Differential Social Organization Research Paper

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In this research paper, the concept of differential social organization is traced from the publication of the fourth edition of Principles of Criminology by Edwin Sutherland in 1947. Sutherland viewed differential social organization as the explanation for group crime rates that corresponded to differential association, his individual-level theory of involvement in crime. Sutherland left the factors that comprise differential social organization largely unexplored, however, along with exactly how it should be linked to differential association. Along with some powerful criticisms of his macro theory as cultural deviance, this lack of attention by Sutherland may explain why differential social organization never received the attention that researchers and theorists alike have given to differential association. Recent work by Akers (1998), Matsueda (2006), and Sampson and Graif (2009), however, offer insights into the concept of differential social organization and address some of the questions that Sutherland left unanswered. These works, along with those of others such as Harding (2009); Browning (2009); Haynie et al. (2006); and De Coster et al. (2006), offer new avenues for exploration for those interested in explaining neighborhood variation in rates of crime, in particular, and encourage new questions about organization both for and against crime.

Understanding Differential Social Organization

Differential social organization, sometimes referred to as differential group organization, is a central concept in the fourth edition of Edwin Sutherland’s Principles of Criminology. Though used to explain aggregate crime rates in a way that corresponded to his individual-level theory of crime, differential association, two key questions about differential social organization were left largely unexplored by Sutherland. First, Sutherland gives little guidance for understanding the key factors important in understanding organization both for and against crime. Second, he says little about how differential social organization and differential association should be linked. Perhaps as a result of this lack of attention, the concept has received little attention from other criminologists compared to differential association. Recent work though shows that it offers interesting possibilities for shedding new light on well-researched areas such as neighborhoods and crime.

In what follows, Sutherland’s development of the concept of differential social organization is outlined along with its influence on the work of Cloward and Ohlin (1960). Their expansion of his ideas gives early insight into factors important in shaping organization for crime. In addition, criticisms of Sutherland’s work that might well have hampered the willingness of criminologists to give it much attention are reviewed. Attention then turns to an explication of recent work that attempts to answer questions left unexplored by Sutherland. Understanding what Sutherland means by differential social organization, however, requires a short discussion of two other concepts, differential association and culture conflict. A review of the three concepts follows.

Background Description

In 1921, Edward Hayes, then chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois, asked Edwin Sutherland to write a textbook on criminology (Gaylord and Galliher 1988). Hayes was the editor of a book series for Lippincott, and it was this request that led Sutherland to devote himself to criminology. The first edition of Criminology, as his text was originally titled, was published in 1924. By 1939, he included in it a statement of his theory of differential association which he revised until the publication of the final version in 1947 when the fourth edition of Principles of Criminology was published (Gaylord and Galliher 1988). With the publication of this edition, three theories are offered to explain crime at three different but corresponding levels – differential association (individual), differential social organization (group), and culture conflict (societal).

Differential association is the most well-known, developed, and tested aspect of the three ideas. In 1947, Sutherland laid out his theory of differential association in nine propositions. The theory explains individual involvement in crime as the result of a process of learning, through association. The learning includes both techniques and “.. .the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations and attitudes” (1947, p. 6) favorable to the commission of crimes. It predicts that an individual “.. .becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to law violation over definitions unfavorable to violation of the law” (6).

After the statement of the ninth proposition, Sutherland writes that what was just stated at the individual level can also be stated at the group level. Differential social organization is founded on his belief that “.. .crime is rooted in social organization and is an expression of that organization. A group may be organized for criminal behavior or organized against criminal behavior. Most communities are organized both for criminal and anti-criminal behavior and in that sense the crime rate is an expression of the differential group organization” (1947, pp. 8–9). He writes of the link between differential social organization and differential association that – “The person’s associations are determined in a general context of social organization. A child is ordinarily reared in a family; the place of residence of the family is determined largely by family income; and the delinquency rate is in many respects related to the rental value of the houses. Many other factors enter into this social organization, including many of the small personal group relationships” (1947, p. 8).

Sutherland did not develop his ideas about differential social organization to the extent that he did those surrounding differential association. In his discussion of differential social organization, he does not explain, for example, what the “.. .many other factors.. .” of social organization are, either for or against crime, that he considered important. However, there are two sources beyond Principles of Criminology that are important to examine for further insight into what Sutherland meant by differential social organization. The first is a chapter he wrote on theft during wartime published in 1943, 4 years before the fourth edition of Principles of Criminology. The second is what can be drawn from those individuals and works that influenced his ideas about social organization.

In a chapter entitled “Crime” in an edited volume entitled America in Wartime, Sutherland outlined a theory of theft during wartime that was based on the concept of differential social organization. Unhappy with the explanations offered by others, Sutherland (1943) offers differential social organization as an alternative which, he argues, can fit the known facts about theft during wartime. In doing so, he describes a number of aspects of organization both against theft and for theft that add to the meaning of differential social organization. Sutherland (1943) lists external opportunities relating to guardianship of homes and goods; socialization of children by parents, schools, and churches; supervised activities for children; attitudes towards property ownership by those who do not own much property; and clarity in the meaning of property ownership and ownership rights as factors important in the organization against theft. Factors important in organization for theft that he listed included various changes in contacts with criminal patterns. Sutherland argued that frequency of theft was increasing which increased the chance that any one individual would have contact with someone who stole and collusion of individuals with thieves, and that there had been an increase in the number of people stealing to sell to the black market. In addition, Sutherland included a cultural element in the social organization for crime. Sutherland proposed that during wartime, there were more people for whom theft was the only alternative to not surviving. Since culture allowed for this exception to the rule that people should not steal, he argued, there could be predicted an increase in theft. “The two aspects of organization together are called differential group organization. The balance between the opposed organizations determines whether the crimes committed, the reactions against crimes, and the convictions rates increase or decrease” (203). As Matsueda (2006) writes, it is clear from this research paper that Sutherland saw differential social organization as consisting of a variety of different structural and cultural factors.

A final important part of Sutherland’s ideas on differential social organization is found in the conclusion of this research paper. Here he writes that “organization has two principal constituent elements, namely consensus in regard to objectives and implementation for the realization of objectives.. .Each of these is found in the organization for crime and the organization against crime” (203). This statement suggests that organization involves not simply structures and culture, which might be considered fairly stable, but the more dynamic process of interaction that must occur for a group to develop agreement on a common goal and take action towards achieving that goal (see Matsueda 2006 and the discussion of his work below). It is notable that these two components of social organization correspond with the definition of social disorganization used by contemporary theorists interested in neighborhood variation in crime rates that involves the ability to agree upon and work towards a common goal.

In addition to Sutherland’s own writing, Matsueda (2006) argues that an examination of some of the figures whose work influenced him can give insight into the meaning of differential social organization. Most notable perhaps is the influence of Shaw and McKay (1942) who are the founders of the theory of social disorganization. In an essay on the development of his theory, Sutherland (1942[1973]) reports having originally “borrowed” the term social disorganization from Shaw and McKay. Later, he changes this for differential social organization under the encouragement of Albert Cohen because “.. .the organization of the delinquent group.. .is social disorganization only from an ethical or some other particularistic point of view” (1942[1973], p. 21). Gaylord and Galliher (1988) later argue that he changed the terminology in response to two factors. First critiques come out of social disorganization, some of which drew attention to the fact that it seemed to be evaluating the organization of certain areas, “theirs,” as deficient to “ours.” They report that Sutherland wanted to get away from the negative connotation associated with the concept. Second, they argue that he found the concept differential social organization better at conveying his idea that society can be organized both for and against crime. The change in terminology does not mean that he did not see value in Shaw and McKay’s ideas or their research findings, both of which he continued to cite in his text. Matsueda (2006) argues, though, that he is reconceptualizing Shaw and McKay’s social disorganization to be weak organization against crime.

A second important influence on Sutherland’s ideas of differential group organization is found in Tannenbaum (1938). Most broadly, Sutherland saw value in Tannenbaum’s work on identity and the role of social reactions against crime in the shaping of criminal identify (Gaylord and Galliher 1988). This is connected with the influence of symbolic interactionism on Sutherland and the role it plays in differential association. Specifically in terms of differential social organization, however, his influence can be seen in Sutherland’s emphasis on reactions to crime as key part of differential social organization. On the one hand, the community response to crime is part of the organization against crime. On the other, the development of a criminal identity is part of organization for crime (Matsueda 2006).

Overall then a review of Sutherland’s own writings and those who influenced his work suggest that differential social organization involves social structural and cultural elements. Also involved are the processes that lead to the development of a common goal and action towards the achievement of that goal. With safety from theft and violence as a common goal, control of the behavior of others, including reactions to misbehavior, is key element of the action towards achieving that goal.

Along with differential association and differential social organization, a third concept is also important in understanding Sutherland’s work. This is culture conflict or, what Cressey (1960, 1968) later came to call, normative conflict. This refers to “.. .conflict between legal and other norms that arise through the societal growth process.. .” (Cressey 1968, p. 50). For Sutherland, culture conflict was the basic explanation for crime. Culture conflict then explains why there is crime in society; differential social organization explains why some groups have higher crime rates than others in that society; and differential association explains why a particular individual is involved in crime. How all three link up is left largely undeveloped by Sutherland.

Even after reviewing Sutherland’s writings and influences, and placing the concept of differential social organization in relation to differential association and culture conflict, it remains clear that Sutherland never developed his ideas on differential social organization in the systematic way that he did his ideas of differential association. This lack of development left it open to interpretation by others, both supporters and critics, in ways that influenced the interest in and thus development of his ideas by other criminologists. One particularly important development of his ideas of social organization for crime is found in the work of Cloward and Ohlin (1960). One particularly important critique is found in Kornhauser’s (1978) Social Sources of Delinquency. A discussion of each of these works follows.

Two early scholars whose work explores the ideas of differential social organization are Cloward and Ohlin (1960). In Delinquency and Opportunity, they link Merton’s theory of anomie with Sutherland’s differential association and differential social organization to explain the nature, development, and stability of delinquent subcultures among males in lower class areas. Their theory centers on the idea that youths want to achieve success but have differential access to opportunities to do so. Cloward and Ohlin argue that Merton’s theory of anomie recognized differences in conventional opportunities for achieving success but ignored differences in opportunities for crime. While Sutherland’s differential association recognized differences in opportunity to learn about criminal opportunities, he ignored differences in legitimate opportunities. They felt that inclusion of both in one theory would enhance the ability of theory to explanation of the nature and existence of various types of subcultures.

Cloward and Ohlin (1960) posit that youths in the lower class, having little in the way of legitimate opportunities for success, struggle to find options for achieving higher status. Just what options they have were argued by Cloward and Ohlin (1960) to depend in large part of the social organization of the lower class neighborhood in which they found themselves. They noted two factors in particular. The first was integration of different age levels which helped with the transmission of delinquent skills and values. The second was integration of conventional and deviant values. They argued integrating illegitimate opportunities structures and values with those of the legitimate world enhanced the stability of criminal roles. Differences in the organization of a given area in terms of opportunity structures are what lead to differences in subcultures. They describe three ideal subculture types – delinquent, conflict, and retreatist. Delinquent subcultures involve theft and organized criminal activities as alternative ways of achieving status. These emerge in neighborhoods where there exist illegitimate opportunities for achieving status because of both an integration of age levels and conventional and deviant values. Conflict subcultures, center on the use of violence, and emerge where few illegitimate opportunities exist. Finally, it is the retreatist, revolving around drugs, which consists largely of those individuals who are not able to successfully compete in either the legitimate or illegitimate opportunity structure.

By positing the existence of different subcultures and relating them to access to opportunity for learning and integration into legitimate or illegitimate life, Cloward and Ohlin were starting on a path of exploration of what factors are key to understandings differential social organization. Though there work was highly influential both in criminology and in the arena of public policy, continued criticisms of social disorganization and cultural deviance theories alike were to turn criminologists’ attention away from exploring the role of social organization in understanding crime. In particular, the influential work of Kornhauser (1978) did much to turn attention of criminology, in general, and those interested in social disorganization theory, in particular, away from differential social organization.

There are two parts to her critique that are important to the discussion here. The first is her critique of the work of Shaw and McKay (1942) and their “mixed” model of neighborhood crime. She points out that they present us with a model that combines two different theories – control theory and cultural deviance. The control part of the theory predicts that in high-crime-rate neighborhoods, neighborhood controls are weak, freeing youths to be delinquent. These youth then develop delinquent traditions in the neighborhood that are transmitted to others. The cultural deviance part, then, argues that youths in neighborhoods with delinquent subcultures commit delinquent acts because of their socialization into a delinquent way of life. She argues that this mixed model is not logically possible because control and cultural deviance theories are based on differing assumptions about human nature. On the one hand, control theories assume that youths are capable of delinquency when free from control and that no other motivation is necessary. On the other, cultural deviance theories assume youths are not capable of deviance. They are merely following the norms and values of a subculture into which they have been successfully and completely socialized. Kornhauser suggests that the cultural deviance part of the model is not necessary and, for reasons discussed below, not even logically tenable. She then presents us with a pure control model of neighborhood crime.

Kornhauser (1978) combines her argument for a social disorganization theory that is based on a pure control model with a powerful critique of cultural deviance theories. She uses Sutherland’s differential association and his discussion of culture conflict as the prime example of a cultural deviance theory. Her argument starts with the assumptions she believes are behind cultural deviance theories. These are that “.. .man has no nature, socialization is perfectly successful, and cultural variability is unlimited” (p. 34). She then points out that the first is not actually consistent with what cultural deviance theorists argue. If socialization is perfect, she argues, it must be because people by their nature are perfectly adaptable. Though others have argued that she misinterprets Sutherland (see, e.g., Akers 1998), the critique resonated with others. Discussion and research on social disorganization largely followed the pure control model. Cultural deviance theories continued to fall into disfavor, including Sutherland’s ideas about cultural conflict. Differential social organization received relatively little attention, and what it did receive did not differentiate between culture conflict and differential social organization. The lack of attention Sutherland gave to differential social organization relative to differential association is mirrored by the level of attention the field has given it. There are, however, several recent exceptions which show various ways of exploring this idea, and it is to these that the discussion now turns.

State Of The Art

Recent work on differential social organization has offered new opportunities for development and research on the factors that may shape organization both for and against crime. Here, the focus is on three different works that contribute to the understanding of differential social organization. The first work, by Akers (1998), explores linking differential social organization with the individual-level differential association. Two others, Matsueda (2006) and Sampson and Graif (2009), critically examine various aspects of differential social organization.

Akers, who has spent his career developing and testing social learning theory as an elaboration of differential association, has now taken his work a step further by articulating the link between differential social organization and differential association. Though his initial work focused exclusively on rewriting the individual-level differential association, Akers (1998) has maintained a career long interest in integrating the individual-level explanation with the structural component. It is in the 1998 publication of Social Learning and Social Structure that Akers makes his most complete statement of that link as well as providing preliminary evidence regarding his proposed model. The model includes four different groups of social structural factors whose effects on crime he argues are mediated by social learning variables. The four social structural factors are differential social organization, differential location in the social structure, social disorganization and conflict, and differential location in primary, secondary, and reference groups.

Akers uses differential social organization to refer to “.. .ecological, community or geographical differences across systems.. .” (332) such as neighborhoods and the division between urban and rural. Importantly, Akers (1998) argues that differences in crime across these areas are related to structural and/or cultural differences, some of which are known and some of which are not. Differential location in the social structure refers to factors such as age, gender, race, and class that are indicative of a group’s position in the social structure. Next, Akers draws from three major social structural theories to discuss the effects of social disorganization, anomie, and culture conflict. He argues that when social cohesion and integration are disrupted, disorganization and anomie result in an area or group, with a resulting increase in the crime rate. Further, social, political, and/or economic injustices may result in the development of different belief systems that lead to conflicts and, through conflicts, higher area or group rates of crime. Finally, Akers posits that individuals are differentially located in primary, secondary, and reference groups such as family, school, and peers, in such a way as to lead to differences in social control and socialization.

As is seen above, Akers leaves unspecified much of what comprises the essential aspects of differential social organization. A recent test of the theory by Lee et al. (2004) leaves questions about the important social structural and cultural factors that make up differential social organization largely unanswered. The one measure of differential social organization is size of the community. Akers explication of the link between differential social organization and differential association, though, and his empirical tests of the link are important steps in understanding how differential social organization contributes to our understanding of individual criminal involvement.

Another theorist whose work has advanced the understanding of differential social organization is Matsueda (2006), a longtime advocate of Sutherland’s work. In the current work, his focus is on adding to the theory a dynamic component that is implied, but never explicitly recognized. He draws his thinking about the dynamic aspect of organization from Sutherland’s (1943) ideas that social organization involves the development of consensus over goals to be achieved and the means by which to achieve that goal. He then draws from Mead’s (1934) theory of symbolic interaction and ideas of social control to discuss just how it is that consensus over goals and means is built up and turned into action. He argues Mead’s ideas are consistent with Sutherland’s differential social organization for both involve the development of meaning regarding goals and means as well as the development of a self that is built up over time and in interaction with others as solutions to common problems are sought.

Central to this statement is how collective action as a solution to a common problem, such as crime control or safety, is built up. Collective action, which he views as a types of social organization, is defined as “those acts commonly defined as occurring outside of institutional contexts in informal groups or gatherings, tending to be more spontaneous and creative, and requiring the building of coalitions and consensus in the absence of a strong normative system” (19). Understanding how a problem results in collective action depends on several factors including the frame and individual thresholds. Framing refers to how the problem is defined. Individual thresholds deal with how individuals vary on the proportion of people in a collective action that it takes for them to decide to join in. One example he uses to illustrate his points deals with collective efficacy. To view this in terms of process and action, he argues, involves consideration of how residents frame the issue of crime in their neighborhood, how much value individuals in the neighborhood place on safety, and how capable individuals in the neighborhood are in winning others to their view, as well as the mix of individuals with various levels of individual thresholds. Collective efficacy does not depend then just on social networks in the neighborhood then on “efficacious individuals” embedded in the network and their work in framing a problem and engaging others.

While Matsueda radically expands our understanding of the role of processes in social organization, recent work by Sampson and Graif (2009) on types of social capital illustrates important ways of thinking about key components of differential social organization across neighborhoods. Echoing somewhat Matsueda’s emphasis on “efficacious individuals,” Sampson and Graif distinguish between types of social capital at the resident and leadership levels of neighborhoods. They argue that the social capital that may reside in the abilities of the residents is not the same as that which is involved with neighborhood leaders and the two types of social capital do not necessarily correlate. Analyses of social capital need to distinguish then between resource possibilities of social networks, leadership in the neighborhood, and organizational capacity. Along with these structural dimensions are cultural aspects of neighborhood life including the normative climate and expectations about safety. Using these different dimensions of social capital, their analysis uncovers four different types – cosmopolitan, conduct norms, urban village, and institutional alienation – that vary on the levels of social capital existing among residents and leaders.

Beyond these three highlighted works are others who have recently explored various aspects of social organization at the neighborhood level and its effects on crime. Browning’s (2009) work on “negotiated coexistence” illustrates how the inclusion of offenders in neighborhood social networks which depend upon reciprocity and exchange can lower the ability to control the behavior of individuals in the network. Haynie et al. (2006) present a rare empirical assessment of neighborhood disadvantage and its effects on exposure to violent peers. They rightly note that while many predict neighborhood structural characteristics will affect whom youths will interact with and what they will be exposed to, empirical research testing these ideas is limited. Similarly, Harding (2009), drawing on work such as Cloward and Ohlin (1960) on integration of age groups, is interested in expanding knowledge on the transmission of culture in disadvantaged neighborhoods. He explores how neighborhood disadvantage increases time spent by adolescents with older youths. Finally, De Coster et al. (2006) are also interested in culture as found in the “street milieu.” In their study, they examine that, for example, the effects of deviant peer relationships, easy access to firearms, witnessing violence, being the victim of violence, and expectations of death all affect involvement in violence by shaping the ability of families to control the children.

Controversies And Open Questions

How different types of social organization are related to crime rates across groups and areas is a question that has fascinated criminologists since the field’s inception. An increasing emphasis on social process theories emerged in the 1970s, turning attention away from social structural theories as criticisms of these theories grew. Interest never died completely out though, and work on social organization continued, slowly but surely. Neighborhood research on social disorganization, collective efficacy, and social capital is an example of the continued vitality in this area. Though there is a great deal of interesting work being done, questions remain for exploration.

Researchers in interested in social disorganization theory and neighborhood crime have been exploring some aspects of neighborhood organization for and against crime since Shaw and McKay. Initially research focused on social structural factors such as poverty, mobility, and heterogeneity and connected them to social networks and organizational participation as factors important in understanding the ability of residents in a neighborhood to agree upon and work towards common goals. More recent work has radically expanded our ideas on key factors in understanding neighborhood organization – collective efficacy, bridging and bonding social capital, institutional capacity, neighborhood leadership – many of which are now being connected to neighborhood types. The focus here is on the ability to organize against crime found in resources and structures which aid in the development of a common goal and action towards achieving that goal. Many of the ideas need further explication and testing, but a solid ground has been laid for future work.

If Sutherland is right though, there is a need to explore the factors that shape organization for crime. Cloward and Ohlin (1960) saw integration of different age levels along with integration of the conventional and criminal worlds as important for opening opportunities for success in the criminal world. Harding’s (2009) research on integration of age levels and its effects on exposure to neighborhood culture shows the importance of this. What other factors, structural or cultural, are key to understanding organization for crime? It seems that much of what has been done in this area is related to culture – alienation from the larger culture and the police, for example, as well as understanding of cultural adaptations to living in high-crime areas. Related to this is the need to examine how organization for and against crime are interrelated.

Perhaps the most interesting and difficult aspect of differential social organization is grappling with the role of culture. Most seem to have moved away from notions of a deviant subcultural where residents are predicted to adhere to beliefs supportive of violence or crime to more subtle notions of rationalization and adjustments to poverty and feelings of alienation from the larger society and the police. Key to continued development is distinguishing culture and its effects from those of social structure. Work thus far, though often identifying cultural and social structure factors, often fails to distinguish them in ways that aids in our understanding of their independent effects much less their relationship. Without a careful delineation, the ability to untangle the relationship between social structural factors and their effects from those of culture will continue to limit our understanding of both.

Tackling culture leads to another question. What about the relationship between social disorganization and social control theories on the one hand and social disorganization, differential social organization, and social learning on the other? Kornhauser’s (1978) powerful criticism that Shaw and McKay originally presented an untenable mixed model because of the contradictory assumptions behind control and cultural deviance seemed to have the effect of banishing consideration of culture from most analyses of neighborhood crime rates under the social disorganization framework. In fact, social disorganization is most commonly argued to be the macro level equivalent of social control theories focusing, while cultural deviance and social learning are similarly linked. More and more it seems that social control and social learning are linked processes but are these different versions of each?


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