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Criminology Class, Fall 1999

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: November 13, 1999
E-Mail Curran or Takata.

Summary and Notes on Quinney's Social Reality of Crime

This lecture corresponds to pp. 213-239 in Criminology Theory, edited by Williams III, and McShane, Anderson Publishing.

Quinney begins this piece with differentiating "static and dynamic interpretations of society": He contends that the static view, taken by most sociologists, focuses on the social structure as static and consensual. Quinney's own view is dynamic. By that he means that his theoretical perspective is based on emphasizing that social relations are built over time, and that they do not generally come of one-trial learning. Recall that Lemert in secondary deviance reminds of this same need to look at relationships as building over time.

Quinney is offering us another continuum as a tool for analysis, the static - dynamic continuum. Recall that we also use the positivist - postmodern continuum, the conflict - consensus continuum, the individual - society continuum, the individual freedom to succeed - collective action continuum, the person - infrastructure continuum, the individual as passive - active continuum.

Another facet of this dynamic interpretation Quinney advocates is his philosophy that man is active, not passive. This continuum is central also to Skinner's behavior modification, which assumes that man is passive, and reacts to reinforcement stimuli. Jerome S. Bruner, like Quinney, insists that man is active, has choices, makes choices, and is not nearly as controllable as behaviorism suggests.

Quinney relates this active nature of man to a tendency to struggle against control: "It is thus against something that the self can emerge." (at p. 216) We have long spoken of the adolescent need to rebel to establish that sense of self as independent. Quinney sees this social construction of both reality and identity as interdependent (a term we encounter repeatedly with Habermas, as well). This may help give a new meaning to the struggles some of you are having with Gergen and the social construction of identity.

The story of the white-footed mice (nag jeanne to put it up) shows that even creatures exhibit a need to control their own environment. The problem with using rats and psychology sophomores for research is that they never told us some of the rats just don't run, some of the psychology sophomores are devious and don't play fairly. Deviants, undoubtedly.

On p.217, Quinney says that crime is created. By that, he is referring to the social definition of crime, to the fact that the system of government we have created for ourselves was and is constructed by those who have titled authority and power. In creating the structure they protect their own privilege. Those who are rewarded with titled places in the structure also protect those privileges for they aspire to their share in them. Those who are hired into the agencies and institutions of the system gain higher authority and title, as well as some form of sharing in the profits, by following the agenda of the system. It's a little like everyone owning a "piece of the rock." The owner class may have more than the others, but each is a stake holder to a small extent.

Those who are not stakeholders are what Spitzer calls the "relative surplus-population" (at p. 231) and what Williams III and McShane call "social junk." (at p. 207) These are the expendable workers whose skills can be replaced by exploiting new global pockets of unskilled labor. This population of workers, including those in present day society who are under-employed and do not receive benefits, has few ties to those in power, and they have little solidarity left after the technological displacements of families, as jobs moved with little concern in the last few decades as to how or where workers would relocate. In the early 20th Century there were identifiable pockets of workers. (Zone theory grew from the movement of factories and workers ever outward to the suburbs.) But as we moved to electronic and mass communication there was no longer any restraint on corporations. The surplus labor population had grown extensively, global labor markets opened, and communication moved at electronic speeds. This has unalterably affected both soldarity and power.

Since the definitions of crime are enacted by those in power, this ever widening gap in power as well as income, puts even more power in the hands of the defining group. Not only that, but the criminal laws and regulations have been in effect now for a long enough time that they seem to just be there as a normative consensus. The original source of the definitions of deviance and crime are long forgotten. We no longer think to look for the unstated assumptions, for the injustices. The laws have come to feel "right."

Quinney further reminds us that the definition of criminal accompanies more accurately our reaction to the behavior than does the behavior itself. If an A student is late turning in his paper, but he is always thorough, and on time, that lateness may be overlooked. But if a D student, who is often sloppy, not so accurate in his answers, and often late, turns in his paper late, we are more likely to react to that as one more offense on the D student's part. Each student engaged in the same behavior. Yet our reaction labelled one student's behavior more negative and more egregious than the other's.

To the extent that we are willing to label the D student, to ignore the role our reaction plays in the growing patterns of behavior, we are condemning the D student to that relative surplus population of which Spitzer speaks. We are categorizing the D student as one who will be alienated from the defining and controlling group. The D student does have the power, to the extent that we believe that man is active, to resist that categorization, to get his work in on time, to gain a little power. But, as Spitzer reminds us, the capitalist system relies on surplus labor power. Some such pattern is inevitable, unless we alter the system.