This is the website and blog of Dr John Lever.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Attitudes towards crime and stricter social sanctions

An article in The Guardian today used the example of John Venables and Robert Thompson to illustrate how attitudes towards criminality have changed and hardened. Zoe Williams argues quite rightly that any any civilised system of justice should be based on the possibility of redemption. The case and treatment of Venables and Thompson therefore illustrates, she argues, how attitudes towards criminality have changed and hardened in a relatively short period. Zoe Williams is correct on this point too, but as Cas Wouters has shown, we need to look further back - at least to the end of post war period - if we are to fully understand the contemporary relevance of these trends.

As individuals were released from traditional forms of authority and control during the post war period, Wouters (1999) argues that things once forbidden absolutely became exciting, dangerous and possible. As more people gave in to temptation and certain crimes began to increase, Wouters shows that civilised attitudes towards poverty amongst the middle classes began to decline. This process came to a head during the 1980s. As the enterprise culture boomed and outbreaks of public disorder began to increase, identification with rising outsider groups, that had peaked during the during the 1960s, was gradually replaced by identification with the establishment.

As crime increased form the late 1950s onwards it was generally explained away by reference to social inequality and relative deprivation. This was a sign of the times, Wouters argues, where strong moral indignation about expressions of authority and demonstrations of social superiority dominated. From the middle of the 1970s however things began to change. Unemployment grew, profits declined and people generally felt more dependent on authority. As identification with the establishment grew and it became less acceptable to identify with outsiders, moral decay became the dominant narrative. Yet as Wouters points out, 'however strong the impression of moral decay may be, its explanatory power is limited', not least because the pressure towards a continuous rise in the moral standard is based on policies that require ever higher levels of mutual consent and negotiation. Departures from civilised standards are therefore, as the case of Venables and Thompson demonstrates, now more likely to be met by stricter social sanctions.

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