Synthesizing Structure and Agency: A Developmental Framework of Bourdieu's Constructivist Structuralism Theory

By Johnston, Tricia | Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology, January/February 2016 | Go to article overview

Synthesizing Structure and Agency: A Developmental Framework of Bourdieu's Constructivist Structuralism Theory


Johnston, Tricia, Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology


Introduction

To better understand crime commission and its policy implications, many researchers have turned their attention to the process of offender decision making. Offender decision making studies are predominantly conducted with active property offenders (see e.g., Brezina, Tekin, & Topalli, 2009; Copes, 2003; Jacobs & Wright, 1999; Miller, 1998; Topalli, 2005; Wright & Decker, 1994). This area of research indicates that the decision to commit property offenses is primarily driven by a "life is party" attitude where motivation to engage in crime is a situational inducement fueled by the desperate need for quick cash in an attempt to maintain indulgent lifestyles and continue street culture participation. While this research addresses that offender decision making doesn't occur in a vacuum, there has been debate between the relative importance of background and foreground factors (LeBel, Burnett, Maruna, & Bushway, 2008:132).

In an attempt to merge these approaches within offender decision making, Groves and Lynch define causality as the "Holy Grail" of criminology (1990:360). Jacobs and Wright take this notion further by acknowledging research aimed at identifying the causal nature of crime. In doing so they argue that while background factors may predispose individuals to crime, they do not explain why all individuals with similar risk factors do not offend equivalently (1999:150). It is for this reason that many researchers find subjective foreground conditions of particular importance (Katz, 1988). Using this model to interpret offender decision making has allowed researchers to suggest that external and internal pressures influence risk taking both objectively and subjectively.

Despite current studies' attempts to suggest the importance of considering both objective and subjective factors in the decision making process, existing theoretical approaches limit researchers from doing so sufficiently. Most of the studies in this field are guided by various rational choice perspectives, which suggest that an assessment of the costs and benefits associated with crime guide the decision to engage in criminal behavior (Becker, 1963; Clarke & Cornish, 1985; Copes, 2003). This perspective was expanded to incorporate the notion that the costbenefit analysis can be bounded by individuals' lifestyles and/or backgrounds (Copes & Vieraitus, 2009; Shover & Honiker, 1992).

Rational choice theory has been met with criticism (Burnett & Maruna, 2004; Cullen, Pratt, Miceli, & Moon, 2002; Garland, 2001; Tittle, 1995), and although it is a dominant theory used to interpret offender decision making, it fails to highlight the interaction between agency and structure as they contribute to the individual practice of deciding to offend (Clark, 2011; Groves & Lynch, 1990; LeBel, Burnett, Maruna, & Bushway, 2008:138). The limitations accompanying this theoretical lens is often acknowledged, however, little work has been done to introduce a theory that can account for the variety of influences that guide offenders in their decision making process (Burnett & Maruna, 2004:400). Sampson refers to micro-macro theoretical integration as the "ultimate goal" of criminology (Wikstrom & Sampson, 2006:32), and thus remains an important question to be answered: is there a theoretical approach that can describe the complex relationship between structure and agency?

Finding an answer to this question is important for numerous reasons. First, knowledge of an additional framework is necessary to overcome the current theoretical limitations of offender decision making research. The bulk of this research suggests that offender motivation is based on the notion that criminals are rational actors who make lucid decisions to offend. Although noting that rationality is often bounded, these studies fail to describe how such factors actually impact the decision to commit a crime. Second, supplementing this line of research with an alternative theoretical framework may aid in the discovery of additional motivations to offend-in particular, as they are perceived by the offender. …

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