Professor, alumnus find socioeconomic status, racism fundamental causes of street criminality

Steven Barkan, a UMaine sociology professor, and alumnus Michael Rocque, now a sociology professor at Bates College, recently published the article, “Socioeconomic Status and Racism as Fundamental Causes of Street Criminality” in the journal Critical Criminology.

By examining fundamental cause theory, which identifies socioeconomic status and racism as essential causes of disease and health disparities, the researchers argue the factors also are fundamental causes of violent and property crime, or street criminality.

Crime and disease both vary by socioeconomic status and race and have similar risk and protective factors, according to the researchers. The risk factors that predict criminal behavior also predict disease; the protective factors that keep people from committing crime also keep people in good health.

The pair argues that socioeconomic status and racism both influence many types of criminal behavior and exert their influence on crime through multiple mechanisms including low self-control, families and parenting, schooling, racial segregation and neighborhood conditions. Access to resources such as money, knowledge, power, prestige and beneficial social connections limits the likelihood of criminal behavior, and people with restricted access to these resources will continue to be more likely to commit crime despite efforts to address a single cause of crime.

Fundamental causality is one concept upon which criminology and medical sociology might find common ground, the researchers say. The fields often operate in parallel tracks, with insights from one subject not informing the other. Recognizing the similarity between connecting socioeconomic status and racism with criminality and connecting socioeconomic status and racism with disease and other health problems should prompt criminologists and medical sociologists to join forces to better understand how and why socioeconomic status and racism exert their effects.

Because research can influence how policymakers and the public think about social problems, an interdisciplinary effort may help diminish socioeconomic inequality and racism and reduce their effects on criminality, disease and other negative social and individual outcomes, the researchers hypothesize.

Barkan and Rocque suggest criminologists conduct quantitative and ethnographic tests of fundamental cause theory. In particular, they should assess whether socioeconomic status and racism continue to predict street criminality as new types of crime arise, as new knowledge of protective and risk factors for crime appears, and despite efforts to address any one of the many mechanisms connecting socioeconomic status and racism with crime.

Scholars also should examine how geographic area may influence how fundamental causes operate for street criminality, the researchers say.

Contact: Elyse Catalina, 581.3747