Crime the Selfish Meme: Riots Smash Crime as Opportunity Theory.
Administrative criminology’s crime as opportunity approach to explaining and tackling crime is that crime takes place when people exploit opportunities. In criminology, opportunities are explained as the conjunction of offenders and targets in a ‘place’ where a law is broken. The law is broken when capable motivated and uncontrolled offenders are present in the ‘place’ where there is a suitable target in the absence of a capable guardian (See Felson and Boba 2011).
Across England today – in London, Bristol, Birmingham and Nottingham - rioters are rioting and looters are helping themselves (BBC 2011). So what happened overnight to make these offenders more motivated, their targets more suitable and guardians less capable? Was it a virus? Actually that is not so far away from a realistic explanation as the paucity of crime as opportunity as explanation. I will return to the virus analogy later in this short essay. But first, we need to understand that the crime as opportunity explanation is not really an explanation at all.
Criminology’s understanding of crime as opportunity represents an excellent description of the data at the scene of a crime committed or prevented. But as I wrote in an earlier essay (Sutton 2011b) ‘the crime data cannot explain itself’. What we need is an explanation for why offenders are where they are and why the targets of their criminal intentions are ‘suitable’ and why on one day, and not on another, guardians (including security hardware guardianship) are more or less capable compared to offenders.
If Crime as Opportunity Theory – the explanation underpinning Routine activities Theory of Marcus Felson (see Felson and Boba 2011), Situational Crime Prevention (see Clarke 2005) and Crime Science (Laycock 2003) - was an explanation for crime rather than a good description of it occurring or not occurring it’s adherents would have been able to use it to predict the crime drop of the past 15 years and the riots of the past few days in England. That never happened because it is probably impossible.
In a work in progress (Sutton 2011), which sets out to show just how easy it is to cook up a general junk science crime theory - with a tortured theory supported by little or no evidence - I have argued that perhaps as a broad framework for explaining all crimes we should consider the hypothesis that crime is the ultimate selfish meme. But where would this take us exactly if our best attempts to kick it to death fail?
Memes are ideas that take hold and become embedded in human culture, mutate and become culturally inherited in the same way we inherit genes. This is what has happened with knowledge about crime, how, why, when, where and against whom to commit it, and about criminals and victims. This cultural knowledge determined both early crime policy making, and all our individual delinquent and non-delinquent solutions to it. Crime then became physically embedded in and shaped the built environment, continually looping back to shape cultural understandings about crime, the economy, policy making, criminality, offending and the criminal justice system reaction. Looking at it in this way we can think about crime as something that can be regulated by changes to the environment but also that the idea of crime is a meme (Dawkins 1991) that is regulating its own environment, which includes environmental criminologists, their students, their work in the environment, those such as Felson and Boba (2010) who write about them, me writing these words, and you reading them.
The riots of 2011 will be different from those of the past. Today looters will utilise mobile phone technology and internet social networking media to organise themselves, neutralise their guilt and share modus operandi techniques. Many will use eBay to sell their loot. Their obsessive reliance upon this very technology may be a good hypothesis that goes some way to explaining the overall crime drop in the western industrialised nations (Sutton 2011a) as that would predict there being less occurrences of conjunctions of victims, offenders and incapable guardians on the street in any 24 hour period. What we need is a good explanation for why things have stopped simmering and have suddenly boiled over.
If crime is the ultimate selfish meme and delinquency is the solution to a selfish world then the ‘virus’ of the mind explanation has legs.
The Crime Meme hypothesis explains how a trigger event – such as the Police in London shooting a young man - would predict civil unrest, looting and more copy cat rioting and looting until the looters, selfishly, feel that enough social equity has been restored in their lives, they have had enough excitement, they feel frightened for themselves, sickened by adrenaline, and are aware of the increasing risk of being caught and punished severely. And not least when safety in numbers becomes a risk as their selfish friends, relatives, neighbours and enemies turn informer. On the other hand, the police and policy makers pet Crime as Opportunity Theory explains nothing. It merely describes the core components of ‘what is going off’ on the streets. It’s a mere truism that motivation of offenders and their capability as a mob outweigh guardianship capabilities. Crime as the ultimate selfish meme in a selfish society is an explanation. It not only has the potential to predict crime, it would also predict why it dies down again. For example, those who are gaining an advantage today by using the internet and mobile phones to incite, command and control civil unrest on our streets will find that what is making them strong tonight is their weakness in the coming days ahead. Just as extremist groups have come to realise that such technology reveals not only where but who you are, so will the rioters and looters in England as the criminal justice system zooms in on them in their own homes.
Good explanations are those that are hard to vary and easy to refute (Sutton 2011b). The crime as meme hypothesis can be easily disproved if we can show that, while away from the actual scene of a potential crime site, offenders do not significantly pass on modus operandi techniques - e.g. while in custody, in person elsewhere and online, do not encourage each other and organise each other in person and online in advance and do not commit routine and more serious copy-cat crimes. It could be disproved if logical arguments that crime is not a selfish meme can show more likely alternative explanations that are testable in terms of predicting the future rather merely explaining the past with easy to vary rhetoric. It would be disproved if displacement was less likely to occur than occur in the face of increasingly capable guardianship (Phillips 2011).
Could the crime as meme theory have predicted the crime drop? I think it could have if we had collected sufficient advance data regarding what people want, the extent and type of market demand for crime, and the extent and type of ‘acceptable’ delinquent and non-delinquent solutions that exist for our selfish society. That would be very difficult and relatively expensive research to conduct. But difficulty and relative cost should necessarily not put us off in the future – indeed it is more likely to be more cost-effective than always explaining the past because it is at least aiming for an explanation that could predict the future in the complex and often seemingly random affairs of mankind.
Could some kind of crime as meme theory have accurately predicted the current riots situation in England – given the event that actually triggered the current situation (BBC 2011a)? It might have if we had collected the type of qualitative and quantitative data outlined above so that we could have said a trigger event is likely to ignite this current tinder-box situation we have identified. What we do know for sure is that the Crime as Opportunity explanation describes what is currently happening very well (post hoc) – but could never have predicted it because it is a mere truism and not an explanation for crime (Sutton 2011b). It is time to put the meme of Crime as Opportunity in its rightful place as a perfect description of, but useless explanation for, crime, and look for hard to vary and testable explanations for crime that can help us predict the future rather than merely explaining the past with disingenuous and easy to vary criminology career building rhetorical fallacies.
Clarke, R.V. (2005) Seven misconceptions of situational crime prevention. In Tilley, N. (Ed.) Handbook of Crime Prevention and Community Safety. Devon. Willan.
Felson, M. and Boba, R. (2010) Crime and Everyday Life. (4th Edition). Thousand Oakes. Sage.
Laycock, G. (2003). Launching Crime Science. Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science. University College London. ISBN 0-9545607-1-X http://www.ucl.ac.uk/jdi/downloads/publications/crime_science_short_reports/launching_crime_science.pdf . Despite having been online for 7 years, within weeks of the publication of a critical essay I penned, the above article by Professor Gloria Laycock has been, for some unknown reason, removed from the Internet - despite being cited by scholars at least six times according to Google's citation index. Anyone interested in the history of scientific theory formation and development, wishing to obtain the original pdf copy , may do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and asking the people manning that email for a copy.
Sutton, M. (2011). Before the Crime Forecast: A tongue-in-cheek exploratory exercise to examine what RealCrime Science might look like and a serious examination of what current so called Crime Science is and is not http://dysology.org/page7.html