Theories critical of power have in common the notion that both crime and social processes of criminalization are expressions of social power and power relations or can be traced back to an unequal distribution of resources.
The starting point for these considerations is the observation that there is no “natural” social consensus on fundamental values and goals. Rather, norms are an expression of the rule of one class over the other. Crime is therefore the product of conflicts between powerful groups in society. While the social power divide provides the One with room for manoeuvre for a “crime of the powerful”, others (or their actions) are labelled as deviant and criminal by attribution processes (criminalisation).
In contrast to etiological explanatory approaches to crime, the theories critical of domination see the causes not in the individual human being and his behaviour, but as the consequence of an unequal distribution of resources.
Conflict theories emerged in the wake of criticism that criminology is too strongly focused on the question of why people break laws instead of questioning the reasons why certain actions are defined as illegal.
Conflict theories emphasize a pluralistic perspective, i.e., society is conceived as a union of heterogeneous groups that exercise varying degrees of power.
Austin Turk, William Chambliss and Richard Quinney were the first to make use of conflict-oriented approaches to criminology.
Crime is an expression of social inequality. This inequality is particularly evident in the capitalist economic system. While it helps the powerful to achieve manifold criminal possibilities, the powerful strengthen their position by criminalizing the dominated actors. There is a specific power gap between men and women in patriarchal societies. This structurally anchored power divide must be taken into account when explaining crime or victimisation.
The anomie theory published by Merton in 1938 already assumes that crime is the result of unequal social access to resources. However, Merton puts the American middle class at the center of his theoretical considerations. The goals and available resources of the (white) middle class became a point of reflection for deviant behavior – crime thus becoming a primary problem of the lower class.
It is certainly no coincidence that the theories of critique of domination and society depicted here were formulated in the 1960’s and 70’s or experienced great popularity. In the USA, but also in Europe, social movements appeared at this time, which questioned the prevailing balance of power and demanded equal rights for previously marginalized social groups. Parallel to these changes in society as a whole, American criminology turned away from the considerations on anomie and straint theories that had dominated the scientific debate for decades. For the first time, crime was perceived as a consequence of social conflicts between different social groups and actors.
Marxist theories of crime understand criminal acts as the result of unequally distributed access to capital. According to these theories, crime is both an instrument of the powerless and destitute against the powerful and an instrument of the powerful to maintain their position.
Edwin M. Lemert describes the concept of secondary deviance, according to which the naming of the deviation sets in motion a process in the course of which the deviator is labelled and a vicious circle is set in motion. The social label “deviant” is adopted into the self-image of the deviator, who in future adapts his behavior to this self-image.
Following on from these considerations, Howard S. Becker describes the process of criminalizing drug users. The socially powerful “moral entrepreneurs” create a social problem that allows them to name “outsiders” who need to be controlled and sanctioned, while underpinning and strengthening their own social position.
The labeling theories are further elaborated and their content intensified. The radical labeling approach focuses on the selective social reaction to an act: crime is exclusively the result of a process of attribution.
The social constructivist crime theory of Scheerer and Hess finally attempts to integrate a crime theory critical of the ruling class into a general sociological model of action. The macrosociological consideration of the causes of crime (in the tradition of labeling theories) is linked with microsociological models of action.