Washburn professor presents new theory

Lee Stone

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Tuesday, February 6, 1962.

The more advanced a culture’s technology, the higher will be its rate of crime, observed Dr. Bertram Spiller, while presenting his “push-pull” crime theory to the Washburn criminology class.

Dr. Spiller, who hails from Boston, joined the faculty last fall. Theories of crime in current favor have one explanation for lawbreakers and another for law-abiders; an unsettling predicament for social scientists.

Spiller formulates his theory as follows:

“Each individual is exposed to a series of external (societal) and internal (psychic) pressures. The relative weighting of these pressures will very largely determine whether an individual becomes a law-violator or a law-abiding person.

“If the society presents a relatively integrated, cohesive phalanx of pressures which surround the individual sources which “pull” him in the direction of law-abiding behavior, he may have little choice in his career.

“If, however, his psychic structure (the “push” factors) is such that he has many needs which can not be met by his social environment, he is in a position to accept various “deviant” solutions to his problems.

“In such a situation, the social milieu becomes crucial. If the individual lives in neighborhoods where many sub groups exist he has a wide choice of solutions to his problems. If he lives in a locale where there are few sub groups his choices are narrowed considerably and he may then be forced to resort to intra-psychic solutions.”

Taking the sociological view that crime constitutes those acts which are formally disapproved and punished in a given culture – usually acts which deviate drastically from the traditional pattern of behavior – Dr. Spiller develops a theory that revolves around differential training, change from traditional society to advanced technological society, parents who cannot or will not fulfill their parental obligations, and recruitment into criminal sub-culture.

Primitives, although they often conceive crime differently than ourselves, have little opportunity to deviate from the traditional behavior of their behavior of their people, to establish crime-oriented sub-cultures. Members are more dependent upon each other in small societies; groups that deviate from the general consensus do not have the psychological or economic impetus to establish themselves.

This is why primitives rarely have policing institutions. Also, the responsibility for socializing youngsters is not solely the parent’s as with us. Social training is not only the responsibility of the kinship group or clan, but of the whole community.

If a person in our culture is not trained in the habits that lead to “stability,” there is ample incentive and opportunity to become a criminal, that is, to become a member of a sub-culture that holds values in opposition to the general consensus.

Middle-class families insure, usually unwittingly, against mistakes in child-rearing, by joining a church, numerous clubs and moving into “nice” neighborhoods. they keep the children busy in the same, if not similar, organizations which constantly keep middle-class values before them; honesty, hard work for the sake of work, trustworthiness, and the like.

If through parental misconduct or ignorance, the family make mistakes in training its junior members, the social organizations and the neighborhood influence the children to conform. In this middle-class people tend to be like primitives.

With lower-class families it is different. Take a typical case. A highly skilled worker is permanently laid-off because new technology has made his training useless. To economize, and avoid embarrassment, he moves his family to a lower-class neighborhood, a slum. Since he is no longer able to fulfill his role in the family, their image of him is damaged; his self-image is destroyed. If he takes low-class employment he finds there are long periods of “no work.” Because of a badly damaged ego, he turns to alcohol, permeant relief, crime, or all three.

In any case, through humiliation or necessity he may find himself pushed out of the family and into a local sub-group which has mutual appeal. His similarly positioned peers probably exert pressure on him to join their circle. Divorce or desertion makes it final.

Obviously the mother of the family is unable to provide adequate training and guidance for the youngsters, particularly the boys. The neighborhood, composed of fatherless families like her own, of families with similar values, is not the best environment in which to teach middle-class virtue.

A working mother, or one on relief, does not have the time, energy, or income to pursue membership in a number of organizations, to keep her sons and daughters ‘busy.’

Women, no matter how deep their insight into the male role, are not suited to stand as a model for it. There is, however, an institutions among lower-class people which functions to teach the male role and other aspects of socialization which the typical slum family can assume; the street corner gang.

The primitive society, sub-groups and vocations are “grown into,” or as sociologists ┬ásay, “the individual is appropriated.” There is work and secure status for every member of the community no matter what is age or intelligence. In our society, individuals are “recruited” into social organizations and vocations. There are no clans providing security; we must form voluntary organizations. The street-corner gang is one of these.

It is the street corner gang that rains individuals for life month the lower-classes. It teaches the junior member how to cope with the stark realities of lower-class life; that strength and daring are virtues, that fighting is necessary for self-defense. It teaches that if you are in trouble, your buddy will go to jail for you. He frequently will. Individuals are accepted as members of the gang on the basis of what they are, not on their social prestige or money.

It is a short step from gang-life to criminal-life. The essential values of crime have already been learned. Boys who have been “in too much trouble” may find crime the best alternative vocation since they have been “frozen” out of others.

To suggest that there are no middle-class gangs or criminals is, of course, absurd. There are, but middle-class gangs are transitory, not permanent. Life-long loyalties are difficult to establish among middle-class boys who often disperse upon leaving high school and entering college. The middle-class criminal more often is faced with a personal problem, the lower-class criminal a social one.

Dr. Spiller’s theory overlaps and parallels the recently published crime theory of W.C. Reckless, but goes further by explaining the relationship of recruitment and differential training to crime.

Certainly it is a great advance over the once popular Lombroso theory which held that criminals are atavistic throwbacks. Dr. Spiller continues in the trend of deeper social understanding.