Crime Talk: How Citizens Construct a Social Problem

Crime Talk: How Citizens Construct a Social Problem

by Theodore Sasson

Crime in the streets has remained consistently among the most conspicuous aspects of the American political landscape. Sasson argues that the significance of our national pre-occupation with the issue depends on how it is constructed or “framed” in the mass media and in everyday conversation. Drawing on the methodology for analyzing issue frames in

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Crime in the streets has remained consistently among the most conspicuous aspects of the American political landscape. Sasson argues that the significance of our national pre-occupation with the issue depends on how it is constructed or “framed” in the mass media and in everyday conversation. Drawing on the methodology for analyzing issue frames in political discourse developed by William Gamson (who has contributed a foreword to this book), Sasson identifies the five interpretative frames that comprise the crime debate: Faulty System, Social Breakdown, Blocked Opportunities, Media Violence, and Racist System.

Tracking the performances of these frames in twenty small group discussions among black and white urbanites, and in a sample of newspaper columns, he demonstrates that the two “generally conservative” frames, Faulty System and Social Breakdown, are by far the most prominent. He explains their prominence in the group discussions through a careful analysis of the ideational resources (popular wisdom, personal experience, media discourse) used by the participants. Sasson’s empirical findings lead him to conclude that the American preoccupation with crime will generate recurrent demands for a more expansive and punitive criminal justice system and new support for conservative politicians and their causes.

Apart from its contribution to the understanding of the civic role of crime and of the politics of crime control, Crime Talk also advances a methodology for framing popular discourse, and a theoretical perspective on how ordinary citizens make sense of social problems. A study at the intersections of criminology and political sociology, it will capture the attention of a wide range of social scientists, as well as instructors in courses on social problems, the mass media and research methodology.

Editorial Reviews

Sally Engle Merry
How do ordinary people talk about the crime problem in the contemporary United States? What kinds of stories do they tell one another about why crime happens and what can be done about it? This book uses group interviews and a content analysis of the mass media to construct the dominant stories told about crime through the method of frame analysis. This approach examines the framework within which particular accounts are told. It could also be described as narrative analysis: the author has examined a wide variety of verbal accounts and newspaper stories to uncover the dominant narratives told about crime. He then locates the tellers of these narratives in the social categories of race and class. The result is an interesting description of dominant stories about crime now afloat in the country and some sense of the areas in which blacks and the whites, as he terms his categories, agree and disagree. Sasson begins by locating his methodology in opposition to survey research. As he points out, surveys, while frequently used to examine attitudes toward crime, are unable to measure the situational and contextual nature of these ideas. The ideas can be better understood as parts of a conversation in which expectations about audience, context, and history affect the way statements are framed and understood. This is an important point and is a useful critique of the kinds of information available from survey research as well as a valuable context for appreciating the insights derived from Sasson's alternative methodology. Sasson begins by reading the op-ed pages of national newspapers during the early 1990s. On this basis, he defines five dominant frames for crime stories. He describes them along with their intellectual histories, and it is clear that most have long pedigrees, many of which include the social sciences. Some, he notes, go back to the 18th century, such as the work of Beccaria. Thus, these are not new stories but old and well-used ones. It would be interesting to examine further than the book does the origins of these stories in social science and the reasons for their durability as well as their tendency to seem freshly invented in every generation. The first frame, Faulty System, sees crime as a result of the inadequacies of the criminal justice system. People commit crimes because they know they can get away with it: liberal judges, overcrowded prisons, and legal technicalities undermine the ability of the criminal justice system to deliver swift, consistent penalties. The second frame, Blocked Opportunities, sees crime as a consequence of inequality and discrimination, unemployment, poverty, and unequal educational opportunities. The failing social safety net and the desperation of the urban poor account for crime. The third frame, Social Breakdown, envisions crime as the product of family and community breakdown, high divorce rates, urban indifference, and the absence of the discipline and responsibility of work. As Sasson notes, the origins of this perspective are in the Chicago School of urban sociology in the early twentieth century. Page 91 follows: The fourth frame, Media Violence, attributes crime to the pervasive violence of TV, film, and popular music. The fifth frame, Racist System, argues that the courts and police are racist agents of oppression, that police protection is disproportionately devoted to white neighborhoods, and that the criminal justice system disproportionately convicts and imprisons people of color. In the op-ed columns, he found the Faulty System frame most frequently cited, with the Social Breakdown and Blocked Opportunities frame close behind and the Media Violence and Racist System frames mentioned least often. Having delineated these five frames on the basis of examining public commentary in the newspapers, Sasson moves to the community, conducting interviews in small groups of neighbors designed to assess to what extent people use one or another of these frames to talk about crime. He carried out discussions in twenty groups in Boston, fairly evenly divided between white and black participants. In total, there were 110 participants. Here, he found that some frames were divided into sub-categories and some were not. There are liberal and conservative versions of several of them. Each frame has a series of standard rebuttals which also become part of the conversation. In the group discussions, the most common perceptions fall into the frame he calls Social Breakdown. This view attributes crime to moral decline, poor parenting, and community disintegration. It typically focuses on the failure of individuals to carry out their responsibilities rather than on the failure of social structure. Faulty System was also commonly discussed. Relatively few proposed the Blocked Opportunities theory. Among African-American groups, Racist System was common and readily discussed, although talk focused on the racism of the criminal justice system rather than on racism as an explanation for criminal behavior. Media Violence was little discussed either in the groups or on op-ed pages, yet there was also little effort to refute the argument, which seems generally accepted. In his analysis of these data, Sasson argues that the ability to make strong arguments for any frame depends on the availability of "resources" such as personal experience, media discussion, and popular wisdom and that those which appear most strongly are those which draw on all these sources of knowledge. The fundamental argument of the book is that the pervasiveness of any frame depends on the extent to which it reflects a convergence of views based on shared cultural themes, mass media depictions, personal experiences, and differential experiences based on race and class locations. For example, among black groups, Faulty System, Social Breakdown, and Racist System were commonly deployed frames because they drew on personal and cultural knowledge, while whites referred infrequently to Blocked Opportunities and Racist System because they lacked the knowledge base for these frames. Well-educated whites working in the public sector tended to express Blocked Opportunities. All of the frames draw on shared American cultural conceptions of self-reliance and individualism. This book provides a rich description of popular consciousness about crime in American society today. The chapters are full Page 92 follows: of quotes from the discussion groups and from the op-ed pages of newspapers. The speakers are helpfully located in class and racial categories and there is some analysis of how blacks and whites differ in their views. I found that the similarity between blacks and whites on almost all frames except the Racist System frame was surprisingly undeveloped in the analysis as were differences among whites by educational level in their assessments of the Blocked Opportunities and Faulty System models. There was clear acknowledgment that the study groups did not include the urban underclass but no discussion of the significance of the overrepresentation of people aged 40 and above or of women (71% of the participants). Overall, the book explained variations in popular consciousness about crime in terms of popular wisdom, media portrayals, and everyday experience. But there is not much analysis about how these frames emerged historically, how they relate to larger changes in the political economy or social structure of contemporary America, or why people hear and accept one or another argument at any one time. The frame analysis is very helpful in sorting out the various stories, but it also produces rather rigid categories which are sometimes difficult to impose on the discussion material. This is an inevitable aspect of typologies: they both sort out and clarify the social world but resist fluidity and ambiguity. The book concludes with an interesting discussion of the political implications of this material. It shows considerable popular support for the view that crime is the result of social breakdown and a decline in family values. Although for many participants in the study this view is ideologically neutral, it is compatible with conservative theories about the crime problem. On the other hand, there is relatively little support for more progressive ideas that crime results from a lack of opportunities, poverty, and racism in the criminal justice system. Sasson suggests that if progressives are to gain more popular support for their arguments, they need to articulate a progressive version of the social breakdown theory which focuses on the strains to family and community life caused by economic insecurity, poverty, and racial discrimination. Thus, the description and typology offered in the book incorporates a valuable political analysis with implications for people interested in promoting progressive politics. The book is readable and accessible to undergraduates as well as graduate students. It provides extensive textual material suitable for further discussion and analysis. And it addresses an important question, the shape of popular consciousness about crime, through detailed ethnography. Reading this book along with other analyses of the structures of race, class, gender, and age in American society would provide an excellent view of cultural perspectives on criminality in the contemporary United States.
From the Publisher

“Sasson has adopted a constructionist perspective as a point of departure to explore different "interpretative frames" for making sense of crime. These frames are: faulty system; social breakdown; blocked opportunities; media violence; and racist system. Some 20 crime-watch groups in the Boston area were contacted, and the author then interviewed them and monitored their discussions (which are extensively quoted) about crime… [T]his book provides a timely exploration of an important topic. Appendixes; references. Upper-division undergraduates, graduate students.”

D. O. Friedrichs, Choice

“In this modest but delightful study Theodore Sasson makes a significant contribution to our understanding of everyday discourse on crime and punishment…. Sasson is an unpretentiously shrewd and sensitive interpreter of his participants’ talk, and this is the best empirical account we yet have of everyday argumentation about crime and justice.”

—Richard Sparks, Contemporary Sociology

Crime Talk remains an insightful exploration of the frames this culture uses to discuss crime. The book provokes further interest in the fertile field of discourse analysis.”

—Amy Binder, American Journal of Sociology

Product Details

Transaction Publishers
Publication date:
Social Problems and Social Issues Series
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)
1230L (what's this?)

Meet the Author

Theodore Sasson is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Middlebury College. His research interests are in political science and criminology.

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