"What makes normal people commit crimes?"

Interview with professor of criminology Susanne Karstedt

10. 12. 2013 | Susanne Karstedt studies how cultural values and people's moral decision making affect violent and other crimes. She is professor for criminology and criminal justice at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom.
AcademiaNet: One of your research areas is middle class and white collar crime. A study you did while you were chair of criminology at Keele University found that middle class people commit numerous crimes – from tax evasion to cheating their fellow citizens on eBay and in car boot sales. Why is it that middle class people commit more of these sorts of crimes?

Prof. Susanne Karstedt
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Prof. Susanne Karstedt
Prof. Susanne Karstedt: I have always been interested in the morality of the middle classes, or what is often seen as the "law-abiding majority". Why do people who otherwise lead very normal lives and are respected members of their communities commit crimes? How can we make these people comply?

Here, the role of moral decision making comes to the fore. I don't see criminal behaviour as just a reaction to some kind of environmental pressure, whether that is a very disadvantaging environment or opportunities that crop up. I look at criminality through the lens of the values that people have and how these influence their decisions. Some middle class people venture into quite fraudulent and shady practices, and they have a lot of ways of justifying such behaviour and reconciling it with their own moral self. Criminologists call this "techniques of neutralisation": people justify an act of deviancy that they would otherwise censure and find morally objectionable.

A big area of your research in your current post as professor of criminology and criminal justice at University of Leeds is the place of democracy in crime and justice. What have you observed about how the values of democracy influence crime and violence in a society?

We're looking at whether democracies have comparative advantages with regard to levels of crime - violent crime, white collar crime or corruption. We're also interested in whether their justice systems in democracies are better and more just in dealing with offenders, and whether the population invest higher trust in police and justice. This is large scale comparative research. I mainly use large data sets from international surveys to probe into the values of the population to see whether democratic societies differ in these respects, for example, how their values impact on the use of prison for punishing offenders.

In his recent book "The Better Angels of Our Nature", the Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker considers how democracy might influence crime levels by encouraging the "better angels" of our nature, meaning that democracy brings out our "better selves" and nourishes sympathy. I look at democratic values like egalitarianism and individualism. Individualism does not mean egotism, but that people have certain expectations of how they wish to be treated as individuals, and they are willing to comply with such expectations if asked from them. In individualistic and egalitarian cultures, people do not see themselves as members of a group, and they are inclined to treat others in the same way – as individuals, and as equals. This significantly reduces violence committed for the honour of a group or against other groups.

Contemporary societies thrive on what has been called "weak bonds", meaning tolerance and respect. Strong bonds in communities, in particular if they inhibit outreach to others, breed violence rather than prevent it. Tightly knit communities can have a lot of violence in their midst, and, in addition, there is more violence between groups.

One of your present research themes is mass atrocity crimes and genocide. In your recent fellowship at the Australian National University, you were working on a paper on this topic. What is this research looking at?

The field of genocide studies developed in the aftermath of the Holocaust. This exceptional crime, which also was a unique genocide in many ways, shaped our thinking over the past decades. However, since the 1980s we have been dealing with very different situations, like in former Yugoslavia, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Congo or Syria. These atrocities have a range of different types of perpetrators, from warlords to militias and normal citizens, and victims and perpetrators can change sides, as they did several times in the region of Rwanda and Burundi.

At present, these types of mass atrocity crimes tend to be embedded in international and local conflicts. We look more at the dynamics of how they develop, and at the micro-level of local massacres, rather than analyse them predominantly as state and hate crimes. I hope that such new perspectives will help us to develop better prevention and intervention strategies - for example, to protect citizens on the ground.

As you mention, our view of the Holocaust affects our perspective on other types of mass atrocity crime and criminals. One recent project of yours looks at Nazi war criminals who were sentenced in the Nuremberg trials 1945–1949: How much of their sentence they actually served, and how they were received in post-war Germany. What ideas have you developed from this project?

When the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia issued the first sentences, it was not clear how these would be carried out. Meanwhile, many of the perpetrators have been released from prison. I looked at what happened to those who had been sentenced as war criminals in post-war Germany: when they had been released from prison, how they had been received back by post-war society, and how they had managed their reputation as a sentenced war criminal. Many of the death sentences were commuted to life-long imprisonment, and most of the criminals did not serve their full sentences in the end.

There even were campaigns for their release, surprisingly from the Lutheran Church. A particularly glaring example is a member of the SS, who was sentenced to death because he had killed 3,000 Jewish people and disabled children in an orphanage. The church not only campaigned for his release, but also offered him a position as teacher at a faith based school. Such cases make us think about justice, and impunity, punishment and rehabilitation, not only for these offenders but for all others.

Dear Prof. Karstedt, thank you very much for this interesting interview!

Interview: Helen Jaques   (© AcademiaNet)

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