Monday, June 30, 2008

Back in Black + Gender and Crime

Took about a week off to go on vacation, though I did do some studying up until Wednesday night. Just not enough to warrant writing about. I think my plan is to finish going over my notes this week, and start writing practice questions next week. Whether or not I actually turn them in to get faculty opinions on them, I don't know.

I am actually surprised at how well I can talk about gender. I thought it was going to be one of my weak spots, but it turns out, I actually know it pretty well. Gender is interesting because there are articles about process as much as theory, meaning that I can talk about the gender gap historically, I can talk about prejudices in deviance and the way girls are treated by the criminal justice system, and then I can also talk about differences in the ways in which the specific mechanisms in theories operate differently for men and women.

Gender in crime is a pretty interesting debate, because there are some people who think that we should have separate theories of crime for men and women, and there are some people who think that we don't need to take gender into consideration whatsoever. Both arguments are only partially valid, because they deny the validity of the other side. Essentially, both groups are arguing to throw the baby out with the theoretical bathwater.

This is what we do know: men commit more crimes more frequently than women (i.e., Steffensmeier and Streifel, ???; Mears et al, 1998), and that this difference has been consistent throughout history, with only some slight changes to the shape of the gender curve happening in recent years that does not indicate that the gender gap is closing in any way (Steffensmeier and Streifel, ???). This is important, because recent trends seem to indicate an increase in female violence, but research on the contemporary criminal justice system indicates that this increase is an artifact of policy changes that have expanded the definition of female violence; in other words, it is the result of a net-widening effect. Beyond the gender gap in rates of crime, we also know that men and women are treated differently within the system and are perceived to be participating in criminal or otherwise deviant activities for different reasons than men. For example, Gaardner et al. (2004) suggest that girls are treated differently within the criminal justice system because stakeholders and agents within the system do not understand cultural and/or gender-specific programming options and ultimately misunderstand the behavior of the girls whose problems they are faced with. This lack of understanding limits the options available to the girls, because instead of having their true issues addressed, the stereotyping they are subjected to effectively pigeonholes their problems into inadequate solutions. The issue of stereotyping isn't limited to the treatment of girls in the justice system; for example, Leblanc (1999) discusses the true reasons why adolescent girls become involved in the punk subculture; contrary to stereotypes of punk girls which portray them as purely sexual actors, Leblanc shows that girls become involved for a variety of different reasons, including a sense of kinship to other punks, a taste for the music and culture, and the opportunity to become involved in political and social activism.

The debate over whether or not theories of crime should be gender-specific or gender-neutral rose in part because of this stereotyping and lack of consistent understanding about the social and cultural differences between men and women. On one hand, theorists like Chesney-Lind (1989) and Messerschmidt (1993) argue that men and women should be considered apart from one another because of the unique experiences of each sex (Messerschmidt, 1993) and the historical patriarchal structure of society (Chesney-Lind, 1989) which is responsible for the subjugation of women and the propogation of stereotypes of women as purely sexual objects. On the other hand, Adler (1975) argues that because of the women's liberation movement, women are becoming more masculine -- more assertive, more aggressive -- which logically suggests that gender-specific theories of crime are unnecessary because all persons involved in crime and delinquency are doing so for the same reasons. In practice, as I mentioned before, both sides of the argument are valid in their own ways. In spite of the best efforts of leading criminlogical theorists, even the best theories of crime do not explain as much of the variance in the behavior as they purport to (for examples, see previous discussions on social disorganization theory, learning, and self-control.) Many of these theories, in spite of being gender-neutral in their original form, have revealed subtle gender differences in crime by allowing us to assess how the theorized mechanisms operate differently for men and women and boys and girls. This includes, but is not limited to, strain theory, labeling theory, and learning theory.

Agnew's general strain theory (Agnew, 1992) postulates that people commit crime because of the presence (or threatened presence) of some negative stimulus, or the removal (or threatened removal) of some positive stimulus. However, the types of strain experienced differs by gender (Broidy and Agnew, 1999), and the reactions to these experiences differ over time (Hagan and Foster, 2004). In this instance, while general strain theory was meant to be applicable to all persons, Agnew's identification of the relationship between negative emotions and crime allowed future researchers to tease out differences in the way this process operates for men and women.

Matsueda's interpretation of labeling theory from a social psychological standpoint (Matsueda, 1992) suggests that people become involved in crime through negative interactions with persons important to them, such that the experience of being treated as a bad person, regardless of if it is true, will cause the individual to begin seeing themselves that way and will in turn begin behaving that way. Matsueda's take on labeling theory differs from traditional labeling theory, which focuses more on the role of being officially labeled by the criminal justice system and society more generally, and is not necessarily concerned with the interpersonal relationships that help shape our self-concept. However, while Matsueda's argument is supported generally, later research also highlights a significant gender difference in how the process of reflected appraisals works. Specifically, Bartusch and Matsueda (1999?) show that adolescent boys are more likely to be falsely blamed and "labeled" as bad by persons close to them than adolescent girls are, which suggests that adolescent boys are more susceptible to thinking of themselves as bad people than adolescent girls are because of this general difference in their interactions with their parents. Note that this difference also speaks to gender stereotyping; perhaps boys are more likely to be falsely accused because of stereotypes that all boys are going to be bad in some way, or perhaps this higher rate of accusation is due to stereotypes about girls being too innoncent to be involved in crime and delinquency. Nevertheless, Matsueda's important recognition of the role of the self-concept allowed future research to identify a crucial difference in the way the development of the self-concept influences future involvment in crime for men and women.

Finally, social learning theory and the theory of differential association (Burgess and Akers, 1966; Sutherland, 1947) both suggest that people learn to be criminal through interactions with and imitation of the behavior of their peers; this line of thinking suggests that relationships where antisocial behavior is normative will cause all parties involved to become antisocial themselves. However, more recent research has suggested that this process works differently for boys and girls because girls are more likely to critically evaluate the behavior of delinquent peers and take a moral stance which bars them from becoming involved in similar activities (Mears et al., 1998). Therefore, while both adolescent boys and girls are exposed to the same criminogenic condition, they do not necessarily respond the same way. This difference may not have been realized unless this gender-neutral theory was tested for gender differences.

There is also a body of research which suggests that some theories are gender neutral; however, this research also notes that while some process may explain criminal behavior regardless of gender, these processes seem to explain more male deviance than female deviance, which by definition speaks to some underlying difference in the way the process is operating. For example, Gottfredson and Hirschi's (1990) General Theory of Crime suggests that criminality is the result of low self-control, and that this should explain criminality for all persons regardless of sociodemographic factors. More recent research (Burton Jr et al, 1998; Tittle et al., 2003) has shown that self-control does indeed explain both male and female deviance, but it is a more powerful explanatory factor for men than women. Tittle et al. (2003) show that the power of self-control varies across combinations of sub-categories, including gender, and that its power depends on how it is being operationalized. This variation in the validity of the measure seems to suggest some difference in how self-control influences criminal behavior for men and women, in spite of the findings that suggest that it is an important characteristic for each group.

In sum, I do not agree with either side in the argument about how gender should be studied in criminology. Both sides, as I have shown here, have their merits. Gender specific studies allow us to see differences in the experiences of men and women (Leblanc, 1999; Gaardner et al, 2004) and the unique factors of both femininity (Chesney-Lind, 1989) and masculinity (Messerschmidt, 1993). Extensive testing of the processes originally hypothesized by gender neutral theories have also allowed us to find differences in the way these mechanisms work for men and women (Broidy and Agnew, 1999; Bartusch and Matsueda, 1999; Mears et al., 1998), which doesn't devalue the theories themselves, but rather necessistates that future research acknowledge these differences in discussions of the processes proposed by the original theorists. While it is necessary for criminologists to conceptualize society as more static than dynamic, it should not be necessary for us to treat our theories the same way, and therefore there is no need to completely disregard some idea in spite of its merits when it is easier and more benefical to incorporate new ideas into our theories so that both specific and general theories of crime can be allowed to contribute to the field at large.

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