by Tarah Hodgkinson
How do we understand changes in our social life during an exceptional event, like the current pandemic? Over the last several months we’ve watched the world change dramatically in response to COVID-19. Many places are experiencing second waves, further lockdowns, economic crises and the tyranny of the masses.
The pandemic raises a number of questions, in particular, what will happen to our social life? Exceptional events can be anything from the Olympics or other major sporting events, to major gatherings of people like G20 protests or natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, or pandemics.
I’ve spent much of my academic career studying these events. It comes down to three main theories predicting how crime will unfold in an exceptional event;
• social disorganization
• social cohesion/altruism
• opportunity theories.
Each theory predicts a different outcome.
EXCEPTIONAL EVENT THEORIES
Social disorganization suggests that during an exceptional event, crime and disorder will increase because the usual social order has been disrupted. Exceptional events can exacerbate social inequality and emphasize the disadvantage for certain groups.
Theories of social cohesion and altruism suggest that during an exceptional event, crime and disorder will decrease because people are more likely to help each other and act altruistically.
Opportunity theories suggest that crime trends will go up and down based on opportunities for crime that are created or removed by the exceptional event.
COVID-19 is certainly an exceptional event and cities across Canada and Australia have seen declines in most types of crime. Some crime types are up in some areas, such as domestic violence and commercial burglary.
Other crime types are stable, such as drug-related crimes and robbery. Yet in the US, both increases and decreases in crime types are underway.
All of this should support opportunity theories. However, years of reading about the sociology of exceptional events, including being present on the ground for some of them, suggests there is more going on during COVID-19 than simply a change in opportunities.
A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL
Two authors come to mind. One is Rebecca Solnit, who wrote A Paradise Built in Hell. In this book, the author provides detailed evidence that in disaster situations, people engage in altruism above all else.
The second author, Enrico L. Quarantelli has debunked numerous myths about social behaviour in disaster situations. He wrote extensively about the acts of altruism across New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
This dramatically countered much of the media coverage of the disaster. So how do we explain changes in crime during COVID-19?
COVID-19 is unlike any other exceptional event. Inconsistent with much of the sociology of disaster literature, the pandemic is acting to force us apart and isolate us in a number of ways. Social distancing is counter to basic human needs for connection.
While the fluctuating trends in certain crime types may suggest that opportunity theory might be better at explaining exceptional events like pandemics, I’m inclined to believe that the significant declines in crime more broadly, across Canada, Australia and parts of the United States are more consistent with social cohesion/altruism theories.
If this is true, people are responding in ways that help, not hurt, during this pandemic, despite the social distancing. Crime trends in COVID-19 might be indicating that even with a major shift to social interaction, our desire to connect and protect – the main premise of SafeGrowth - outweighs the opportunities that these events create.
…and now for a short distraction from the awful news of late...
by Gregory Saville & Gerard Cleveland
Once upon a time, crime plagued the nation. Violence flared, year after year, like a wildfire of human suffering that cities could not extinguish. Cops did their thing, and then some. Prisons were filled. Downtown blight grew and fear split the nation into racial and economic camps like never before. And nothing seemed to work.
Then the crime wave changed direction. No one knew why. Nothing was different to account for the turnabout. Criminologists went to work to explain why and one tiny group came up with an answer, an answer so simple and elegant that the theory quickly became the talk of the theoretical end of town.
The geniuses who created the concept call it the Atmospheric Theory of Crime and they described it as follows:
There are three necessary elements for crime to occur: air, water, and land. When those three elements converge, crime chances increase. Remove one of them, and you prevent crime.
Let us begin with air! People cannot breathe without air. If you remove air from a room, burglars have no chance of stealing anything. If you freeze air to 100 degrees below zero, like at the South Pole, murderers are unlikely to find a victim outside. Sure enough, if you need proof, South Pole crime rates are almost zero. In fact, as lung tissue freezes, offenders themselves will perish. Even a dullard can see that burglary and murder rates in airless places are almost zero. We say almost because the dastardly cur Jacques Yves Cousteau figured out how to travel through underwater airless environments.
And in doing that the scoundrel Cousteau invented his scuba gear as a modus operandi for coral reef graffiti and underwater arson. True, those are rare. But still...
Then there is water.
Setting aside for a moment submerged arsonists, water blankets the planet and we see it every day in clouds, rain, rivers and lakes. But our clever environmental theorists noticed that if we increase the quantity of water to a certain percentage, eventually we pass the threshold when crime becomes impossible. Our statisticians can even measure the amount of water it takes to prevent crime.
Take for example a hurricane. Granted, plenty of looting occurs AFTER a hurricane, but just try stealing a car during the torrential 150-mile an hour winds, lashing rains, and the 10-foot storm surges. Even if you can get in the car to steal it, just try to drive it through flooded roads. Same problem in a Tsunami. How many muggers ever successfully mugged a victim on a beach as they and their victim were pummeled by a 100-mile-an-hour, 30-foot high wave. Our research shows us that you will not find a safer environment from muggers than on an empty beach as the Tsunami shows up.
That leaves land as the final pillar in our trifecta of crime-busting. You must have land to have crime. People live, walk, work, and play on it. If no land exists to walk upon or to build our homes on, we immediately eliminate domestic violence. Of course, DV may occur in the air or underwater but those statistical anomalies remain quite rare in our beta tests. Earth is the equalizer and without it, crime has no chance to worm its way into our communities. Mother Earth – that lovely Gaia preventer of crime!
CONFERENCES, JOURNALS, STUDIES
There you have it – the Atmospheric Theory of crime. Remove any one of those factors – air, water, or land – and crime everywhere falls quickly onto the scrap heap of abandoned human behaviors.
So now we need to spread the Atmospheric Theory of Crime far and wide. We need to create all kinds of sophisticated criminological tests for the theory while spending plenty of conference, journal, and research time arguing for the genius of A-TOC! (We must not forget the appeal of cool abbreviations for marketing purposes.)
In the future, we can wonder, “Gosh, why didn’t we think of A-TOC earlier?” Think of all the crime we could have prevented and misery and loss we could have avoided. Remove the air from robbery locations? “Geeze,” we can retort, “great crime prevention idea!” Flood cities and high crime areas with 30 feet of water! “Ha!” we will exclaim with glee, “now, let those arsonists just try…”
The hue and cry from within the orthodox criminology schools would howl their displeasure and shower disdain upon the upstart A-TOCs. False equivalency charlatans! – imagine claiming that crime and nature are interchangeable? Or they may take a lawyerly approach and decry the environmental school of crime as reductio ad absurdum wherein the contention of those A-TOC types reduces serious and complex issues of human criminal behavior to mere naïve states of weather. We can already hear the chorus of complaint in the inevitable defense of modern criminological theory and the tried and true explanations for the true reasons for crime.
Pretty silly, huh!
ROUTINE ACTIVITY THEORY
Now, take the Atmospheric Theory of Crime and replace it with an actual criminological theory – the Routine Activity Theory of crime (RAT) – and you have the same theory. In the case of Routine Activity Theory, air is an ‘absence of a capable guardian’, water is a ‘motivated offender’, and land is a ‘suitable target’ like a victim. Remove any of the three RAT principles and you – according to RAT – reduce the opportunity for crime.
But compare RAT to A-TOC in actual criminology journals and they would be filled with comments like this: "It might sound a bit like A-TOC but any such comparison to RAT only serves to highlight….blah, blah, blah."
As we have blogged before, RAT assumes a steady supply of motivated offenders, just like Atmospheric theory assumes a steady supply of air and water. RAT predicts that crime opportunities wane when you remove motivated offenders and Atmospheric Theory predicts crime vanishes when you remove land.
RAT does not try to explain the historical or societal contexts of “why” offender motivation occurs or “how” you might reduce those motivations, regardless of the number of potential victims. It simply takes a short cut and says figuring out the fundamental “why” factor becomes an unnecessary consideration once we remove the opportunity, offender, or victim. Others, too, have raised alarms about RAT as a pseudo-scientific truism, for example Professor Mike Sutton's article on the Mindless Chemistry Meme.
The same argument holds true with Atmospheric Theory – it does not try to explain why Tsunamis or hurricanes deter criminals, but rather posits through common, observable evidence that they do. And – in spite of William of Ockham’s philosophy that simple, not complex, usually explains the truth of things – the world of crime gives rise to social issues pregnant with complexity and uncertainty. Crime and simple rarely share the same space!
So, your takeaway for which criminal theory to apply in your city becomes a choice of which fantasy to support. The only difference between Atmospheric Theory and RAT is that the former is a fantasy made-up just now.
SO SAY WE ALL
Clearly, Atmospheric Theory takes logical leaps of absurdity to the point of comedy and requires nothing more than blind faith to believe its truth. Similarly, RAT – a contemporary theory and the subject of many studies – lacks any root-cause-of-anything explanation, unless you consider crime opportunity itself a “root cause” (the bizarre cart-before-the-horse logic that RAT proponents now suggest). Yet, the best criminology journals continue to proselytize on behalf of the holy trinity of guardians, offenders, and targets in spite of it explaining everything, and nothing, at the same time.
And so, we end our Atmospheric Theory of Crime story by remembering that wonderful science fiction fantasy Battlestar Galactica. During a key funeral scene, the actors all join in unison and declare solemnly that they will follow the orthodoxy of the times with faith, purpose and commitment. In closing, we mouth their choral sentiments of blind faith with the hopeful chant, “So say we all”.