Morphology, criminology, and law

Law is not automatically invoked whenever a crime occurs or interpersonal violence erupts. The decision to resort to law, as opposed to using other forms of social control or doing nothing, depends on a variety of factors. In The Behavior of the Law (1976), Donald Black presents a theory explaining “the quantity and style of law in every setting” (p. 6), i.e., governmental social control. Along this line, Black attempts to explain the law without reference to the individual. In his theory of the behaviour of law, Black identifies a series of social structural characteristics that, he argues, determine when, how much, and what style of law is used. One of these characteristics is morphology, or “the distribution of people in relation to one another” ( Black 1976, p. 37), including their division of labor, integration and intimacy.

Basically, morphology consists of people's networks of interaction, the intimacy of their relationships, and their integration with others. Law is most common where interaction, intimacy, and integration are scarce. Strangers frequently use law to solve their disputes, whereas those who know each other tend not to resort to law. According to Black, this is because other, less formal and less costly forms of social control are more likely to be available to those who know each other. This paper briefly describes some evidence that the division of labor and the distribution of social intimacy and integration impacts crime, law and/or social control in the United States.

One evidence is the organized crime in the country. The major drug trafficking groups in the US have the control over the large production and distribution networks: multiple production facilities and laboratories that produce hundreds of metric tons of cocaine every year and a distribution network that transports raw materials and finished product by ship, plane, and many other means imaginable to destinations in many countries. Furthermore, criminal organizations in the US are increasingly dominating the manufacturing, sale, and distribution of methamphetamine, Ecstasy, illegal steroids, and other prohibited drugs. In order to operate most efficiently, organized crime in the country relies largely on division of labor and relationships in the performance of numerous diverse roles. To the extent that organized crime groups are highly rational, they possess a well-defined division of labor, formal authority relations, and a structural permanence.

The above evidence underlines Black's proposition in criminology and law regarding deivision of labor, social intimacy, and integration. However, a study by Lessan (1992) did not support BlAck's proposition on morphology. In their analysis of aggregate-level data for the US in the period 1948-1985, the author examines four models of longitudinal changes in the quantity of law as a function of levels and changes in levels of the aspects of social life addressed by Black. The majority of the relationships investigated do not behave as Black has posited.

The key to morphology, following Black's arguments, is the notion of advancing division of labor which spurs both a disintegration of community and increased separation of state and society. The result is higher levels of stratification, a diminished sense of appropriate action in social situations, increased ability to question and to violate previously accepted practices, greater reliance on the state to govern the ever-growing body of disputes arising from these changes, and increased specialization within the regulatory arm of the state.

According to Lessan (1992), the failure of the morphology variable to predict trends in crime, law, and social control lies in Black's failure to consider demographic trends underlying morphology. While increasing division of labor traditionally has been coupled with population growth, population growth itself does not predict the activities that would elicit criminal-justice responses. Rather, characteristics of that growth, such as age composition of the population, might be more significantly predictive.



Black, D. (1976). The behavior of law. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Lessan, G. T. (1992). Does Law Behave? a Macrolevel Test of Black's Propositions on Change in Law. Social Forces, 70 (3), 655-678.