The real steal

In what sense is crime a coherent action category? There is the positivist sense that there is a state defined category of human action that justifies coercive control and we can leave it at that. That approach leads us up some blind alleys as key terms such as human trafficking are then left undefined, or default to a limited reading of the law. As far as the illicit is considered it’s either a problem of governance, or a dark zone that exists when the state withdraws or lacks the competence to govern it. Critical researchers do not take categories as given and just accept that such and such an act is a crime in the terms and the way defined by the state and society. We should take the existence of these categories seriously as they have significant effects. We also need to delve into the naturalness of them. If they link in fundamental ways to survival strategies and environmental adaption then we’re in a little bit of trouble. Or at least those of you who think humanity is perfectible are. If they link in fundamental ways to the social order then we are in another kind of trouble.

There is some evidence of crime as naturally occurring category. Monkeys in field experiments and in the wild steal from tourists and the researchers who study them, using well worked out plans to do so. In one study of gangs of macaques at Uluwatu Temple, Bali, Indonesia, the monkeys were observed to systematically take items from tourists and then ‘sell’ them back in return for food (Brotcorne et al 2017, 2020). Brotcorne et al measure the rob/barter (RB) rate. It is a form of forced exchange or racketeering by the macaques. RB intensified in groups that were numerically more male dominated. The monkeys must be able to identify the specific tourists they have stolen from in order to extort food. The RB process is a set crime script. Take a non-edible item – presumably as edible items are secured by the forwarned tourist and the non edible ones are less defended – squirrel away and then reappear with it to barter.  Routine activities theory would frame this as offender, target, and absent guardian. Social learning among the macaque is key to honing this behaviour, avoiding numbing brute force hacks.

From that it can be deduced that crime is a competitive behavioural adaption, one that emerges in symbiotic human/animal cultures with certain characteristics. It is not wholly anti-social. It demonstrates and uses ingenuity, organisation, adaptation, and innovation. It socially involved as the macaques steal from and sell to us, recognising how much the category of inalienable property matters to the humans. Whether or not the macaques in some sense recognise the concept of private property, it exists as a category they can usefully act towards. The know some of the rules and exploit them.

There are many other ways in which crime can be fundamentally embedded in a setting. If in a community the only way to secure status is through crime; if social cohesion relies on gang influence; if social order relies on the underworld;  if an economy relies on a supply of illicit labour; if it depends on minerals produced in defiance of environmental regulations; if the most productive and highly capitalised sector of the economy ignores regulatory compliance; if survival depends on it, we can talk of crime as fundamental and necessary. This moves our focus beyond the ‘dark zone’. At one time symbolic interactionist sociologists thought people became labelled as deviant and adopted a deviant identity. Crime existed in the left over grey spaces of the licit world. Now, we see crime designed into systems, and crime that creates its own context, its own technology and architecture. Technical and social networks are crucial to the development of criminal capacity to organise effectively. The capacity to create hybrid systems in terms of state-crime relations, legal-illegal and organisational-platform/infrastructure is crucial. Like the macaques, social learning makes crime systems rapidly adaptive and resilient.

Brotcorne F, Giraud G, Gunst N, et al. (2017) Intergroup variation in robbing and bartering by long-tailed macaques at Uluwatu Temple (Bali, Indonesia). Primates 58(4): 505–516. DOI: 10.1007/s10329-017-0611-1.
Brotcorne F, Holzner A, Jorge-Sales L, et al. (2020) Social influence on the expression of robbing and bartering behaviours in Balinese long-tailed macaques. Animal Cognition 23(2): 311–326. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-019-01335-5.

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email Tweet @angusbancroft

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