William Chambliss

By Ashley Mills

CCJ 5606

Dr. Cecil Greek


William Chambliss is currently a professor of Sociology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is the author and editor of several books in the field of sociology of law, criminology and sociological theory including, "Law, Order, and Power" (with Seidman), "Making Law" (with Zatz) and "On the Take: From Petty Thieves to Presidents." He is a past president of the American Society of Criminology and the Society for the Study of Social Problems. He has also received numerous awards in the field of criminal justice.

Some of his current work includes "Criminological Theory and Social Structure" and also "Octopus Inc: Crimes of the State."

His ongoing research includes "Policing the Ghetto," "The Consequences of European and American Drug Policies" and "The Sociology of Smuggling and Piracy."

He has also been awarded many research grants. He has been awarded a grant for Poverty and Race Research Action Committee, Over-imprisonment, 1990-1992 and Unidel Research Grant, Factory Safety and Health, 1979-1980, just to name a few.

William Chambliss began his work during the 1960’s, the time of civil rights movement, war protest, and riots. People living during this time wanted a perspective to better understand the circumstances of the world. He believed that sociology was best equipped to explain the perplexing and complex problems that occurred during this time. The theoretical framework he uses to study and analyze the world is called the conflict perspective.

He believed that the conflict perspective was the best framework for understanding social circumstances because it was interdisciplinary. It uses the works of historians, economist, philosophers, geographers, and also sociologists. Of course, it is impossible to understand society and human behavior by studying through the eyes of one discipline.

In one of his books, he gives other reasons why he used the conflict perspective. The functionalist perspective focuses on what produces stability and continuity in society. On the other hand, he felt the conflict perspective raises questions more crucial to the relevant issues of the day. It’s more focused on why things change. What are the disruptive aspects of society, especially in industrialized society and how is society divided by power, wealth, prestige, and perceptions of the world? "The shape and character of the legal system in complex societies can be understood as deriving form the conflicts inherent in the structure of these societies which are stratified economically and politically" (Chambliss, 1971, p. 3).

Here are a few of the basic assumptions of the conflict theory:

1) Every society is subjected at every moment to changes. Social change is ubiquitous.

2) Every society experiences at every moment social conflicts: Social conflict is ubiquitous

3) Every element in a society contributes to its change

4) Every society rests on constraints of some of its member by others

In general terms:

A) Society is a place where various struggles take place

B)  The conflict perspective sees the state as the most important factor in the struggle and is certainly on one side against the other. Coercion (usually in the form of law) is the chief factor that helps maintain social institutions such as private property, slavery, and other institutions that create unequal rights and privileges. Social inequality arises out of these coercive techniques.

C) Social Inequality is the major source of social conflict.

D) The state and the law are instruments of oppression employed by the ruling class for their own benefit.

E) Classes are social groups with distinctive interests that bring them into conflict with other social groups with opposite interests.

So the key factor in the conflict perspective is to understand and study the relationship between social classes and social inequality.

In 1971, Chambliss along with Seidman published "Law, Order and Power" within which much of Chambliss’ theory was outlined. Here I’ll discuss poverty, the criminal process and the differential treatment of the poor in the American legal system. In this chapter he discusses how one’s "web of life" or life experiences/conditions one’s values and norms. In a complex society, groups experience a wide variety of different life conditions. Thus, complex societies are characterized by conflicting sets of norms. The probability of a particular group’s norms being encompassed within the law is directly related to the group’s political and economic power. So, basically the law reflects the perspectives, values, definitions of reality, and morality of the upper and middle classes while at the same time being in opposition to the values and morality of the poor. Given this, he felt it wasn’t very surprising to find the poor would be criminal more often than the non-poor.

He felt that empirical data suggested that the poor do not receive the same treatment from law enforcement agencies as middle-class or the well-to-do. Basically, the differential treatment is systematic. It involves practices by the police and prosecuting attorneys of choosing to look for and impose punishments for offenses that are characteristically committed by the poor and ignoring those committed by the more affluent members of the community. Offenses that are equally likely to be committed by different social classes (gambling is an example), the police will enforce these crimes in lower-class neighborhoods while ignoring them in upper-class neighborhoods. An example of this would be the fact that in much of our communities, medical doctors, dentists, and practicing attorneys are the groups most active in placing bets with bookmakers. They do this because they can hide substantial amounts of their income and thus avoid paying taxes on that income. It’s practices like this that Chambliss says the authorities never attempt to discover and punish. On the other hand, Chambliss points out that people who bet; sell policy numbers (which is typically engaged in by the lower class) are often subject to arrest and prosecution.

He then goes on to say how selective enforcement by policing agencies focuses less on what society needs and more on what is less important in society. This can clearly be seen when you compare the enforcement of civil rights laws to the enforcement of laws prohibiting the use of so called "dangerous drugs." He gives the example that, even though there was also discontent in urban areas, the laws which prohibit discrimination in employment, unions, and housing, consumer fraud, housing violations, and other protections for the poor are ignored at every level of the government, federal, state, and local. However, despite the lack of evidence purporting that marijuana is a harmful drug, laws prohibiting marijuana smoking are enforced vigorously. He believed that Civil Rights laws were not enforced because federal and state governments would be at odds with many of the leading corporations. He points out, that "it is to avoid such clashes that only fourteen of some 8,000 complaints received by the Department of Justice between 1965 and 1968 complaining of discrimination in employment resulted in litigation" (Chambliss, 1973, p.191).

He also pointed out that since 1941, many executive orders have come out prohibiting discrimination in employment by any company holding government contracts. Many of the executive orders increased in stringency. However, even though the executive orders did increase in stringency, and despite the fact that most of the companies holding government contracts are covered by these orders, there has never been a single contract with the government canceled nor sanctions applied because of job discrimination by the employer, though there are administrative board findings that clearly show discrimination in employment by companies holding government contracts.

In this chapter he also points out the differential treatment of the poor in the American legal system by using case studies. I’ll discuss one case study:

A man named Ralph worked the four-to-twelve shift in a factory. After coming home from work one night, he decided to work on his car. Ralph had no garage so he had to work on the car in street. He was working under the hood of the car when a police officer stopped and asked him what he was doing. After telling the cop that he was working on his car, he was asked to provide his driver’s license and registration card. Ralph showed his identification and the cop left. Within five minutes, another policeman showed up and same routine took place. A few minutes after the second cop left, a third cop stopped and asked Ralph what he was doing. Ralph became angered and told the cop that he was stealing the car. Ralph was then arrested and taken to the police station. This case represents a clear act of discrimination. "If a policeman suspects that someone had done something wrong, then the pattern of discriminatory treatment of the poor continues" (Chambliss, 1973, p.192).

Next I’ll highlight Chambliss’ study on Vice, Corruption, Bureaucracy, and Power. This study focuses on corruption as an institutionalized part of America’s legal-political system. It shows how the structure of America’s law and politics creates and perpetuates syndicates that supply the vices in major cities. Basically, organized crime is not something that exists outside of the law, but an integral part of the government structure. To prove his point he did a study of the city of Rainfall West (a pseudonym). The purpose of the study was to analyze the relationship between vice and the political and economic system. He is trying to show that the business of vice in the city is an integral part of the political and economic structure of the community.

He collected data primarily with persons who were members of either the vice syndicate, and law-enforcement agencies. It was collected over a period of seven years for 1962-1969. The city has the same problems that you see in other cities that also have about 1 million residents. You have people who are well off and then you have poor people. You have your upper-class neighborhoods and your slum areas.

He begins by talking about how those who provide gambling and other vices say that their services were only profitable because of the high demand form middle and upper-class clients. Many private clubs like country clubs, Elks, and Lions provide opportunities for gambling. He was saying that these games were run by people who work for the crime cabal. The most efficient cabal is one that has representatives of all the leading centers of power. Businessmen must be involved because of their political influence and their ability to control the mass media. The cabal must also have the cooperation of businessmen in procuring loans. These loans enable them individually as well as collectively to purchase legitimate businesses as well as to expand the vice enterprises.

The political influence of the cabal is obtained more directly. The large sums of tax-free profits makes it possible for the cabal to generously support political candidates of its choice. Usually, they give support to the most cooperative candidates.

Next he goes into a discussion about corruption in bureaucracies. The rules that govern a bureaucracy must be applied selectively. Not in the commonly held notion that the rules are universal. To begin, we must understand that there is high degree of discretion within the bureaucratic agency. This is because most bureaucracies develop there own set of common practices which take on the status of rules. So, the entire process of applying rules becomes a discretionary process. What this boils down to is a situation in which the office holder can apply the rules from an almost limitless set of choices which forces people to depend on their ability to ingratiate themselves to office-holders at all levels in order to see that the rules most useful to them get applied. So, the bureaucracy is a type of organization whose reason for being is displaced by a set of goals that often create effects that are exactly opposite of the organizations presumed purpose. It is the bureaucratic nature of law enforcement and political organization that give rise to corruption of the legal-political bureaucracy.

Chambliss is not the only one who believes in political corruption. Frank Tannenbaum observed:

"It is clear form the evidence at hand, that a considerable measure of the crime in the community is made possible and perhaps inevitable by the peculiar connection that exits between the political organizations of our large cities and the criminal activities of various gangs that are permitted and even encouraged to operate" (Tannenbaum, 1973, p.375).

Next I’ll discuss what role he believes elites play in the creation of criminal law. As I said earlier, he felt that the history of criminal law is the history of legislation and appellate-court decisions that reflect the interests of the economic elites who control the production and distribution of the major resources of society. He says that there are three ways that criminal law reflects the interest of the elites. 1) Direct involvement in the law-making process. 2) Influence and control over the law-enforcing bureaucracies and 3) The mobilization of bias. In this discussion, he deals specifically with the mobilization of bias. And he uses as an illustration, the history of vagrancy laws in England and America. The reason he thought vagrancy law were so interesting was because they emerged, were altered, and shifted focus during historical periods when different economic elites had influence in Western society. It illustrates the mobilization of bias that characterized the historical process of criminal-law legislation.

The Black Death, which occurred around 1348, was the primary reason for vagrancy statutes. One of the consequences of this plague was the fact that it devastated the labor force. England suffered badly because of the fact that its economy was highly dependent upon a ready supply of cheap labor.

Even before the pestilence, the availability of an adequate supply of cheap labor was becoming a problem for the landowners. The crusades and other wars became costly to the owners, and as a result, they agreed to sell the serfs their freedom in order to obtain much-needed funds. This came at a moment when serfs could use their freedom to seek jobs in rapidly industrializing towns. The work provided greater personal freedom and also a higher standard of living. The result of the plague and the wars was that wages for "free" man rose considerably. However, the effect of the wage increase for "free" men caused problems for the landowner and also the "unfree" serf. For the serf, wage increases made his condition worse because the landowner would be hard pressed to pay the "freed" laborer and at the same time maintain the standard of living for the serf. Because of this, the serf’s only alternative was to take flight. This benefited the serf because he not only found better work in new industrial towns, but also the chances of getting caught were very slim.

So, it was under these conditions that the first vagrancy statutes emerged. These statutes benefited the owners. According to Chambliss, "There is little question but that these statutes were designed for one express purpose: to forces laborers to accept employment at a low wage in order to insure the landowners an adequate supply of labor at a price he could afford to pay" (Chambliss, 1973, 435). Basically, this was an attempt to make the vagrancy statutes a substitute for serfdom. Chambliss felt that changes in these laws took place in the economic institutions of society. And that the vagrancy laws were designed to lessen a condition defined by the law makers as undesirable. The solution was to curtail the mobility of laborers in such a way that labor would not become a commodity for which the landowners would have to compete.

After a period of dormancy, the vagrancy statutes evolved into their next form. The evolution of these statues took place after the Peasant’ Revolt in 1381. The labor provided to the lords by the serfs began to decline during this period. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted the last serfs manumission.

With the change, we would also expect to see a parallel change in the vagrancy laws. Instead of remaining dormant, the vagrancy laws experienced a shift in focal concern. Chambliss noted that the shift in the 1530 statutes resulted in a new and equally important function for the social order of England. "What is most significant about this statute is the shift from an earlier concern with laborers to a concern with criminal activities" (Chambliss, 1973, p. 435). One of the changes that had been added to the statute speaks to those who "can give no reckoning how he lawfully get his living" (Chambliss, 1973, p.436). This was the first statute that specifically focuses upon these kinds of criteria for adjudging someone a vagrant.

Also, it is significant that the severity of the punishment was increased to a level that was more severe than that which had been provided in any other pre-1503 statutes. For someone who violated these statutes, whipping until the body bled was often the punishment. Five years later, the death penalty was applied to the crime of vagrancy. During this period, the vagrancy statutes evolved and became a concern for control of felons and are no longer primarily concerned with the movement of laborers.

These statutory changes were a direct response to changes that took place in England’s social structure during this period. Italian merchants, who contributed to the English economy, were often subjected to attacks by citizens. Here the vagrancy statutes were revived to facilitate the control of persons preying upon merchants transporting goods. Persons who had committed no serious felony but who were suspected of being capable of doing so could be apprehended and incapacitated through the application of vagrancy laws once these laws were refocused so as to include any ruffians or vagabonds.

The same vagrancy laws used in England were adopted by the United States. However, blacks were the primary targets of these laws. "When white employers faced labor scarcities, police would often arrest unemployed blacks to create pools of cheap, exploitable labor" (Kennedy, 1997, p. 91).

To sum up what has just been said, the author would conclude that "shifts and changes in the law of vagrancy show a clear pattern of reflecting the interest and needs of the groups who control the economic institutions of the society" (Chambliss, 1973, p. 442). And so the laws change as institutions change.

Next, Chambliss’ study of the "negative self" will be discussed. This was a very interesting article because it was one where Chambliss did not attack the capitalist system for having an influence on behavior. This study focuses more on individuals than society.

Chambliss did this study because he disagreed with social psychological explanations that say that the primary motivator of behavior are feelings of inferiority or "negative self." In this study he used a two-phased exploration to gauge the validity of the assumption that a negative self-image is prevalent.

He used three hundred seventy-five undergraduate freshmen in his study. They were administered a one hundred thirty-seven item adjective checklist and were asked to check items that most appropriately described themselves.

The list of one hundred thirty-seven items contained adjectives, which would be considered positive in their connotation, as well as items that would be considered negative. To the extent to which respondents check positive or negative traits as self-descriptions, a rough measure could be made to determinate the degree to which negative or positive self-images prevail.

A few of the fifteen positive connotations include honest, sincere, and logical. Some of the negative connotations are shallow, rattle-brained, and foolish.

The study revealed that respondents were more likely to choose connotations that were positive to describe themselves than negative connotations. "This initial analysis, then, appears inconsistent with the hypothesis of the "negative self" and seems to support the notion that, for the most part respondents have positive self-conceptions" (Chambliss, 1967, p.109). In addition, the respondents were much more likely to see negative traits as being "never typical" of them (37%) than they were to see the positive traits as being "never typical of them (less than 1%). So, the data reveals that the respondents tend overwhelmingly to select items with a positive connotation as appropriate self-descriptions and to avoid items with a negative meaning. To conclude, the wide spread belief among social psychologist in a "negative self" is unwarranted. "Indeed, we will be led to conclude, as the results reported here indicate that the "negative self" is a very rare event" (Chambliss, 1967, p.122).

Another interesting study Chambliss did was on the use of punishment and its effect on deterring criminal activity. He felt that it was necessary to do this study because of the widely held belief that punishment does not deter criminal activity. He believed that people who held this view often had murder and death as a deterrent punishment on their minds. However, Chambliss felt that it was not sound to make generalizations about the theory of punishment. He stated that "their very broad interpretation has rendered a disservice to the more general issue of punishment as a deterrent to all kinds of criminal behavior" (Chambliss, 1966, p.71).

The purpose of Chambliss’ investigation was to conduct a study on the deterrent influence of punishment on crimes other than murder. He felt the best opportunity for conducting such an investigation was in 1956 when changes were made in the policies and practices pertaining to the violation of parking regulations on a particular university campus. Chambliss wanted to see how a dramatic increase in the certainty and severity of punishment for violation of parking regulations would impact the behavior of the group affected. In other words, he wanted to see if the number violations did in fact, decrease, so he studied the faculty’s pattern of violation before and after the changes in policy.

He took a sample of forty-three faculty members at random from all faculty members who had been on campus for at least 21/2 years before the change in punishment and for an equivalent period after that. The most important information sought was whether or not the interviewee had violated the regulations in either or both of the two periods and, if so, how often.

The results of the investigation revealed that the change in regulations greatly reduced the number of transgressions and the number of transgressors and served as an effective deterrent. There had been a significant reduction in the number of persons receiving a ticket for violating the regulations was greater after the change than it had before. Another indication that the new regulations had a deterrent influence is the degree to which respondents reported greater caution in avoiding violations.

Finally, Chambliss concludes by saying that we must study each circumstance and the effect of punishment on deterrence. He states that we must examine "those circumstances under which particular types of punishment do in fact act as a deterrent and those circumstances under which particular types of punishment have little or not effect" (Chambliss, 1966, p.75).

William Chambliss’ work has been or is currently being used by other theorists. In 1977, R.M. Rich used Chambliss’ conflict paradigm in his study to determine if the sociology of criminal law fits one of the paradigms he proposed and the direction in which theorists are moving. Unfortunately, the library did not have the journal article and as a result, more information could not be obtained on this study. However, the author concluded that "the trend seems to be toward acceptance of the conflict theory" (Rich, 1997).

P.D. Jackson also used Chambliss’ work. In his 1979 doctoral dissertation, three theoretical models are compared by path analysis and then evaluated for their ability to explain variance in the sentencing patterns of the Federal District Courts serving the 50 states. One of the three models used in this dissertation was Chambliss’ "Systemic Strain Interpretation." Incorporated within the systemic strain model is a causal order between judicial caseloads, use of counsel, and type of hearing. Each model was empirically tested by multivariate analytical techniques to determine its ability to explain sentencing patterns in the Federal District Court system. The author concludes in his dissertation that Chambliss’ systemic strain model presents a more comprehensive explanation of the severity of sentences imposed in Federal District Courts.

A more current usage of Chambliss’ theoretical framework can be found in Gregg Barak’s article "Crime, Criminology, and Human Rights: Toward and Understanding of State Criminality." However, Barak expands on Chambliss’ theoretical framework. "Little progress has been made in either precisely specifying what the various forms of "state criminality" are, or in analyzing such case studies as those that present themselves" (Barak, 1994, p. 253). He felt that it was important that critical criminologist develop ways of communicating progressive perspectives on crime and social justice to popular audiences. In this article, the author looks at human rights violations of nation-states and oppressive U.S. foreign policy as well as other state-organized crime.

Chambliss’ works have not come without criticism. Karl Klockars states that "Marxist criminology resembles a new religion in which it "true believers" are unwilling to test, evaluate, or objectively examine their theories or beliefs" (Klockars 1979, p.202). He also states that "all of the problems of justice are collapsed into the economic interest of the classes" (Klockars, 1979, p.202).

Other criminologists have also criticized Chambliss’ theoretical framework.

We will conclude our study of William Chambliss with a brief summary of his radical theory. His theory begins with a critique of the capitalist system. He believed that as capitalist societies industrialize and the gap between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat widens, penal law would expand in an effort to coerce the proletariat into submission. Also, crime diverts the lower class attention from the exploitation they experience and directs it toward other members of their own class rather than toward the capitalist class. Finally, we see that crime is a reality which exist only as it is created by those in the society whose interest are served by its presence.


Barak, G. (1994). Crime, Criminolgy, and Human Rights: Toward an Understanding of State Criminality. In Barak, G. (ed.) Varieties of Criminology. (pp. 253-267). Westport, Ct. Praeger.

Chambliss, W. (1965). The Selection of Friends. Social Forces, 19, 370-380.

Chambliss, W. (1966). The Deterrent Influence of Punishment. Crime and Delinquency, 12, 70-75.

Chambliss, W. (1966). The Legal Process in the Community Setting. Crime and Delinquency, 33, 310-317.

Chambliss, W. (1967). The Negative Self: An Empirical Assessment of a Theoretical Assumption. Sociological Inquiry, 34, 108-112.

Chambliss, W. & Seidman, R. (1971). Law, Order, and Power. Reading, Mass.:Addison-Wesley.

Chambliss, W. (1973). Elites and the Creation of Criminal Law. In Chambliss, W.(Ed.) Sociological Readings in the Conflict Perspective. (pp. 430-444). Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley

Chambliss, W. (1973). Poverty and the Criminal Process. In Chambliss, W. (Ed.) Problems of Industrial Society. (pp. 186-198). Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Chambliss, W. (1973). Vice, Corruption, Bureaucracy, and Power. In Chambliss, W. (Ed.) Sociological Readings in the Conflict Perspective. (pp. 353-378). Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Chambliss, W. (1988). On the Take. Indianapolis, In.: Indiana University Press.

Chambliss, W. (1996). Another Lost War: The Lost Consequences of Drug Prohibiting. Social Justice, 22, 101-124.

Jackson, P.D. (1979). Path Anaysis of Three Interpretations of the Structural Causes for the Invocation of Formal Social Sanctions-Criminal Sentecing in Federal District Courses. Available: http://www.ncjrs.org/cgi/database/

 Kennedy, R. (1997). Race, Crime, and the Law. New York: Vintage Books.

Klockars, C. (1979). The Contemporary Crises of Marxist Criminology. Criminolgy, 16, 477-515.

Rich, R.M. (1977). Sociology of Criminal Law- Toward a Paradimatic Perspective. Crime ET/and Justice, V5, N3. Available: http://www.ncjrs.org/cgi/database/