This Henry Hill in the Lucchese crime family.

This essay will discuss the
criminological theories that can be applied to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfella’s
(1990). Specifically it will look at strain and subcultural theories, Chicago
School theories into juvenile delinquency and street gangs as well as
interactionalist theories such as Tannenbaum’s Labelling Theory. “Goodfella’s”
is based on the non-fiction novel by Nicholas Pileggi, ‘Wiseguy’ (1985), which
explores the biographical life of American mobster Henry Hill in the Lucchese
crime family. Gang crime has become a popular research point for criminologists
due to the attitudes and behaviours of those involved in organised crime
circles. From a young age, Hill had ‘always wanted to be a gangster’ and began
working at a cabstand run by the infamous Mobster’s in his city instead of
going to school, much to the disapproval of his parents. Many criminological
theories can be applied to Hill’s behaviour, from the beginning of the film
right through to his demise at the end.

Firstly, Hill’s desire to be a
gangster stems from their ability to ‘do what they want’ and feeling like he
belonged to something that showed group solidarity. This could represent his
weak relationships with his own family and therefore his need to become part of
something where he could feel loved and approved. Whilst working for surrogate
father Paul ‘Paulie’ Cicero, who was also the ‘boss of everything that went on
in the neighbourhood’, by collecting loan shark payments and bets, Hill
describes how he began to feel respected by those much older than him – “At
thirteen I was making more money than most of the grownups in the
neighbourhood”. Being ‘treated as a grownup’ and being ‘looked at differently’
portrays Hill’s desire for respect and approval from these male role models.
This represents features of Elijah Anderson’s interpretation of subcultural
theory in his work Code of the Street
(1999). Anderson states that competition amongst the poor for legitimate
work, leads to an abundance of illegitimate opportunities and in turn leads to
a ‘code of the street’.  Anderson
describes ‘Code of the Street’ as a set of rules for public behaviour where
‘respect’ is considered a main component and therefore absence of which,
promotes violence and in turn, the desire for males to prove their dominance
amongst each other. The conformity to these unwritten rules accentuates the
idea of group solidarity and gang mentality, where loyalty and deference become
crucial. 

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Set in the 1950’s, the
Goodfella’s (1990) also depicts a time of American prosperity and the ‘American
Dream’, a term coined by James Truslow Adams in his work ‘The epic of America’ (1931). At this time, most of the population
of America aspired to be wealthy people in comfortable professions and would do
anything to achieve it. For those who felt they were not smart enough or didn’t
have the time to learn a skill, deviance was a popular way to achieve this
goal, hence the emergence of the Mafia. Since teenager Henry Hill grew up in a
poor family his desire to be rich and live a lavish lifestyle, different from
the way his parents lived became more and more apparent as he aged.  Being permitted to park older men’s Cadillac’s
and being known by the Mafioso was Hill’s own personal goal and an achievement
on his way to the top of the mafia circle. This would be an example of one of
Merton’s Modes of adaptation (Merton, 1938), Innovation; Innovation occurs when
the deviant accepts cultural goals but achieves them through illegitimate and
socially disapproved means. For example, Hill accepts his own personal goal is
to become a wealthy and well respected man within his neighbourhood. However he
achieves this goal through socially considered, illegitimate means, such as
stealing cigarettes and selling them from the boot of a car, or stealing money
in order to become a wealthy man instead of working for it like the rest of
society.

                The disapproval a teenage Hill
receives from his parents for working at the cabstand is an accurate
representation of Merton’s strain theory and how parental rejection and abuse
can lead to a strain on a young teenager’s life (Agnew , 1992). This therefore
pushes him to lash out against his parents by going against societies norms.  From this, we see that Hill shows a clear
aspiration to live within the crime family and begins to refer to the general
society as ‘bums’ for making a living through legitimate means. Hill also
refers to his education as ‘government bullshit’ and views education as a waste
of time; Hill is unable to see the benefits of legitimate education as an
appropriate step towards a socially accepted and well deserved future. This
presents a clear understanding of how role models can affect the behaviour of
their subjects, whether the behaviour is illegal or not. Hill’s associate’s
give something for him to strive towards by giving him money and opportunities
that nobody else can.

Walter B Miller’s ethnographic
research on the behaviour of male gang members (1958) establishes 6 main
concerns in such an area as Brooklyn, where most of the film was set. The six
main concerns are toughness, trouble, smartness, excitement, fate and autonomy;
many of which can provide reasons for the behaviour of most associates within
the crime family. For example, toughness refers to aspects of masculinity and
the nature of male dominance and battles for leadership among such groups. In
addition, we can apply autonomy, which Merton describes as a ‘strong resentment
for interference and intervention from outsiders’. This becomes apparent when
Karen Hill, the wife of Henry, begins to explain what it was like being a part
of such a controversial group; “We were
always together, no outsiders ever, it got to be normal”. Furthermore,
Merton explains the idea of excitement within such groups which explains how
the crime family was initiated. Relating to my previous point of the American
dream the need to be at the top of the social ladder, Hill and his associates
seek excitement in everyday life. This is due to the lack of opportunities
elsewhere and the eagerness to stray away from the monotonous daily life of the
general society around them.

Hill’s behaviour is also an
accurate representation of the characteristics involved with Sutherland’s Differential Association theory (1947).
Sutherland’s thinking behind this theory is that the nature of one’s
personality relies on interaction in social groups that share similar norms and
ideals; he believes that most of this behaviour is passed on through imitation
and Operant Learning (Skinner 1953).
At one particular moment in the film, Hill faces prosecution in court for
selling stolen cigarettes on the streets of New York for friend and fellow Mob
associate Jimmy Burke. At the end of the court hearing Hill is praised by Burke
for not ‘ratting on his friends’ and for ‘keeping his mouth shut’ and receives
money from Burke as a reward. This is an example of positive reinforcement which
will encourage similar behaviour in the future; this reinforcement will encourage
Hill to feel a sense of approval giving him the desire to continue to accept
any tasks or jobs from his associates that will keep them happy. This positive
reinforcement comes hand in hand with negative reinforcement whereby bad
behaviours amongst the gang are punished through beatings or even death. By
witnessing this behaviour Hill consequently respects his associates and follows
the unwritten rules of the gang to ensure it doesn’t happen to him as well
ensure the respect of the rest of the group.

When Hill is well immersed into
the daily routine of Mafioso life, he begins to expect the regard of not only
his associates but the rest of society through their fear of death and
punishment. Hill himself begins to reward members of society to keep them on
his side, a behaviour learnt by fellow associate Jimmy Burke. For example, one
part of the film shows us Hill taking his wife to a show, he places $20 in the
hand of each worker at the event that allows him to cut corners – Not queueing
outside with the rest of the public, walking through the kitchen to avoid the
crowds inside, and ensuring a table for him and his date at the very front of
the stage. The rest of society and even the public begin to see this behaviour
as normal and allow it to occur in order to respect him and the Lucchese Mob. People
even begin to start doing him favours without asking, this is a prime example
how society’s behaviour can alter and change due to a shift in authority. With
even the police on their side, the public turn a blind eye to any crime the Mob
commits to adhere to the cohesion within the community because of their
dominance over the area. Society’s behaviour and opinions have a great impact
in the way crime occurs in certain areas and can even promote crime to a
certain degree.

Following on from my previous
point, Hill’s criminal behaviour can also be explained using interactionalist
theories such as Tannenbaum’s Labelling Theory (1930). Tannenbaum explains that
the social reaction to crime and deviance is often what makes the criminal. In
this case, the social reaction to Hill is mostly one of respect and therefore
may explain why Hill continues to live his life in a deviant manner. In his
theory however, Tannenbaum emphasises how social reaction to crime and deviance
often leads to segregation of the criminal in a negative way, although the
Lucchese crime family are people that are respected widely across the
neighbourhood and even authority figures such as the police allow them to bend
the rules. This would therefore promote a more positive segregation of the
gangsters as they are admired and considered of high regard by most of the
community. This segregation also emphasises the idea of group solidarity
amongst the gang and the importance of loyalty to ensure the cohesion within
the crime family which allows them to stay ‘under the radar’ and be more
efficient when committing their crimes.

In addition, in his sociological
text ‘Outsiders’ (1963) Howard Becker
draws upon the conclusion that “Deviance is not a quality of the act the person
commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and
sanctions to an offender” (Becker, 1963); This would not only accurately
describe the reaction of the neighbourhood to the Mob, but also the reaction by
the Mob to their fellow associates when one goes against the unwritten rules and
sanctions of the gang. The application of the rules and sanctions are mainly
made and enforced by the Mob as opposed to authority figures such as the police.
Thus, the reaction to crime such as murder and assault from the society’s point
of view is one of fear and panic rather than disgust and shame, allowing the
gang to continue committing the crime they commit. The changing attitudes of
the society lead to the gangs change in behaviour; seeing how much they can get
away with and having an excessive obsession with becoming bigger and better
amongst the community and within the gang itself.

                Finally,
we can apply interpretations of rational choice theory, originally introduced
to us by sociologist George Homas. The basis of rational choice theory is the
rational thinking behind the action of the crime. It involves evaluating
whether the benefits of the crime outweigh the costs; if they do, the deviant
goes ahead with committing the crime. For example, in one part of the film,
Hill and his close associates Jimmy Burke and Tommy DeSimone organise the
Lufthansa Heist, where they successfully stole six million US dollars from John
F Kennedy airport in 1978. The rational thinking behind this particular deviant
act was that having $6million would be worth the small chance they would have
been caught before the rest of the Lucchese crime family who aided and abetted
in the act and most likely would have been caught or would have ‘taken the
fall’ for their superiors.  Since
rational choice theory works hand in hand with crime prevention, this would
also explain why gang crime was so common in the 20th century; the
abundance of opportunity related to the ability to commit crime represents a
lack of importance regarding crime prevention at that time. Although it was
attempted, crime prevention methods weren’t often regulated and the police were
not as strict as they are in today’s society, which may motivate certain offenders,
specifically those related to organised crime.

In conclusion, specific components of each theory; Strain
theory, Subcultural theory, Labelling theory, Rational Choice theory and
Differential Association theory, can all be used to accurately explain deviant
behaviours related to gang crime, specifically the crimes and attitudes of the
Lucchese crime family presented in Scorsese’s Goodfella’s (1990). Where some
theories focus on the thinking of the deviant, others focus on the reaction of
society to specific crimes. By taking social reaction into account, we can see
how general public opinion changes, as well as how the development of
authoritarian organisations have become stricter and receive more regulation
from their superiors. It is interesting to see how a social groups
interpretation of the American Dream can spiral out of control when it is being
achieved through illegitimate means. Furthermore, we can see how desperation to
achieve certain goals can lead to a clouding of judgement in the deviants mind,
believing that they become far too superior to be caught out in the end.