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Conflict theory is based upon the view that the fundamental causes of crime are the social and economic forces operating within society. The criminal justice system and criminal law are thought to be operating on behalf of rich and powerful social elites, with resulting policies aimed at controlling the poor. The criminal justice establishment aims at imposing standards of morality and good behavior created by the powerful on the whole of society. Focus is on separating the powerful from have nots who would steal from others and protecting themselves from physical attacks. In the process the legal rights of poor folks might be ignored. The middle class are also co-opted; they side with the elites rather the poor, thinking they might themselves rise to the top by supporting the status quo.


Thus, street crimes, even minor monetary ones are routinely punished quite severely, while large scale financial and business crimes are treated much more leniently. Theft of a television might receive a longer sentence than stealing millions through illegal business practices. William Chambliss, in a classic essay “The Saints and the Roughnecks,” compared the outcomes for two groups of adolescent misbehavers. The first, a lower class group of boys, was hounded by the local police and labeled by teachers as delinquents and future criminals, while the upper-middle class boys were equally deviant, but their actions were written off as youthful indiscretions and learning experiences.


Radical criminology or critical criminology is a branch of conflict theory, drawing its ideas from a basic Marxist perspective. For Karl Marx (1818-1883), modern capitalist societies were controlled by a wealthy few (bourgeoisie) who controlled the means of production (factories, raw materials, equipment, technology, etc.) while everyone else (the proletariat) was reduced to the lot of being wage laborers. While Marx himself never really addressed in detail the criminal justice system’s specific role in keeping such a system in place, from his writings a radical tradition has emerged. From this perspective, certain types of crime take on a different character. Stealing can be seen as an attempt to take away from the rich. Eric Hobsbawn referred to the like as “social banditry.” Protest-related violence may actually be the start of proto-revolutionary movements, ultimately leading to a workers’ revolt and the establishment of a just society.


At a minimum this perspective aids in the explanation of certain actions; civil rights and antiwar protesters were being locked up in the 1960s because they threatened the established social order. The FBI and the CIA both directed efforts at monitoring such behavior. Thus, the law enforcement community had come down on the wrong side of those seeking social change. Scenes of police officers attacking civil rights protesters with dogs, clubs, and water hoses and police riots such as the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago appeared on nightly television news.


A number of other varieties of conflict theory have appeared since the 1960s. These include radical feminism, left realism, and peacemaking criminology. The latter two are attempts to tone down some of the rhetoric, and present a more balanced approach.


Radical feminism focuses on the plight of women under capitalism. Male domination has been the norm, and women have been subject to it in the home and workplace, as well as on the street. Radical feminist criminologists have looked at the unjust treatment of female teens, who are much more frequently subject to institutionalization for status offense violations (offenses that would not be criminal if an adult) such as running away from home, and particularly singled out for sexual deviance. While away from home or work alone, women must always be on their guard for potential attacks or advances from men. Living in fear has consequences, according to organizations such as Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (


Left realism emerged in the 1980s, partially as a response to the crime victims’ movement of that decade. Victims forced criminologists to recognize that the primary victims of crime are not the wealthy, but the poor. Most predatory crimes are not “revolutionary” acts; they are attacks on family members and neighborhood residents. As advocated by Stanley Cohen and others, left realists recognize that the criminal justice system must act to stop criminal victimization without regard to the class of the perpetrators.  At the same time, continued focus on the crimes committed by the rich and powerful is warranted. White collar and business related crimes remain important.


Peacemaking criminology sought to expand the role of the discipline by looking at international issues such as war and genocide. International struggles for human rights and universal social justice are related foci of concern. Hal Pepinsky and Richard Quinney are major authors in this area. In addition, there are a number of not for profit non-government organizations (NGOs) involved in efforts such as these. For example, Witness ( gives video cameras and photographic equipment to victims of government abuse and civil strife and asks them to document their experiences. These are then shared via the World Wide Web so that other can witness what is happening.

Most recent to emerge is postmodern criminology. An eclectic approach is taken as can be seen by topics covered in the Red Feather Journal:

bulletVol. 1: Introduction to Postmodern Criminology. 
bulletVol. 2: Non-Linear Dynamics in Criminology
bulletVol. 3: 16 Lectures on Marxist Criminology 
bulletVol. 4: Feminist Criminology
bulletVol. 5:  Dramaturgical Analysis in Prisons, Courts, Law-Making and Law Avoidance.  
bulletVol. 6: Virtual Criminology   Minor Criminologies.  
bulletVol. 7: Re-Mapping American Criminology
bulletVol. 8: Shameless Criminology

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This page was last modified November 22, 2005