Darwin Meets the King: Blending Sociology and Evolutionary Psychology to Explain Police Deviance

Article excerpt

USING A MODIFIED version of Robert Merton's classic model of social structure and anomie (1938), Parnaby and Leyden (2011) argued police deviance stems from an anomic social structure insofar as an exuberant cultural emphasis on police as noble, masculine "crime fighters" exists in disproportion to the availability and/or efficacy of the institutionally accepted means by which the goal is to be achieved. This paper builds on Parnaby and Leyden's work by blending their Mertonian approach with the basic principles of evolutionary psychology to create a model with more explanatory power while speaking to the importance of integrating evolutionary psychology and sociology (see Barkow 2006; Wright and Boisvert 2009). We argue an anomic social structure helps create the social conditions in which specific adaptive psychological mechanisms manifest behaviorally in ways that coincide with Merton's deviant modes of adaptation. (1)

Our argument will be presented in five parts. First, we provide an overview of Merton's theory and evolutionary psychology followed by a discussion of the dominant success goal's origins in relation to policing. Next, we blend elements of evolutionary psychology with Merton's five modes of adaptation--conformity, innovation, rebellion, retreatism, and ritualism--in order to generate a comprehensive theoretical model of police deviance. In the final sections, solutions to address police deviance are discussed, followed by our concluding remarks.


Merton (1938) conceptualized deviance as a normal response to the pressures exerted by an anomic social structure. Because the degree to which culturally prescribed goals are emphasized varies independently of the extent to which institutionally accepted means are made available, deviant behavior becomes a probable outcome. Merton (1938) identified five forms of deviant adaptation: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.

Unlike conformists who continue to embrace the cultural definition of success while remaining committed to the institutional means, retreatists, given their perpetual failure to attain success, turn inward while letting the means and goals slip away. Innovators embrace the cultural definition of success but fail to internalize a commitment to the institutionalized means; therefore, they are often willing to adopt any means necessary to attain what is desired. Ritualists, on the other hand, scale back the cultural goals while still recognizing the legitimacy of the institutionalized means. Finally, those who are rebellious reject the culturally defined goals and means in an effort to establish a new social order (Merton 1938).

Using a modified Mertonian model, police deviance can be conceptualized in terms of conflicting structural conditions rather than, but not necessarily to the exclusion of, abnormal psychology (Sellbom, Fischler, and Ben-Porath 2007), subcultural values (Herbert 1996; Hodgson 2001; Waddington 1999), or organizational relations (Sechrest and Burns 1992; Skolnick and Fyfe 1993). (2) As Parnaby and Leyden (2011) argue, the North American cultural complex equates good policing with the fight against crime; being a good cop means being a noble, masculine "crime fighter" (see Herbert 1996; Manning 2001; Niederhoffer 1967). However, becoming the ideal officer is extremely difficult because the institutionally accepted means are often in short supply or distributed unevenly by virtue of three structural conditions. First, the need to reduce expenditures has undermined the capacity of some police organizations to respond effectively to criminal activity; the recurring need to do more with less often leaves officers feeling disadvantaged. Second, the extent to which other criminal justice organizations are willing and/or able to corroborate due process while meeting officers' perceived standards of justice varies significantly. In fact, many officers contend the system fails to prosecute, convict, and sentence offenders adequately (Belur 2010; Goldschmidt and Anonymous 2008; see also Bennett and Schmitt 2002). …