Radical criminology, a school of thought that emerged in the 1970s, defined crime in terms of class conflict, that is, as an outcome of the conflict between the haves and the have-nots in a capitalist society.
It began to look at the categories of crimes that get more criminalised in society, and asserted that, more often than not, crimes committed by the poor (such as theft and robbery) were considered more dangerous than crimes committed by the rich (such as tax evasion, environmental crimes and financial scams). What gets portrayed as dangerous crime is often an indication of who is in power and what kind of laws they make.
There is also a theory that ‘relative deprivation’ coupled with processes of marginalisation can lead to anti-system feelings, which in turn can pull one into crime. On the other hand, ‘rational choice theories’ state that human beings have an ability to think rationally and choose options and life courses based on cost-benefit analyses.
These theories emphasise that, while extenuating circumstances and social structures create the conditions for crimogenic behaviour, individuals act on the basis of the benefits that would accrue to them — money, status, power, sexual pleasure, excitement; and the costs they would have to pay — in terms of social or legal sanctions, arrest and imprisonment and loss of livelihood or self-image.
Conflict theories highlight that class alone cannot explain all crimes; other factors, such as discrimination and inequality on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity and, in the case of India, caste, also need to be factored in. Crimes against women, for instance, can be explained as an outcome of how women are treated in society rather than only in terms of the ‘perversions’ of an individual.
So it is difficult to pin down crime to just one factor. The causes of crime are complex and there is always a combination of factors involved.
But the larger emerging picture is that crime is increasing in both rural and urban areas. In the latter, property and profit-oriented crimes are on the rise due to the greater influence of a consumerist society. The acquisition of more wealth is an aspirational goal for most, and we celebrate the idea of getting rich. But the means to achieve the same are limited.
(Vijay Raghavan is professor and chairperson of the Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences)