Sociology is the study of the social lives of humans, groups, and societies, sometimes defined as the study of social interactions. It is a relatively new academic discipline that evolved in the early 19th century. It concerns itself with the social rules and processes that bind and separate people not only as individuals, but as members of associations, groups, and institutions.
The study of crime and why people commit crimes is intriguing. It helps us to understand seemingly incomprehensible behaviour and the rational behind the criminal’s actions. We have to look beyond the obvious.
Criminals and deviants refuse to live by the rules that the majority of us follow. Yet human society is governed by rules and norms. Our society would collapse into chaos if we did not stick to rules defining acceptable from inappropriate behaviour in particular contexts and social situations. We create rules just as we break them. However many in our society do not live by these rules.
The American sociologist, Marshall Clinard, suggests that the term ‘deviance’ should be reserved for “those situations in which behaviour is in a disapproved direction and of a sufficient degree to exceed the tolerance limit of the community”. In terms of Clinard’s definition, crime and delinquency are the most obvious forms of deviance.
Most of us on some occasions transgress generally accepted rules of behaviour. We may for example, have at some point committed minor criminal acts – like exceeded the speed limit or smoked marijuana. Criminology concerns itself with forms of behaviour that are sanctioned by criminal law. We will also try to understand why people behave the way they do and we will direct our attention to social power. Using a case study, involving the profile of a criminal, we will try to match the circumstances relevant to this case with a theoretical background. We have selected a 45 year old male, who’s name we have change to Mark in order to protect his identity. Part of our sociology exam consisted of interviewing and writing a profile on a criminal. Through contacts, Mark came to our attention and we decided to write his profile due to his remarkable life so far. He just ended a nine month stay in a foreign prison for cheating/conning a croupier at a roulette table in a Spanish casino.
To conduct this interview, we prepared a substantial list of questions for Mark – all of which he was willing to answer. We focused on his upbringing, peers, social institution and environment and the link to symbolic interactionism/choice theory, differential association theory/social reaction theory, social control theory as well as showing the connection between delinquency and crime.
Before we move on to the case study and the theoretical approaches, we would like to give you an analysis of the mind and morality of the typical con man and what makes him tick. Although our case study falls into the ‘typical con man’ bracket, there are some areas where Mark would not thread as you shall see. Mark is true to type, meaning he is only interested in one type of crime.
DEFINING A CON ARTIST
The con artist features in the earliest literature and the oral traditions that preceded it. Odysseus is one of the first con men whose exploits were actually written down (for sneaking into Troy or slipping past the Cyclops with cunning ruses). In his book, The Fabulous True Story of the World’s Greatest Confidence Artist, Richard Rayner explains “There is no folk heroes more ‘all American’ than con artists. Though we may openly condemn them, deep down we can’t help but admire their shrewd understanding of how to pull off a scam.
The successful con artist is generally suave, smooth, smart, accomplished and sophisticated. He doesn’t have to resort to violence like a gangster. Con artists consider themselves to be the princes of the criminal fraternity – a cut above the other criminals on the street. In fact, he does not consider himself to be a criminal at all.
Confidence is the key for the successful con man, because once you gain people’s confidence, you can manipulate them. In con artist’s jargon that person becomes a mark, also known as a dupe.
It takes a special kind of person to be a con man. It certainly isn’t for everyone. It takes an even more unusual person who can take money from an establishment without a twinge of conscience or a moment’s hesitation or to con an elderly citizen out of her life savings. To psychiatrists, this kind of person is known as a sociopath.
A successful con artist needs to be missing some psychological attributes that the rest of us take for granted. Conscience is top of the list. There is no room for recriminations when ripping off a casino for example. He absolves himself of any responsibility for crimes committed. The con artist’s mantra is “they had it coming”. In other words, it serves them right. Many actually convince themselves that it’s the person/establishment’s fault that they got ripped off. If they hadn’t been so stupid then they would still be in possession of their money.
The con artist firmly believes that the world is divided into two: Those who are gullible and those who are clever enough to take advantage of a given situation. The con man thinks this is the natural order of things, the way of the world. This is how he rationalises away any twinges of conscience he may feel about vulnerable marks.
Another characteristic of a con man is that he believes that everyone else in the world is as amoral as himself; it’s just that they pretend to have morals and he doesn’t. The con artist’s second mantra is “do to them before they do to you”. He has no interest in forming meaningful relationships or friendships as these are likely to compromise his work.
“Hard work is for fools” is the con artists third mantra.
Why should he sweat and slave like some ordinary person when he could be living it up on easy street? Why pay taxes when you could be your own boss, raking in the cash and living the high life? Ironically a good con artist displays many of the virtues he affects to despise because a successful con requires hard work as well as gift, as we shall see in Mark’s case.
Finally, the best con artists genuinely love what they do. Proving that you are smarter, sharper and faster than the other guy gives the con man a thrill and provides quite a rush. Pulling a scam is like playing a game – winning that game affirms the con artist’s self image as someone who is a cut above the rest of the pack.
When we first met Mark, the impression we got is that of a charming, friendly and likeable character. He is 45 years old, 6ft 2, weights 90 kgs, broad, slightly balding and approachable with a lopsided smile and kind eyes.
He was born in Sydney, Australia to Maltese parents and is the second child of three. He has an older sister and a young brother. He lived in Australia for six years, after which time, his father was offered a job at a hotel as a concierge, and the whole family moved to Malta. Mark’s father worked his way to becoming a night manager in the Hotel.
A flat in ***** was part of the job package and Mark attended ***** School in ******where he learnt to speak Maltese. His parents were strict, religious, hard working and law abiding. His mother was a full time housewife for whom her children were a priority.
From the age of 7 to 14, Mark was an alter boy and enjoyed the social and sporting activities that were available. Friends were of utmost importance to him. Although he was a bright boy at school, he tended to sit at the back of the class room and on several occasions got into trouble for smoking. The nuns used to bring him to the front of the class but Mark started losing interest day by day. He began to skive off school a couple of days a week in order to meet up with his friends and play/gamble on billiards and snooker games which gave him “a buzz”. Due to Mark’s deviant nature, his absence from school was unnoticed as he would steal money from family members to pay the class prefect to amend the register.
It was this point in Mark’s life that he was introduced to gambling, that in turn led to a downward spiral and delinquency followed. The priest in charge of the alter boys gave Mark an ultimatum to choose between playing pool and taking part in the social/sport activities of the church. Mark’s rebellious nature won over and he chose to leave the church activities.
Despite having passed his school exams to enter St Albert the Great, which was considered a great achievement, Mark refused to go. Instead he opted for a technical school in order to be with his friends. He continued to skive off school.
Life at home was a nightmare, not for Mark but for the rest of the family. His mother would often stay up smoking incessantly, waiting for Mark to come home, usually drunk. He was becoming uncontrollable and the mother encouraged his father to discipline Mark by hitting him. On one occasion, after having come home late yet again, a big fight ensued, which resulted in Mark putting his hand through a glass door and having stitches in his right hand. Mark could not sit for his exams and ended up without qualifications. Instead, he chose to do carpentry and excelled in this; however Mark is a perfectionist and due to the nature of the job could not complete a given task fast enough. He decided he wanted to make some quick money and opted to go to Libya for nine months. He worked as a cleaner on a caravan site.
With cash in hand, at twenty years of age, Mark bought his own place in Gzira, was dating foreigners and frequented clubs like Dewdrops in Paceville, Club 47 and Ta’ Saveria. He enjoyed listening to Abba, the Bee Gees and all types of disco music. He tried to dress as best he could but liked to look different, wearing bright coloured clothes and lots of gold jewellery. He felt uncomfortable hanging around people from Sliema, because they were too upper class for him, yet did not enjoy socializing with people from certain areas as he felt they were too rough. He went around with a middle class older crowd and with people who he thought would improve his lifestyle, financially. His goals at this time were to live a comfortable easy life and to travel the world.
Mark still held childhood resentment for his older sister’s travels. She had been on various school trips and cruises because she excelled at school and for obvious reasons he had lost these opportunities. In turn, he tried to get a job on a cruise liner to travel the world and was turned down due to his lack of qualifications.
With no prospects, no friends, no accommodation and Lm70 to his name, Mark bought a one way ticket to London to realize his dreams. He admitted during the interview that he thought his life was like a movie and that he was extremely naïve.
On the flight to London, he sat next to a man called Charlie, who offered him accommodation in Southgate and introduced him to Soho (the red light district in London). Being an illegal immigrant he did not have the pick of jobs. Mark worked as a doorman at a club in the West End, enticing people to enter and watch pornographic movies. Within a month, he rented a flat because he wanted his independence. He shared the rent with a man who used to steal clothes from shops on a daily basis and needed somewhere to store them. He soon changed jobs and became a projectionist in the porn industry and then he was promoted to cashier. He earned £15 per shift, but Mark’s deviant nature soon discovered that by watching and observing others and being discreet he could earn an extra £70 per shift by pocketing the entrance fee.
He met an English dancer, Denise who worked for a prominent Soho club and he dated her for 1 ½ years. He managed to buy a flat but this was soon repossessed as he could not keep up the repayments. He lost his job and was arrested for touting. Soon after his release, he met a group of Italian men at a club. He had heard rumours about their illicit dealings in casinos and was lured by the attraction of easy money and worldwide travel that went with this lifestyle. He was accepted to join the Italian con men by “investing” money with the group. Through his association with these people, Mark quickly learnt the ropes and his confidence grew. His ambition to better himself drove him to set up his own group. He trained people and made sure they remained loyal by sharing profits equally, unlike the Italians.
Mark always knew the risks involved yet chose to pursue this way of life. Prison did not scare him he thought it was worth doing time for the lifestyle he was leading. True to con artist profiles, Mark did not consider himself to be a criminal – he thought he could outwit the system; after all, the casinos were ripping off their punters! In fact, he was proud of his fair dealings with the rest of the group, even though he puts in 75% of the work. So how would Mark pull off his scam? Mark explained various casino past posting moves on American roulette tables. This included capping a bet onto an already marked roulette winner by “ganking the marker”, popping a chip on the stack, and then replacing the marker with slight of hand that makes David Blaine look like Inspector Clouseau. It takes a very delicate balance of brains, guts and lack of greed. Knowing how to pull a scam, when to do it and when not to overdo it. Mark studies the dealers just like he used to observe his colleagues when he was a doorman, looking for signs of weakness then together with his team use slight of hand and distraction techniques to make their move.
His first brush with the law was at the age of 22. He was caught conning a dealer at a roulette table in Liverpool and ended up spending a month in prison as well as paying a fine. A few years later, Mark got caught a second time trying to con a roulette dealer in Glasgow and spent a total of six months in a Glaswegian prison, four months for having false documents plus two months sentence for the casino scam. He was then deported to Australia, his country of birth. This did not deter Mark in any way. He made his way back to Malta, flew to Italy, got false identity card and was back in the UK ten days later. Since Italy was part of the E.U. a passport was not needed to travel, only an identity card. At this stage in his life, Mark had more guts than the Vegas desert has un-marked graves.
Throughout, his motivation was to prove to himself that he could do the “trick” and conquer the system. He joined up with yet another Italian man who was known to be highly professional. By this time, Mark’s girlfriend left him as she did not like the changes she was seeing in Mark. He changed his dress sense, became more suave and accomplished. He developed a passion for Italian espressos and enjoyed dining in the finest restaurants. Having no one to tie him down, Mark travelled all over the world, realising a life long dream. He was making large amounts of money, on average Lm7,000 per trip with approximately 70 trips to America alone over a period of ten years. He also travelled to South America, The Caribbean, Portugal, Germany, Holland and Spain. He admitted to us that he knew what he was doing was wrong yet never felt guilty. He considers casinos bigger thieves than himself, although some people may view that differently. He was buying fast cars, paintings, a property in London, staying at the best hotels, going on luxury cruises and even bought himself a plane. Mark claims that drink and drugs were never part of his scene but admitted that it took a considerable amount of money to maintain his new lifestyle.
Mark felt he was on par with his siblings, all travelling around the world yet Mark’s world was soon to crash. He returned to Malta and started seeing three women at the same time. This was a period of confusion for Mark.
One of the women he was seeing got pregnant and although Mark was afraid of commitment, he stopped his girlfriend from having an abortion. He promised to stay with her and see how things worked out. Mark married the mother of his child two years after his son was born. His base was in London, yet Mark bought a maisonette in ****** for his wife and son and tried to keep a low profile. He now had responsibility, he was a father. His wife had become used to the lifestyle her husband provided and enjoyed travelling all over the world and she never tried to stop him or to change his ways.
His third and final stay in prison was in the Canary Islands in 2004. Although Mark is a perfectionist, he omitted to check out the gambling laws in this country, assuming they were the same as in Spain. This was not the case and Mark spent nine months in jail for fraud, “eating garbage and sleeping rough” as he put it. His wife visited him twice and one time took their son to see his dad.
Mark admitted during the interview that he swore he would turn his life around once he got out of prison especially now that his son was growing older. Twenty three years in the ‘business’ had taken their toll. He was becoming aware that things had to change. Life was soon to take a turn for the worse.
The con artist found himself being conned. Mark sold his property in London after he was persuaded by a “friend” to invest in a computer company which promised great returns. After a couple of months of raking in money from his new investment, he decided to invest even more money in this new venture. His aim was to go legitimate. Mark ended up losing everything to conmen who disappeared with his money and ran away. Mark returned to Malta. He fell into a deep depression. The excitement of casinos soon fell to the way side – it was too much hard work, the economy was down and casinos upped their surveillance systems as they became wiser to con artists like Mark. He was tired of flying; his heart was no longer in it and admitted that casino cameras were regularly checked prior to large payouts. He has now turned his attention to investing in property and wishes to keep away from the casino world despite his lack of finances. He told us that he recently sold his plane and is living off this income.
Mark told us that he never pulled a scam in Malta as he was too well known yet if someone asks Mark what he does for a living he has no problem telling them that he is a “gambler”. After all, he says with a smile, gamblers are losers.
His current relationship with his parents is stable and Mark told us that he tries to have dinner with his parents most Sundays but does not tell them when he is travelling as they wish he is no longer involved in the casino scene. He told us that he is close to his older sister and younger brother.
We asked Mark if he would ever con an old woman out of her life savings and he assured us that this was not his scene. He admitted that although it’s time to turn his life around he would seriously consider doing a “Michael Jordan” and come back from retirement if something extraordinary happened in the gambling world, such as the opening of casinos in Miami Beach. The thrill of victory will always be part of Mark even though the agony of defeat is too much of a risk.
Con artists come from diverse backgrounds. They may come from a broken home or the most stable and well-adjusted of families, just like Mark’s. They may have been afforded an excellent education or very little. Such backgrounds according to Annette McGuire, author of Fraud Aid, do not set them apart. What sets them apart is the natural ability, often discovered at a young age, to manipulate the people around them. Mark understood this when he managed to get away with his absenteeism.
Family life can be a potent force in a child’s development; however other factors may contribute. In his recent General Theory of Crime and Delinquency (GTCD), sociologist Robert Agnew states that “Family relationships, work experiences, school performance and peer relations influence crime”. Although Mark had a stable family life, his inadequate educational opportunities, peer relations and the inability to achieve conventional success, contributed to his situation.
Instead of family influence, psychologist Judith Harris claims that genetics and environment determine, to a large extent, how a child turns out.
Children’s own temperament and peer relations shape their behaviour and modify the characteristics they were born with; their interpersonal relations determine the kind of people they will be when they mature. Judith R Harris 1998:211
As we have seen in Mark’s profile, this is very much the case. His peers as well as his interpersonal relations when he moved to London determined the kind of person he turned out to be. Although Mark’s childhood was ideal for becoming a professional con man, the thought never occurred to him before it actually happened.
Why is working class crime more common than white-collar crime?
Merton explained deviance using Durkheim’s concept of anomie. He saw deviance as caused by individuals being unable to achieve society’s goals using legitimate means. He argued that lower social classes had limited access to legitimate means so were more likely to be deviant. Mark could not attain his goals through making money in a legitimate way since he had no qualifications and no job prospects. He tried, by getting a job as a waiter or a cleaner but Mark wanted more…
The social learning theory or the differential association theory proposed by Edwin H. Sutherland states that behaviour is modelled through observation, either directly through intimate contact with others or indirectly through media. According to Sutherland, criminal behaviour is learnt through association with others who regularly engage in crime. The idea is very simple. In a society that contains a variety of subcultures, some social environments tend to encourage illegal activities whereas others do not. Sutherland maintains that criminal behaviour is learnt in primary groups, particularly in peer groups as was the case with Mark. Criminal activities have been learnt in very much the same way as law abiding ones could have been learnt. Thieves are just like people in orthodox jobs in trying to make money, only they choose illegal means of doing so. Mark wanted to get on in the world and “live the high life”. He chose to make his money illegally and true to the con artist’s profile genuinely loved what he did.
People act based on symbolic meanings they find within any given situation. We tend to interact with symbols forming relationships around them. Its roots are found in symbolic interaction theory of sociologists Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead. Symbolic interaction theory holds that people communicate via symbols. People interpret symbolic gestures from others and incorporate them in their self-image. Symbols are used to let people know how well they are doing as in the case of Mark’s sister travelling around the world and him ending up owning his own private plane. How people view reality depends on the content of the messages and situations they encounter, the subjective interpretation of these interactions, and how they shape future behaviour.
Social reaction theory, commonly called labelling theory explains the way society reacts to individuals and the way individual react to society. Interaction and interpretation are viewed as important concepts by the social reaction theorists. Being stigmatized or labelled by official institutions such as the police as well as by unofficial institutions, such as parents and neighbours is what sustains delinquent and criminal behaviours. Labels help define not just one trait but the whole person. Mark’s family including his mother regularly labelled him as “stupid, lazy and a trouble maker” and he felt the effect of this labelling. This was also reflected in his defiant behaviour.
The social control theory maintains that everyone has the potential to become a criminal and violate the law and that modern society presents opportunities for illegal activity. In Mark’s case, it was socialization with the wrong crowd not so much the social structure, which determined life’s choices. In order for this potential not to be realized, a person must have social controls to refrain from conducting any anti-social activity. In Mark’s case, his parents had no idea he was skipping school as he used to pay off the class captain with stolen money to amend the school register.
We have seen three aspects of the social process approach to human behaviour. The social learning theory, which suggests that people learn the techniques and attitudes of crime from close and intimate relationships with criminal peers – that crime is a learnt behaviour. It is assumed that people are born good and learn to be bad. The second, the social reaction theory or labelling theory, which says people become criminals when members of society label them as such and they then accept these labels as part of their identity, in other words, whether good or bad, in some ways, people are controlled by the reaction of others. The third aspect, the social control theory, maintains that everyone has the potential to become a criminal but that most people are controlled by their bonds to society. This theory assumes that people are born bad and must be controlled in order to be good. All three theories fall under the social process approach. In our opinion all three theories had a role to play in Mark’s case.
According to the rational choice approach, law breaking behaviour occurs when an offender decides to risk breaking the law after taking into account both personal factors such as the need for money, thrills etc and situational factors, how well a place is protected, efficiency in security etc. Before choosing to commit a crime, Mark and his team would evaluate the risk of apprehension, the seriousness of punishment and their need for criminal gain.
We should never underestimate the contribution of young people in our society. The social institutions, without even knowing failed Mark. If stricter measures were in place, Mark’s absence would not have gone unnoticed. As a result, he lost interest in school even though he was an intelligent student and failed to get his qualifications. He truly believed that the only way to “get a piece of the pie” was through illegal means.
As we have seen, criminals are people who share the same ambitions as conventional citizens but have decided to cut corners and use illegal means to achieve their goals. Mark chose an illegal path to obtain the goals that might otherwise have been out of reach.
According to Gottfreson and Hirschi, a number of personal factors condition people to choose crime. Among the more important factors are economic opportunity, learning and experience and knowledge of criminal techniques. (A General Theory of Crime,1990).
Although we saw how Mark is irresistibly drawn to a scam, his career as a criminal may have reached its limitations. Experienced criminals like Mark may turn from a life of crime when they develop a belief that the risk of crime is greater than its potential profit.