How Crime Differs in Various Social Classes and What Can We Learn From This?


Sanya Saxena

Is it possible that our upbringing and social status could be a factor in whether we commit crimes? Studies have shown that those of working-class backgrounds are more likely to commit crimes than those from the middle class or upper class. So why is this the case? For years sociologists have been trying to get to the root of the cause, as well as trying to unveil whether there is a difference in the type of crimes people from separate social classes may commit.

Firstly, let’s look at possible motivations that people from working-class backgrounds may have to commit crimes. A sociologist named Robert Merton alludes to an idea of a huge ‘gap’ between the social classes and the ability to attain material wealth. He then explains that if this disparity continues to grow then crime will also continue to increase. Merton proclaimed that crime was higher among the working classes because they had fewer opportunities to achieve material success through legitimate means and were thus more likely to try and achieve success through criminal means – burglary or drug dealing, for example.

Another theory is that of Albert Cohen. Merton put emphasis on material factors, but Cohen argued that cultural factors (values and status) were more responsible for causing working-class crime. Cohen explained how young working-class individuals strived to match upper-class values and aspirations but lacked the means to actually reach this goal. This led to ‘Status Frustration’: a feeling of personal defeat and inadequacy. According to Cohen, this caused them to lash out and reject socially accepted values and patterns of good behavior. Due to the fact that multiple people at a time would be going through the same issue, they would join together and form their own delinquent subcultures. This delinquent subculture reversed the conventional norms and values of mainstream culture and instead offered positive rewards (upper status) to those who were the most deviant. Status was gained by being malicious, intimidating others, breaking the law, and engaging in criminal activity.

Another idea that has been tossed around by psychologists over the years is how a person’s background may affect the way they are perceived by certain individuals. We can understand this by thinking about the decision a police officer makes to stop and interrogate a person.  This decision is based on notions held by the police of what it means to be ‘strange’, ‘unusual’, and ‘wrong’. Whether or not the police stop and interrogate an individual depends on where the behavior is taking place and on how the police perceive the individual(s). Unfortunately, sometimes stereotypes of what is deemed ‘bad’ and ‘criminal like’ can heavily affect their decisions. For example, if a young person has a demeanor like that of a ‘typical delinquent’ then the police are more likely to both interrogate and arrest that person.

In comparison, when upper-class delinquents are arrested they are less likely to be charged with the offense as they do not fit the picture of a ‘typical delinquent.’ As a result, the middle-class offender is more likely to be defined as ill rather than criminal, having accidentally been led astray and still having a high chance of reforming. This could mean that societal belief has a huge role in determining the rates of delinquency.

The final idea I am going to discuss is a Marxist idea that many of the crimes committed by the wealthy do not even make their way into crime statistics. The rich are less likely to be investigated or to become suspects while simultaneously being more likely to afford good lawyers who get them off or, indeed, even bribe officials so the investigation never gets that far in the first place. They also claim that the crimes that the rich engage in are deemed less harmful to society or are easier to just sweep under the carpet.’ After considering this, could it be that those of the working class don’t commit more crimes, it’s just that the crimes committed by those of upper classes are simply not recorded?

In summary, we can understand that most studies show that working-class individuals do commit more crimes than those from other walks of life, but whether this is true or not cannot be determined. One thing we can learn from this is that if we can bridge the gap between the social classes we can reduce crime rates overall; this will help create equal opportunities and prevent wrongful biases, as well as limit the ability of the rich to use their money in fraudulent ways to get out of sticky situations.