The structure of punishment norms: applying the Rossi-Berk model .

Author:Jacoby, Joseph E.

    Over the past two decades research on the nature of public attitudes toward crime and punishment has grown substantially.(1) Much of this research has been descriptive, reporting "what the public thinks" about various crime-related issues. When conceptual frameworks are used to explore the organizing principles of public opinion, they are largely dominated by the ongoing debate between consensus and conflict theory.(2) Researchers typically comment on the implications of their findings for this debate: Do citizens fundamentally agree or disagree on the rules that should govern society? Findings of attitudinal agreement or consensus about the seriousness of crime or appropriate punishments for offenders are taken as evidence in favor of consensus theory; cleavages in opinion between social groups--especially along race and class lines--are taken as support for conflict theory. Only rarely, however, do researchers test a full range of hypotheses systematically derived from these competing theories.

    Although this body of research has value, the dominance of the consensus/conflict debate may have stifled the development of alternative approaches to examining crime attitudes. It is instructive that the empirical studies attempting to resolve whether consensus or conflict best describes a normative domain typically produce ambiguous results,(3) Researchers seldom find either universal normative consensus or consensus clearly differentiated by interest group membership. Instead they find variation--more intra-individual variation than supports consensus theory and less intra-group variation than supports conflict theory.

    It is possible that the "ambiguous" findings of analysis oriented around the consensus/conflict debate are a consequence of the limited vision of both perspectives. The patterns of norms that exist in the real world are not "ambiguous," though they are not explained adequately by either of the dominant perspectives. These perspectives may oversimplify the range of potential normative structures (i.e., normative structures may exist outside the types that are logically derived from either consensus or conflict theory).

    Accordingly, we suggest that criminologists studying the structure of crime attitudes should move beyond consensus and conflict theories as guides for their research by employing more comprehensive, sophisticated models. To this end, we use an analytical model introduced by Peter Rossi and Richard Berk.(4)

    The Rossi-Berk model offers a general sociological approach to investigating and mapping normative structures. We apply this model to data gathered through a national survey of public attitudes toward the punishment of street crimes.

    The Rossi-Berk model, which is described in detail below, has advantages over both consensus and conflict theory as a guide to exploring normative structures:

    1. The Rossi-Berk model is rooted in empirical observation, not ideology. Unlike both consensus and conflict theories, the Rossi-Berk model's validity does not depend on whether consensus or dissensus exists in any normative domain. Scholars embracing either of these competing theories, having a stake in finding or not finding consensus in public attitudes, must treat findings anomalous to their paradigm as somehow not reflecting reality. Consensus theorists dismiss inconsistencies between public opinion and public policy as products of misinformation caused by the entertainment media.(5) Conflict theorists dismiss evidence of widespread public agreement on some issues, asserting that survey respondents who express attitudes divergent from their "class interests" are exhibiting "false consciousness." Though the existence of false consciousness may be impossible to test empirically, it is an effective rhetorical response to evidence that challenges the validity of the conflict model.

    2. The purpose of the Rossi-Berk model is to provide a comprehensive tool that may be used to determine whether norms exist and what those norms are in any normative domain. Consensus theory, which is rooted in the sociological theory of structural-functionalism, has little to say about normative domains that are not clearly connected to common interests that contribute to the survival of the society; conflict theory has little to say about normative domains that are not clearly related to groups' political interests. Many normative domains, apparently, do not lend themselves to either consensus or conflict analysis because they are unrelated to either society's survival or groups' political interests.(6)

    3. The Rossi-Berk model is designed to deal with the full spectrum of variability of normative judgments--from absolute consensus to absolute dissensus--wherever it exists--within individuals, between individuals in the same group, and between groups of individuals. The model covers the entire range of logically possible normative structures. Neither consensus nor conflict theory predicts the wide variety of patterns of public opinion that actually exist.

    4. The Rossi-Berk model is "comfortable" with the continuum of consensus-dissensus that occurs in the real world. Unlike both consensus and conflict theory, the Rossi-Berk model does not require the arbitrary creation of dichotomous categories labeled "consensus" and "dissensus."

    5. Neither consensus nor conflict theory suggests any particular methods for testing its validity. The precise language of the Rossi-Berk model provides clear guidance to empirical application of the model through the measurement of variation of normative judgments within each individual, between individuals, and among groups of individuals.

    6. Applying the model to a normative domain clarifies how that normative domain is structured relative to other normative domains.

    7. Applying the model to the same normative domain in many cultures could clarify whether normative structures are universal or unique to each culture.

    8. Applying the model to a large number of normative domains creates the possibility of theorizing about norms at a higher level of abstraction, by revealing whether all normative domains are structured similarly or some domains have unique structures.

    9. The Rossi-Berk model exists outside the structural-functionalism/conflict debate, but applying the model to specific normative domains produces empirical findings that can answer questions raised in that debate.

    10. The Rossi-Berk model reconnects the study of crime and deviance to the field of sociology.(7) The study of normative structures uses the concepts and methods of sociology, and is of interest to sociologists studying all kinds of human behavior.



      The shape of normative consensus regarding criminal punishment has important implications for punishment policy and the very legitimacy of criminal justice institutions and processes: "[P]ublic opinion research can provide information about people's perceptions of the legitimacy of laws and the institutions that are designed to uphold, protect, and enforce them."(8) At a deeper level, however, it may be equally important to understand how people formulate their preferences about punishment. What qualities of crimes, offenders, and victims do people consider relevant to punishment? How do people combine the qualities they consider relevant, leading them to select a particular punishment? In other words, what norms guide their choice of punishments?

      An understanding of normative behavior is central to most social science conceptual schemes.(9) Norms identify deviant behavior and, relevant to our concerns, prescribe punishments for transgressors. The existence of normative standards is indicated when public opinion is characterized by high degrees of consensus and stability. Knowledge of this normative structure, however, is complicated by the difficulties associated with identifying empirically stable, enduring public preferences. In particular, research on norms has been hindered by two issues: how to measure them, and how to distinguish them from more idiosyncratic preferences.


      As noted above, a growing body of research has emerged on public attitudes toward the punishment of crime. Although these studies have provided useful insights about punishment norms, they have tended to be limited by one or more methodological problems. First, most public opinion polls about punishment have called for general responses to very complex questions stated in simple terms.(10) They have not evaluated subtleties in judgments. People have been asked, for example: "In general, do you think the courts in your area deal too harshly, or not harshly enough with criminals?"(11) When asked this question, 85% of respondents to a 1994 national poll responded "not harshly enough," revealing general dissatisfaction with judges' sentencing practices.(12) Respondents were not asked what they believed such practices to be or what practices they preferred. This apparent consensus, therefore, reveals neither respondents' policy preferences nor the norms underlying those preferences.

      This criticism applies in particular to conventional polling techniques (e.g., Gallup Polls), whose results often are disseminated widely in the media, strongly influencing policy makers' understanding of "public opinion."(13) The broad questions posed in traditional public opinion polls reveal little about normative structure. Such questions de-contextualize punishment choices from real-life situations where punishment is applied. They do not simulate actual decision making by people confronted with real punishment decisions (in the courtroom, for example), so they cannot reveal the norms guiding those real decisions. General questions about punishment tend to elicit very punitive responses characterizing the public's general fear of crime and dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system, rather than...

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