Why is there a relationship between social class and crime?

What is the relationship between social class and crime?


  • Most early theories of crime were based on the study of prisoners
  • Prisoners were, and still tend to be from working class backgrounds.
  • This has led to the perception of a link between class and crime which is widelt accepted.
  • However, class is difficult to define and whilst those who are convicted of crime tend to be working class, middle class people commit crime and some working class are not criminal.


As with all analyses of crime, the link between any particular social group and conviction rates is a more complex one than at first it seems. According to conviction rates, the working class are more criminal than other social classes, however this overlooks much more complicated questions of whether laws are biased against the working classes as Marxists claim, whether the link between class and crime is actually one of deprivation and poverty rather than their behaviour or whether in fact the working class simply commit the types of crimes that are likely to lead to conviction.

Early theorists of crime studied prisoners and generalised their conclusions from a study of those who had been convicted. Lombroso believed that criminals were a genetic throwback to earlier and primitive forms of humanity and set about listing characteristics that were genetic markers for criminal behaviour. Among the traits that he described as being signs of criminality were long arms, large hands and tattoos. Much of his work has been discredited both on scientific grounds because his evidence does not support his case. Also, because he was working on the assumption that all people in prison were criminals and those who are not imprisoned are not criminal. Interestingly, from the point of view of this topic, he also described characteristics of criminality that are based on social class; he was describing the physical characteristics of manual labourers of Italy in the C19th.

Much research into the C20th worked on the assumption that people in prison were typical of all criminals and as people in prison were overwhelmingly working class, that the working classes were the criminal classes. The link between the notion of the working class and criminality became understood and was not really challenged even by Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950) who coined the phrase 'white collar crime' to describe the criminal behaviour of the middle and professional classes.

Writers generally took one of three possible approaches to study the link between class and crime. They looked to see if crime increased during times of economic hardship, they looked at people in prison or they looked at working class areas of towns and cities to discover if reported crime rates were higher. In general, the evidence supported the view that crime is a working class activity. Functional writers such as Merton, Stan Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin all suggested that crime is linked to working class cultural values. Early Marxists such as Bonger also claimed that poor regions had higher crime rates, though Bonger was more concerned to prove that social inequality created a criminal class. Shaw and McKay looked at poor inner city areas of towns and linked poverty with social breakdown and criminality. However, class is a difficult term to operationalise and it is difficult to generalise about working class people in the way that these researchers have all done. Moreover, these contrasting views of crime all tended to overlook the point that many working class people are not criminal and that some middle class people certainly are seriously criminal.


  • 1. Explain Lombroso's theory of criminal behaviour
  • 2. Suggest reasons why Lombroso has been discredited in recent years.
  • 3. Who coined the term 'white collar crime'?
  • 4. How can the view that working class people are criminal be challenged?


  1. Social class - refers to identity which is derived from shared status or occupational background.
  2. White collar crime - the crime of the middle and professional classes
  3. Operationalise - describe something in terms that make it easy to measure
Last modified: Saturday, 6 October 2012, 5:56 PM