry Tift and Dennis Sullivan. ((Ferrell, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1995a, 1996, 1997; Ferrell and Ryan, 1985; Ferrell and Sanders, 1995; Pepinsky, 1978, 1984, 1991; Tift, 1979; Tift and Sullivan, 1980) Ferrell summarizes thisperspective as follows:

Rather than dismissing criminality as mindless misbehavior, or worse, simply accepting the state’s construction of legality and illegality as definitive of good and bad human conduct, anarchist criminologists seek to explore the situated politics of crime and criminality. Put more simply, anarchist criminologists argue that the political (and politically inequitable) nature of state law and state criminalization means that acts of crime under such a system must also carry some degree of political meaning. And so, as with Foucault and Genet, anarchist criminologists seek to blur and explore the boundaries between crime and political resistance. This exploration neither assumes a priori that all crime constitutes resistance to state authority, nor ignores the often (but not always) negative consequences of criminality for people and communities. It does, though, call for paying careful attention to various criminal(ized) activities — graffiti writing, “obscene” art and music performances, pirate radio broadcasts, illegal labor strikes, curfew violations, shoplifting, drug use, street cruising, gangbanging, computer hacking  — as a means of investigating the variety of ways in which criminal or criminalized behaviors may incorporate repressed dimensions of human dignity and self-determination, and lived resistance to the authority of state law. (Ferrell, 1998)

Carl Schmitt, Political Legitimacy, and the Friend/Enemy Distinction


Schmitt’s dissection of the presumptions of “liberal democracy” brings with it two important insights concerning the question of crime. The first of these is Schmitt’s recognition that the supposed functioning of the liberal state as a kind of empirical process whose aim is the discernment of “truth” through rational discourse is rooted in hollow claims. The system of rule in a liberal state is simply an agglomeration of shifting coalitions of narrowly focused interest groups. In other words, in a liberal state legislation, including criminal law, is enacted not because it serves some supposed “common good” but because it serves those who hold power at the particular moment. Second, Schmitt recognizes that the existence of the “other” is just as prevalent in a liberal state as any other kind of state, noting that both historic and modern “democratic” regimes practice a great deal of political, economic, and cultural exclusivity. Schmitt’s conceptualization of the essence of politics as organized collectives ultimately prepared to do battle to the death is also helpful in the formulation of a more thorough understanding of the nature of “crime.” For instance, in recent decades, the American regime has declared various internal wars, e.g. the “war on drugs,” “war on terrorism,” and various other wars on “crime,” “gangs,” “illegal” weapons, and so forth. From the opposite end of these wars, various organized collectives have emerged for whom the American regime is a mortal enemy. (Schmitt, 1923, 1932; Preston, 2007)


PART TWO: Operationalizing the Concept




A conflict theory approach to an understanding of crime would emphasize action over order. The particular actions to be observed and analyzed would be those social forces whose conflicting interaction serves to generate the broader cultural, political, legal, and economic construct labeled as “crime.”



It could be argued that at a micro-level a study of crime would be individualist in nature, in that it would observe specific individual behavior and actions categorized as “criminal.” Much conventional criminological theory is of this nature, in that it asks the question of “why?” some people commit “crimes.” However, a conflict theory approach to crime as a social construct would be collectivist in nature, in that it would seek to understand how conflict between individuals and groups within a wider collective social body produces the overarching construct of “crime.”



Individual beliefs or value judgments about “crime” could be non-rational in the sense that, for example, a very religious person could adamantly endorse the criminalization of religious offenses, and justify such beliefs with an appeal to faith,tradition, custom or some such authority. Yet an understanding a crime as social construct generated by social conflict would be rational. “Crime” is defined by various component parts of a society engaging in struggle on behalf of their own interests. Those who are successful formalize the persecution of their opponents through the social construction of “crime.”


An understanding of “crime” as a social construct produced through a process of social conflict could involve a methodological approach that is either deductive or inductive in nature. A deductive approach would begin with the general theory that crime is a representation of social conflict. The next step would then be to formulate hypotheses that support the theory. These hypotheses can then be empirically examined to determine whether they are defensible. If the hypotheses are determined to be valid, then the general theory is strengthened. An inductive approach could also be employed.  Such an approach would begin with the gathering of specific facts concerning the problem of crime, and generating a broader theory from the tangible circumstances that can be directly observed.

Research Questions

The theoretical framework outlined thus far represents an attempted synthesis of previous insights advanced by Marx, Weber, Stirner, Ferrell, Schmitt and other thinkers from related intellectual traditions. This theoretical framework can be summarized with one primary thesis statement: “Crime” in the formalized legal and political sense is a social construct whose essential purpose is to legitimize the persecution and subjugation of those economic, cultural, and political sub-groupings in a particular society that are perceived to be a threat to the state and to those economic, cultural, and political sub-groupings that are aligned with the state.

The testing of this theory on an empirical level would require the development of specific hypotheses whose verification would validate the wider theoretical framework. Such an approach would be deductive in nature as it would start from the premises of a generalized theory and then subject to empirical testing a hypothesis or a set of hypotheses that support the wider theory. A researcher conducting such an effort would therefore need to develop research questions whose answers derived from the collection of data accumulated by empirical means would either affirm or contradict the theory.To begin such a project, it would first be helpful to examine routine, publicly available data concerning the operation of police, legal, and penal systems. If the theory being postulated is a valid one, then the data should reveal that such systems consistently exhibit certain behaviors and characteristics. First, it would be necessary to demonstrate that most of the individuals arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced for “crimes” originate from the lower socioeconomic groups, marginal populations, or disfavored political factions. In some instances, this would be a relatively easy statistic to accumulate, but in other instances the acquisition of such data would be more difficult. Police, court, jail/prison, and probation/parole records typically identify the race, gender, and age of persons who are processed through the “criminal justice system.” Therefore, it would be a rather simple task to determine whether or not, for example, young black or Hispanic males are fed into the criminal justice system at a rate that is well beyond their numerical proportion relative to the wider population at-large. More difficult would be the accumulation of such data with regards to characteristics where the content of public records is not as thorough or revealing, or where differentiating characteristics are not as immediately identifiable. For instance, such matters as race, gender, and age are (generally) much more easily determined by physical appearance than political or religious affiliation, socioeconomic background, or wider attributes such as membership in various subcultures. These latter species of information might be gathered from additional sources.

One might be a thorough examination of the reports generated by officials within police, legal, or penal systems concerning specific individuals. For example, an examination of the routine reports on persons under the supervision of the criminal justice system issued by prison officials and personnel, or personnel associated with probation and parole offices, would include broader and more detailed descriptions of the backgrounds and general characteristics of such supervised persons. Another source of information might be questionnaires or direct personal interviews with persons associated with the criminal justice system. These could include ordinary police officers and police administrative personnel, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, judges, court clerks, jailers, prison guards and officials, and probation/parole officers. Others might include professional people not directly involved in the criminal justice process per se, but whose activities overlap with those of the criminal justice system, and who are in frequent or regular contact with accused or convicted “criminals.” These might include therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, substance abuse specialists, social service or child protection professionals, and so forth. Of course, another and more obvious source of such data would be information gathered directly from criminal suspects and convicts.

A major problem with conducting research of this type would be the degree to which the actual data gathered is reflective of wider patterns within the criminal justice system as a whole. Therefore, it would be necessary to gather information from a variety of sources. This might include criminal justice bureaucracies at various levels, for instance, those at the local, state, and federal level. It would be necessary to gather data from differing locations and jurisdictions, and from differing time periods. Another problem would be the accuracy and integrity of the information gathered directly fromquestionnaires and personal interviews. For instance, few police officials, judges, or prosecutors are likely to openly admit to, for example, bias along the lines of the race, class, or cultural backgrounds of criminal suspects or defendants. Likewise, many arrested, incarcerated, or formerly incarcerated persons will have a plethora of reasons for being less than forthcoming concerning certain personal information or information concerning the details of their personal background. Therefore, a researcher should exercise the utmost caution in taking the formal statements of such persons (whether on the “enforcement” or “criminal” side of the question) at face value. Instead, it would be best to attempt an identification of specifically demonstrable trends and patterns that emerge during the course of gathering information of this type.

A second question would be to examine the actual content of criminal law itself, and the subsequent allocation of resources for the enforcement of particular component parts of the law. The presumptions of the operative theoretical framework being proposed suggest that the content of the law and its enforcement should display the followingcharacteristics:

–a generally identifiable pattern of bias in favor of the values, ideologies, lifestyle preferences, economic interests, and cultural norms of the middle-class, and a bias against the interests and norms of the “underclass.”

–a generally identifiable pattern of the criminalization of those population groups lacking material wealth, social status, or political power, with a corresponding understanding that an individual or group need not be lacking in all of these three areas, or need only be lacking in one of these three areas as a matter of degree, in order to be subject to criminalization.

–a generally identifiable pattern of the criminal law and its enforcement operating primarily to serve the interests of the state, the various bureaucratic tentacles of the state, and social groups allied with the state, rather than officially stated objectives such as “public safety,” “protection of innocents,” “civil order,” “justice for the victims of crime,” and so forth.

One method of procedure might be an examination of criminal and penal codes and a cataloguing of actions potentially leading to arrest according to their general class, status, or power bias. This would be a time-consuming task, as there are thousands of acts classified as crimes by the law, but not an insurmountable one. As for the issue of measuring the bias factor concerning actions subject to arrest, much of this is not particularly hard to discern. As Robert Weissberg observes:

It is all too easy to overlook that violent neighborhoods are also filled withless-violent crime: illegal gambling (e.g., “playing the numbers”), unlicensed selling of alcohol, fencing “hot” merchandize, petty theft, running errands or serving as lookouts for organized crime, distributing illegal weapons, street-level prostitution, unlawful peddling, dealing small amounts of drugs, and other forms of “hustling.” Even perfectly law-abiding residents may financially profit from these activities and suffer when miscreant family members are jailed. Furthermore, at least some of these activities, e.g., buying shoplifted merchandise, may be culturally acceptable and economically necessary since legitimate businesses avoid poor black neighborhoods. So, police stake-outs to deter drive-by shootings “unintentionally” hinder multiple other illegal (but tolerated) income-producing activities, for example, the street-corner marijuana market. (Weissberg, 2009)

It is widely recognized that “criminal” activities of this type include the lower socioeconomic orders and marginal population groups as their primary participants. Likewise, it is typically understood that persons arrested or convicted of embezzlement, insurance fraud, securities fraud, tax evasion, employment of illegal immigrant labor, industrial accidents or environmental damage resulting from gross negligence, bribery of public officials, election fraud, public corruption and so forth will be from the middle to upper classes. It should not require an exhaustive study to substantiate these perceptions. An examination of criminal codes for the purpose of studying bias against those lacking power, status, or wealth might also include a simultaneous compilation of seeming arbitrariness in the way that “crimes” are legally defined. Consider, for instance, the list of “crimes” identified by Ferrell: “graffiti writing, ‘obscene’ art and music performances, pirate radio broadcasts, illegal labor strikes, curfew violations, shoplifting, drug use, street cruising, gangbanging, computer hacking.” (Ferrell, 1998)

Why are these things considered to be “crimes” when other acts that are comparable on a practical or moral level are not considered to be “crimes”? Why is “graffiti writing” considered a crime while deforestation or air pollution is not considered a crime? Why is “obscenity” defined according to the aesthetic, moral, or cultural standards of the middlemiddle-class? Why is shoplifting regarded as a criminal offense while failing to pay employees their due wages is only considered to be a matter of tort liability or administrative sanction? Why is “drug use,” meaning the use of intoxicants favored by the poor, the young, subcultures, or racial/ethnic minority groups considered to be a“crime,” while the use of intoxicants (alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals) favored by the respectable middle to upper classes is not considered to be a “crime”? It would not be sufficient to simply compile instances of bias in the definition or creation of criminal offenses as listed in penal codes in order to test the theory in question. The question of to what degree criminal laws are actually enforced and the amount of resources allocated for their enforcement is also essential. If the theoretical framework being considered is valid, then the allocation of resources towards the enforcement of criminal laws should demonstrate a greater emphasis on the enforcement of laws criminalizing activities whose primary participants are those lacking power, wealth, and status, rather than the enforcement of laws typically broken by those possessing such attributes. The theory does not make the simplistic, reductionist claim that only members of poor, marginalized, or powerless populations can be subject to arrest and criminal prosecution. However, the theory does maintain that the enforcement of crimes committed by the disadvantaged will take priority for those administering the apparatus of criminal law. Therefore, it should be expected that police units devoted to the enforcement of drug law violations will be larger and better-funded than units devoted to the investigation of insurance fraud and other “white collar” crimes, corporate-related crimes, financial crimes or political corruption. Likewise, it should be expected that poor people, racial minorities, young people, and subcultures will be more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for drug law violations than members of the conventional middle class who engage in similar violations. It should also be expected that the degree to which a criminal law is enforced will not necessarily be contingent on the degree of individual or social harm generated by the specific law violation. For instance, if the theory in question is valid, it should be expected that the enforcement oflaws against street prostitution (a misdemeanor level crime) in middle class neighborhoods will be a mid-level to high priority for the police. However, investigation of crimes against street prostitutes, even those of a very serious nature in formal legal terms (rape, murder, abduction, armed robbery), will be given rather low priority.

The two primary questions posed thus far are not particularly unfamiliar in nature. For instance, conventional civil libertarians will make a sharp distinction between common crimes and the criminalization of political and religious offenses or extreme violations of individual privacy (such as laws criminalizing homosexual relationships). Many ordinary liberals and leftists will argue that the “criminal justice system” displays bias against defendants who are poor, or who come from marginal or disadvantaged groups such as racial/ethnic minorities. Certain subsets of laissez faire or“free market” conservatives will distinguish between “consensual crimes” or “victimless crimes” and crimes of a more common type. However, a third possible question involves the matter of so-called “violent crime” itself. It has thus far been theorized that those without wealth, power, and status are also those most likely to be on the receiving end of the state’s apparatus of repression. The flip side of this is that it is also these populations who are most likely to be denied the so-called “protection of the law.” For instance, in some areas of some large American cities, the clearance rate for reported homicides is in the single digits, and even this number ignores the question of unreported homicides. (Hutchinson, 2008) Middle-class people typically regard the police as agents of protection, and from their vantage point,this is an overblown but not wholly inaccurate perception. However, those from the population groups being discussed within the current theoretical framework frequently regard the police as enemies, oppressors, or even the equivalent of enemy occupation forces in some instances. Further, those who are outside the “protection of the law” havelittle option other than to resort to self-protection or to join private and even extra-legal groups for the purpose of obtaining protection. Numerous illustrations of this point are available. A middle class family that experiences the murder of a family member can often expect to experience much in the way of sympathy and assistance from law enforcement or the criminal justice system. However, a “ghetto” family will often find that the police could not possibly care less. Therefore, such families have no recourse but to avenge such crimes on a private basis. A twenty-year old, heroin-addicted, street prostitute is not likely to receive much in the way of sympathy or protection from violent pimps, customers, routine criminals, or rogue police agents. Nor is such a person likely to be granted the means of self-protection afforded by the state (such as a “concealed weapon permit”). Therefore, such a person has no choice but to utilize formally illegal methods of self-protection such as the carrying of “illegal” weapons or private killing of violent predatory characters such as the aforementioned who pose an immediate threat to her physical survival.  Still another example are those persons whose livelihoods are derived from formally illegal enterprises such as those identified by Weissberg and Ferrell. Such persons have no formal means of peacefully settling routine business disputes (such as access to courts) and therefore must settle such disputes by formally illegal, often violent, methods.

An empirical testing of the hypothesis advanced by this third question would be exceedingly difficult. One method might be to gather police and court records concerning crimes involving homicide, felonious or aggravated assault, or weapons violations. A close examination of the particular circumstances of each individual case would be necessary. Data could then be compiled concerning how many such cases involved acts of unprovoked aggression, and how many involved acts of retaliation, preemption, or self-defense according to common logic, or the carrying of weapons for such purposes. However, such data would be incomplete as it would have nothing to say about unsolved or unreported homicides or assaults, and it is homicides and assaults of this kind that are mostly likely to fit within the framework being described.  Another source of investigating this question might be to compile anecdotal evidence from persons involved in or close to the population groups where extra-legal violence and the brandishing or use of weapons is a normal occurrence. Such anecdotal evidence would likewise be imprecise given its non-verifiable nature, and would be useful primarily for identifying patterns that emerge throughout the course of gathering many such anecdotes. Further, the gathering of such evidence would be an extremely dangerous undertaking in some instances.

If “violent crime” of an individual nature can be understood not as simply a matter of random or unprovoked aggression by individuals against other individuals, though this may be the case in some instances (e.g. serial killers, rape, armed robbery), but also involving acts of defense, retribution, and dispute resolution by members of those population groups denied the formal protection of the law, then a subset of this question would also necessitate an examination of “violent crime” carried out by organized groups. The observations of Chris Hoke, a prison chaplain, carry certainimplications that are relevant to the theoretical framework being considered:

I’ve observed how gang members are not very outlaw after all. Rather, they can be some of the most principled law-abiders I’ve met. The only thing is, they are citizens and patriots of a different law, a different constitution, a different nation.

A gang is a nation in miniature, in its elemental form. They are nations within our nations, comprised of youths our larger gang/nations have rejected and not counted or treated as citizens. And I think they tell us more about ourselves than we’d like to admit.

The men I work with, for example, are South Siders (Sureños). They have a flag. It is blue, and they wear it, display it, and revere it with a pride that seems ridiculous – until we think of American behavior with the U.S. flag following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Like nations, a gang begins with its turf, and marks its borders clearly. Their need for “protection” justifies their stockpiles of weapons. They don’t take kindly to people crossing their borders without permission, yet often aggressively invade others’ territory with a bold show of armed might and claiming of the area with their colors.

Mainstream society scoffs at such “senseless violence,” yet has no trouble accepting the foreign policy and international affairs of our own land, its military obsession, or immigration phobias.

What’s most interesting to me is how a gang is not just hostile to outsiders, but equally severe in its treatment of its own members. Those who fail to toe the line are treated as enemies. Gangs call them “levas.” Americans call them “scum” or “unpatriotic.” The same guys who I’ve seen flagrantly break into a car or mouth off to a judge in court would never even risk being seen associating with a member of another gang; they don’t want to be “put in check” by their own gang for breaking the code, the law of the gang.

When I invite them to transgress by not harming a Norteño they might cross on the street, for example, my friends look at me as incredulous as an average American patriot would when I suggest he dodge the draft or get arrested for public protest or civil disobedience. I talk to leaders who may attend our Bible studies, inside the jail or out, to forgive another homie’s “stepping out of line.” It’s just as hard as asking a church-going judge to simply drop all charges and acquit a man on trial before him. “It’s not that easy,” they both chuckle at my naïveté. “Something has to be done. I mean, what kind of message would that send to everyone else? This is the law. It’s not totally up to me.” (Hoke, 2009)

Hoke’s casual observations concerning the internal mores of street gangs parallels similar observations made by the journalist Joel Dyer concerning antigovernment militia groups of the kind that emerged in the 1990s, whose origins are traceable to the opposite end of the cultural and racial spectrum from those of urban gangs, but from similarsocioeconomic levels:

Following (the killing of dissidents by federal agents at) Ruby Ridge and Waco, the antigovernment movement focused on the creation of militias. With its military arm in place, the movement’s next push came in the form of common-law courts. As the sovereignty concept took hold across the nation, antigovernment adherents began to form organizations that encompassed all of these antigovernmental elements-sovereignty, courts and militias. The goal is that each organization should become self-sufficient, able to fully govern its membership with no assistance from the outside world. It’s as if there are thousands of independent countries operating within the border of the United States…Regardless of their differences, which are substantial, these groups realize that they must ultimately support each other to avoid being crushed by the federal government…These self-governing antigovernment bands range in size from a dozen people to several thousand…The actions of these supposedly sovereign groups are often in direct conflict with the laws of the United States, which they no longer recognize…(Dyer, 1997)

Such organizations as gangs and militias might well be the most pertinent illustration of what a full application of conflict theory to the question of crime might involve. Such groups originate from the lower socioeconomic levels, and openly challenge the monopoly on violence that Weber suggested is a defining characteristic of the state. Further, they epitomize Schmitt’s definition of politics as organized collectives ultimately prepared to do battle to the death. While the state and its operatives formally classify such groups as “criminals,” it is clear enough that a thorough examination of the values and beliefs their members indicates that such elements are essentially competing states or sub-nations and tribes at war with a dominant state. Formal research methods, such as personal interviews with participants in these conflicts (whether gang or militia members on one end or members of law enforcement on the other), would likely vindicate such aperspective.


An understanding of crime from the perspective of conflict theory helps to make sense of many otherwise inexplicable anomalies and lapses of logic concerning more conventional understandings of crime. Conflict theory also helps to develop an understanding of why crime assumes the particular forms and patterns that it does.



Virtually all societies maintain systems of classifying particular behaviors as “crime,’ in spite of the internal variations within these systems. Does not the universal presence of criminal codification systems signify the existence of crime (as an objectively identifiable social phenomenon), independent of broader, subjective cultural or individual values regarding crime? Does not the obvious presence of persons in most societies that can be rationally defined as posing clear and present danger to the physical and material security of others raise cause for doubting a definition of crime as a purely subjective social construct?


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