This section is meant to be what academics would call a ‘critical literature review’, ‘state of the field’, ‘theoretical frame’, or some other similar jargon. Really, it will outline the thinkers and ideas I have used throughout my work, including the current investigation. As such, it is likely that this section will be updated regularly. Additionally, I will update all documents with references to my bibliography as soon as possible. For now, I begin with a brief overview of what to expect from this section.
First I discuss the theoretical frames that I believe are best suited to investigating this case, how they overlap, and their interdependent application. Here I also discuss the specific conceptual components that best apply in this context and describe the ways in which these concepts are best instrumentalized towards a proper investigation of webs of actors and entities like those characterizing this case. In a later discussion I clarify the utility of a multi-modal theoretical approach.
Dynamic Social Networks
Colloquially, the concept of social networks is nothing new nor surprising to most people. My past and current work focuses on a social psychological approach; meaning the ways in which they are socially organized, the ways in which they are perceived by constituent individuals, and the ways in which these networks affect and are affected by these individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is an expansive literature – both academically and professionally – and far-reaching through myriad practices. Emergent ideas and practices with respect to social networks that are most relevant to this case integrate: psychological explanations for motivation, emotional contagion, goal achievement, and internalized role perceptions at an interpersonal level of analysis; with organizational psychology, including conflict resolution, social media interface, network theory, social identity, and identity politics at a structural level of analysis.
This may sound complex, so let’s break it down. Social networks are the result of bridges built between individuals. As individuals, we are motivated to build these connections based on a variety of factors. Some of these factors are positive like the very human desire to belong, the inherent need for security, or the pursuit of a personal goal. Others are negative, such as the desire to control other people for personal gain, any form of violence whether manifest or imaginary, and any arbitrarily chosen form of discrimination. Of course, this is a very crude summary insofar as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are generally accepted as subjective terms. In the case of the present work, they are defined in terms of biopolitical ethics, or the ways in which power is exercised over life to either cultivate or degrade it. A central feature of a dynamic social network approach demands diligently measuring ‘contagion’ and ‘diffusion’, or the ways in which motivations, emotions, and internalized role perspectives are transmitted to or obstructed by others and the ways in which these processes exercise biopower. In sum, on an interpersonal level of analysis, dynamic social network theory accounts for individual motivations, the psychological and emotional thrust behind individual action, and the impact and ramifications of these actions on other individuals.
Having provided an adequate summary of how dynamic social network theory applies on an interpersonal level of analysis, I now move to a structural level of analysis. I believe that the best place to begin is with recent innovations in organizational/group psychology. Much of the emerging knowledges and practices in this area focus on ideologically-based homophily, which is the tendency for groups to associate with those who are considered similar to them. This tendency is affected by political avoidance norms and perceived group position, which are interrelated. The strength of the relationship between them is moderated by a few key factors, which include proximity, distribution of resources, accessibility to claims-making processes, and available historical and cultural repertoires for sociopolitical strategizing. At the structural level, dynamic social network theory provides purchase on understanding how common interests and consequent collective action are established, maintained, resisted, or altogether obstructed.
Social Identity and Identity Politics
Broadly understood, social identity theory provides an understanding of the ways in which individuals internalize and transmit group norms and interests, particularly in terms of intergroup conflict. In this context, conflict refers to any competition over resources or a group’s position relative to other groups socially, economically, politically, and so forth. Within this frame, resources are understood broadly as whatever sustains individuals, groups, or interactions. A social identity is thus understood in terms of how members of opposing groups tend to behave towards each other as a function of their respective group memberships rather than because of individual characteristics or personal relationships. This serves a function of establishing and maintaining boundaries between groups and their access to and control over resources. The hierarchy or prioritization of social identities depends largely on the intensity of intergroup competition, real or perceived. In sum, this broad collection of theories asserts that individuals tend to identify themselves based on group membership and classification processes and, by proxy, in terms of perceived opposition to some other group(s).
Closely related to social identity, identity politics refers to the ways in which exponentially increasing identity classifications are politicized for myriad purposes. Problematically, these classifications can be subjectively generated, objectively acquired, or any mix of the two. This is a problem because it further muddies shared consensus on the meanings behind human status characteristics, whether that be race, ethnicity, gender, sex, and so forth. The politicization of aspects of identity refers to how individuals and groups mobilize a shared status characteristic for political purposes, such as inspiring collective action to achieve what is perceived to be a shared political objective. Examples are legion, from MLK and the civil rights movement to radical feminist gender ideologues and the reaction to the ruling over Roe v Wade on June 24th, 2022. Identity politics are not inherently bad or good. Like anything political, this depends on those who hold and wield political power. Whereas identity politics once had utility to mobilize disenfranchised black populations during the Civil Rights era, its utility degrades with each subjective and largely arbitrary innovation in identification. That is, for identity to have any utility it must be abstracted from subjective lived experience and applied to and through individuals in terms of the broader social structure within which he or she is entrenched. In sum, identity politics refers to the ways in which individuals utilize one or more status characteristics towards social cohesion or collective action, usually aimed towards claims-making processes with the eventual goal of affecting public policy. Contrastingly, it can also refer to the ways in which those with a monopoly on power use classification and categorization systems to divide, deflate, and dismiss relevant social movements.
Differential Association, Identification, and Opportunity
Numerous criminological theories would serve great utility in this case. I chose those theories that I believe are the most pertinent and that have also proven to be the most enduring to critique and empirical reformation. Each of these frameworks focus on identifying the differences between how individuals and groups perceive, engage in, and respond to criminality. Much like how a hypothesis is supported through processes of attempted falsification, by identifying the ways in which perceptions of, engagement in, and responses to criminality are different, we can gain better purchase on the similarities between and within groups and individuals.
The first seminal criminological framework I present is differential association theory, which asserts that criminality is learned through ritualized interactions with others during processes of communication. Within this interface, actors observe and exchange definitions that are favorable to violation of the Law, techniques of law violation, rationalities for behavior, and so forth. According to this theory, the likelihood that an individual or group will engage in criminal activity largely depends on the quality and quantity of the content of these criminal exchanges and how these weigh against actors’ existing repertoire of definitions and techniques that are favorable to abiding by law. This brilliant social psychological theory was brought forward as a powerful alternative to the popular yet problematic psychiatric understanding of criminality and criminal association which largely identified such patterns of behavior as pathological, compulsive, and immutable to a certain ‘kind’ of person. I am certain, good reader, that I need not explain how this psychiatric reductionism is problematic other than to suggest how similar it sounds to the philosophy behind eugenics.
Differential association consists of numerous concepts and, in the name of refinement, more are added regularly. Most important to the present case, this framework addresses and measures individual-level motivation towards the pursuit of a goal that society has deemed to be criminal; what is notoriously known as “criminal intent”. Without the motivation to engage in criminal activity, an individual’s behavior would likely be considered ‘compulsive’, a notion that complicates legal accountability. Instead of looking at motivations in terms of psychiatric pathologization, differential association enables a view of how motivations toward criminal behavior are learned over time and, thus, even compulsive behaviors can be measured in terms of responsibility. That is, compulsive behaviors are never as ‘compulsive’ as they seem. As complex organisms, most aspects of our behavior are learned, even those that seem automatic or compulsive. Criminal behavior is no different. While it may be clear to most that differential association is a kind of ‘birds of a feather flock together’ approach that can be easily weaponized to target particular populations of people, that is a shallow take on the framework. In its entirety, differential association enables a clearer view of how neighborhoods and communities cultivate or regulate different kinds and quantities of criminality. In other words, it allows us to identify what communities are most likely to produce criminal behavior and to refine our understandings of the factors which contribute to or detract from criminogenesis.
Closely tied to differential association, this theoretical frame focuses on the above mentioned exchanges and interaction rituals that contribute to learning criminal behaviors. It is a more psychologically intensive theory that examines the symbols, roles, and identity content that actors exchange as well as how they are internalized, how this affects one’s mental schema, and how strongly these predict engagement in criminal behavior. Of primary interest to an investigation of this case is how differential identification points to what sociologists call a ‘reference group’, psychologists call the ‘super ego’, or what philosophers call a ‘theory of man’. In simple terms, it places focus on those broader groups to which an individual believes that he or she belongs and how this individual believes that group is viewed by broader society. From here, this perspective and the data gathered in its name allow a clearer view of how an increase in behaviors that violate the law are inversely associated with criminal acts against those reference groups to which an individual considers himself to belong. In simple terms, if you believe you belong to a certain group, then you are less likely to be motivated towards criminogenesis or criminal behavior directed towards that specific group.
Differential identification theory recognizes and measures: the effects of those with whom an individual identifies, the dominant subcultural or community-level legal and behavioral norms, the impacts of and response to role attribution and role-taking within and between these communities, and the degree to which a community expects compliance and the degree to which an individual will conform to those expectations. The most promising aspect of this frame is how it has increasingly divorced criminology from economic determinism. Instead of taking a purely structural sociological approach that would posit crime as a direct outcome of economic disparity, differential identification comes loaded with psychological understandings of processes through which human beings are conditioned. Rather than viewing criminal behavior as merely ‘role-playing’, we are instead provided a view of criminal behavior as the outcome of prior circumstances and consequent conditioning. What’s more, this theory accounts for how this constellation of precipitating factors interact with the individual’s current circumstances insofar as the salience of possible choices for any given moment is dictated by the effects of prior conditioning.
A great question for the contemporary moment as been about the differences between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. I personally believe that we have a right to the latter and that the former is an impossibility. This problem is primarily a structural one. Differential opportunity theory follows this vein. In my humble opinion, very few other criminological frameworks have as great a reach as this one, which posits that deviance and criminogenesis are a product of differences in access to opportunities to gain status, capital, resources, comfort, security, and so forth. Whereas a deviant or criminal status must indeed be achieved like any other social or political status, the context for these achievements must be understood as one of political and economic conflict. That is…
Having adequately summarized the theoretical frameworks I employ in this investigation, dearest reader, I ask that you turn to my methodology.
Coming soon: Updates on theories of Identity Control and Affect Control.