Crime as Structured Action: Gender, Race, Class, and Crime in the Making


James W. Messerschmidt

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  • Under the General Editorship of

    Daniel Curran, Ph.D.

    Professor of Sociology

    Chief Academic Officer

    Saint Joseph's University

    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


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    For Erik, Jan, and Ulla


    This book would have never been written if it were not for the work of Anthony Giddens, Bob Connell, Candace West, Sarah Fenstermaker, and Don Zimmerman. The publications of these individuals represent some of the most important contributions to sociology in recent years and I thank all of them for their invaluable theoretical guidance.

    A number of people devoted much time and energy to help make this book possible. I am particularly indebted to Bob Connell and Nancy Jurik, who took time away from their own work to read the entire manuscript and contribute important suggestions on each chapter. Many people also commented on specific portions of the book at various stages of its development: Piers Beirne, Dusan Bjelic, Pat Carlen, Carol Cohn, Kim Cook, Dan Curran, Walter DeKeseredy, Frances Heidensohn, Tony Jefferson, Mark Maier, Bob Miller, Barbara Perry, Nicky Hahn Rafter, Dianne Sadoff, and Diane Vaughan. I thank all of these people for sharing ideas, criticisms, and editorial suggestions.

    I owe considerable thanks to Dan Curran (Sage series editor) and to C. Terry Hendrix (Sage editor) for their interest and support of this project.

    Most of all, thanks to Erik, Jan, and Ulla for their everlasting love, strength, and encouragement.

    Parts of this book have appeared elsewhere in a different form. I thank the publishers for permission to reproduce the following:

    An earlier version of the Prologue appeared in B. MacLean and D. Milovanovic (Eds.) as “Structured Action Theory: Understanding the Interrelation of Gender, Race, Class, and Crime” in Thinking Critically About Crime. Vancouver, B.C.: Collective Press, 1996. Reprinted by permission of Collective Press.

    Figure 1.1 first appeared in James W. Messerschmidt's Masculinities and Crime: Critique and Re conceptualization of Theory. (Rowman and Littlefield, 1993). Reprinted by permission of Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

    Excerpts in Chapter 2 from The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X with Alex Haley. Copyright © 1964 by Alex Haley and Malcolm X. Copyright © 1965 by Alex Haley and Betty Shabbazz. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.

    Chapter 3 is a revised version of “From Patriarchy to Gender: Feminist Theory, Criminology, and the Challenge of Diversity” in N. Rafter and F. Heidensohn (Eds.) International Feminist Perspectives in Criminology: Engendering a Discipline. (Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 1995). Reprinted by permission of Open University Press, N. Rafter, and F. Heidensohn.

    Chapter 4 is a revised version of “Managing to Kill: Masculinities and the Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion,” Masculinities, 3(4) (1995): 1–22. Reprinted by permission of Guilford Publications, Inc.

    Prologue: Structured-Action Theory

    Criminologists consistently have advanced gender as the strongest predictor of criminal involvement—it is boys and men who dominate in crime. Arrest, self-report, and victimization data all reflect that boys and men perpetrate more conventional crimes and the more serious of these crimes than do girls and women (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 1995). Men also have a virtual monopoly on the commission of syndicated, corporate, and political crime. Consequently, the capacity to explain this gendered character of crime might stand as the “litmus test” for the viability of criminology as a discipline (Allen, 1989). When criminology historically has addressed the relationship between gender and crime, however, it has concentrated on (through an androcentric lens) “women and crime,” with little or no attention to the impact of gender on boys and men. It is not that criminologists have ignored boys and men in their quest for uncovering the causes of crime. Rather, as I have shown earlier (Messerschmidt, 1993), major research and theoretical works in criminology are alarmingly gender blind. That is, “although men and boys have been seen as the ‘normal subjects,’ the gendered content of their legitimate and illegitimate behavior has been virtually ignored” (Messerschmidt, 1993, p. 1). Thus, contemporary criminologists concerned with the strongest predictor of criminal involvement have turned to feminist theory for guidance.

    Feminism challenged the masculinist nature of the academy by illuminating the patterns of gendered power that social theory to that point had all but ignored. In particular, second-wave feminism1 secured a permanent role for sexual politics in popular culture and moved analysis of sexuality and gendered power to the forefront of much social thought. Moreover, feminist research, both within and without criminology, spotlighted the nature and pervasiveness of violence against women.

    One issue that feminist scholars faced in posing gender questions to the academy concerned the repeated omission and misrepresentation of girls and women. The academy had virtually ignored, trivialized, distorted women's lives and social experiences or all of these. Understandably, then, considerable feminist research has questioned and documented women's social and cultural position in society. Specifically within criminology, since the mid-1970s feminist scholars have examined girls' and women's crime, violence against girls and women, social control of girls and women, and women who work in the criminal justice system (Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988; Martin & Jurik, 1996; Naffine, 1995). The importance of this feminist work is enormous. It has significantly contributed to and lastingly affected the discipline of criminology. Indeed, not only is the significance of gender to understanding crime more broadly acknowledged in the discipline, but it led, logically, to the critical study of masculinities and crime (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 1993; Messerschmidt, 1993; Newburn & Stanko, 1994). For increasing numbers of criminologists, boys and men are no longer seen as the “normal subjects”; rather, the social construction of masculinities has come under careful criminological scrutiny. Arguably, when one conceptualizes crime in terms of gender, it is essential to think seriously about boys, men, and masculinities to gain insight into understanding the highly gendered ratio of crime in Western industrialized societies.

    Feminist theory, then, provides the starting point for meaningful discussion of gender and crime,2 and the feminist approach adopted here emphasizes both the meaningful actions of individual agents and the structural features of social settings. Several feminist women and profeminist men have been developing just such a feminist perspective, one whose theoretical object is the situational construction of gender, race, and class (Connell, 1987, 1995a; Martin & Jurik, 1996; Messerschmidt, 1993; Thorne, 1993; West & Fenstermaker, 1993, 1995; West & Zimmerman, 1987). Crime as Structured Action contributes to this growing body of work by focusing on people in specific social settings, what they do to construct social relations and social structures, and how these social structures constrain and channel behavior in specific ways.

    There is a problem that looms large (especially among critical criminologists) concerning the theoretical links among gender, race, class, and crime. Underscoring this concern, I address how gender, race, and class relations arise within the same ongoing practices. To understand crime, we must comprehend how gender, race, and class relations are part of all social existence—rather than viewing each relation as extrinsic to the others. Crime operates subtly through a complex series of gender, race, and class practices; as such, crime usually is more than a single activity. Thus, what follows is a delineation of the way in which structure and action are woven inextricably in the ongoing activity of “doing” gender, race, class, and crime. I begin with a discussion of social action.

    Social Action

    Historical and social conditions shape the character and definition of sex, race, and class categories. Each category and its meaning are given concrete expression by the specific social relations and historical context in which they are embedded. Moreover, in specific social situations we consistently engage in sex, race, and class attribution—identifying and categorizing people by appropriate sex, race, and class categories while simultaneously categorizing ourselves to others (West & Fenstermaker, 1995).

    Nevertheless, as West and Fenstermaker (1995) argue, “doing” gender, race, and class entails considerably more than the “social emblems” of specific categories. Rather, the social construction of gender, race, and class involves a situated social and interactional accomplishment. In other words, gender, race, and class grow out of social practices in specific settings and serve to inform such practices in reciprocal relation. So, although sex, race, and class categories define social identification, doing gender, race, and class systematically corroborates that identification through social interaction. In effect, there is a plurality of forms in which gender, race, and class are constructed: We coordinate our activities to “do” gender, race, and class in situational ways.

    Crucial to conceptualizing gender, race, and class as situated accomplishment is the notion of “accountability” (West & Zimmerman, 1987). Because individuals realize that their behavior may possibly be held accountable to others, they configure and orchestrate their actions in relation to how they might be interpreted by others in the particular social context in which they occur. In other words, in their daily activities individuals attempt to be identified socially as, for example, “female” or “male,” “African American” or “white,” “working class” or “middle class.” In this way, accountability “allows individuals to conduct their activities in relation to their circumstances” (West & Fenstermaker, 1993, p. 156), suggesting that gender, race, and class vary by social situation and circumstance. Within social interaction, then, we encourage and expect others to attribute particular categories to us. And we facilitate the ongoing task of accountability by demonstrating we are male or female, African American or white, working class or middle class through concocted behaviors that may be interpreted accordingly. Consequently, we do gender, race, and class differently—depending on the social situation and the social circumstances we encounter. The particular meanings of gender, race, and class are defined in social interaction and, therefore, through personal practice. Doing gender, race, and class, then, renders social action accountable in terms of normative conceptions, attitudes, and activities appropriate to one's category in the specific social situation in which one acts (West & Fenstermaker, 1995).

    In this view, therefore, gender, race, and class are accomplished systematically, not imposed on people or settled beforehand, and never static or finished products. Rather, people construct gender, race, and class in specific social situations. In other words, people participate in self-regulating conduct whereby they monitor their own and other's social action.

    Figure 1.1. Social Relations, Social Structures, and Structured Action
    SOURCE: Messerschmidt, 1993:63

    Social Relations, Social Structures, and Structured Action

    Although gender, race, and class are “made,” so to speak, through the unification of self-regulated practices, these practices do not occur in a vacuum. Instead, they are influenced by the social structural constraints we experience. Social structures, defined here as regular and patterned forms of interaction over time that constrain and channel behavior in specific ways, “only exist as the reproduced conduct of situated actors” (Giddens, 1976, p. 127). As Connell (1987, 1995a) argues, these social structures (e.g., divisions of labor and power and sexuality) are neither external to social actors nor simply and solely constraining; on the contrary, structure is realized only through social action and social action requires structure as its condition (see Figure 1.1). Social structures are enacted by “knowledgeable” human agents (people who know what they are doing and how to do it), and agents act by putting into practice their structured knowledge (Giddens, 1984). Moreover, in certain circumstances, agents improvise or innovate in structurally shaped ways that significantly reconfigure the very structures that shaped them (Giddens, 1984). Because people do gender, race, and class in specific social situations, they reproduce and sometimes change social structures. And given that people reproduce gender, race, and class ideals in socially structured specific practices, there are a variety of ways to do them. In other words, specific forms of gender, race, and class are available, encouraged, and permitted, depending on one's position in these social relations. Not only are there numerous ways of constructing masculinity and femininity, we must speak of masculinities and femininities, there are likewise myriad ways of constructing race and class, we must articulate, for example, differing African American identities and middle-class identities. Accordingly, gender, race, and class must be viewed as structured action—what people do under specific social structural constraints.

    Appropriate, then, is a theory that conceptualizes how gender, race, and class relations arise within the same ongoing structured practices. As with sex, we can identify race and class categories and, therefore, hold people accountable as members of any or all of the categories (West & Fenstermaker, 1995). In other words, the accomplishment of gender, race, and class occurs simultaneously through social interaction and, as West and Fenstermaker (p. 24) contend, the accountability of persons to these categories is the key to understanding the maintenance of existing social structures, such as divisions of labor and power.

    As indicated earlier, divisions of labor and power are social structures that exist in each of the three social relations (Messerschmidt, 1993); and the division of labor in Western industrialized societies consists not only of class divisions of labor but also of race and gender. The division of labor refers both to the definition of work (legitimate and illegitimate, paid and unpaid) and how work is allocated. Divisions of labor involve the range of tasks performed in a given position, the nature, meaning, and value of those tasks, and the relations of cooperation, conflict, and authority among positions (Young, 1990, p. 23). As individuals engage in such tasks they produce the three divisions of labor. Consequently, rather than viewing gender, race, and class as discrete “things” that somehow relate to each other, it is important to visualize them as mutually constituting one another (Morgen, 1990, p. 286). That is, throughout daily interaction, social actors simultaneously produce these divisions, as they “do” gender, race, and class.

    Moreover, relations of power are embedded in, and reinforced by, divisions of labor. That is, social practices of who does what for whom and the way the results of that labor are appropriated and by whom, operate to construct relations of power and inequality (Young, 1990, p. 50). As such, power is an important structural feature of gender, race, and class relations. Overall, in Western industrialized societies, specific social groups possess, or are restricted from access to, material resources, a situation that places them in an unequal social relation to other groups. Material resources, for example, help construct social structural relations of power, by gender, race, and class, and arrange individuals in relation to other individuals. For example, a manifestation of the gender and race relations of power is the obvious structural fact that white men control the economic, religious, political, and military institutions of authority and coercion in society. A structural process is fashioned whereby “those with power can organize those who are less powerful according to their own ends” (Segal, 1990, p. 261). This occurs at not only large-scale institutional levels but within smaller groups and face-to-face interaction. For example, Connell (1987, p. 107) provides three examples of such face-to-face power in gender relations: “Mr. Barrett the Victorian patriarch forbids his daughter to marry; a bank manager refuses a loan to an unmarried woman; a group of youths rape a girl of their acquaintance.” These examples show that power is not solely based on access to material resources and only occurs at the institutional level. Although material resources may clearly enhance gender, race, and class power, they are often unnecessary at the interpersonal level for the actual realization of that power.

    Social actors perpetuate and transform these divisions of labor and power within the same interaction; simultaneously, these structures constrain and enable gender, race, and class social action. The result is the ongoing social construction of gender, race, and class relations (see Figure 1.1). Consequently, “doing race” and “doing class” are similar to “doing gender”: They render social action accountable in terms of normative conceptions, attitudes, and activities appropriate to one's race and class category in the specific social situation in which one acts (West & Fenstermaker, 1995).3

    The Salience of Gender, Race, and Class

    Nevertheless, the salience of each social relation to influencing crime varies by social situation. Although gender, race, and class are ubiquitous, the significance of each relation shifts with a changing context: In one situation gender and race both may be important for actuating crime; in another social setting, class, or gender, or any combination of the three relations may be relevant. In other words, gender, race, and class are not absolutes and not equally significant in every social setting where crime is realized. That is, accountability to gender, race, and class are not always, in all social situations, equally critical to the social construction of crime.

    In this way, then, social relations of gender, race, and class variously join us in a common relationship to others—we share structural space. Consequently, common or shared blocks of knowledge and practices evolve through interaction in which particular gender, race, and class ideals and activities differ in significance. Through such interaction, gender, race, and class become institutionalized, permitting, for example, men and women to draw on such existing, but previously formed, ways of thinking and acting to construct particular race-and-class gender identities for specific settings. The particular criteria of gender, race, and class identities are embedded in the social situations and recurrent practices whereby social relations are structured (Giddens, 1989).

    Gender, Sexuality, and Difference

    As indicated earlier, power is an important structural feature of gender, race, and class relations. But, in addition to this and specifically with regard to gender (because the case studies that follow emphasize masculinities, femininities, and crime), socially organized power relations among men and among women are constructed historically on the bases of race, class, and sexual preference; that is, in specific contexts some men and some women have greater power than other men and other women. In other words, the capacity to exercise power is, for the most part, a reflection of one's position in social relationships. For example, in the antebellum South, “white men as husbands had control over their wives and as fathers control over their children's marriages and access to family property, but black male slaves had no such patriarchal rights” (Ferguson, 1991, p. 113). Moreover, in late 19th- and early 20th-century California and Hawaii, most domestic servants in white, middle-class households were Asian men (Glenn, 1992). Furthermore, not only does the exercise of power over women differ among men, but also among men and among women. For example, heterosexual men and women exercise greater power than gay men and lesbians, upper-class men and women greater power than working-class men and women, and white men and women greater power than men and women of color. Power, then, is a relationship that structures social interaction not only between women and men, but among men and among women as well. Notwithstanding, power is not absolute and, at times, may actually shift in relation to different axes of power and powerlessness. That is, in one situation a man may exercise power (i.e., as a patriarchal husband) whereas in another he may experience powerlessness (i.e., as a factory worker). Accordingly, masculinity and femininity can be understood only as fluid, relational, and situational constructs.

    Connell's (1987, 1995a) notion of “hegemonic masculinity” and “emphasized femininity,” the culturally idealized forms of masculinity and femininity in a given historical setting, is relevant here. Hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity are neither trans-historical nor transcultural, but vary from society to society and change within a particular society over time. In any specific time and place, then, hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity are culturally honored, glorified, and extolled at the symbolic level, such as the mass media, and are constructed in relation to subordinated masculinities and femininities (based on race, class, and sexual preference, for example), to oppositional masculinities and femininities, and to each other. In fact, hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity are the dominant forms of gender to which other types of masculinity and femininity are subordinated or opposed, not eliminated, and each provides the primary basis for relationships among men and among women as well as between men and women. In contemporary Western industrialized societies hegemonic masculinity currently is characterized by whiteness (race), work in the paid labor market (gender division of labor), the subordination of girls and women (gender relations of power), professional-managerial (class), and heterosexism (sexuality). Emphasized femininity is a form that complements hegemonic masculinity and is defined through not only similar characteristics such as whiteness and heterosexism, but also

    the display of sociability rather than technical competence, fragility in mating scenes, compliance with men's desire for titillation and ego-stroking [and] acceptance of marriage and child care. … At the mass level these are organized around themes of sexual receptivity in relation to younger women and motherhood in relation to older women. (Connell, 1987, p. 187)

    In addition, then, to the gender, race, and class divisions of labor and power just discussed, sexuality is a major social structural feature of gender relations and, therefore, of the social construction of masculinities and femininities. Indeed, in Western industrialized societies a hierarchical system of sexual value exists, with marital-reproductive heterosexuals alone at the top, followed closely by unmarried heterosexuals, by those who prefer solitary sexuality, prostitutes, lesbians and gay men, transsexuals, transvestites, and sadomasochists (Rubin, 1984). Accordingly, heterosexuality is deemed normative, and “deviant” or subordinated sexualities are ridiculed, policed, and repressed. Not surprisingly, heterosexuality becomes a fundamental indication of “maleness” and “femaleness,” gay masculinities and lesbian femininities are subordinated to heterosexual masculinities and femininities, and sexuality merges with other social structures to construct power relations among men and among women, such as the myth of the black rapist in relation to white and African American men.

    Hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity, as the culturally dominant discourse, influences but does not determine masculine and feminine behavior. Hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity underpin the conventions applied in the enactment and reproduction of masculinities/femininities—the lived pattern of meanings, which as they are experienced as practices, appear as reciprocally confirming. As such, hegemonic masculine and emphasized feminine discourse shapes a sense of reality for most men and women, and is continually renewed, recreated, defended, and modified through practice. And yet, they are at times resisted, limited, altered, and challenged. As Barrie Thorne (1993, p. 106) notes: “Individuals and groups develop varied forms of accommodation, reinterpretation, and resistance to ideologically hegemonic patterns.” Consequently, hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity operate as discourse that is “on hand” to be actualized into practice in a range of different circumstances. They provide a conceptual framework that is materialized in the design of social structures and, therefore, in daily practices and interactions.

    Hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity, then, are more than simply the transmission of discourse that men and women can and do reproduce and challenge. In fact, at times and under certain social conditions, men and women construct “oppositional masculinities/femininities” that in one way or another are extrinsic to and represent significant breaks from hegemonic and emphasized forms, and may actually threaten their dominance. For example, various oppositional masculine practices, such as rejection of work in the paid labor market as significant to masculine identity, are constructed usually from subordinated race-and-class masculine conditions. Opposition, however, does not require such subordination. Indeed, increasing numbers of white, heterosexual, middle-class men are rejecting the notion of the subordination of women and attempting to construct egalitarian practices and relations with women. These profeminist men act against, and provide resistance to, certain aspects of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic and emphasized gender discourse, then, is not merely adaptive and incorporative; authentic transgressions within and beyond it occur under specific race-and-class social conditions.

    The concepts “hegemonic/emphasized,” “subordinated,” and “oppositional” masculinities and femininities permit investigation of the different way men and women experience their everyday world from their particular positions in society and how they relate to other men and women. Although men and women attempt to express aspects of hegemonic/emphasized gender discourse through speech, dress, physical appearance, activities, and relationships with others, these social signs of masculinity and femininity are associated with the specific context of one's actions and are self-regulated within that context. Thus, masculinity and femininity are based on a social construct that reflects unique circumstances and relationships—a social construction that is renegotiated in each particular context. In other words, social actors self-regulate their behavior and make specific choices in specific contexts. As Connell (1987, p. 186) points out, everyday masculine and feminine practices draw on the cultural ideals of gender but do not correspond necessarily to actual masculinities and femininities as they are lived: What most men and women support is not necessarily what they are (p. 186). In this way, then, men and women construct varieties of masculinities and femininities through specific practices. By emphasizing diversity in gender constructions, we realize a more fluid and situated approach to our understanding gender.

    Four Case Studies

    This perspective permits us to conceptualize gender, race, class, and crime more realistically and completely, enables us to explore how and in what respects gender, race, and class are constituted in certain settings at certain times, and how each construct relates to various types of crime. The case studies that follow focus on explaining the differentiation of masculinities (Chapters 1, 2, and 4) and femininities (Chapter 3) by observing the work and product of their construction in specific social settings and through certain practices. Throughout, I examine masculinities and femininities as they are reproduced among different races and classes. In my view, the definition and interpretation of the boundaries among masculinities and femininities, and thus the hierarchical separation of certain men and certain women from “Other” men and women, are critical to understanding crime in Western industrialized societies. Accordingly, the specific masculine and feminine meanings constructed through particular conceptions of race and class, and the way in which crime is related to those meanings and conceptions, must be analyzed. As such, I argue that only through analysis of gender, race, and class in the making can we make coherent sense of the making of crime at various times in history and under differing social situations.

    Although men and women are always constructing gender, race, and class, the significance of each accomplishment is socially situated and, thus, is intermittent. That is, certain occasions present themselves as more effectively intimidating for demonstrating and affirming gender, race, and class. In such settings, specific categories are particularly salient; a time when “doing difference” (West & Fenstermaker, 1995) requires extra effort. Under such conditions, crime may be invoked as a means for constructing gender, race, and class. Consequently, in the case studies that follow, I examine the making of gender, race, class and crime under such conditions during selected historical time periods and in different social situations.

    Chapter 1, Lynchers, examines the relationship among large-scale social change, racial masculinities, and lynching during Reconstruction and its immediate aftermath (1865–1900) in the U.S. South. Chapter 2, Hustler, undertakes a life-history study of the relationship among the social construction of race, class, masculinities, and crime in the life of Malcolm X. Chapter 3, Bad Girls, explores violence among lower working-class gang girls of color as a means of constructing a specific race and class femininity. Chapter 4, Murderous Managers, investigates the link between class and corporate masculinities among white managers and engineers involved in the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger. Finally, the Epilogue, Summary Thoughts and Future Directions, offers suggestions for future academic work on the interrelation among gender, race, class, and crime from a structured-action perspective.


    1. The first wave of the U.S. feminist movement traditionally dates from the abolitionist movement of the 1830s to the successful passage of the 19th Amendment (guaranteeing women the right to vote) in 1920.

    2. For background on feminist theory in relation to crime and criminology, see Daly and Chesney-Lind, 1988 and Messerschmidt, 1993.

    3. Unlike West and Fenstermaker (1995), in the “structured-action theory” presented here, both social structure and social action are key. I agree with Howard Winant's (1995, p. 504) recent criticism of West and Fenstermaker that their theory of “doing difference” misses the fact that “social structure must be understood as dynamic and reciprocal; it is not only a product of accreted and repeated subjective action but also produces subjects.” This is consistent with my argument here and elsewhere (Messerschmidt, 1993) in which I follow the important theoretical insights of Giddens (1976, 1984) and Connell (1987, 1995a) that structure is realized only through social action and social action requires structure as its condition.

  • Epilogue: Summary Thoughts and Future Directions

    The case studies empirically illuminate the basic elements of structured action theory: To understand crime we must appreciate how structure and action are woven inextricably in the ongoing activity of “doing” gender, race, and class. Structured-action theory (as applied here in a variety of historical and social settings) defines the two crucial components for understanding crime:

    • Inseparability of structure and action.

      Social structures are realized only through social action and social action requires structure as its condition.

    • Situational salience of “doing” gender, race, and class.

      Gender, race, and class are not absolutes and are not equally significant in every social setting where crime is realized. That is, depending on the social setting, accountability to certain categories is more salient than accountability to other categories.

    Nevertheless, to foster understanding of crime as structured action requires novel forms of research. Thus, in this Epilogue, I briefly sketch ways in which structured action theory can be developed further through new empirical work. In short, I believe the framework of structured action theory provides concepts relevant to a variety of methodological approaches, from historical and documentary research to ethnographies and life histories. Indeed, the accomplishment of varieties of gender, race, class, and crime are situated in history, and their meanings change over time. Thus, a key element of future research is to trace the historical transformation and difference among gender, race, class, and crime. For example, Chapter 1 shows that Reconstruction created a new social connect in which an alarmist ideology about African American male sexuality was constructed and resulted in a pronounced public mob violence employed by white supremacist men. During this period race and gender (but not class) grew particularly salient to actuating crime: White supremacist men constructed a specific type of whiteness and hegemonic masculinity through the practice of lynching.

    We need much more historical research of this kind to understand further the relationship among differing social relations and when specific relationships effect crime more saliently than others. Such research will not only provide insight on the past, but help us comprehend how we have reached the present.

    Similarly, using written documents, such as archival sources, criminal justice records, and government reports, for investigation is an excellent method of obtaining information on gender, race, class, and crime. For example, in Chapter 4, the report of the Presidential Commission served as the primary data on the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. By drawing on the testimony of the men involved in the launch decision, I was able to develop a rich and detailed description of the events leading up to launch, as well as the masculine interaction in the “corporate boardroom” during the off-line caucus.

    Moreover, when the research has a specific historical dimension, such as during Reconstruction, written documents are essential. Thus, testimony from government documents cited in Chapter 1 contributed immense insight into the gender and race meanings of lynching during this time period.

    All research methods have their advantages and limitations, but arguably one of the most valuable qualitative methods for investigating how structured action is intertwined with “doing” gender, race, class, and crime, is the life-history study.1

    Life-History Studies

    The life-history method never realized the sociological distinction Thomas and Znaniecki (1958) expected when they announced that the life story constituted the “perfect” type of sociological material. Nonetheless, although the method has remained on the margins of sociological and criminological acceptability since its heyday at the Chicago School (Plummer, 1983), it has experienced a resurgence in both the sociology of masculinities (Connell, 1995a) and criminology (Sampson & Laub, 1993). Such revival is due, in part, to the fact that life histories tap the continuous “lived experience” of individuals. That is, the method necessitates a close consideration of the meaning of social life for those who enact it, revealing their experiences, meanings, practices, and social world.

    But in addition to in-depth documentation of one's conceptual world and the representations of such conceptions through practice, the life history links these with the social and historical context in which they are embedded. As Connell (1995a, p. 89) points out:

    The project that is documented in a life-history story is itself the relation between the social conditions that determine practice and the future social world that practice brings into being. That is to say, life-history method always concerns the making of social life through time. It is literally history.

    Thus, the life-history method is an important research tool for studying the inseparability of structure and action, “doing” gender, race, class, and crime, as well as individual and structural social change. No other social research method provides as much detail about social development and change as does the life-history study of social practices over time. Chapter 2 explored the changes in Malcolm X's masculine identity within a range of race and class social contexts: a childhood in which he constantly battled for acceptance as a young man; a zoot suit culture that embraced him without stigma as a “hipster” and “hustler”; and finally a spiritual and political movement that celebrated him as father, husband, and national spokesperson. Across these sites and through the shifting currencies of his sense of gender, race, and class identity, Malcolm moved in and out of crime. Malcolm simply appropriated crime as a resource for “doing masculinity” at a specific moment in his life, a period when gender, race, and class relations were equally significant. In this way, the life-history method provides data not only about why people engage in crime at certain stages of their lives, but how that engagement relates to the salience of various combinations of gender, race, and class.

    Moreover, the life-history method provides considerable insight as to when and why people abandon criminal practices. In particular, I highlighted the case of Malcolm X as an example of how the increasing significance of a new social situation combined with a growing race consciousness contributed significantly to Malcolm's desistance from crime.

    Accordingly, Chapter 2 suggests that a structured action criminology conducted within a life-history methodology may open significant avenues for answering the never ending questions on both the causes of harmful behavior and how to control them. In particular, I urge life-history studies not only on the relationship between crime and masculinities but on the relationships between crime and femininities, race, class, sexualities, and institutions. Let us briefly look at each of these areas.

    Femininities, Race, and Class

    Given that gender is a relational concept, it follows logically that to understand masculinities we must understand simultaneously the social construction of femininities and vice versa. Thus we gain not only an interrelational understanding of gender, but we increase substantially our comprehension of men, women, and crime. Notwithstanding the feminist-inspired criminological research on girls and women over the past 20 years, there remain several areas in which the distinctive activities of girls and women require greater study. In particular, there is a need for extensive research on the historical and contemporary constructions of femininities and their relation to crime. Chapter 3 argues that gender, race, and class are equally significant for contemporary gang girls; that violent interaction with other young street women is a means for constructing a specific race, class, and feminine identity. Participating in the specific social situation of the gang, these girls use available race and class resources not to construct masculinity but a particular type of femininity. Thus, Chapter 3 challenges notions of conceptualizing violence by women as simplistically “unnatural,” “deviant,” and “masculine,” and points both to the importance of ongoing investigation of gender differences in crime and to gender similarities in crime. Certainly, then, one of the future explanatory tasks of structured action theory is to explore varieties of femininities, crime, and social control.

    The preceding discussion of femininities and crime sensitizes criminologists to a similar need for research on race. When race is discussed in relation to crime, invariably it is African American crime, which marginalizes other people of color. Fortunately, structured action theory, because it is not exclusively a theory of “gender and crime,” provides the necessary eclectic approach. Indeed, as argued throughout this book, structured action theory generates concepts relevant to research on gender, race, class, and crime. Nevertheless, the significance of each social relation shifts with changing contexts: In one situation both gender and race may be important factors for actuating crime (Chapter 1); in other settings gender, race, and class all may be relevant (Chapters 2 and 3); or simply class and gender may be significant (Chapter 4). Moreover, these chapters reflect that any combination of the three relations can be pertinent to understanding motivation for crime. Although I concentrated in this book on gender and crime (in particular, masculinities and crime), there is a long-standing need for research on when accountability to race alone becomes more salient than accountability to other categories for actuating crime. For example, other than Chapter 1, I know of no other research that examines the historical and/or contemporary constructions of varieties of whiteness and their relation to crime. In short, structured action theory provides the means to subdivide race (Chapter 3), like gender and class, into diverse categories that enable an examination, for instance, of the relation between various types of “whiteness” and crime.

    For some time, criminologists have examined differences in crime among classes—in particular, middle-class (white-collar crime) versus working-class (street crime). Yet, as with race, what has gone unnoticed by theory and, therefore, research are the diverse definitions and practices of “class” within each of these categories, their relation to crime, and how these definitions and practices affect “doing” gender and race. The Chapter 4 examination of the Challenger launch decision revealed the salience of class and gender (but not race) for actuating corporate crime. In addition, however, the launch decisionmaking evidence provides the opportunity to separate the professional-managerial class category into two hegemonic masculine constructions. That is, both managers and engineers constructed a specific type of hegemonic masculinity, yet did so differently through the occupational resources available to each. Managerial masculinity was constructed through the commission of corporate crime; contemporaneously, engineer masculinity was constructed through resisting that crime. Therefore, in the same class and gender setting, we could discern which men committed corporate crime and which did not—and why.

    In short, we need research on diversity in the social construction of gender, race, class, and crime.

    Sexualities and Institutions

    Over the last 20 years, an important and sophisticated historical scholarship has demonstrated that sexuality is socially constructed and not biologically ordained. That is, sexualities are constructed in historically specific social practices. Accordingly, sexuality varies not only from society to society but within societies themselves. Sexuality is not a biological constant but a product of human agency (Messerschmidt, 1993).

    In addition, societies define who are “appropriate” partners and what are the “appropriate” sexual practices. These definitions provide the permissions, prohibitions, limits, and possibilities with which erotica and desire are constructed (Messerschmidt, 1993). The result is that subordinated sexualities are ridiculed and repressed and, thus, construct difference. In the example of lynching during Reconstruction (Chapter 1), we observe how conceptions of sexuality, in combination with other social relations such as race, are employed historically to divide men by creating difference and a power hierarchy among them.

    Similarly, gay bashing provides a contemporary example of employing conceptions of sexuality to “divide and conquer” Other men. Thus, to better understand sexual violence against women and men as well as criminalized forms of consensual sex (e.g., prostitution), we need to bring criminology “out of the closet” by supporting extensive historical and contemporary research on the relationship among sexualities, gender, race, class, and crime.

    Chapter 4 revealed that gender, race, and class are not simply the practices of individuals, but are likewise the province of social institutions. Indeed, it is the institutionalization of gender, race, and class relations that serves to reproduce social structures of labor, power, and sexuality. Accordingly, we must scrutinize and analyze such institutional settings as the workplace, family, school, and state. And within these settings we must examine the particular and varying socially constructed combinations of gender, race, class, and crime, as well as examine how these categories are related to social-control practices by, for example, the police, courts, and prisons.

    In conclusion, I recommend these as the chief areas of focus for those working within a structured action framework. All such studies seek to engage the demanding empirical inquiries that confidently will lead to theoretical reappraisal and, inevitably, to advances in structured action theory.


    1. Ferrell and Sanders (1995b, p. 305) argued recently that survey research and quantitative analysis are of “little use” to criminology because “their illusions of precise objectivity mask an inherent and imposed imprecision” as well as a characteristic inability to explore the situated meanings, symbolism, and “interpersonal style in the lived experiences of everyday criminality.” Once these “old methodologies” are demystified, they go on, what remains is the ethnographic case study because such methodology is designed “to unravel the phenomenological foreground of criminality” (p. 306). I obviously agree with Ferrell and Sanders, simply adding a “life-history immersion” to their call for an “ethnographic immersion.”


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    About the Author

    James W. Messerschmidt (Ph.D., the Criminology Institute, University of Stockholm, Sweden) is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Criminology Department at the University of Southern Maine. His research interests focus on the interrelation of gender, race, class, and crime. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters, he is author of The Trial of Leonard Peltier (1983), Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Crime: Toward a Socialist Feminist Criminology (1986), Criminology (2nd ed.), with Piers Beirne (1995), and Masculinities and Crime: Critique and Reconceptualization of Theory (1993).

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