The Seductions of Crime Essay

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Academic criminology took notice when, in 1988, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), sociologist Jack Katz published  The Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attraction of Doing Evil. While reviews were not uniformly in agreement with the thesis and methods of the book, it was felt that Katz had made a major contribution to the way criminal acts are viewed. Especially positive were reactions from symbolic interactionists, labeling perspective advocates, and other critics of the state of research in the field. Katz took criminology to task for being singularly focused on statistics and background variables and for neglecting qualitative and more ethnographically oriented research. Moreover, he faulted the field for failing to focus on the meaning of the criminal act to the deviant actor and his or her cohorts. In general, Katz denied various forms of determinism in favor of a view that suggests that criminal and deviant acts serve highly significant moral, ethical, and sensual functions for the actor—functions that are even transcendent. The notion that crime and deviance might have a magical and extramundane function seems antithetical to positivistic criminology, and that is precisely Katz’s point.

Criminologists, he asserts, err when they do not listen to how the criminal actor frames his behavior for himself and for external audiences in favor of an overconcentration on statistical variables. Katz proposes to establish this “foreground” before proceeding to the “background,” or more familiar sociological variables when explaining crime. While criminologists acknowledge the validity of his overall critique they point to limitations of his own research with respect to his methods. That is, Katz used student questionnaires, biographies, autobiographies, and news accounts to arrive at his major points and to illustrate his arguments. That being said, to some qualitatively oriented criminologists this book, while not exactly a call to the barricades, represented an exciting validation for more  phenomenologically focused  research and analysis and a concomitant rejection of the seemingly inexorable domination of the field by more positivistic forms of analyses.

Forms of Deviance Explained

The book itself is a series of essays on various criminal behaviors  and explains the genesis of certain specific deviant worldviews. A chapter on “sneaky thrills” explains shoplifting as a transcendent act. That is, for the actor, getting away with the act is more important than the monetary value derived from the act itself. The actor must fix his or her mind on the fact of committing the act beforehand, fully focus on the act itself while in the midst of the act, and will experience a sense of euphoria on successful completion of the act—a “sneaky thrill.” Katz describes this in terms of “play” as it has a “ludic dimension.” In fact, other criminologists have used this process to explain the underlying rationale of mildly deviant transgressive forms of recreation. It is doubtful, however, that a junky or someone compelled to shoplift for a living experiences such a magical transformative experience.

In contrast to the mildly transgressive  shoplifter is the boldly offensive “badass.” The badass is tough, projects that toughness in many ways, is demonstratively alien in dress and self-presentation (“street styles”), and is mean. He is consciously removed from the quotidian struggle to attain middle-class respectability. In fact, in his life and persona he represents a conceptual critique and, indeed, a rejection of upward mobility and bourgeois nonviolence and reasonability. It is his unreasonableness and commitment to occasional violence that cements his badass status for through that violence he achieves a transcendence and “soulful chaos” that is at the very heart of his being. To carry out his project of creating and controlling chaos the badass uses various paraphernalia, such as firearms, razors, and knives, and is adorned with uniforms denoting thug status. Tattoos with antisocial themes have historically figured prominently in this mission. Badasses frequently coalesce in congregate groups forming what Katz calls “street elites.” Katz goes on to give examples of this behavior as manifest among young men transnationally.

Street elites, what  are popularly known  as gangs, adopt a badass-like posture of rejecting middle-class social forms in favor of structures that are oriented to their neighborhood and ethnic subculture. They see themselves as “aristocrats” and often adopt fanciful names like “the Dukes”  or “the  Savoys.” They almost  always adopt a mode of dress that sets them apart. This tendency may manifest itself in truly bizarre styles that look clownish and ridiculous to the culture at large. To use a contemporary example, pants among gang members are generally worn very low, caps are worn with the brims to the side or backward, and a professional team athletic gear completes the look. Due in part to the sheer seeming ludicrousness of the look and pretentiousness of the gang’s name, members are virtually forced to be “mean” in order to enforce a modicum of fear and respect within their area of operation. Like the badass, the collectivity of the gang generates and enforces “dread” but on a larger scale. Gang members derive a certain élan from their association with symbols and tools that signify dread and chaos. And according to Katz, it is the gangs that keep the neighborhoods in fear and in a state of chaos and disintegration; it is not the disintegrated neighborhood that gives rise to gangs, per se.

Stickup  artists  also  derive  enjoyment  from putting their victims through a terrifying ordeal. The fact that  armed  robbers  derive relatively scant monetary rewards from their crimes seems to support the idea that the experience of exerting moral control over victims and moving into a formal declaration of deviance, that is, “this is a stickup,” constitutes transcending the rules of society and even reason itself. This situation of establishing “subjective moral dominance” is enhanced when they are able to force or otherwise coerce victims into following their instructions, or indeed, their whims. They also derive substantial satisfaction from a hedonistic lifestyle involving freely spending their ill-gotten gains on wine, women, and gambling. Being a stickup man enhances  one’s status among peers and allows one freer access to women on the corner or on the street. A “hardman” can also serve as a role model for younger men in the neighborhood.

Katz also elaborates on “righteous slaughter,” which he suggests results from humiliation (almost always of a male) being manifested in rage and finally culminating in a “sacrificial” homicide. The initial rage may be occasioned by sexual infidelity, or some other challenge to the offender’s sense of his own appropriateness, morality, and internal integrity. In fact, Katz says, the criminal act that follows represents  the offender’s “last  stand in defense of his personal worth.” The victim is seen by the perpetrator as the “cause” of the violence, hence, deserving of punishment, therefore the slaughter is “righteous.” The victim at some level is seen by the killer as deserving of his fate, and the killer sees himself as enforcing rules of society or of cultural or sexual etiquette. In contrast to this is the cold-blooded murderer who sees himself as “beyond good or evil” in a Nietzschean sense and is therefore  inspired  by his own transcendental sense of moral license. In contrast to the  “righteous slaughterer” this is a thankfully rare dynamic and is not well developed by the author. However,  it should  be noted  that  what  might clearly seem to be an obvious case of cold-blooded murder in the course of an armed robbery might be more appropriately considered as a “righteous slaughter.” This occurs when a victim resists, thus challenging the “moral authority” and dominance of the robber.

Conclusion

The goal of Seductions of Crime is to explain just what “seductions,” that is, attractions, inhere in doing evil. In general, all the forms of deviance that Katz elucidate involve emotional processes that  lead to violence or transgressive  behavior and, finally, to transcendence of the mundane. That means that criminals create a moral and ethical dynamic in which their emotional and sensual satisfaction is the primary concern. They are only secondarily victims of any sort of sociological, economical, cultural, or psychological determinism. Criminology needs to hear what they are saying; that requires listening in a manner not preordained by adherence to research gained entirely from quantitative sources.

Bibliography:

  1. Andersen, Elijah. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
  2. Ferrell, J. “Making Sense of Crime: A Review Essay on Jack Katz’s Seductions of Crime.” Social Justice, v.19/3 (1992). http://www.jstor.org/stable/29766697 (Accessed January 2013).
  3. Goode, E. “Crime Can Be Fun: The Deviant Experience.” Contemporary Sociology, v.19/1 (1990). http://www.jstor.org/stable/2073419 (Accessed January 2013).
  4. Groves, W. Byron and Michael J. Lynch. “Reconciling Structural and Subjective Approaches to the Study of Crime.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, v.27/4 (1990) .
  5. Hayward, Keith and Mike Presdee, eds. Framing Crime: Cultural Criminology and the Image. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  6. Katz, J. The Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attraction of Doing Evil. New York: Basic, 1988.
  7. Turk, A. “Seductions of Criminology: Katz on Magical Meanness and Other Distractions” Law and Social Inquiry, v.16/1 (1991).

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