William J. Wilson
William J. Wilson is one of the most influential African American sociologists. Wilson specializes in ethnic relations and race, and these areas are “central to his contributions to criminology/criminal justice” (Debro et al., 2000, p. 103). He demonstrates that the current structure of unemployment and unequal distribution of the social opportunities are closely related to discrimination to ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, in policies and laws.
Wilson also focuses on the micro-level examining the professional trajectories of African Americans and comparing them to the most widespread patterns that are dominant for other ethnic groups. A large amount of empirical evidences shows that the current state of affairs is typical and reflects the long-term tendency of discrimination and unequal social opportunities. He analyzes the history and dynamics of structural factors and concludes that both cultural and economic factors cause unsatisfactory economic conditions for African Americans. Wilson also contrasts the improvement of living conditions of the middle class with “the worsening conditions of the African American underclass” (Debro et al., 2000, p. 104).
In general, the results obtained by Wilson demonstrate a close correlation with other empirical facts. In particular, it is generally recognized that “during 1960s … dissension remained among urban African American residents who saw little improvement in their conditions” (Debro et al., 2000, p. 75). One of the goals of Wilson’s research is not only to specify the main causes of problems and social conflicts in the country but also to design a specific set of policy recommendations that may substantially improve the situation in the long run.
Another important Wilson’s contribution is his analysis of the group of people at the bottom of the underclass, especially regarding their rates of participation in the urban crimes (Debro et al., 2000, p. 104). Making his research at the University of Chicago, Wilson examines the main problems in the given city. Comparing different patterns of behavior typical for different ethnic groups, he concludes that racial inequality is the main source of the most widespread social problems, including crimes.
At the same time, Wilson recognizes that high rates of crimes are not only the result of discrimination in its narrow sense. They should be viewed as sociological consequences of the economic problems related to the current changes in demography. Demographic information should be correctly used for understanding the main laws of interactions between the various social and economic parameters. Wilson also stresses that the current problems are difficult to address because “they include historic and contemporary discrimination” (Debro et al., 2000, p. 105). Thus, the patterns of social discrimination are also not constant over time. Wilson proposes to strictly separate the two periods of discrimination in order to better understand the essence of the present state of the underclass population. A large fraction of African Americans occupies inner cities due to the influence of historic discrimination.
Wilson has developed a complex theoretical system explaining the impact of race and ethnic inequality on the rates of violent crimes. The sociologist shows that the majority of socially dangerous decisions are not made in isolation. Almost all people are under the permanent influence of their communities. Therefore, it is necessary to take into account the role of communities in the dynamics of crime levels in the country. Wilson examines “to what extent … black rates of crime vary by type of ecological area” (Debro et al., 2000, p. 110). His findings clearly prove that African Americans may demonstrate different patterns of behavior in accordance with their location and social environment. It means that the higher crime rates that are observed in relation to African Americans are largely the result of the negative social influence, rather than some inherited qualities of this ethnic group.
Moreover, Wilson explains that it is even theoretically impossible to create the same structural system for White Americans. As both ethnic groups live in different conditions, especially in the context of urban poverty, their incentive structures and life principles are very different. As a result, the level of crime rates is much higher among African Americans than among other ethnic groups. Wilson also widely uses the principles of social isolation. He claims that people at the bottom of the underclass are strongly isolated from the middle class. Consequently, they do not have the opportunity to adopt the same set of socially attractive values and have to orient on their short-term needs. As they do not understand the long-term benefits of peaceful cooperation and law-abiding behavior, they may use any means for the achievement of their goals (Aponte, 2010). As a result, the crime rates within this sub-group are much higher than the average level.
Thus, culture has a substantial influence on the likelihood of crime occurrence in the future. As culture specifies the set of options that are admissible for a given individual, it is also responsible for his/her initial attitude towards criminal behavior. As the majority of people cannot critically assess the implications of their culture on their future social perspectives, they absorb those principles that are supported by their culture, and act in accordance with them. This impact is highly strong for people from the bottom of the underclass, as they cannot freely interact with the representatives of other classes and social groups.
For example, the representatives of the middle class have an opportunity to constantly adjust their beliefs to the changing conditions of the external world through the process of “internalization of norms” (Debro et al., 2000, p. 110). People from the underclass cannot use these mechanisms in order to adjust their life principles, because they are almost completely isolated from the influence of other people and cultures. Therefore, their crime rates remain at a permanently high level, even if the general criminological situation in the country tends to improve.
It seems that Wilson both helps to understand the events happening in the US and the world, and proposes the important insights regarding the possible improvement of the criminological situation. He explains that the current global threats associated with violent crimes may be adequately explained and examined with the help of corresponding criminological theories. Moreover, the explanation should not be aggregate in order to understand the main structural differences that exist between the various ethnic groups. Wilson concentrates on African Americans for several reasons. First, he is also African American and understands the real situation of this racial group. Second, African Americans (especially young males) have the highest crime rates. Therefore, it is crucial to improve the situation in this respect in order to contribute to the overall progress in the country.
Wilson and a number of other scholars “have made significant contributions to criminology/criminal justice” (Debro et al., 2000, p. 76). Wilson is interested in race and ethnic studies not as his ultimate object of analysis, but rather as a means for better understanding of the current sociological and criminological patterns. This inter-disciplinary approach has proved to be highly efficient and influenced a large number of subsequent studies. As a result, “Wilson has become one of the most acclaimed sociologists of the contemporary era because of his publications in this area” (Debro et al., 2000, p. 76). Thus, it may be stated that his contributions to methodology of science are substantial.
Wilson’s approach is crucial for determining the main causes of historical dynamics of the level of crime rates. He shows that these trends are not random, but are subject to the strict social laws. Moreover, it is impossible to deal with this problem without the correct specification of the structure of potential criminals. As different fractions of the population demonstrate different levels of participation in violent crimes, Wilson tests various hypotheses about the causes of such a state of affairs.
In order to determine the truth, he compares the modes of behavior of the most problematic group (African Americans) in different social conditions (Teitz & Chapple, 1998). As their crime rates and the participation in violent crimes are not uniform and experience a substantial influence of the external conditions, Wilson concludes that the observed misbalance at the level of crimes is due to racial discrimination and unequal social and economic opportunities for the members of different social groups. This inequality is related to both economic and cultural factors. Economic factors largely determine the level of income and financial well-being. At macro-level, people with lower income are more likely to commit crimes. However, these relationships are mostly statistical rather than logical, i.e. they do not necessarily occur in each case.
Cultural factors determine the scope of behavior options that may be attractive for individuals under specific conditions. Wilson states that the problem of many African Americans is not only their low standard of living (economic factors), but their isolation from other members of society (cultural factors). Due to almost complete social isolation, these people cannot learn from other alternative modes of behavior, and merely reproduce those patterns that are dominant in their culture (Power & Wilson, 2010). As the current crime rates within this population group are high, these patterns tend to reproduce them over time.
Wilson’s approach and findings are useful not only for understanding of the current global trends, but for developing a system of effective interventions. Policy makers are usually interested not only in determining the causes of events, but in improving the present state of affairs. Wilson’s findings help to specify the optimal policy that should include large-scale welfare programs aimed at the improvement of standards of living for people from the underclass.
Even if the total amount of welfare funds is limited or even fixed, Wilson’s ideas may still be implemented. As the representatives of the middle class are integrated into the mainstream lifestyle, they enjoy a comparatively significant set of social opportunities. As a result, it is possible to reduce the level of welfare funding for these people, as this help does not substantially influence their social opportunities and crime rates. Correspondingly, any increase of welfare help for people from the underclass may substantially affect their behavior and average crime rates in the country.
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It may be concluded that William J. Wilson is one of the most influential criminologists and sociologists of the 20th century. He is particularly successful in integrating racial and ethnic issues into the broad sociological picture. He explains that unequal social opportunities for different racial and ethnic groups may result in significant social conflicts and problems. He stresses that the main attention should be paid to the people at the bottom of the underclass, as they are isolated from the rest of the population and often do not have any other alternatives except for being involved in criminal activities. These recommendations may serve as a basis for subsequent policy interventions. Additional social opportunities for people from the underclass may substantially decrease the overall crime rates and improve the general well-being of all people. Thus, the government and non-government organizations should modify the structure of recipients of their help.
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