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Robbery: A Social-Disorganization and Self-Control Perspective
Although over the course of the last several decades in Canada, the risks from committing robbery have gone up, and the benefits (perceived or tangible) have gone down, there is still a certain quality to the act that makes certain communities more susceptible to it. It is important to study the general trends of robbery in Canada in order to identify potential factors that influence robbery rates, and also to also better understand why people would commit a seemingly non-worthwhile crime. The answer to this question can be found in the data gathered on the demographics of incarcerated robbers, and the typologies theorized behind them. Finally, these demographics and typologies are best described by a combination of Hirschi’s (1969) Self-control Theory (SCT), and Bursik’s (1988) interpretation of Social Disorganization Theory (SDT).
In modern day society, the Candian Criminal Code of Conduct defines robbery as:
“Everyone commits robbery who
● (a) steals, and for the purpose of extorting whatever is stolen or to prevent or overcome resistance to the stealing, uses violence or threats of violence to a person or property;
● (b) steals from any person and, at the time he steals or immediately before or immediately thereafter, wounds, beats, strikes or uses any personal violence to that person;
● (c) assaults any person with intent to steal from him; or
● (d) steals from any person while armed with an offensive weapon or imitation thereof.
● R.S., c. C-34, s. 302” (Canadian Criminal Code, 1985:391).
Research conducted over the past several decades by Correctional Service Canada (1995) found that the crime of robbery is typically committed by males, and that approximately “two-thirds were between 12 and 24 years of age” (1), which is further supported by the results of data collected by Statistics Canada on police reported robbery in Canada (Dauvergne, 2008).
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At the macro-level, a report from Pottie-Bunge, Holly, and Baldé (2005) examined the influence of “unemployment, inflation, age distribution of the population and per capita alcohol consumption” (Dauvergne 2008:3) on robbery rates in Canada, finding that only increased inflation correlated to a significant degree with increased robbery rates.
Typically, scholars have fallen into viewing robbery as either a violent crime which stems from a subculture of violence, or non-violent crime which stems from a subculture of theft (Bartol 1991). Hypothetically, if the inherent nature of robbery is violent, then offenders who commit robbery would be expected to have a history that demonstrates violent tendencies (Correctional Service Canada 1995). Research on this has shown that in comparison to the general population, most of those who commit robbery do not show a history of criminal violence to a notable degree, along with the majority of their victims not having physical injuries (Correctional Service Canada 1995). However, it should be noted that those who relied on violence during robberies in the past were more likely to use violence in future offences (Correctional Service Canada 1995). This lead to the conclusion that robbery should be thought of a both a violent and property crime (Correctional Service Canada 1995).
In terms of typology, Gabor et al. (1987) established that a majority of robbers were under the age of thirty, only had a highschool level education, and had failed to hold a job for longer than a year due to “dissatisfaction with salary, work conditions or interest in the type of work” (Correctional Service Canada 1995:2). Another interesting observation made was that “[a]n equal number of the armed robbers interviewed were married and single, the majority had no children, and all tended to change residences frequently” (Correctional Service Canada 1995:2).
Based on interviews with incarcerated robbers in the Canadian prison system, Gabor et al. (1987) developed four main profiles of robbers: “chronic, professional, intensive and occasional” (Correctional Service Canada 1995:2). The chronic robber is thought to begin robbing around 12 years of age, with it becoming a career around the age of 18, averaging 20 to 25 robberies over the course of seven to eight years alongside many additional crimes (Correctional Service Canada 1995:3). The professional robber is thought to begin robbing around 13 years of age, and begin a roughly 11 to 12 year career around the age of 17. During this time, they will commit 20 to 50 robberies alongside many other crimes (Correctional Service Canada 1995:3). Unlike the poor planning of the chronic robber, the professional robber usually has much more involved planning for their crimes (Correctional Service Canada 1995). The intensive armed robber usually starts their career at the age of 18 with it lasting only a couple of weeks to a few months. They usually commit around 5 to 10 robberies over this time period that are poorly planned out and tend to commit few, if any, additional crimes (Correctional Service Canada 1995:3). Finally, the occasional robber tends to commit their first offence at the age of 13, with their career starting at the age of 20.5 (Correctional Service Canada 1995:3). Their career tends to last anywhere from several months to two years during which one to six poorly planned robberies are committed in addition to several other crimes (Correctional Service Canada 1995:3).
The final conclusion that Correctional Services Canada (1995) comes to based on all of the touched upon research above are that those who commit robbery “possess attitudes, values and beliefs favorable towards violating the law[,][…] often have and maintain supports for crime through friends and acquaintances[, and][…] alcohol and/or drug abuse is a common characteristic of robbery offenders” (4).
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Pratt, Jacinta, and Travis (2011) address Hirschi (1969) on his idea of SCT. In it, Hirschi (1969) explains that we have an intrinsic drive to act in selfish ways that can translate to committing crime. Hirschi (1969) stresses that an important element of SCT is the emphasis on how we don’t commit crimes because of the control on our urges to commit said crimes, as opposed to asking why we commit crimes (Pratt et al. 2011). According to Hirschi (1969), this control is influenced by our ability to form pro-social or anti-social bonds at the level of values, people, and institutions. These bonds take the form of attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. Attachment is how much social affection one has for pro-social others, and by extension, how much influence either pro-social or anti-social others have on one’s values (Pratt et al. 2011). Commitment is the value one places on those bonds, which relates to if or how much those bonds would be damaged if one were to commit a crime (Pratt et al. 2011). Involvement speaks to the amount of time one gives to developing their bonds and by relation how much time is spent doing non-criminal activity (Pratt et al. 2011). Finally, belief is the degree to which one’s personal values align with “behaviours that conform to the law” (Pratt et al. 2011:59). An important aspect of the influence of these bonds is that their influence is not direct, and merely suggest a direction of behaviour. That is to say, someone who commits a crime makes a choice to do so and does have the power to choose not to with sufficient levels of self-control (Pratt et al. 2011).
In terms of the specific crime of robbery, SCT might look to identify how those who commit robbery form their bonds, as well as their levels of self-control. For example, if one formed bonds with anti-social others who felt that robbery was fine, they might also come to neutralize the impact that committing robbery has on others. Similarly, if those who one forms bonds with are anti-social and do not care about, or even encourage one to commit robbery, then there is far less informal external pressure to follow the law and a norm can be established that views robbery as okay to commit. In terms of involvement, if one forms a bond with someone who spends a lot of time committing robbery, it is far more likely that one may spend time at some point committing robbery than if the bond were with a pro-social other who despised crime and didn’t commit robbery. Finally, if one doesn’t view robbery as a moral wrong or simply doesn’t care, then it is much more likely that that conflict of belief could result in robbery than if they did view robbery as wrong or did care. Another important aspect of SCT in terms of robbery is that even with the positive influence of pro-social bonds, a lack of self control could result in someone who otherwise respects and follows the law to give into impulse and commit robbery as opposed to someone with a high level of self control who could likely resist temptation.
What SCT might speak to in terms of the differences between the chronic/occasional robber and professional/intensive robber is the difference between the amount of thought that goes into the decision to commit robbery and what the profits of the robbery tend to be spent on (Correctional Service Canada 1995). With the professional/intensive robber, the planning can range from moderate to comprehensive, with the profits of a robbery being spent on daily expenses, debts, or investments (Correctional Service Canada 1995). Meanwhile, the chronic/occasional robber puts far less forethought into their crime which results in poor planning. Furthermore, the profits of their robbery has a tendency of being spent on things like clubbing or drugs. What this speaks to is impulsivity in the chronic/occasional robber that SCT would identify as despite potentially having many pro-social bonds, they have a low level of self-control that results in them giving into temptation and committing a robbery which they might express regret for later. The professional/intensive robber on the other hand is far less impulsive than the chronic/occasional robber, putting plenty of thoughts into their actions and using the profits wisely. This speaks to a lack of pro-social bonds and/or apathy towards the validity of the law as opposed to an inability to control impulses despite otherwise pro-social values.
Bursik (1988) defines Social Disorganization as “the inability of local communities to realize the common values of their residents or solve commonly experienced problems” (521). In relation to SDT, there are two factors thought to influence levels of social disorganization experienced within a community. First, neighbourhoods characterized by poor economic status having high turnover rates. What this means is that as soon as residents of the area could afford it, a majority would move. Another element of crime that SDT that Bursik (1988) speaks of is population heterogeneity which is “the rapid changes in composition [that make it] very difficult for […] communities to mount concerted resistance against the influx of new groups” (520). When combined, these two factors are thought to increase social disorganization, and by extension, reduce the ability of a community’s social institutions to exert social control over its inhabitants (Bursik 1988). It is thought that these two factors increase social disorganization for a few reasons. Firstly, when the priority of the members of a community are to leave said community, they have very little reason or motivation to develop the institutions required to establish a sense of internal control (Bursik 1988). Secondly, when a community is in a constant state of change, it is much more difficult to establish the informal structures necessary for social control (Bursik 1988). Finally, heterogeneity as previously mentioned makes communication difficult which prevents the ability to reach common goals or solve common problems (Bursik 1988). When a weak structure is present as a result of these factors, it is thought that the social cost of committing a crime goes down, and thus increases the likelihood that crimes are committed.
When it comes to the specific crime of robbery, SDT might look at the history of a given neighbourhood to identify where population heterogeneity and high turnover rates occurred. For example, Cancino, Martinez, and Stowell (2009) found in an analysis of the difference of robbery occurring within and between two different race groups in a San Antonio community composed of a majority African American and Latino residence that as the immigration of Latino residence increased, the social isolation between the two races increased. With this, Cancino et al. (2009) found that there was much more robbery between the different groups than within, suggesting the possibility that there was a view within each group that the ‘other’ members of the community weren’t seen as a part of their own, despite extreme similarity in the economic statuses and problems both groups faced. What is important to note from these observations is that the robbery rates increased over time as the community became more split, and that the amount of resources for an increasing population were not increasing with the population. This demonstrates that community’s vulnerability to crime. Furthermore, a link has been found between increasing rates of violent crime and increased turnover rates within a community, which would only perpetuate the increasing difficulty of establishing those crucial relationships with one’s neighbours that would discourage robbery (Cancino et al. 2009: 16).
What SDT might speak to in terms of the differences between the chronic/occasional robber and professional/intensive robber is the influence of the economic state of a community versus the influence (or lack therefore of) of communal bonds. Because of the impulsive, thrill-seeking nature of the chronic/occasional robber, SDT might say that their desire to commit a poorly planned robbery for what is ultimately a small payoff that is ultimately frivolously spent, is more likely to be influenced by a lack of moral community guidance in the form of social control. Likewise, SDT might say that if the chronic/occasional robber had formed a serious connection with their community, they might be far less willing to rob from people they have gotten to know and have lived for a long time with, as opposed to those who may as well be complete strangers. In the case of the professional/intensive robber, SDT might argue that in an economically disadvantaged community, the lack of small infrastructure components such as street lights, reinforced housing units, alarms, etc, make a far easier target than a well off neighbourhood, and therefore could increase the risk of the professional/intensive robber choosing to target that area to commit robbery because of the increased vulnerability of said area to robbery.
SDT asks the question of what environmental circumstances are present that make it easier to commit robbery and to what degree a would-be robber identifies with the community they live in. SDT might ask if the resources present in their neighbourhood encourage or prevent certain general bonds from being formed with the people who they live near. Similarly, SCT talks about how we perceive the norms of those we associate with and their influence towards either commiting, or not committing a crime such as robbery.
When combined, SCT and SDT combine temptation with self-control, and social norms with how they are established in the first place. A combined theory could talk about how as one develops as a person, SCT addresses the influence of the important people we become close with in a community, while SDT addresses the relationship we have with the community as a whole. In addition, both theories address the idea that when placed in a situation in which committing a robbery seems less risky, there is a higher chance of committing the crime.
This combination of SCT and SDT is needed because it much more likely that a combination of one’s individual level relationships in SCT and community level influences (or lack therefore of) in SDT can lead to a perceived necessity and/or justification of committing robbery. This combination can paint an important picture of potential scenarios that could lead to an increased chance of one committing robbery, that covers aspects of development not addressed entirely by either theory on it’s own. It is far more likely that a combination of direct contact with those one forms close bonds with, in addition to the less direct contact one has with their community as a whole is what allows for what both theories refer to as social control to occur. In order to establish one’s personal relation to the norms of the law, one would likely not only establish a theoretical point of view from what they hear from those they are close with, but also a logistical relationship from seeing if those views align in practice with what actually occurs in reality. For example, if SCT says that pro-social bonds and high levels of self-control should have likely resulted in someone not committing robbery, but a person does so anyways, SDT might step in to say that although those personal relationships were convincing, a lack of norms and relationships in the overall community might discourage that person from following the beliefs which they had been taught because the ideals they had learned were not reflected in their daily life. Likewise, a potential hole in SDT in which a person who despite living in a well off community and having those communal bonds that established norms, having committing robbery is addressed by SCT by inviting the possibility that their more personal bonds were anti-social in nature and/or that despite respect for the norms of the community, in a moment of weakness gave into temptation and committed robbery.
A potential problem with SCT by itself that SDT addresses, is that even if someone has incredible levels of self-control, and many pro-social others in their life, if one were to perceive a lack of resources in their community, they might feel it justified to rob a target not only because the resources were there, but also because the odds of getting away with it are higher in a disenfranchised community. A potential problem with SDT is that even in well off communities, with highly established norms, there might be someone who commits robbery. SCT addresses this by suggesting that even a person who otherwise agrees and follows the law, can give into temptation if they have low levels of self-control.
It is important to understand that a combination of close bonds with communal social control and economic conditions, can influence one to seek the thrill of robbery out of lack of norms plus ease, or a perception of the necessity of robbing plus ease. Furthermore, knowing that the majority of robbers are young men with poor job prospects helps frame the idea of the perpetuation of robbery within a community due to increasing lack of social control over time from both theoretical perspectives. This revelation could potentially revolutionize the way the public views robbery from one of mostly fear (Porter, Rader, and Cossman 2012) and lack of understanding, to one that seeks to minimize risks by investing in community structure, and focusing on being a good influence to those susceptible to norm violation. Although robbery will likely always exist, if we can do even a little at a fundamental level to encourage would-be robbers to reconsider the act before it occurs, we can greatly improve the lives of those in the neighbourhood.
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