Social Class and Crime

Crime is more commonly associated with lower social classes than with upper classes. But why is this? 

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Table of contents

    Some theorists suggest that factors like geography and economic conditions play an essential role in the crime rate within a society. However, other perspectives theorise that the legal system is biased against certain social groups.

    • In this explanation, we'll be exploring the relationship between social class and crime.
    • We'll also take a look at how social class and crime rates are understood in sociology, followed by an examination of social class and crime statistics in sociology.
    • After this, we'll explore some of the sociological theories that explain the link between social class and crime. These include:
      • Functionalism, social class and crime.
      • Marxism, social class and crime.
      • Interactionism, social class and crime.

    The relationship between social class and crime

    Crime is often associated with the disadvantaged rather than a powerful and wealthy social class, where the poor are depicted as causing the most detriment to society as a whole.

    However, a famous case which disproves this is that of Bernie Madoff. According to the FBI, the total cost incurred by victims of property crime was approximately $17.2 billion in 2008 (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2009). On the other hand, a fraud scheme carried out by Bernie Madoff alone cost $65 billion in the same year (Steinberg & Cohn, 2021).

    This shows that white-collar crimes committed by high-profile people lead to relatively huge financial losses. Such imbalances are also prevalent in the legal system, where the upper class is dealt with more leniently. Why is this happening, and what are the factors associated? Sociological perspectives can offer explanations for the relationship between social class and crime.

    Social class and crime rates

    Because the definition of 'social class' is in itself such a contested topic in sociology, the relationship between social class and crime rates is not very clear-cut. However, there are a few ways in which we can work around this.

    The most common way is to identify the determining factors of social class and studying their relationships with crime - such as income or occupation.

    The divisions made based on economic and social status in society is referred to as 'social class'.

    Social Class and Crime, Lock and credit cards on a keyboard, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Crime committed at the upper-class level often goes unreported and unpunished.

    Types of crime associated with working classes

    As we have seen, the highest levels of criminal behaviour are associated with the lowest positions on the class scale. This link seems to appear most commonly in terms of 'street crime' such as burglary or theft, supposedly committed by the long-term unemployed and welfare dependents.

    However, sociologists suggest that the statistics which depict these links are somewhat problematic. Since street crimes are a policy priority, they are also the most likely to be reported and recorded in official statistics. This means that poor people tend to be disproportionately represented in crime statistics, and as such appear to commit more crimes than middle and upper classes.

    Let's explore this further in the next section.

    Social class and crime statistics in sociology

    Despite the insight that crime statistics can provide, sociologists often approach such data with caution.

    The dark figure of crime

    In the year ending March 2022, a total of 5.3 million offences were recorded in England and Wales (Office for National Statistics, 2022). However, sociologists suggest that this statistic is not entirely accurate. It does not represent the 'dark figure' or 'hidden figure' of unrecorded crime.

    A large portion of crimes that often go unreported and unrecorded are those committed by professionals in the corporate sector and certain managerial positions. This is because they are either dealt with privately, or because they are dealt with leniently if done so by the legal system.

    Brian Leonard Pearce's (1976) classical Marxist approach to criminology claims that the laws that exist to help workers actually favour the bourgeoisie. He points out that the laws regarding health and safety are basically implemented to maintain a healthy workforce for the ruling classes.

    Later, studies concluded that these laws are not strongly implemented anyway and are simply "for show". Instead, the laws protecting the ruling class are way more stringent.

    Functionalism, social class and crime

    The functionalist approach focuses on different parts of society, aiming for a collective approach. An important aspect of the functionalist theory of crime is that deviance is considered to be an essential element of society!

    The following functionalist perspectives will be discussed further in terms of crime and social class (i.e., cultural deviance theory, strain theory and status frustration theory).

    Cultural deviance theory in explaining social class and crime

    Émile Durkheim presented the idea that some level of deviance is vital for a prosperous society. According to Durkheim, the existing laws in society express the collective conscience. They shape the values and morals of society.

    Following this, society cannot grow and evolve without some level of deviance. This is because the prevalence of deviance allows us to question and adjust society's current order. One of the examples could be Black people's struggle for their rights against the mainstream laws.

    Furthermore, when individuals get punished for their deviant acts or crimes, it also serves to keep mainstream society functional. However, deviant behaviours develop in the working class due to overburden and burnout situations.

    Moreover, the size and nature of a society can closely impact the rewards and punishments associated with deviant behaviours. Larger societies have lesser control over the laws compared to smaller societies, where the impact of deviance can be felt much more intensely.

    Strain theory in explaining social class and crime

    Robert Merton presented strain theory, and he extended Durkheim's idea of functionalism. According to Merton, socially acceptable behaviours determine whether a person is deviant or not. He considered this to be an essential part of a functional society.

    Lack of opportunity creates strain or tension between means and goals, causing unsatisfied aspirations or frustration - known as anomie. Merton perceives crime as the reaction to people's inability to achieve the goal of material wealth, stressing the role of economic factors.

    When people experience an imbalance between their goals and their current status, it causes strain. Merton identifies five ways in which people adapt to strain:

    1. Conformity: trying to pursue cultural goals using socially legitimate means.

    2. Innovation: using socially unjustified means to pursue culturally approved goals.

    3. Ritualism: attempting to attain less elusive goals through socially approved means.

    4. Retreatism: rejecting both the means and the cultural goals and finding ways to escape them.

    5. Rebellion: working to replace the rejected means and cultural goals.

    Merton points out that American societies consider material success an ideal or legitimate goal and encourage hard work and self-discipline as justified means to attain that goal. This is done believing that anyone with sufficient effort can achieve material success.

    Nevertheless, he states that this was a dream for those who belong to lower social classes because not everyone can avail of legitimate opportunities. Those who fail to succeed through these means are condemned for insufficient effort.

    This puts great pressure on individuals to achieve the socially desirable goal of material success through 'illegitimate' means so that they don't get branded as incompetent or a failure. Simply put, 'anomie' builds pressure to be financially well-off even with a lack of legitimate opportunities, increasing crime rates.

    Status frustration theory in explaining social class and crime

    According to Albert Cohen (1955), young, working-class males are more likely to commit crime because they experience status frustration as a result of being disrespected and perceived as 'failures' by wider society.

    As a subcultural theory, the premise of the status frustration framework is that delinquent subcultures take on behaviours that wider society condemns. This is both as a form of resistance to the society that rejects them, and to show solidarity and bond with those in the same situation as them.

    As such, according to Cohen, cultural factors such as values and status explain the high rates of crime in the working class.

    Marxism, social class and crime

    According to Marxist sociologists, all social classes commit crimes, but elite and corporate crimes are more harmful than the others and yet are still less likely to get punished. Marxism also argues that crimes committed by the working-class result from criminogenic capitalism.

    Criminogenic capitalism

    Criminogenic capitalism refers to the idea that capitalism essentially encourages criminal behaviour.

    The three key aspects of criminogenic capitalism are as follows:

    • Individuals are encouraged to seek self-interest before anything else.

    • People become materialistic consumers, striving for an often unattainable way of living.

    • Capitalism brings about massive inequality and poverty that further triggers conditions in tune with high crime rates.

    David Gordon, a Marxist sociologist, argues that capitalist societies can be labelled 'dog-eat-dog societies' - where companies and consumers are encouraged to pursue their own interests before everything - other individuals, the community, and environmental protection.

    According to Gordon, the capitalist system only recommends that one pursues self-interest, regardless of the harm it might cause others or the environment.

    Marxists believe that under a capitalist structure, there is a huge pressure to:

    • generate more wealth,

    • become more successful, andbring in more profit.

    These are the only means for guaranteed survival in a competitive economy. In this scenario, breaking the law can appear lucrative and necessary to an investment banker or a gang member, despite the consequences.

    The cost of crime to society

    According to Marxist sociologists, crimes of the elite impose a greater economic cost on society than the crimes committed by 'ordinary people'. Laureen Snider points out that the cost of white-collar crimes and corporate crimes exceeds the cost of street crimes:

    • White-collar crimes are generally committed for the individual's own interests or further improvement of an existing situation. This can mean a crime committed to obtain a promotion, make personal gains, etc., which is often against the rules and policies of the company or organisation where they are employed.

    • The company perpetrates corporate crimes to pursue their business interests, e.g., increased profits. This can have serious physical or economic effects on workers, consumers, and the community.

    Interactionism, social class and crime

    According to interactionism, societies label the groups and view their behaviours are deviant. Aaron Cicourel (1968) suggests that the beliefs and opinions of the police and juvenile officers explain why most delinquents belong to the working class.

    Social Class and Crime, Close up image of the sirens on a police car glowing blue StudySmarterFig. 2 - The police are heavily involved in labelling certain groups as 'deviant'.

    He argues that the method of labelling often young individuals as "delinquent" is complicated and involves the following stages of interaction:

    The first stage

    • In this initial stage, the police decide to stop and interrogate the individual. Their decision is influenced by their opinion of what is 'odd' or 'suspicious' and considered 'wrong.'

    • The decision to stop and interrogate the individual depends on how the police perceive their behaviour and the place where it happens - a park, a bar, a suburb, or an inner-city, for example.

    • If an individual displays a demeanour similar to a 'typical delinquent,' the police are more likely to interrogate and arrest them.

    The second stage

    • In this stage, the officer takes charge of the person arrested. Equipped with a preconceived idea of a 'typical delinquent' in their mind, the officer tries to analyse whether the set characteristics, such as usage of slang, messy appearance, poor body posture, etc., match with the arrested individual.

    • Middle-class youths, after being arrested, are less likely to be accused or charged as they do not match the image of a 'typical delinquent. Additionally, their parents are more capable of presenting as law-abiding and from a respectable background and are usually fully ready to co-operate with the officers. This convinces the police that their child is ashamed and is not really of "bad" character.

    • The middle-class delinquent is often regarded as ill or amateurish rather than criminal. They are considered to have accidentally digressed from the path of morality and can genuinely improve themselves.

    Left realism and right realism are often overlooked in sociological theory. While their names are similar, the premise behind them, particularly in terms of crime, is quite difference. While right realism considers the individual to be responsible for their deviance, left realism looks more to structural inequalities and their role in causing criminal behaviour.

    Right realism and crime

    Right realist thinker Charles Murray suggests that changes in the family structure triggered crime rates in the 1970s and 80s. He mainly pins the blame for the growth of crime on the growing underclass, who engage in deviant behaviour and aren't able to socialise their children properly. These children then lack self-control and do not develop an understanding of "right or wrong".

    Murray claims that the growth of the underclass is an outcome of increased welfare dependency. With the increased welfare benefits since the 1960s, many people have become dependent on the state.

    As a result, marriages have declined, and single parenthood has increased. Since women can live off the benefits provided by the state, they no longer need to work or depend on their partners to support their children.

    In Murray's opinion, single mothers don't prove to be effective agents of socialisation, especially for boys. In the absence of fathers, boys lack paternal supervision and guidance and male role models to look up to.

    As an outcome, young boys learn from delinquent adult men who choose crime as an alternative to steady jobs and to achieve status instead of taking care of their families. The increase in the likelihood of committing crime results from children growing up in a criminogenic environment, surrounded by adults indulging in delinquency.

    Left realism and crime

    Left realists Lea and Young use the following key concepts to explain the relationship between social class and crime.

    Relative deprivation

    According to Lea and Young, the roots of crime lie in deprivation. However, crime is not a direct outcome of deprivation. Rising living standards since the 1950s have led to a significant decline in the levels of deprivation, but crime rates haven't declined.

    Left realists emphasise Runciman's theory of relative deprivation to define crime. This focuses on how an individual feels compared with others in relation to their own expectations.

    The concept helps to explain the evident contradiction of increasing crime rates in an increasingly wealthy society. Even though people are affluent in contemporary society, there's a greater sense of "relative deprivation".

    With the advent of media and advertising, people's expectations and desires for material possession have increased. Society may be better off generally, but people feel poorer due to consumerism and excessive pressure to own as many material goods as possible. This then fosters criminal behaviour.

    Social Class and Crime - Key takeaways

    • Social class is correlated to both the number and nature of crimes.

    • Strain theory states that crime rates increase when a gap - a ‘strain’- is created between goals (desired achievements like material wealth) and the opportunities available to achieve them through justifiable or legitimate means, e.g. a well-paid job.

    • Delinquent subcultures arise out of working-class people's status frustration.

    • Pre-determined biases among law enforcement officers explain why most delinquents belong to the working-class and middle-class delinquents are let off.

    • Marxists argue that working-class crime is encouraged by capitalism and its pressures to attain success. Elite crimes are overlooked even though they are more harmful to society.


    1. Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2009). FBI releases 2008 crime statistics.
    2. Office for National Statistics. (2022). Crime outcomes in England and Wales 2021 to 2022.
    3. Steinberg, M., & Cohn, S. (2021, Apr 14). Bernie Madoff, mastermind of the nation's biggest investment fraud, dies at age 82. CNBC.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Class and Crime

    What are examples of working class crime?

    Crimes of theft, vandalism, delinquency, etc., are usually associated with the working class.

    How does social class affect crime?

    Social class is correlated to both the number and the nature of crimes.  

    Is there a correlation between social class and crime?

    According to Marxist sociologists, all social classes commit crimes, but elite and corporate crimes are more harmful than the others and are still less likely to get punished. Marxism also argues that crimes committed by the working class result from criminogenic capitalism. 

    How do you define social class?

    The divisions based on economic and social status in society is referred to as ‘social class’.

    Which social class commits more crime?

    Consensus theories broadly imply that the rate of crimes is higher among the lower social classes. They put forward two explanations for this, focusing on the differences between crime and working-class culture. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which theory suggests that some level of crime is beneficial for society?

    According to Lea and Young, the roots of crime lie in...

    If an individual has a demeanour similar to a ‘typical delinquent’, the police are more likely to interrogate as well as arrest them. True or false?

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