Cultural Rationality in Criminal Choice

The Criminal Statistics, England and Wales indicate that the majority of offenders are male and juvenile. Main-stream criminology has focused on male crime and has marginalised the existence of a ‘gender offender ratio’. To understand this phenomenon, the rationality of criminal decision making in female and male school children was examined at the peak age of female offending. The research programme involved examining the Criminal Statistics, England and Wales (1995); a self completion questionnaire survey and a semi-structured interview conducted in schools within a London Borough. Their criminal choices have been studied to see if they include consideration of a victim or the harm caused by an offence. The research has been grounded in Rational Choice Theory of Clarke (1987) which puts forward a vision of the criminal act in terms of its bounded rationality, ease and profit. This research will adopt the legal presumption that everyone understands the meaning of offences within the Theft Act 1968 and the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

Applicable Theory

Situational crime prevention best fits the choices made by the economic offender but would the inclusion of consideration of harm to a person who is the victim of the intended offence explain the difference in female and male offending? Given that current research indicates that potential offenders may be exercising choices, what theory could be used to investigate these phenomena? The Rational Choice Theory of Clarke (1987:118) argues that however hasty or ill-considered, crime is the outcome of an offenders’ choices. It would be interesting to put questions to both male and females to examine their decision making proximate to offending and compare the responses they gave to the different criteria. The research would hope to explain the disparity in female and male offending by consideration of the Rational Choice Theory of Clarke (1987). This theory seems best equipped to explain property crime but not assaults. The potential offender may be making choices on the basis of a bounded rationality that is a combination of the prospect of being caught and the situations’ economics. It may be possible to explain the gender offending ratio by including the element of harm caused by the intended offence or indeed through introducing cultural constraints.

Matza and Sykes (1957) thought factors like kinship, friendship, ethnic group, social class, age and sex appeared to restrict the number of victims that could be targeted. They proposed that the juvenile acquires techniques that neutralise the violations and make them acceptable within the delinquent subculture without replacing the values of the dominant normative system. The techniques of neutralisation begin with ‘The denial of responsibility’ where the juvenile affirms, ‘I did not mean it’. Another technique is ‘The denial of injury’ when the juvenile will state, ‘I didn’t really hurt anybody’. In the third technique ‘The denial of a victim’, the existence of a victim is denied by the juvenile stating, ‘They had it coming to them’. This technique may be especially effective in property crime where no owner is present. The fourth technique is ‘The condemnation of the condemners’. The juvenile calls the condemners hypocrites by alleging favouritism or vindictiveness when it is stated, ‘Everybody’s picking on me’. Lastly, the fifth technique is ‘The appeal to higher loyalties’ where the juvenile declares loyalty to gang, sibling or friends by stating, ‘I didn’t do it for myself’. Sykes and Matza counseled more research into the differential distribution of the techniques by thought, age, sex, social group and ethnic origin. One possible explanation of the lower rates of female offending might be that the techniques ‘The denial of injury and The denial of a victim’ are not strong enough in females to neutralise the moral bind to dominant normative values.

The Rational Choice Theory of Clarke (1987:118) argues offenders choices determine crime even if those choices are hasty or ill-considered. Questions could be put to both males and females to examine decision making and compare their responses to the different criteria. There is an argument that females are more likely to commit offences if a victim cannot be identified and they are less likely to do so if a victim can be identified. It may be that women have a stronger perception of harm being caused to the victim and this empathy prevents the commission of predatory offences. Understanding whether choices to commit property crime or violence against the person by the potential male and female offender are influenced by the strength of the image of harm and a person as a victim at the time may suggest crime prevention measures. Any factors that were found to be effective could be employed at a potential crime scene or in educational programmes.

Is the moral bind that is described in Matza and Sykes (1957) being applied differentially between the gender? The responses of the male and female to these factors could be compared. The Theory of Cultural Complexity of Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky (1990) set out four ways of life which are the result of the relative strength of a group’s pattern of social relations and a definitive set of shared values, practices and beliefs. These ways of life are termed individualist, fatalist, egalitarian and heirarchist. A member of each way of life will have a predetermined perception of risk that will determine whether it is accepted or avoided. Male and female offending might be re-interpreted as a consequence of the cultural rationality and justification of the risks of offending by the actors and not merely the situations economics or moral prohibition.

The hypotheses to be tested

Considering the above a number of hypotheses relating to juveniles can be formulated, in the case of the property crime and violence against the person:

1) Females cannot easily justify making the decision to commit an offence when harm is caused by that offence?

2) Females cannot easily justify making the decision to commit an offence when that offence involves the presence of a person who can be identified as a victim.

3) Female decision making takes more account of the risks of committing an offence than their male counterparts.

4) Female and male criminal decision making is influenced by a cultural rationality that is based on the risks of offending communicated to them by various sources.

A further consideration was the peak rate of offending for females was 14 to 15 years of age according to the Criminal Statistics (1995). This is a formative age when juveniles are crucially about to enter the final year of compulsory education before they leave school and make decisions about their future. Juvenile offending accounts for a significant proportion of all crime committed and any findings with crime prevention potential might achieve significant crime reduction.

The Study

Permission was obtained from London Borough Council to carry out the survey within three schools in the Borough. Each had the merit of representing a different type of educational establishment; a Grant Maintained school; a State funded school and a Technology College. The research programme consisted of a self completion questionnaire survey and a semi-structured interview conducted in schools within a London Borough.

The summary of the findings

For the findings to be valid each different method should ideally demonstrate consistency and reliability with the other. Respondents were told orally to omit answers to any questions if they felt they could not be accurate. The fact that this happened may be supported by periods of silence in the group interviews and by no response to large numbers of questions on the questionnaire by some respondents. The different methods revealed about sixteen points of similarity where findings were found to reliable and consistent. It would not be unreasonable to infer that the study is valid. The study was not disadvantaged by the fact that not all the results could be explained.

Qualifying features

The Criminal Statistics (1995) are based on recorded crime generated by the Criminal Justice System and the figures may be challenged because of the levels of unreported crime. This limited the corroboration possible between the two documents. The results of this study must be tempered by the fact that only a small sample of juveniles were surveyed.

The gender offender ratio

The secondary analysis in chapter five of the Criminal Statistics, England and Wales (1995) makes out a strong overall case for the existence of a ‘gender offender ratio’. The statistics show that female offending is generally three to four times lower than corresponding male offending. The statistical data also demonstrates the case for bias in the Criminal Justice System is weak. This research also supports the existence of a ‘gender offender ratio’ by virtue of the low number of females that stated they had committed crime in comparison to the male respondents. The females did not disclose that they had committed any of the predatory offences of burglary and robbery. Apart from the lower than expected levels of female juvenile convictions recorded in the Criminal Statistics, England and Wales 1995, these relative levels of offending cannot be explained away by the potential processing bias of a police officer’s discretion; police station cautioning or convictions in the Criminal Justice System. The females reticence to admit to committing crime and the males forthrightness about the same issues does indicate a gender role.

Female juvenile offending

In the survey, female juveniles were encouraged to offend by the desire for goods displayed in shops. Fashion is a value of female sexuality. Stealing clothes from shops may be more acceptable to females because it conforms with their idea of femininity. Television chat shows and news programs were said by them to motivate offending because they portrayed people that had successfully committed crime. The females watched a television presenter called Oprah Winfrey who regularly appraises social issues in her program. The sole case where females stated they would be violent was when they would take revenge on someone who hurt them. The female has a well defined sexual role in society and this violent reaction to hurtful behaviour might have its origins in the strong emotions arising from the unfaithfullness of a sexual partner. Additionally, the females believed that the state of being homeless and destitute might also give rise to criminality. They could be sympathetic with social reasons for offending. The females also seemed to think more about the social use of an article rather than whether it was at risk of being stolen. Females were strongly demotivated from offending by thinking about the police who are symbolic of the social values of law and order. To achieve the maternal goals of a mothers reassurance and protection at home, females would have a need to participate in an orderly society. They would be naturally more receptive to the messages of conformity represented by the symbols of society’s security.

When the actual crime was about to be committed females said that if the victim of the intended crime was a corporation they were encouraged to complete the offence. This might be because no person would be harmed and females had already stated that a victim of theft loses nothing if they are insured. The females said that alcohol and drugs weakened their sense of right and wrong resulting in a loss of self control that encouraged offending. Furthermore, a female stated that if she did not realise that her behaviour was criminally wrong she would not think that behaviour was risky. It appears that the immorality of what she was doing had not been effectively communicated to her. The females indicated quite strongly that once they knew something was wrong their moral values would stop them offending. This strong sense of moral value might have origins in the females sexual role where they raise children. To do this successfully, the female would have to instill the value of right and wrong in her children.

A large range of factors discouraged females from offending. The females said they would stop offending if they were watched by a stranger when they were stealing because they would feel guilty. Apparently, being thought of as a criminal could not be reconciled with their self image. The females affirmed that they could empathise with a person who is an intended victim of a crime. The ability to feel hurt and upset would stop them offending and is indicative of feminine gentleness. Moreover, females were again sensitive to the crime prevention symbolism of the police; court penalties; security guards; close circuit television and anti-theft alarms. These symbols increase the risks to a point that they would be deterred from offending. Furthermore, females said that cultural factors were important in lowering offending levels. In particular, family culture was stated to decrease the risks of offending. The females maternal instincts may require the adherence to family values.

A big factor in preventing females from re-offending was the distress and guilt that they imagined their mother would experience when they found out that their daughter was a criminal. A mother’s hurt and upset was stated to be a significant risk of offending again. The disclosure of criminality does not sit easily with family values or the image of being ladylike. The distress caused to the female’s mother also does not live up to the feminine value of caring for others. The females additionally said their friends would not approve of computer chip theft; burglary or robbery. These predatory crimes are not compatible with the females gentle and caring image. Their friends would try to dissuade them from this type of crime but might encourage stealing from shops. This last crime best fits the gender role. The female’s friends might even have a leader who could help to ensure that major crime was not committed by the group. Friends would appoint a leader if they were skillful at stealing goods for the group.

The females were capable of using a number of different excuses to justify petty offending to a friend. The justification of crime actually encourages its commission. Offending could be represented by females as an accident without any sense of responsibility. Females would also excuse an offence by stating that everybody did it. In other words, why victimise them for behaviour that is common place. Furthermore, the females could deny that there was a victim of an offence and believe that no real harm had been done by them. This last excuse would most readily fit in with feminine values. The females displayed two conflicting approaches to risky criminal situations. They would be both optimistic and uncertain about the level of risk in a crime situation. This might reveal that females are not single minded but flexible about the interpretation of the risk in the situation.

Male juvenile offending

In contrast to the females, the male juveniles were motivated by thrill seeking. This was stated with regard to beating people up but it was also mentioned in connection with a feeling of boredom. This thrill seeking is indicative of the masculine values of boldness and aggression. The juvenile males might be experiencing the frustration at not being able to demonstrate male bravery and competitiveness within normative society. To find a way of expressing these urges, males might be redirecting them into offending. This competitive nature; the resolution to succeed and disregard for most victims of crime, may be the reason that males were prepared to commit the more serious offences like burglary and sell the spoils to raise money. The males said they learned the detail of committing crime and its risks by watching television police programs like ‘The Bill’. The males said that seeing something on the screen made them want to copy it and this was apparent when one stated that violent films made him feel it was justified to use violence to escape capture. The media appeared to motivate the males, especially when males were portrayed as following the gender role of being bold; brave; powerful and aggressive. The male is biologically built more powerfully than the female and is better protected against the damage that might be sustained in the hunt for prey (Morris 1978). This might make them less aware of the physical risks in a criminal situation and explain why males wanted more information about the risks of offending.

Apart from the chance of being caught the single factor that would discourage the males from committing an offence was if the intended victim was an elderly lady. This scenario caused threats and protestations from the males towards any friend that might transgress against the value of male protection that an elderly lady should receive. Some said they would consider handing an offender over to the police. The fact that they were prepared to break an unwritten code and inform on someone to the police indicates how powerful the gender role can be. Moreover, the males said they would use violence to avoid being caught committing an offence. This also follows a gender role of being resolute and competitive. Covert cameras appeared to worry the males because they believed that even after offending they were still not safe from being caught. To confirm this fear of being secretly observed the males said that store detectives were a strong deterrent to them committing crime.

One male stated that he was under duress to continue to commit crime from adult criminals who run his housing estate. This was a situation that was unique to the males. He stated that he would be beaten up if he did not steal to order. His predicament is also indicative of the masculine value of dominating people. The probability of receiving a custodial sentence for an offence would stop the males from committing that offence again. They said that this would not preclude committing another offence because they appeared to believe that only committing the same offence again would count towards a custodial sentence. The reason the males feared its implementation might possibly be that the loss of liberty might curtail them from demonstrating their masculinity. The males said that a big risk of offending was the worry about their mother’s anger as a reaction to their offending. The males said this might stop them re-offending. They seemed to have to transfer the masculine value of anger to their mother to be better able to understand the situation. Perhaps, they might have reasoned that their mother had the power to prematurely exclude them from the protection of the home environment.

The males could only feel guilt about committing crime with some difficulty but if they did, it would stop them committing the type of crime they felt guilty about. It appeared that once males had decided to commit an offence, there were few limits on how far they will go. The moral values of the males appeared to be was subordinate to their masculinity. Males affirmed that they would point out the risks of committing crime to a friend but then the friend would be left to accept responsibility for what they had decided. The males did not use any form of justification that was unique to their gender.

Juvenile offending generally

Both genders were motivated by the desire to have money to buy goods. The females wanted clothes while the males said they needed trainers. The juveniles stated that they learned about the risks and rewards of offending from their friends. This was by gossiping with them or listening to them relate accounts of how others had been dealt with by the Criminal Justice System. Moreover, because very few had been caught offending, they had no first hand experience of the Criminal Justice System. They would have to be rely upon their friends information as being accurate. The genders both felt a pressure to be accepted; popular and admired by their friends. Another source of information for them was television and films. All gave evidence of the media influencing them. The method of committing crime would be watched by the juveniles to see if it was unsuccessful and then improvements figured out to improve the chances of success. Films with violence and drugs made at least one male believe violence was acceptable. However, when the juveniles were asked to state its effect on themselves, they said it had no affect. The significance of this fact is that apparently, they did not realise the influence that the media had on them.

All would physically help and support each other to facilitate offending. The females and males might be displaying a form of altruistic behaviour where they take a risk themselves to steal something that will give their friends what they want. In all three stages of committing crime both genders agreed that the biggest risk of offending was the likelihood of being caught. This risk discouraged the capacity to offend; the act of offending and re-offending. Imprisonment was stated to be a deterrent by females and males although the males seemed to have to believe it was more immediate than the females. Both genders also said that they were subject to peer pressure through all the stages of offending. The females and males said that a sense of right and wrong was necessary to discourage offending. In the females these moral value appeared heightened and complimentary to their idea of being feminine while males appeared to be able to overlay their masculinity on top of any moral values. All juveniles were discouraged from offending by a number of crime prevention symbols. These were police patrols; newspapers; books; magazines; sport; guard dogs; park keepers; high fence; shutters; locks; alarms and close circuit television. Both genders stated that the culture in their neighbourhood and community could discourage offending.

Females and males could justify offending by stating that they were loyal to their friends and denying that there was any victim of the offence. Both genders said they were in control but accepted they could do nothing about the risk of being caught. The males were definite about their perception of risk in the criminal situation which was very much in line with their masculine values. The females seemed to display more feminine reticence and adopted all four cultural perceptions of risk.

Both genders appeared to display the same rationality about committing crime. The females calculated the ease, opportunity, risk and reward in travelling on the train compared with the bus before deciding that the train fare was the better one to avoid paying. The calculation was not carried out with any precision but the likelihood of being caught did feature prominently in the reasoning. Similarly, the reasoning about being caught was extended to choice of the places to do graffiti. The males showed the same short cut appraisal of the criminal situation in committing thefts and burglaries and the risk of being caught was again a significant component of the calculation. The females and males could both analyse the method of committing crime portrayed in the media and suggest improvements. Both genders agreed that they had the choice to offend. Only the females were prepared to accept that others might find homelessness and destitution a good reason to offend. Although it could be argued that they could still choose to accept social security benefits. Even the male who was under duress to offend did have the choice to report the matter to the police. All appeared to employ the same type of heuristic to decide whether to commit crime or not. The major difference appeared to be what type of crime best fitted into masculine or feminine culture.


It is probably better that the first two hypotheses are considered together because of their similarity. These are that females cannot easily justify making the decision to commit an offence when harm is caused by that offence or a person who is the intended victim is present. The females in this survey stated they to have to employ all of the techniques of neutralisation of Matza and Sykes (1957) to enable them to commit petty offences: ‘The denial of responsibility, injury and victim; the condemnation of the condemners and the appeal to higher loyalties’. In contrast the males stated they used ‘The denial of injury and the appeal to higher loyalties’. There is evidence female juveniles find it more acceptable to offend where no human harm is caused to a person. They will approve of stealing from a corporations rather than a person and very few will commit predatory crime like robbery. The explanation for the differential application of the techniques of neutralisation is problematic and could be the subject of further research.

The third hypothesis is that female decision making takes more account of the risks of committing an offence than their male counterparts. In the survey there is evidence that shows female juveniles are more deterred by the symbols of society’s security in comparison to male juveniles. However, the apparent sensitivity of female juveniles to this symbolism is not necessarily due to them focusing on personal risk and the situation’s economics but their gender role.

Lastly, the hypothesis that female and male criminal decision making is influenced by a cultural rationality based on the risks of offending communicated to them by various sources has some foundation. The communication of the risks of offending, although they might reinforce the value system, have an impact that appears to be subordinate to the cultural values of femininity and masculinity.

Cultural risk rationality

It is suggested that a cultural risk rationality is operating in juvenile criminal choice. Morris (1978: 230) argues that Society imposes gender signals on females and males long before they reach puberty. In this presexual period Morris (1978) believes that children are given strongly defined sexual roles because boys will be given different clothes, hairstyles, toys, ornaments, pastimes and sports to girls. He argues that this process gives girls and boys strong gender identity of being socially feminine and masculine respectively.

This study has produced evidence of male and female juvenile offenders apparently having two different value systems. Both genders seem to use the same limited rationality but from within a different ‘world view’ of criminality that is reinforced by Society and their friends.The different values seem to be grounded in femininity and masculinity. The feminine values are of submissiveness, reticence; gentleness; sexuality; fashionability and ladylikeness. In comparison, masculine values are those of dominance; bravado; aggressiveness; competitiveness; bravery; powerfulness and resolution. The two different sets of values and beliefs are bound together by the altruistic practices that may be found in peer pressure.

The reason that females commit a far lesser proportion of overall crime and much lower levels of predatory offences than males is that in general, crime does not conform with their feminine self image. When a predatory offence like robbery or burglary is contemplated the females are simply saying ‘We don’t do that’. The male juveniles masculine values do not limit the choice of crime in the same way. Once they were motivated there would be few constraints. Juveniles might simply be severing the links with the culture of their peers as they grow into adulthood rather than re-establishing the normative values. It is proposed that to add cultural rationality to Rational Choice Theory (1987) would explain the different levels of offending and seriousness of offending between the female and male juveniles.

Crime prevention measures

Both genders seemed to obtain information about offending from the media and their friends. More control over the representation of criminal behaviour might deter crime. State intervention in juvenile culture through a life science course taught in the schools might bring more objectivity and morality into a juvenile’s decision making. Limiting juvenile’s access to alcohol by may help them to maintain self control.

Only a small number of offenders had been caught indicates a need for more surveillance. More security and police patrols could be deployed but juvenile offenders seemed particularly worried by covert surveillance cameras. Mobile covert cameras could be deployed at crime ‘hot spots’ to arrest criminals and strengthen the deterrent effect of these devices.

Males could be could be confronted with their guilt by facilitating offender and victim encounters in the Criminal Justice System. Police cautioning in its present form was found in this study to be ineffective. The males said that they would reoffend after a caution but would be displaced to a different crime. The males believed they were more at risk of a custodial sentence if they repeated the same offence after a caution. Moreover, this study demonstrated the small deterrent value of cautioning because of the numbers of undetected juveniles who persistently offend. All the juveniles were worried about their mother’s reaction if they were caught. Cautioning might become effective if the juveniles knew that their mother would also be held accountable by having to pay a fixed penalty for each caution they received.

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