Special Reports

Crime and society

NOT a single day passes without us wondering why there is so much news of violence. We often ask ourselves whether there is actually as much crime as is being reported or if the media is, in fact, underreporting crime.

The larger questions focus on whether a person is born with criminal instincts or if offences are linked to learnt behaviour.

This philosophical questioning of the 19th century brought the evolution of the human brain into greater focus and inspired biologists, physiologists and medical scientists in the 20th century. Further exploration of the human mind in the new millennium has made it impossible for us not to look beyond the crime itself and decode the thought process. Which brings us to sociology — an inseparable part of criminology as one examines the role of society in shaping behaviour.

Society often overlooks its own culpability.

In societal studies, social control is the domain of both the individual and the larger society. At the level of the individual, family ties and belief in a basic value system help maintain a balanced personality — which is reinforced if society shares a preference for values, disseminated through schools, religious practices, social gatherings and, most importantly, the media.

Sociological theories imply that society ‘constructs’ criminality. Thus, while certain types of human activity might be considered harmful to society, the latter may see criminal activity that injures the individual, such as drug abuse, gambling etc, as ‘victimless crimes’, which are perceived as a loss of individual self-control.

Unfortunately, there is tendency to gloss over society’s own culpability. Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory suggests that the commission of a crime is the result of learned behaviour ie through association. In society, shared values, cultural practices and attitudes are part of learned knowledge which motivates the behaviour of individuals. The more a person sees delinquent acts not being criticised by his or her community, the greater the chance of such actions being repeated. Society may condone certain types of criminal conduct, even justify crime under certain circumstances, thus reinforcing criminal behaviour. We have seen this in the case of gender-based violence, especially ‘honour killings’ where a patriarchal culture sets rules that condone such murder, thus making it harder to control. Similarly, rash and obdurate attitudes displayed by people clashing over petty issues is also reported often to the police. Such feuds usually start with the exchange of abusive language; people generally appreciate this reaction to vilification and indirect slurs against someone’s family members.

While social factors like poverty and inequality trigger criminal actions such as street crime, tribal traditions, clan systems and parochial prejudices are also breeding grounds for misdeeds. Unlawful and unethical decisions made by panchayats and jirgas are examples. A man of position and repute will not engage with the thana katchery when it comes to family feuds as he prefers to approach a jirga for redress. However, a majority of such cases are ultimately reported to the police after the complainants are further victimised by jirgas. Forced marriages, illegal gratifications, unlawful exchanges of women and illegitimate settlements ordered by jirgas result in crime like murder, rape, suicide, cattle theft and land grabbing.

Research has shown that poor education is responsible for much of the intolerance we see; it predisposes people to criminal behaviour. However, more education means a greater willingness to abide by the laws. Age and gender become relevant factors when peer pressure causes youngsters to commit crimes or take their own lives. It has also been noted that areas with greater population densities offer more opportunities for criminal activity as observed in large cities. Hence, social disorganisation becomes part of a vicious cycle along with criminal activity.

Since societal factors play an active role in defining and shaping thought patterns and actions, it becomes our social responsibility to find remedies for criminal actions. Here, the importance of schools and colleges cannot be overlooked. Educational institutes must play their part in training healthy, unprejudiced and liberated minds by inculcating shared values and reinforcing belief systems. It is a misperception that globalisation and progress translate into the dilution of value systems; the latter are rather a means by which educational institutes can sift right from wrong. Teachers through textbooks can do so by teaching children and older students to abandon damaging norms and hold tight to good ones.

Last but not least, the electronic media is an effective vehicle for creating awareness about the strengths and weaknesses of our behaviour as a society. It has already shown its power to influence the conversation in the country; it now needs to play a responsible role as it puts up a mirror to society. Mere re-enactments of crime scenes sensationalise matters rather than produce thoughtful discourse. This must change if the idea is to mould opinion and reform criminal behaviour.

By: Maria Taimur, This article was originally published in Daily Dawn. (AD-Ah)

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