Many sociological theories of crime assume that adverse class conditions cause delinquency and crime. This class-crime connection is one of the central tenets of sociological criminology, from theories of anomie (e.g., Merton, 1938), social disorganization (e.g., Shaw and McKay, 1942), and subcultures (e.g., Cloward and Ohlin, 1960) to critical and Marxist traditions (e.g., Greenberg, 1981; Colvin and Pauly, 1983). Empirical evidence of this correlation is commonly found in studies of individual-level official data (see Hindelang et al., 1979; Braithwaite, 1981), as well as in studies organized around areal units, using police and court statistics aggregated into census tracts and neighborhoods (e.g., Chilton, 1964; Sampson and Groves, 1989). However, this association is often elusive in self-report surveys (Tittle et al., 1978; Weis, 1987; but see Braithwaite, 1981), leading some researchers to suggest that the effect of class on crime is weak or nonexistent and that criminologists should focus their attention elsewhere (e.g., Jensen and Thompson, 1990).
As we suggest in Chapter One, a possible source of the discrepancy between official and self-report survey findings is the latter's frequent reliance on youth who attend school. The parents of these students typically have jobs, and their children usually live at home and receive relatively good care and protection. These defining features of school criminology unnecessarily restrict variation in class origins and conditions, as well as in developmental processes through which family, school, and street experiences influence criminal involvement.
In this chapter, we adopt an alternative approach to the conceptualization, measurement, and sampling of class and crime.