Before introducing the work of Becker it is advantageous to look at the work that preceded his, particularly that of Emile Durkheim, whose theories do share some remarkable similarities with Becker's. If a heroin epidemic exists then Durkheim would explain it in terms of the state of society at the time. For Durkheim, the core of any society is the collective conscience, which is basically the shared beliefs and values of a collective group. These ideas essentially promote a sense of belonging for the individual and ensure the continuity of the group.
This ideal was central to the maintenance of what Durkheim called social solidarity, a shared morality, which must be defined if society is to function. The ‘heroin crisis’ would essentially be a breakdown in social integration, there is no longer a shared morality and thus a contradiction in the collective conscience. At one end of the spectrum there is the user who believes it is okay to take the drug, and at the other end there is the mass who believe it is morally wrong.
Yet for Durkheim this immorality, in this case heroin use, is needed to make the morality visible, and reminders are continually required. Morality is essential to the functioning of society, but an agreement on its existence is not enough to unify a society, ‘sentiments can and will become attenuated unless they are exercised.’ We as sociologists are all too aware of Durkheim's organic analogies for society-and he follows in his own tradition by likening the human mind to muscles; they tend to waste away if they are not used. He uses murder as his example-we all feel strongly against murder-but if no one was ever murdered eventually we would cease to feel so strongly against it. Ultimately if our feelings are to be kept alive and strong on a certain crime, they must be provoked and stimulated.
The implications of this early sociological theory to this contemporary study are hugely significant. Such a perspective suggests that crime epidemics, such as the heroin example, carry out the function of ‘provoking and stimulating’ societies feelings against drugs. To put it another way, it exists solely to re-emphasise our moral boundaries; it is making moral structures visible, and thus maintaining the collective conscience. This may go some way to explaining why Parker (1988) believes that ‘local heroin epidemics occur every 15-20 years.’ It is for these reasons that Durkheim sees crime to be a healthy, pre-requisite of society-so does this mean that other forms of crime are used in similar ways? -Ecstasy in the early 1990s could be another avenue of exploration with regard to the question posed.
According to critics of Durkheim’s work, including Box (1981)and Roshter (1977), crime is always a question of definition/criminalization, and it is not simply an ‘objective phenomenon that can be non-problematic in its identification.’ Similarly without enforcement or enaction there can be no criminal behaviour as such. The critics further add that if anything is functional for society then it can only be the social reaction to and the definition of behaviour as crime, rather than the behaviour itself. It is these criticisms and weaknesses that lead us to look at the work of Becker.
His work differed from that of Durkheim's primarily in that the two worked under different theoretical frameworks. Durkheim was a structural functionalist working under the positivist framework, whereas Becker held an anti-positivist stance, working under relativist assumptions. These were that ‘social reality was not straightforward, pre-given and absolute, but essentially socially constructed, problematic and open to interpretation.’ (Bilton, 1996) This perspective surfaced in the 1960s through the work of both Becker and Edwin Lemert (1961) under the Labeling standpoint, causes no longer became the central concern of understanding and explaining crime-definition was the key consideration for these sociologists.
For labeling theorists, to understand the true nature of crime one must study the police, the courts and other agencies as well as the offender. Law enforcement is essentially a selective process in which certain social groups are more vulnerable to arrest, prosecution and punishment, particularly those of the lower class, non-whites and young groups, who hold less power and have fewer social resources to resist labeling. It comes as no surprise then when the media and law enforcement groups point the finger at the young and the unemployed when looking to apportion blame for the apparent rise in heroin addiction (BBC Online, 1998). Although very different, the works of Durkheim and Becker are drawn together by the idea of moral codes, both parties believe that society is inconceivable without them.
Becker himself has produced some key studies in the area of drugs, of particular note is his work on the development of the Canadian Narcotics legislation, and his formulation of the affiliation theory in his study of marijuana smokers (Fitzgerald etal, 1981). However, of particular importance to this dissertation is his ‘moral crisis production’ theory, with the overall aim of applying it to the current heroin epidemic.
The primary goal in applying his theory is to identify the existence of a crisis entrepreneur. This type of individual exhibits the enterprise of rule making, whose creations are the product of initiative. In terms of the contemporary heroin epidemic there can only be one candidate for this label-the British Anti-Drug Co-ordinator, or as the press call him the Drug Czar, Keith Hellawell.
The Government appointed him to oversee the various drug agencies and take action against all drug-related trends, in terms of creating drug strategies and announcing new courses of action. In 1998 he warned the country of a ‘heroin epidemic’, stating that the drug was ‘the same price as a pint of beer’ and that its availability on the streets was greater than ever before (New wave of heroin addiction, 1998). Later in the year he also added that ‘more and more young people were taking heroin and that ‘some were not fully aware of the addictive nature of the drug’ (Ford, 2000).
Furthermore he told the BBC that around 200,000 were addicted to drugs in this country, of which around 80% were using heroin. On this basis Hellawell fits comfortably in the ‘crisis entrepreneurial’ category, yet according to Becker this factor alone does not create a moral crisis. Becker identified five other elements that were necessary for a moral crisis to exist, and a large part of this dissertation is dedicated to identifying whether or not these five areas can be applied to the current heroin epidemic.
The first of these five conditions is that there has to be a behaviour that can be focused upon, and furthermore it must, in Becker's words, be ‘ made visible, highlighted, denounced and moralised about.’ What this implies is that a vague apprehension that there is ‘something evil’ in the world is not enough-this so-called evil must have a specific focus so that some form of action can be taken against it. In the 1980s it was mugging, in the early 1990s it was ecstasy, but in contemporary Britain the evil is heroin-afterall heroin ruins peoples lives, causes them physical harm and drives them to commit crime according to many media articles and popular belief. Thus heroin abuse may be the behaviour that is the focal point.
The second condition is that there must be a group of people who can be identified and held responsible for the activity, Becker is of course referring to the deviants. As a crisis entrepreneur it is Keith Hellawell’s responsibility to denounce these groups to the rest of society, which at a national level may have the desired effect. However, similar action at a local level is also vitally important, we must remember that this study is set at a local level, and people must be able to relate to the dangers of heroin abuse in their own towns. Thus at a local levels one has adopted the term crisis agents, which include the local media and government agencies. In other words, at a national level the crisis entrepreneur denounces heroin users, but at a local level it is the responsibility of the crisis agents.
The third area is the need for an audience; the crisis agents must have a relevant community to whom they can appeal. According to Becker the members of this audience are treated as ‘moral judges’ who uphold the relevant moral schemas set in place within society. Furthermore, for Becker it is not necessary for members of such audiences to believe in the schemas they are expected to hold (i.e. many individuals may believe that cannabis should be legalised), just that they act as though they do (but would never admit it in public).
The fourth requirement is the availability of a means of communication between the moral agents and the audience, which in modern British society can largely be accounted for by the mass media. The news media portray increases in crime, drug overdoses and other statistical pictures of a crisis, but can this be applied to the media at a local level?
The final pre-requisite for the existence of a moral crisis is the demonstration of the deviant ‘violating’ and ‘discrediting’ the moral schemas which are in place in society. An example of this would be the crimes committed by heroin users. Many of us in society feel that it is wrong to steal from other people, so if in theory heroin use can be linked to property crime then the users are displaying behaviour that breaches the moral schemas most of us uphold. Relating back to the work of Durkheim it is these moral schemas, the collective conscience, which maintains social solidarity.
Essentially each of these conditions must be shown to be real if a moral crisis is to exist, yet establishing the existence of each area is simpler in theory than it is in practice. Furthermore once a moral crisis has been established its success must be explored. To do this we must look at what the crisis agents have accomplished. Have they:
1. Turned the activity into something undertaken by people of special note, not just
anybody but a specific group?
2. Have they instilled the belief that heroin users are ‘no longer like you and me?’
3. Shown that the crisis will not abate unless the audience takes action?
4. Have they shown that the motives of the deviant are either ‘evil’ or behaviour that
they cannot control?
In theory if they achieved these objectives then the moral crisis has been hugely successful in maintaining its goals. Of course Becker's framework does not account for the goals of a moral crisis, but one can theorise its goals by relating back to the work of Durkheim, or looking at similar moral crises of the past. Ultimately, this dissertation will aim to do just that in the conclusion after summing up the evidence gained.
Finally, according to Becker there are four types of crisis agents, Education, Law Enforcement, Medical and Radical. Each of these agents will be identified at a local level, and although they all embrace different theories about the causes and solutions of heroin use, essentially they all agree on the existence of a drug crisis, and that drug use and the users are a problem.
To conclude the theory section, the objective of this dissertation is to apply the above theoretical framework to a contemporary crime epidemic. We will see throughout the following chapters whether or not it can be successfully applied, whether it is still valid, and whether anything has changed that may undermine the theory or warrant its rejection.
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