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Crime as Social Control
Author(s): Donald Black
Source: American Sociological Review, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Feb., 1983), pp. 34-45
Published by: American Sociological Association
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CRIME AS SOCIAL CONTROL*
DONALD BLACK
Harvard Law School
The sociological theory of social control predicts and explains how people define and
respond to deviant behavior. One kind of social control is known as self-help: the
expression of a grievance by unilateral aggression such as personal violence or
property destruction. It is commonly believed that self-help was largely displaced by
law in the Western world during the Middle Ages, and that it has survived primarily
studied by anthropologists. In fact,
in the traditional-especially stateless-societies
much of the conduct classified as crime in modern societies such as the United States
is similar to these traditional modes of social control and may properly’ be
understood as self-help. Several implications follow, including the possibility of
predicting and explaining a significant amount of crime with a sociological theory of
self-help, itself a branch of the theory of social control.
There is a sense in which conduct regardedas
criminalis often quite the opposite. Far from
being an intentionalviolation of a prohibition,
much crime is moralisticand involves the pursuit of justice. It is a mode of conflict management, possibly a form of punishment, even
capitalpunishment.Viewed in relationto law,
it is self-help. To the degree that it defines or
respondsto the conduct of someone else-the
victim-as deviant, crime is social control.’
And to this degree it is possible to predictand
explain crime with aspects of the sociological
theory of social control, in particular, the
theory of self-help.2After an overview of self* Direct all correspondence to: Donald Black,
Center for Criminal Justice, Harvard Law School,
Cambridge, MA 02138.
Support for this work was provided by the Program in Law and Social Science of the. National
Science Foundation. A number of people made
helpful comments on an earlier draft: M. P. Baumgartner, John L. Comaroff, Mark Cooney, Jack P.
Gibbs, Richard 0. Lempert, Craig B. Little, Sally
Engle Merry, Alden D. Miller, Calvin K. Morrill,
Trevor W. Nagel, Lloyd E. Ohlin, and Alan Stone.
A longer version of this paper will appear in
Toward a General Theory of Social Control, edited
by Donald Black (New York: Academic Press,
1983).
1 The concept of social control employed here reany process
fers specifically-and exclusively-to
by which people define or respond to deviant behavior (Black, 1976:105). This is a broad category
that includes such diverse phenomena as a frown or
scowl, a scolding or reprimand, an expulsion from an
organization, an arrest or lawsuit, a prison sentence,
commitment to a mental hospital, a riot, or a military
reprisal. But this concept entails no assumptions or
implications concerning the impact of social control
upon conformity, social order, or anything else, nor
does it address the subjective meanings of social
control for those who exercise or experience it.
2 For these purposes, self-help refers to the expression of a grievance by unilateral aggression. It is
34
help in traditionaland modern settings, the
followingpages brieflyexamine in turnthe socalled strugglebetween law and self-help, the
deterrenceof crime, the processingof self-help
by legal officials, and, finally, the problemof
predictingand explaining self-help itself.
TRADITIONALSELF-HELP
Much of the conduct described by anthropologists as conflict management, social
control, or even law in tribal and other
traditional societies is regarded as crime in
modernsocieties. This is especially clear in the
case of violent modes of redress such as assassination, feuding, fighting, maiming,and beating, but it also applies to the confiscation and
destructionof property and to other forms of
deprivationand humiliation.Such actions typically express a grievance by one person or
group against another (see Moore,
1972:67-72). Thus, one anthropologistnotes
that among the Bena Bena of highland New
Guinea, as among most tribes of that region,
“ratherthanbeing proscribed,violent self-help
is prescribed as a method of social control”
(Langness, 1972:182).3The same mightbe said
of numerous societies throughoutthe world.
On the other hand, violence is quite rare in
manytraditionalsocieties, and at least some of
thus distinguishable from social control through third
parties such as police officers or judges and from
avoidance behavior such as desertion and divorce.
(This conception of self-help derives from work in
progress with M. P. Baumgartner.)
I Illustrations of traditional self-help are given
here in the present tense (known as the “ethnographic present” in anthropology), though many of
the practices to be surveyed have changed
considerably-if not disappeared altogether-since
they were originally observed.
American Sociological Review 1983, Vol. 48 (February:34-45)
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35
CRIME AS SOCIAL CONTROL
it is condemned in all. What follows is not
intended as a representativeoverview, then,
since only the more violent societies and
modes of self-help are illustrated. First consider homicide.
In one communityof MayaIndiansin southern Mexico, for example, any individualkilled
fromambushis automaticallylabelled”the one
who had the guilt.” Everyoneassumes that the
deceased individual provoked his own death
through an act of wrongdoing:”Homicide is
considered a reaction to crime, not a crime in
itself’ (Nash, 1967:456).Similarly,it has been
observedthat in a numberof equatorialAfrican
societies homicide is rarely predatorycommitted for gain-but is nearly always related to a grievance or quarrelof some kind
(Bohannan, 1960:256). The Eskimos of the
AmericanArctic also kill people in response to
various offenses, including adultery, insult,
and simply being a nuisance (see Hoebel,
1954:83-88;van den Steenhoven, 1962:Ch. 4);
and, to mention still another example, the
Ifugao of the Philippineshold that any “selfrespectingman” must kill an adultererdiscovered in flagrante
delicto
(Barton,
[1919]
Hoebel, 1941:202-210). Everywhere, however, it appears that most violence is inflicted
upon men by other men.
Propertydestructionmay also be a mode of
social control. An extreme form is house
burning,a practicequitefrequent,for example,
in parts of East Africa (Edgerton, 1972:164).
Animals, gardens, or other propertymight be
destroyedas well. Amongthe Cheyenneof the
AmericanPlains, a man’shorse mightbe killed
(Llewellyn and Hoebel, 1941:117), and in
northernAlbania, a dog might be killed (Hasluck, 1954:76-78). In one case in Lebanon
(later punishedas a crime), an aggrieved man
cut the branchesoff his adversary’swalnuttree
(Rothenberger, 1978:169).Among the Qolla,
crops are sometimes damaged as a punishment, such as “when a man methodically up-
roots his enemy’s potato plants before they
have producedany tubers”(Bolton, 1973:234).
Netsilik Eskimos may subtly encourage their
childrento destroy an offender’scache of food,
so that what appears to be mischief or vandalismmay actuallybe a carefullyorchestrated
act of revenge (van den Steenhoven, 1962:74).
Propertymay also be confiscated as a form
of social control, so that what might at first
appear to a modern observer as unprovoked
theft or burglaryproves in many cases to be a
response to the misconduct of the victim.
Among the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire, for instance, a seeming theft may be recognized by
all as an “unofficialsanction”againsta person
who has incurred”publicdisapprovalfor some
reason or another” (Turnbull, 1965:199).
Amongthe Qolla, the moralisticcharacterof a
theft is especially clear “whenthe object stolen
has no value to the thief’ (Bolton, 1973:233).
Lastly, it mightbe noted that wherewomen are
regarded as the property of their fathers or
husbands, rape may provide a means of retaliation againsta man. This seems to have been
involved in some of the gang rapes recordedas
crimes in fourteenth-century England, for
example, where even a widow might be attacked by a group of men as an act of revenge
against her deceased husband (Hanawalt,
1979:109,153). In some cases, then, rape may
be construed as another kind of confiscation.
1969:66-70). Societies such as these have, in
effect, capital punishment administeredon a
private basis. But unlike penalties imposed by
the state, privateexecutions often result in revenge or even a feud, a reciprocalexchange of
violence that might last months or years (see,
e.g., Otterbein and Otterbein, 1965; Rieder,
1973). Moreover, the person killed in retaliation may not be himselfor herselfa killer, since
in these societies violent conflicts between
nonkin are virtually always handled in a
framework of collective responsibility-or,
more precisely, collective liability-whereby
all members of a family or other group are
accountable for the conduct of their fellows
(see, e.g., Moore, 1972).
Violence of other kinds also expresses a
grievance in most instances. Among the
Yanomamo of Venezuela and Brazil, for
example, women are routinely subjected to
corporalpunishmentby theirhusbands:”Most
reprimandsmeted out by irate husbands take
the formof blows with the handor with a piece
of firewood, but a good many husbands are
even more brutal”(Chagnon, 1977:82-83). In MODERN SELF-HELP
parts of East Africa, “Husbandsoften assault
their wives, sometimes with a slap, sometimes A great deal of the conduct labelled and prowith a fist, a foot, or a stick” (Edgerton, cessed as crime in modem societies resembles
1972:164);and amongthe Qolla of Peru, a hus- the modes of conflict management-described
band may beat his wife “when her behavior above-that are found in traditionalsocieties
warrantsit,” such as when she is “lazy” or which have little or no law (in the sense of
social control-Black,
“runs around with other men” (Bolton and governmental
Bolton, 1973:64). Another punishment for 1972:1096).Muchof this conduct is intendedas
women in some societies is rape by a group of a punishment or other expression of disapmen, or “gang rape” (e.g., Llewellyn and proval, whether applied reflectively or impul-
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36
AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICALREVIEW
sively, with coolness or in the heat of passion.
Some is an effort to achieve compensation,or
restitution,for a harmthat has been done. The
response may occur long after the offense,
perhaps weeks, months, or even years later;
aftera series of offenses, each viewed singly as
only a minor aggravationbut together viewed
as intolerable;or as an immediateresponse to
the offense, perhaps during a fight or other
conflict, or after an assault, theft, insult, or
injury.
As in tribal and other traditionalsocieties,
for example, most intentional homicide in
modern life is a response to conduct that the
killer regards as deviant. In Houston during
1969, for instance, over one-half of the
homicides occurred in the course of a “quarrel,’ and another one-fourth occurred in alleged “self-defense” or were “provoked,”
whereasonly a little over one-tenthoccurredin
the course of predatorybehaviorsuch as burfrom
glary or robbery (calculated
Lundsgaarde, 1977:237; see also Wolfgang,
[1958] 1966: Ch. 10). Homicide is often a response to adulteryor other mattersrelatingto
sex, love, or loyalty, to disputesabout domestic matters (financialaffairs, drinking,housekeeping) or affronts to honor, to conflicts relating to debts, property, and child custody,
and to other questions of right and wrong.
Cases mentionedin the Houston study include
one in which a young man killed his brother
during a heated discussion about the latter’s
sexual advances toward his younger sisters,
anotherin which a mankilled his wife after she
“dared”him to do so duringan argumentabout
which of several bills they should pay, one
where a women killed her husband during a
quarrelin which the man struck her daughter
(his stepdaughter), one in which a woman
killed her 21-year-oldson because he had been
“foolingaroundwith homosexualsand drugs,”
and two others in which people died from
wounds inflicted during altercations over the
parkingof an automobile(Lundsgaarde,1977).
Like the killings in traditional societies described by anthropologists,then, most intentional homicide in modern society may be
classified as social control, specifically as
self-help, even if it is handledby legal officials
as crime.4From this standpoint,it is apparent
Crimes of self-help may be distinguished from
other categories of conduct regarded as criminal,
such as certain kinds of economic behavior (e.g.,
predatory robbery and the selling of illicit goods and
services) and recreation (e.g., gambling and underage drinking of alcoholic beverages). This is not to
deny that some crime is multidimensional; for instance, an incident might be both moralistic and
predatory at the same time, as when someone is
killed in a quarrel but then robbed as well.
4
that capital punishment is quite common in
modernAmerica-in Texas, homicideis one of
the ten leading causes of death-though it is
nearly always a private rather than a public
affair.
Most conduct that a lawyer would label as
assault may also be understoodas self-help. In
the vast majorityof cases the people involved
know one another, usually quite intimately,
and the physical attack arises in the context of
a grievance or quarrel (see, e.g., Vera Institute, 1977:23-42). Commonly the assault is a
punishment,such as when a husbandbeats or
otherwise injureshis wife because she has not
lived up to his expectations. In one case that
came to the attention of the police in Boston,
for example, a woman complained that her
husband had beaten her because supper was
not ready when he came home from work
(Black, 1980:161), a state of affairs, incidentally, which might have been the woman’s
own way of expressingdisapprovalof her husband (see Baumgartner, 1983: forthcoming).
Otherstandardsare enforced violently as well.
In one instancethat occurredin a majornortheastern city and that apparentlywas not reportedto the police, a young woman’sbrothers
attacked and beat her boyfriend “for making
her a drugaddict,”and in anothera young man
was stabbedfor cooperatingwith the police in
a burglary investigation (Merry, 1981:158,
180-181). In a case in Washington,D.C., that
resultedin an arrest, a boy shot his gang leader
for taking more than his proper share of the
proceeds from a burglary(Allen, 1977:40-43).
Years later, the same individualshot someone
who had been terrorizing young womenincluding the avenger’s girlfriend-in his
neighborhood. Though he pleaded guilty to
assault with a deadly weapon”and was committedto a reformatory,not surprisinglyhe described himself as “completely right” and his
victim as “completely wrong” (Allen,
1977:62-66, 69-70).
Indigenous people arrested for violence in
colonial societies are likely to have a similar
point of view: They may be proudof what they
have done and admit it quite openly, even
while they are being prosecutedas criminalsby
the foreignauthorities.5Those apprehendedin
This reportedly applied, for example, to the Nuer
of the Sudan when they lived under British rule:
I have been told by [a British] officer with wide
experience of Africans that Nuer defendants are
remarkable in that they very seldom lie in cases
brought before Government tribunals. They have
no need to, since they are only anxious to justify
the damage they have caused by showing that it is
retaliation for damage the plaintiff has inflicted
earlier. (Evans-Pritchard, 1940:171-72)
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CRIME AS SOCIAL CONTROL
Europe for the crime of duelling-also a
method of conflict resolution-have typically
lacked remorse for the same reasons (see
Pitt-Rivers,1966:29-31).Thus, when asked by
a priest to pray for forgiveness before being
hangedfor killinga manwith a sword, one such
offenderin Franceexclaimed,”Do you call one
of the cleverest thrusts in Gascony a crime?”
(Baldick, 1965:62).As in duelling, moreover,
violence in modern societies is often prescribed by a code of honor. He who shrinks
from it is disgraced as a coward (see, e.g.,
Werthman, 1969; Horowitz and Schwartz,
1974).
Many crimes involving the confiscation or
destruction of property also prove to have a
normativecharacterwhen the facts come fully
to light. There are, for example, moralistic
burglaries, thefts, and robberies. Over onethird of the burglariesin New York City resulting in arrest involve people with a prior
relationship (Vera Institute, 1977:82), and
these not infrequentlyexpress a grievance the
burglarhas againsthis victim. In one such case
handled by the Boston police, for instance, a
woman who had been informedby a neighbor
complainedthat while she was away “her estranged husband had entered her apartment,
wrecked it, loaded all of her clothes into his
car, and driven away, presumablyheaded for
his new home several hundred miles away”
(Black, 1980:115).Though the specific nature
of this man’s grievance was not mentioned, it
seems apparentthat his actions were punitive
to some degree, and surely his estrangedwife
understoodthis as well. In a case in New York
City, one resultingin two arrestsfor burglary,
two black women barged into the home of an
elderly white woman at midnightto confront
her because earlier in the day she had remonstrated with their children for throwing
rocks at her window (Vera Institute, 1977:88).
A crime may also be committedagainsta particularindividualto express the disapprovalof
a largernumberof people, such as a neighborhood or community, as is illustrated by the
report of a former burglarwho notes in his
autobiography that early in his career he
selected his victims partly on moralistic
grounds:
We always tried to get the dude that the
neighbors didn’t like too much or the guy
that was hardon the people who lived in the
neighborhood…. I like to thinkthat all the
places we robbed, that we broke into, was
kindof like the bad guys. (Allen, 1977:39-40)
It shouldbe clear, however, that the victims of
moralistic crime may be entirely unaware of
why they have been selected, especially when
the offender is unknown. Such crimes may
37
therefore be understoodas secret social control (compare Becker, 1963:20).
Another possible mode of self-help is robbery, or theft involvingviolence. Thus, in New
York City, where over one-thirdof the people
arrestedfor robberyare acquaintedwith their
victims, the crime often arises from a quarrel
over money (Vera Institute, 1977:65-71). In
one case, for example, a woman reportedthat
her sister and her sister’s boyfriendhad taken
her purse and $40 after assaulting her and
threateningto kill her baby, but she later explained that this had arisen from a misunderstanding: The boyfriend wanted reimbursementfor a baby carriagethat he had b …
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