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Old Wine in New Bottles (or 'ho hum Public Health')

I hate to break it to you, but ... the promotion of the new approach to violence which sees crime as the result series of social risk factors ('determinants') - that is, the much vaunted 'public health' approach - is actually based on ideas that have been around for decades.

A long, long time ago, sociologists began using population-based and clinical (or qualitative) techniques to study the connections between socioeconomic status, life chances, personal factors, where you live, the people in your social networks, etc., etc. to trace individual and group entry into delinquency, criminal careers and so on. This research blossomed in the late 1930s through the 1950s, as a result of the pioneering efforts of a group of researchers known as the "Chicago School." Here's 3 of the big ones:


William F. Whyte:

Conducted field-based research in Boston, which led to the

creation of one of the early masterpieces of urban gang research:

Street Corner Society. What Whyte did was spend about 3 years

living in and studying a "slum" whose residents were primarily

Italian immigrants. His observations as to how and why young

men chose the routes they did to succeed - whether through

education or street life - helped shape future research into gang


Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay:

These urban sociologists are pioneers of crime mapping. Using the addresses of juveniles referred to the local court system, they discovered the 'law of crime concentration', showing that crime is not equally dispersed throughout a city, but tends to be concentrated in particular neighbourhoods. They then looked at the socioeconomic status of not only these neighbourhoods, but also those with lower juvenile crime rates, and argued that crime was likely the result of social determinants - including lack of access to quality education and decent-paying jobs - and not individual factors. They argued that neighbourhoods where economic disadvantage is rife could be seen as "socially disorganized", because they also lack the types of formal and informal social controls that might help to stabilize the area (such as strong family bonds, churches, community groups and so on).

Robert K. Merton

Merton is a God of Criminology. I do not say this lightly. Merton is, among other notable contributions, the father of strain theory (aka opportunity theory). What is this, you ask? The other of social determinant arguments. In short form, Merton's work looked at how social structures - in particular, the lack of individual ability to access opportunities - blocks people from achieving mainstream success. To illustrate, take a look at who typically goes to ivy league schools and what the success rates are for those individuals. If you look at, for example, the year JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon graduated from Harvard Business School, you will see a cluster of incredibly wealthy and successful people. Where does Dimon come from? Not accidentally, although a third generation immigrant himself, his is a family of bankers and stockbrokers. Now, let's look at the opportunities available to the typical non-white immigrant whose family weren't stockbrokers and who do not have the means to go anywhere but community college ... I think you start to catch my drift.

Here's what Merton said, capitalist societies measure success based on $$$ and we inculcate that "American Dream" in every generation. So, if your ability to use legitimate means to become super-wealthy is blocked because of your station in life, you're going to find other (illegitimate means) to get ahead or drop out of the rate race. Hence, the attraction for many of street life*.


This isn't some academic squabble, by the way. I'm not trying to carve up territory and say, 'hey, this is criminology, we were here first, get out public health people.' No, instead what I'm saying is, "duh. We already know all of this stuff ... and that knowledge hasn't made one real bit of difference to public policy. So, good luck!"

Anyone remember a little something called "the War on Poverty"?** Anyone besides me remember the 1980s homeless crisis and Phil Collins' singing about "Another Day in Paradise"? More recently, how about 2009 and the after-effects of the partial market collapse? We've discovered and rediscovered social determinants over the past 80+ years and have yet to produce any significant, and lasting, public policy that works to address these factors. Why?

1. Truly tackling crime upstream requires a massive social engineering project aimed at addressing poverty, family breakdown, mental health, addiction and so on, that history provides strong evidence is not do-able or sustainable because ... [insert multiple reasons here]. History is instructive here: anyone know what happened to LBJ's War on Poverty?

2. In point of fact, successive provincial and federal governments have consistently downloaded responsibility onto municipalities, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals in order to avoid the substantial tax increases that a true re-engineering project would require to tackle poverty and other social ills. I don't see any government stepping up to ask you for more money to take on such initiatives. See point #1.

Three more things to consider before getting giddy over public health interventions:

- the state does not have a fantastic track record in relation to family-focused interventions. Here's something else we should remember: the 60s scoop of indigenous children. I think we need to be extra-cautious when well-intentioned middle class, white reformers want to intervene in the lives of the 'less fortunate', but have zero evidence as to what is actually effective or efficient in relation to such interventions. The road to hell, as they say ...

- public health based approaches require extensive surveillance of the population and information sharing across public domains. How else to identify who is potentially 'at risk?' What level of surveillance and intrusion are we willing to tolerate in our private affairs in the name of 'public order' and, more importantly, who gets to decide that?

- public health-related initiatives rely on the same social, health, education services that have already repeatedly failed 'at risk' individuals, families and communities. With no additional resources - funding, beds, clinical staff, improved access to quality education and better training - what do we reasonably expect to be the likely outcome in most cases? By the way, this approach to the public good presumes that social services are viewed as benevolent actors within marginalized communities. My own research, and decades of studies by other researchers, strongly suggests that would be a highly false assumption. In many instances, social welfare agencies are viewed solely as coercive arms of the state (see comment above about the 60s scoop as an example).

Crime is not, by the way, caused by any single factor, as a wealth of other early criminologists demonstrated, but by a highly complex web of individual and social factors - including pure chance. In short, if our relationship to crime and its prevention required a Facebook status, it would be "it's complicated." What this means is there are no magic bullets.

* For the sequel to opportunity theory, it's worth checking out Cloward and Ohlin's work on illegitimate opportunity theory. As I always tell my students, being a successful criminal is a job and someone has to show you how to do it (illegitimate opportunities!).

** Let's be clear: I wasn't alive in 1964 when Lyndon B. Johnson introduced this. But I do remember learning about this.


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