Responding to Calgary's 'gang war': a political sociology of criminological ideas.

AuthorRollwagen, Heather

On 3 April 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the Canadian Professional Police Association, saying, "Many police forces are currently under-funded and under siege. This situation carries dire consequences for public safety. The lack of police patrols inevitably leads to more crime and more serious crime" (Harper 2006). In this speech, the prime minister directly equates an inadequacy of policing resources with increases in crime and a heightened level of risk and danger. In doing so, he reinforces two ideas: first, that public safety is in jeopardy; and second, that increasing the number of police officers will ensure the public is safe. Police, he implies, are the key element in ensuring public safety.

Increasing the size of a police force in response to a perceived crime problem is a common policy response. However, research that empirically examines the relationship between increasing the number of police officers and subsequent reductions in crime is contradictory at best (e.g., Sherman and Weisburd 1995; Sherman 1990; Cameron 1988; Blumstein, Nagin, and Cohen 1978). In general, the potential for police to significantly reduce the level of crime is limited. Yet, when crime is perceived to be increasing, political leaders consistently claim that the solution to crime is to increase the police presence on the street.

This paper examines why increased policing is taken up as a crime control policy, especially given that there is only limited evidence that a heightened police presence will lead to reductions in crime. We argue that a resolution to this paradox can be found by examining the ideas that guide political understandings of criminal events. More specifically, we will show how a heightened police presence is the logical policy solution because political actors (2) rely on prominent conservative ideas in the framing of criminal events. To illustrate this point, we rely on the political sociology of ideas, a theoretical framework that has been widely used to understand economic and welfare state policy but has scarcely been applied to understand the development of crime control policy. This framework is useful because it helps to connect general ideas about the nature of crime to specific policy responses. To illustrate our argument more clearly, we present a case study of a crime threat: a series of gang-related incidents occurring in Calgary, Alberta since 2007. Through an analysis of newspaper articles, we show how this event was framed by political actors in their communication with the news media. In turn, we demonstrate how this interpretation of the events enabled the general acceptance of policies that sought to increase the number of police. We begin with a consideration of previous research on crime control policy.

The relationship between crime and politics

The relationship between crime and politics is complex and has been a central issue in academic theorizing. Scholars have argued that the presence of crime issues on political agendas reflects an increased public concern over crime (Scheingold 1984). According to this perspective, individuals are increasingly experiencing crime, either directly or vicariously, and this leads to a heightened concern about crime issues (Skogan and Maxfield 1981). In turn, crime becomes a political issue because individuals perceive that crime is affecting their well-being (Wilson 1977). Therefore, the prominence of crime issues is simply "democracy at work" (Scheingold 1984: 49).

This perspective is contested by those who argue that political actors and the media play a significant role in establishing crime as an important social issue. According to this view, claims made by the state have a greater influence on perceptions of crime than on the actual incidence of crime (Beckett 1994). Such approaches to understanding the relationship between crime and politics emphasize the process through which various claims about crime problems are made and those claims, in turn, frame crime issues in a particular way. Some research rooted in this perspective tends to emphasize the political motivations of actors (Hier 2002; Parnaby 2003), while other studies explain how the "politics of fear" is exploited by politicians to achieve their own political ends (Altheide 2006: 416). It is assumed that political actors knowingly and purposefully portray crime issues in a way that maximizes their own political interest (Snider 2000; Beckett 1997). This perspective also emphasizes the role the mass media play in shaping crime threats (Best 1991; Sacco 1995).

While political actors and the mass media may play a role in the way events are framed, there are, nevertheless, competing perspectives on how a crime issue should be framed. In fact, divergent views on a crime issue may be advanced. Yet, some research indicates that the views of political actors and institutional actors (namely, law enforcement personnel) are considered the most important influences on the framing process. A content analysis of crime news stories in the United States demonstrated that political actors and law enforcement personnel play the primary role in shaping crime discussions, whereas professors and non-academic researchers play a secondary role in framing crime issues (Welch, Fenwick, and Roberts 1998). (3) Given their role in framing crime issues, political and institutional actors establish the terms of reference from which most discussions of crime issues emanate (Welch, Fenwick, and Roberts, 1997: 475). Jenkins (1994) has illustrated the dominance of political interests in the definition of the "serial murder" issue in the United States, arguing that bureaucratic interests were the most active in the process of defining this social issue.

Prior research has established that political and institutional actors as well as the mass media play a central role in framing crime issues. In this article, we propose that the political sociology of ideas can build on this important research by helping to understand why crime issues are framed according to changing ideas about crime that help shape policies enacted in response to perceived threats. The political sociology of ideas has been used in past research to understand the development of, and changes in, social and economic policy (Beland 2007a), and we propose this framework for understanding crime-related policy issues. In particular, we apply this framework to understand the problem of gang violence that entered into the public discourse in Calgary, Alberta during the past decade. We begin by discussing this theoretical framework in more detail.

The political sociology of ideas

Sociologists and political scientists have long recognized that ideas play a major role in shaping policy and political outcomes (e.g., Camic and Gross 2001; Campbell 2004; Cox 2001; Edelman 1971; Hall 1993; Hansen and King 2001; Somers and Block 2005). One of the most influential contributions to the growing social science literature on ideas and public policy is Mark Blyth's (2002) analysis of the impact on economic policy of changing economic ideas. His analysis explicitly outlines the ways in which particular ideas influence both political mobilizations and policy decisions. While Blyth's analysis deals specifically with economic ideas, his general framework is extensive and has value for the present analysis.

For Blyth (2002: 11), policy ideas "provide agents with an interpretive framework." This interpretive framework guides the manner in which individuals make sense of certain events. According to this perspective, the nature of an event is not purely objective. Rather, when a perceived crisis arises, various ideas will be advanced to explain it. Generally, one dominant idea will gradually emerge as the most appropriate way of understanding the nature of the apparent crisis. This idea will be taken up by political actors, who will speak of the crisis in the light of this framework. In doing so, using extensive media coverage, they will help shape the way in which the public understands the perceived crisis.

Yet, how is it that one idea is taken up over others that are available? Indeed, some ideas are more powerful than others. Sociologists Margaret Somers and Fred Block (2005: 265) refer to the power of some ideas to undermine, dislodge, and replace other ideas as epistemic privilege. Ideas with epistemic privilege are immune to empirical challenges that would disconfirm their soundness (Somers and Block 2005: 265). (4) In other words, the logic underlying ideas with epistemic privilege makes them generally impossible to refute. At the same time, some ideas are powerful insofar as they are promoted by individuals and constituencies who are in positions of power (Hansen and King 2001). Ideas that are compatible with the perceived interests of dominant actors are more likely to be heard, implemented, and considered common-sensical (Snider 2000: 171). Ideas that are powerful, either because of the individuals who take them up or because of the nature of the ideas themselves, have the potential to shape significantly the way the public understands a policy issue.

Moreover, by shaping the understanding of an issue, ideas guide what is perceived to be the "best" response to that issue. For Blyth (2002: 11), "ideas allow agents to reduce uncertainty, propose a particular solution to a moment of crisis, and empower agents to resolve that crisis by constructing new institutions in line with these new ideas." In other words, the framework provided by an idea helps to shape what is considered the most "appropriate" response to an issue. This means that a set of ideas used to interpret a particular social issue can also inform policy choices.

Overall, the political sociology of ideas provides a useful framework for understanding policy making. Rather than understanding policy as the product of individual desires or a response to purely...

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