Crime and Russian Immigration - Socialization or Importation? the Israeli Case

By Rattner, Arye | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Crime and Russian Immigration - Socialization or Importation? the Israeli Case


Rattner, Arye, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


Questions about the possible relationships between ethnicity, immigration and crime have been raised since the days of the early pioneers of criminology. In searching for the causes behind high crime rates in certain areas, several early theorists proposed that the answer lay in the conflict between different cultural groups (Sellin, 1938; Sutherland, 1929). Since central city areas were inhabited largely by immigrants, theorists suggested that immigrants' values and norms might differ from those of the cities' general populations. It soon became clear that it was not the areas themselves that were the source of the high crime rates; instead, causes were identified within the immigrants' patterns of socialization to American culture.

Immigration to a new country is mainly considered a process of sociocultural adaptation, which is complex in itself. In addition, its direction is influenced by several factors. On the one hand, adaptation is influenced by attitudes among the host population towards immigrants, as well as the policies pursued by the government of the receiving country with respect to immigrant integration. On the other hand, the process of adaptation is also affected by the type of immigration involved - whether it is economic migration or refugee flight - and by the immigrants' personal characteristics, including age, skills and educational level.

Another intervening variable is the state of the economy in the host country, which determines the ease with which immigrants and citizens can satisfy their economic goals. In many cases, mass immigration today is characterized by the arrival of unprofessional and sometimes unskilled immigrants in a host society with high unemployment. Since movements of immigration from one country do not always parallel fast economic growth in the receiving countries, immigrants may at best find themselves employed as unskilled manual workers in manufacturing industries or in low-waged domestic services. Such a scenario - which has not been unusual in countries absorbing waves of mass immigration in several periods of the twentieth century - places many immigrants at the lower echelons of a blocked economic-mobility structure.

In such contexts, the criminal involvement of members of various ethnic groups has often been explained by the potential of crime as an alternative means of economic mobility. Several studies have examined the involvement of both Jewish and Italian immigrants to the USA in organized crime during the 1920s (Nelli, 1969; Rockway, 1980). For immigrants of certain ethnic origins, a crime career was the quickest way to achieve material success, as well as both individual and social mobility. Three alternative paths of social and personal mobility were open to people living and growing up in early-twentieth-century American immigrant ghettos: (a) the ladder of legitimate work, holding out a prospect of slow economic mobility; (b) higher education, with opportunities to move on to governmental and managerial positions; and, (c) crime, mainly within the underworld and organized crime (Rockway, 1980). In addition to being, for those who chose it, the quickest way to upward mobility, crime also provided a challenge for men of ability, daring and violence. Amir (1979) described the circumstances under which a Jewish immigrant teenager might make criminal behavior his chosen career: ". . . [He] perceives that, because of his inadequate education, family status, and deviation from archetypal American norms, he is denied access to the life goals . . . and the recognized symbols of success: money, prestige, leisure, power and security." Under these circumstances the immigrant teenager described by Amir is detached from his old culture, but has already absorbed the importance of upward mobility and economic advancement. He turns to "instant affluence by deviant method - delinquency, hoodlum behavior and adult criminality." Similar descriptions have been offered of the arrival and socialization process experienced by some immigrants who came to the USA through New York at the turn of the century. …

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