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Legal norms and crime control: A comparative, cross-national analysis

Jonathan Jackson, LSE; Ben Bradford, Oxford; Mike Hough, Birkbeck; Jouni Kuha, LSE

Why do people obey the law and cooperate with legal authorities? In this ESRC-funded project we will test two different theories - drawing upon Tom Tyler's work - of people's motivation to comply with the law and support the police and criminal courts in the UK, US and 28 other countries. Our findings will inform public policy on crime and policing at both the national and the international level.

The first theory we test is based on rational choice. An instrumental account focuses on deterrent threat and coerced compliance with the law. It posits that people are responsive primarily to the risk of punishment in deciding whether or not to break the law. If this is true, agents of criminal justice need to send out signals of effectiveness, strength, deterrence and detection. Social control mechanisms and credible risks of sanction would persuade rational-choice individuals that - while otherwise desirable - a criminal act is not worth the risk.

Normative theories start with the premise that most people comply with the law and cooperate with legal authorities largely out of ethical or moral considerations. When the police and criminal courts wield their authority in fair and neutral ways, this gives them legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. Legitimacy then shapes behaviour because people internalise the value that it is right and proper to obey the law and cooperate with legal authorities.

The distinction between instrumental and normative modes of compliance and cooperation is important because of the different policy implications that flow from these two accounts. An instrumental account based on deterrence stresses the importance of assertive and efficient authority. By contrast, a normative account based on legitimacy stresses the significance of procedural justice, human rights and fairness. Faced with the realisation that instrumental and indeed punitive policies can achieve only a limited effect in securing widespread compliance with the law - and do so at great expense - governments in countries across the world are showing a growing interest in understanding why people obey the law and how best to police their citizens.

Apart from our own preliminary analysis of the European Social Survey (ESS) data, to date there has been no comparative research on compliance with the law and different styles of policing. This project tests the theories of instrumental and normative compliance using the 2010 sweep of the ESS covering 27 countries, as well as new national probability sample of adults in the US, South Africa and Japan designed to provide comparable data. The survey datasets are supplemented by national level data of various kinds.

With these data we will (a) compare the relative importance of instrumental and normative modes of compliance and cooperation in each country; (b) explain why instrumental and normative modes may be more or less important in each country (starting with hypotheses drawn from Institutional Anomie Theory); and (c) examine the policing of minority groups, addressing whether deterrence models of crime-control have led to a counterproductive 'overpolicing' of key groups in each country, ironically weakening people's normative motivations to cooperate and comply.  

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