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The Development Of Criminal Social Identity

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5363 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The development of social identity has been a source of great interest to psychologists, however much research has been directed at the development of the social self, that is, the self defined by one’s membership of social groups such as gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sub-cultural groups. The aim of this paper is to consider development of criminal social identity looking from psycho-social perspective, the self defined by membership of anti-social or criminal groups such as gangs or small non-organized criminal groups. The article starts with an explanation of the meaning and role of identity as social psychological concept introduced by Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1979) and Self-Categorization Theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher and Wetherell, 1987), indicating its multidimensional nature. The remaining parts of the article are organized around the application of Social Identity Theory and Self-Categorization Theory to development of criminal social identity, indicating essential role of dysfunctional family, anti-social peers and stored representations of criminal significant others in memory. Finally, the last part describes multiple social identities emphasizing gang membership and the process of how criminal behaviour may shift as social context and social identity shift.

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Social Identity and Self-Categorization Theory

One theoretical approach in which social comparisons occupy a essential place is Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1979), and its more updated explanation, Self-Categorization Theory (Turner et al., 1987). According to Social Identity Theory, individuals’ perceptions of, and attitudes toward, in-group and out-group members ultimately develop from their need to identity with and belong to groups that are relatively superior, as means of enhancing their level of self-esteem. The result of these processes is that individuals perceive other group members to be similar to themselves and show preference in their attitudes and behaviours toward them, whereas out-group members are perceived to be dissimilar from in-group members and to posses less favourable qualities, and therefore they can be discriminated against.

Turner’s (1982) distinction between personal and social identity illustrates the beginning of Self-Categorization Theory. Personal identity is defined as self-definition of unique individual in terms of interpersonal or intra-group differentiations (“I” or “me” versus “you”), whereas social identity means self-definition as a similar group member in terms of in-group – out-group differentiations (“we” or “us” versus “they” or “them”). The theory was then developed in greater detail by Turner et al. (1987) who pointed out that Social Categorization Theory specifies the antecedents and consequences of both personal and social identity. Therefore, it can offer explanations for both individual conduct as guided by personal identity and group behaviour guided by social identity.

According to Self-Categorization Theory, both personal and social identity develop from self-categorizations, which are:

“cognitive groupings of oneself and some class of stimuli as the same … in contrast to some other class of stimuli” (Turner et al., 1987, p. 44).

The theory suggests that identity salience is a combined function of individuals’ readiness to adopt a particular identity and the degree to which that identity is accommodated as a significant self-definition within a specified social framework. Readiness to adopt a specific identity depends on individuals’ universal principles, changing motives, currant objectives, former experiences and so forth. For example, a former experience of being ignored because of particular group membership likely decrease individual’s readiness to classify oneself in terms of the corresponding social identity, if individual wants to escape from further mistreatment. However, if one’s present aim was to draw public attention to particular mistreatment, readiness for such self-definition should increase. Moreover, readiness to adopt a specific identity can be influenced by the comparative strengths of one’s needs for assimilation or differentiation (Brewer, 1991). For example, adolescents in large anonymous neighbourhood may wish to join a local criminal group to achieve a noticeable identity, whereas in criminal group new member may wish to assimilate and blend in with the rest in order not to become an outsider.

The salience of personal identity is constructed in the same way as a combined function of readiness (e.g., a high need for distinctiveness) and fit. However, the significant distinction lies in the consequences of personal versus social identity salience. The salient personal identity should accentuate the perception of individual differences and intra-individual similarity or consistency. A salient social identity, however, is supposed to improve the perception of self as similar to, or even identical with, other in-group members and as diverse from out-group members, who are perceived as highly similar to each other.

It is the mechanism of depersonalization, related to a salient social identity, or personalization, associated with a salient personal identity, that is responsible for group behaviour or individualistic behaviour, correspondingly. This process of depersonalization specifies a shift from personal to social identity which should not be confused with a loss of identity – a state that has been referred to as deindividuation (Zimbardo, 1970). This process not only depersonalizes self-perception but also transforms self-conception and assimilates all aspects of one’s attitudes, feelings, and behaviours to the in-group model; it changes what individuals think, feel, and do (Hogg, 2001). Depersonalization is the fundamental process underlying group phenomena; it perceptually distinguishes groups and provides with perceptions, attitudes, feelings, and behaviours that are stereotypical and group normative.

Multidimensional Aspect of Social Identity

Literature review on social identification suggested that cognitive processes, emotional relations, and interdependence between group members are all significant characteristics of the social identification process (Deaux, 1996). A number of researchers investigating the nature of social identification concluded their research with empirical evidence for the multidimensional structure of social identification (Cameron and Lalonde, 2001; Ellemers, Kortekaas, and Ouwerkerk, 1999; Hinkle, Taylor, Fox-Cardamone, and Crook, 1989; Jackson, 2002; Jackson and Smith, 1999). Karasawa (1991) differentiated between identification with the group members and identification with group. Hinkle and colleagues (1989) found empirical support for three aspects of identification: an affect aspect, a cognitive aspect and a group dynamics aspect. Further investigation conducted by Ellemers and collegues (1999) reported findings indicating three dimensions of social identification; group self esteem, self categorization, and commitment to the group. Findings similar to those presented by Cameron (2004) were reported by Jackson (2002) who suggested three dimensionality of social identification in relation to self categorization (a cognitive factor), evaluation of the group (an affective factor) and perceptions of solidarity (in-group ties factor). Although the factor structure of social identification does vary across these research, the notion of multidimensionality consistent with Tajfel’s (1978) definition of the construct, which explains social identity as originating from familiarity of group membership, and the value and emotional significance attached to that membership.

Cameron (2004), in his recent investigations referred to Deaux’s (1996) three factorial nature of social identity and devised his own multidimensional scale which measures three aspects of social identity. First, Cognitive centrality which is referred to the cognitive importance of a given group membership, and is analogous to the self categorization factors which appeared in Ellmers et al’s (1999) and Jackson’s (2002) studies. Second, In-group affect, refers to the emotional evaluation of that group membership, summarizing the emotional dimension which has emerged in previous research (e.g. Ellmers et al., 1999; Jackson, 2002; Hinkle et al., 1989). Finally, In-group ties, is referred to the perception of resemblance and bonds with other members of given group, which again has been suggested in previous investigations (e.g. Ellmers et al, 1999; Jackson, 2002; Hinkle et al., 1989; Karasawa, 1991).

Research suggests that people belong to numerous social groups; nevertheless these memberships are not likely to be of corresponding psychological meaning or determining the behaviour at a given time (e.g., Deaux, Reid, Mizrahi, and Ethier, 1995). The rationale is based on contextual factors, such as the salience of a specific social categorization, which occupy a significant function in bringing the relevant identity to the cognitive foreground. This process is referred to in terms of shifting self-categorizations (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, and Wetherell, 1987), or brief changes in the self-concept that consequently direct social perception and behaviour. Another explanation for the relative psychological primacy of a given social category, however, is its continuing (i.e., cross-situational) cognitive importance within structure of the self concept; that is, some individuals are chronically readier to perceive and act in terms of given category than others (Oakes, 1987; Gurin and Markus, 1989). Therefore, the social identification for these individuals may be relatively central. Having said that centrality is manifested in the cognitive accessibility of a social identity, the operationalization of this phenomenon is the frequency with which membership in a particular group ”comes to mind.”. However, an additional associated method in which centrality has been conceptualized is related to personal significance for the self (Hutnik, 1991; Rosenberg, 1979; Sellers, Rowley, Chavous, Shelton, and Smith, 1997; Stryker and Serpe, 1994).

Research proposes that the emotional quality of group membership occupies a significant role in social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel and Turner, 1979), which hypothesizes that a negative social identity, resulting from intergroup social comparisons, stimulates attempts to achieve a more positive identity by engaging in particular strategies such as engagement in more constructive social comparison, challenging the intergroup status hierarchy or leaving group structures. Most scales measuring social identification include at least a few items that reveal the evaluation of group membership (e.g., Brown et al., 1986; Ellemers et al., 1999; Hinkle et al., 1989; Luhtanen and Crocker, 1992; Crocker, 1992; Phinney, 1992; Sellers et al., 1997). In the Cameron’s (2004) model, this aspect of social identity is referred to as in-group affect, given that measured items reflect particular emotions (e.g., being glad or regretful) that occur from group membership.

A third feature of social identification reflects the psychological ties that connect the self to the group. Allport (1979) explained the nature of identification as an ”emotional merging of self with others” (p. 293), which corresponds to Freud’s (1967) concept in which the libidinal ties between members of particular group reflects those ties that are between parents and children. This nature of identification as emotional bond between group members is incorporated in a number of scales of social identity (Phinney, 1992; Hinkle et al., 1989; Brown et al., 1986; Cameron and Lalonde, 2001). Moreover, a great amount of the related theoretical and empirical studies concerning in-group ties is associated with the literature on group cohesion. Although cohesion has been conceptualized and evaluated in many ways (see Dion, 2000; Hogg, 1992), one significant difference is between scales that incorporate a group-level approach and those aimed at capturing individual-level perceptions of the degree to which one feels bound to the particular group. Consistent with the latter approach, in-group ties are defined here as the degree to which ”group members feel ‘stuck to,’ or part of, particular social groups” (Bollen and Hoyle, 1990, p. 482).

The Development of the Criminal Social Identity

According to Erikson’s (1963; 1968) and Marcia’s (1967) theory of ego identity formation, the development of one’s identity arises out of the identity crisis that occurs during adolescence when peer relationships play an important role (Waterman, 1985). In order to deal with psychosocial crisis, individual has to engage in the process of exploration of different identities and roles, eventually emerging in pro-social or antisocial identities. It is suggested that the need for social comparison increases during adolescence, where peer influence plays an important role in identity development. Goethals and Darley (1987) maintain that the school setting is one that supports strong social comparison, especially in terms of academic achievement. Such comparison processes involve social categorization, as the two are strongly linked, and have implications for the self-concept (Turner, 1985). Self-categorization’s meta-contrast principle clarifies how individuals who engage in these comparisons achieve their group identity. This depends on:

“the degree that two or more people come to perceive and define themselves in terms of some shared in-group – out-group categorization”. (Turner, et al. 1987; p. 51)

Therefore, it is the perceived relative resemblance and distinction that results in identification and psychological group development. Membership in particular group is “psychological” when the social identity of the group members, incorporated into their self-concept, can become salient without the physical presence of individuals of given group. As a consequence of social comparison and categorization processes, it can be suggested that two groups are distinguished within the higher level category of the person identity; the successful and the failures when the measurement of comparison is intellectual and social abilities, and the conforming and the non-conforming, when the comparison is measured by attitudes towards authority (see Lynam, et al. 1993; Tremblay, et al. 1992; Zingraff, et al. 1994).

The more successful individuals, under certain circumstances when their social identity is salient, tend to identify themselves as members of particular group. This process is influenced by higher status and increased impermeable boundaries of the group (Ellemers, 1993) and provides a socially protective purpose. In addition, the group identification of the failures and non-conforming individuals is expected to be facilitated by the low status, high stability and perceived impermeability of group boundaries (Ellemers, 1993). It is anticipated that for these people, there is only slight probability of transferring to a higher status group, as this is significantly influenced by individual intellectual and social abilities, which is comparatively constant. Over time, group boundaries are likely to become strong and constant, once categorization and labelling followed by rejection between groups takes place. The failures and non conforming group would exhibit significantly higher level of out-group discrimination. The identification of the failures and non conforming individuals as a group fulfils the emotional function of providing its members with an alternative social identity and an increased self-esteem, as hypothesized by social identity theory.

Individuals, who have failed in their social roles and exhibited non-conforming behaviour on a personal level, would see themselves as inconsistent in relation to higher level identity. Higgins (1987) suggested that they would experience a sense of discrepancy in terms of their actual and ideal selves which is associated with depression or sense of agitation. This statement corresponds with Agnew’s (1993) Strain Theory which suggests that inability to reach important goals results in frustration and anger.

These unconstructive feelings of self-derogation, anger, frustration, jealousy, antipathy and hostility (Salovey and Rodin, 1984) may be aggravated by external family factors, including the lack of tenderness, parental rejection or inappropriate parenting style (Shaw and Scott, 1991; Patterson, et al. 1989; Simon, et al. 1991). The lack of parental tenderness and affection can restrain the development of empathy and guilt (Baumeister, et al. 1994), by emotional, psychological and physical isolation individuals from their parents, which makes a negative impact on the bonds of social control (Hirschi, 1969) and reduce any motivation to make every effort for pro-social accomplishment or to conform to the authority. An empirical support conducted by Downs and Rose (1991) suggests that peer groups are deviant in terms of un-involvement with pro-social activities and non-conforming behaviours. Members of this group are rejected by the other pro-social groups and manifest more psychosocial problems than individuals from the other groups indicating, at the same time, lower level of self-esteem. Therefore, it can be suggested that these dimensions influence development of negative or criminal identity.

The role of peer relationships has a significant influence in development of criminal identity. Parker and Asher (1987) followed by Juvonen (1991) have suggested that the consequences of peer rejection are reported by individuals’ low self-esteem, violent tendencies, an increased risk of dropping out of school or social activities and development of criminal behaviours. Rejection by peers, whether real or perceived, is then an additional source for categorization into groups which mutually reject one another. Having said that, rejection can be perceived as the cause or the product of self-categorization. Therefore, the negative identity that results in being self-discrepant or inconsistent, pertains not only to individual group member who consistently fails in his/her social tasks and is non-conforming in pro-social attitudes and behaviour, but applies as a whole to group of members, which also face the dilemma of a lower social status in society compared to the group of successful and conforming individuals.

In the process of identification with others and forming a subgroup within the higher level social identity, non-conforming and less successful individuals adopt the scheme of “social creativity” and according to social identity theory, they achieve increased level of self-esteem (Oakes and Turner, 1980; Lemrye and Smith, 1985) through their positive distinctiveness, which is characterized by rejection and reversal of pro-social norms, in other words, what is considered constructive, positive and valued in society is redefined as unconstructive, negative and derogated(Cohen, 1955). Having said that, non-conforming behaviours associated with criminal identity, such as aggressiveness or any aspect of anti-social conduct, would be perceived as a desirable trait.

Criminal identification creates mutual agreement among members who have similarly as a group, rejected conventional model of social norms. McGarty et al. (1993) have suggested that this has the effect of uncertainty reduction and is likely to be a source of self- enhancement (Kaplan, 1978, 1980; Kaplan et al. 1986, 1987). Thus, this group of individuals tend to engage in criminal behaviours in spite of their sense of self-derogation (Fischer and Bersani, 1979), in contrast to those people who maintain strong psycho-social bonds with the family and the society, who tend to exhibit low self-esteem after engagement in criminal behaviour (McCarthy and Hoge, 1984).

Campbell’s (1987) research conducted on Puerto Rican female gang members has supported concept of identity formation through rejection and reputation. This study has discovered that the gang membership is a manifestation of a rejected identity. She concluded that gang members perceive themselves as dissimilar from their peers.

“Their association with the gang is a public proclamation of their rejection of the lifestyle which the community expects from them” (p. 463).

Their criminal identity or criminal self-image derives from the process of rejection and putting-down those peers who are not associated with their anti-social norms. Therefore, they often define themselves by characteristics of what they are not to others.

Once the criminal social identity with reversed (criminal) norms becomes established, members of criminal group then achieve a sense of self-consistency by a manifestation of their new identity in terms of criminal behaviours. This has been suggested by Breakwell (1986) who emphasized the significance of relationship between identity and behaviour:

“Action is the social expression of identity. The only route of access to the identity of another is through his or her action, whether verbal or not. Since identity comprises emotions, beliefs, and attitudes it is a prime motivator of action. Identity directs action.” (p. 43)

Development of criminal identity can be better understood from Interpersonal Social-Cognitive Theory of Self proposed by Andersen, Chen and Miranda (2002). It suggests that mental representations of significant others are stored in memory and that:

“transference reflects basic social-cognitive processes – namely, the activation of the perceiver’s mental representation of significant other in an encounter with a new person, leading the perceiver to interpret and remember the person in terms of the activated representation, and to respond emotionally, motivationally, and behaviourally to the person in representation-derived ways” (p. 160).

It further postulates that significant others’ (criminal others in this particular case) mental representations are significantly influential because they loaded with affect and because they describe the manner in which one’s expectancies, affects, motives and behaviours in relation to other individuals arise. Furthermore, it assumes that significant-other representations are connected to knowledge signifying the self one is in relation to significant others. The presence of such connection entails that the activation of significant-other representation should extend to features of the self and identity that are related to particular other. However, as suggested by Linville and Carlson (1994), the idea that one’s whole pool of self-knowledge is likely to be working at once is vague. It is positioned that only a subset is in working memory at given moment. Therefore, the contextual cues determine the particular elements of self-knowledge that are entered into working memory, suggesting that the self and identity is fundamentally created alternatively in each context. In Andersen et al.’s (2002) opinion:

“when contextual cues activate a significant-other representation, the working self-concept shifts toward the self one is with the significant other” (p. 161).

Once the criminal social identity become salient, members tend to display behaviours that are exemplary of the criminal group model and may participate with other in-group members to express their conformity (Turner, 1982; Thornberry et al. 1993). Demonstration of over-conformity to criminal standards and conduct would then be positively encouraged and reinforced by other in-group criminals, consequently leading to an increase of criminal behaviour, or an alteration of non-criminal acts to criminal one. Therefore, criminal group members do not have to apply persuasion in order to make an impact on others anti-social attitudes or commit a crime because it occurs through the process of identification and self-categorization.

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The investigation conducted by of Klein and Crawford (1968) and that of Pabon et al. (1992) suggested that the criminal group members are characterized by a sense of belongingness, which is an inter-group rather than inter-personal feature. Klein and Crawford (1968) found that the cohesiveness of the criminal group is due to external rather than internal aspects, and Pabon et al. (1992) established in their empirical research that members of criminal groups tend to lack intimacy and affection in regards to their relationships.

Multiple Social Identities and Their Change

Societies, in general, produce various moral principles for different settings and situations, such as for behaviour in the home, in the community, or on the streets. Moral behaviour is not only context-specific, but also formed by the social identities that occupy an important role in a given circumstances. Particular social identities represent particular beliefs and values about what is morally appropriate or inappropriate, and when they become significant in a precise context, they are likely to model individual behaviour. Subsequently, aggressive practices which take place in the situation of the assertion of a particular social identity do not necessarily carry over into another situation within which a different identity, with diverse moral standards, prevails. Therefore, as suggested by Dawes (1992), moral behaviour may shift as social context and social identity shift.

It has been postulated in the Situational Theory of Delinquency (Sykes and Matza, 1957; Matza, 1964) that criminals tend to drift in and out of non-conforming or anti-social behaviour. Under certain circumstances, such as company of criminal group, individuals can be expected to think and behave along with non-conventional norms. Thus, anti-social behaviour is manifested only when the criminal identity is salient. Individuals are expected to be more delinquent in the presence of criminal in-group others, although the physical company is not essential for salience to take place. What matters most is the psychological identification with the criminal in-group members. In other words, it is suggested that those individuals in their personal identity as members of their family tend to have less anti-authority attitudes than when they are in the social identity as criminals among criminal in-group members. It has been also noticed by Cohen (1990) that in the commitment of criminal activities, criminals act as interchangeable units of a collectivity, thus, any insult caused to one member of criminal group is perceived insult to all members who share the same identity.

Strocka (2008), in her research in Latin America, reported a degree to which gang members’ behaviour changed across different social contextual situations which made her to realize of the multiple social identities that young people held apart from their gang membership . She observed that a number of gang members were permanently drunk and involved in criminal violent behaviour, however during the time they worked in their rural communities they completely abstained from alcohol and violence. Moreover, two ex-gang leaders, whose police records indicated that they had no scruples to eliminate their rivals, revealed lack of violent tendencies towards their children or wives. Both gang leaders had been physically abused by their parents when they were children and did not want to copy that behaviour in their families. Thus, Strocka (2008) suggested that the youth gang members were not generally and inherently violent because they only showed violent and criminal behaviour in context of their social identity as gang members, that is, at joint actions with their peer group and encounters with opponent gang group. In these situations, individual criminal conduct is more likely to be directed by the norms and values of the criminal group, according to which violence is a desirable when comes to defend the gang’s honour and territory. However, youth gang members appeal to different moral behaviour and reasoning when they identify with different social roles such as a father, husband or day worker.

Youth gang membership is limited to a certain period of the life cycle (Rodgers, 1999). The question, then, arises; what happens to gang members when they grow older? According to Strocka (2008) the prevalent assumption in public discussion is that most youth gang members either are being killed before they reach adulthood or will end up as “professional criminals” with persistent violent tendencies. In other words, it is believed that gang members when they grow up, they either adopt social identities with similarity or even more negative characteristics (professional criminals), or carry over the harmful behaviours related to gang membership to other social identities, for example, it is assumed that a ex-gang member will become an abusive husband and father.

The position of cultures of resistance and adjustment is imperative in theories of the appearance and verification of criminal identity and was incorporated in the Clemmer’s (1961) concept of “prisonization”, a form of secondary socialisation in which offenders learn how to adapt to prison life style. These adaptations have been documented along the range from withdrawal to continual rebellion. Cohen and Taylor (1972) argued that such investigations do not seek to identify what these adaptations imply to inmates themselves. They agree to the importance of the “inmate code” and offender subculture (Sykes and Messinger, 1960) in helping prisoners to get by, however they want to stress

“the conscious, creative nature of the subculture” and “the positive nature of the dogmas, mythologies, beliefs, modes of adaptation and feeling which are part of day to day experience of people who find themselves in extreme situations” (Cohen and Taylor, 1972; p. 58).


The purpose of this paper was to present the application of social identity and self-categorization theories to development of criminal social identity. It is suggested that individuals become criminals because of a persistent criminal identity which has its origin in social comparison processes. Negative social comparison of individuals who have failed in their social roles and exhibited non-conforming behaviour on a personal level, aggravated by contextual factors such as dysfunctional family and the role of criminal peers, contribute to the development of negative identity suggested by strain and social control theories. This concept was supplemented by interpersonal social-cognitive theory of self which proposes that development of criminal identity might be influenced by representations of criminal others stored in memory, and is activated based on contextual cues. This is also consistent with the notion that individuals have multiple social identities which may shift as social context shifts. Therefore, it can be hypothetically suggested that the process of re-socialization of criminals should be based on pro-social context rather than penal one in order to change their criminal identity into pro-social identity and avoid adaptation of harmful behaviours associated with criminal group membership to other social identities such as adaptation of aggressive behaviour in family environment as father or husband.


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