Contemporary social conflict and criminal justice :An exploratory investigation from the perspective of symbolic interactionism



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Purpose: The purpose of this thesis was to explore the encounter between contemporary social conflict and the criminal justice system. The intent was to identify and describe relationships between social conflict and criminal justice which have a potential for dysfunction, and then to articulate a theoretical model for the criminal justice system that would reduce its propensity for aggravating social conflicting. In order to establish a foundation for these formulations it was necessary to describe salient features of the principle contemporary social movements in American society. Procedure: This exploratory investigation was conducted from the specific theoretical perspective of symbolic interactionism. In accordance with the methodological implications of this perspective, contemporary social movements were explored subjectively through material that was almost exclusively based on the interpretations of actual participants in the movements. When necessary for clarity, these primary sources were augmented by applicable findings of other scholars. Based on the awareness gained through the subjective interpretation of today’s social movements, dysfunctional relationships between social conflict and criminal justice were identified by applying symbolic interactionist conceptions of human behavior and joint action to an analysis of the contacts between criminal justice officials and citizens seeking to change the existing social order. A theoretical model for improving the criminal justice system’s contact with these citizens was developed by transmuting the fundamental perspectives of symbolic interactionism into a conceptual design for competently accomplishing criminal justice responsibilities in the management of social conflict. Findings: Evidence gathered and presented during this exploratory investigation supports the following conclusions: 1. A new youth counterculture has arisen in contemporary American society. Essentially, it represents a mergence of New left radicalism with the new “hippie� life-style. The theme of conflict with dominant society serves as a common bond for all persons who think of themselves as members of this new counterculture. This theme of conflict finds expression in their persistent and sincere use of the term “revolution� when describing their intentions. The revolution of which the young speak is cultural, for they intend not to replace authority but to destroy authoritarianism, not to overthrow capitalism but to eradicate materialism, not to relocate power but to create a new world society of free man. 2. A new sense of direction and a new depth of commitment have emerged in Black America, as expressed in the theme of “Black Liberation.� Black Liberation is defined as the full emancipation of blacks from white oppression, and is perceived as the goal of all current activity in the black movement. The concepts of Black Militance, Black Power, Black Separatism, Black Nationalists, and Pan-Africanism are subsumed by the theme of Black liberation. Black individuals and organizations are distinguished by their endorsement of one or more of these concepts. 3. The criminal justice system is not designed to serve society as a conflict-resolving institution. However, social conflict has been manifested in behavior that exceeds the criminal sanction, and as a consequence, social conflict and criminal justice have been, and will continue to be, inextricably related. Three specific relationships between criminal justice and social conflict have a high potential for situational and definitional dysfunction: (1) confrontations between police officers and disaffected citizens, (2) trials of disaffected citizens who interpret their prosecution as politically motivated, and (3) incarcerations of disaffected citizens who consider themselves political prisoners. 4. Past actions by criminal justice officials frequently tended to aggravate social conflict rather than to ameliorate it, particularly during confrontations, political trials, and political incarcerations. The dysfunctional potentialities that attend these relationships could be minimized if criminal justice officials would subscribe to as enlightened model of professional conflict management. Such an approach would entail four requirements: (1) criminal justice officials must cultivate a sensitive understanding of all the citizens they intend to serve; (2) criminal justice officials must perform as non-partisan managers of criminal deviance, rather than as participating defenders of existing social and economic conditions; (3) during manifestations of social conflict, the criminal justice system must invoke its sanction only to the extent necessary to contain the conflict at an intensity that involves legally acceptable conduct; and (4) in all interaction with citizens seeking or opposing social change, criminal justice officials must select responses which are least likely to increase the intensity of present or future social conflict.



Social psychology, Justice, Social conflict, Criminal Justice dysfunction