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Ethos of the Times


In his essay, James Wilson stated that character is shaped by the “ethos of the times.” Character which forms in the early years and has intrinsically been linked to deviance is an important aspect to examine. While character is shaped by familial and biological factors, policy can influence it as well through creating proper conditions which improve social circumstances and remove potential temptations for crime. This paper deeply examines this premise by defining ethos and its role in society. Furthermore, theoretical research is presented supporting Wilson’s perspective. Finally, a critical evaluation is offered, examining some of the nuances of his argument. The author of this paper supports Wilson’s argument as a potential explanation and solution to addressing criminal behavior.

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In his essay, Wilson (1995) stated that character, although a private matter, is shaped “by the ethos of the times” (pg. 1). He mentions some examples include general public opinions, community expectations, elite understandings, and even artistic conventions. It is a simple but comprehensive assessment to describe ethos as the spirit, or essentially a set of beliefs which drive the public perspective and environment. As mentioned, while character is seemingly a personal matter that is affected by biological and familial factors, for most individuals, they are exposed to social environments such as schools, communities, playgrounds, social media, and even the news on television. However, it is also important to consider that the phrase applied by Wilson suggests some matter of consistency in social frameworks, a difficult concept in the 21st century where times and attitudes are undergoing rapid ongoing change and unpredictability at an unprecedented level (White, 2015). In terms of sociology and theoretical frameworks on youth development, it is particularly relevant in terms of the debates on identity, roles, and associations.

It is important to consider these particular areas which Wilson states may be elements of the said “ethos”. Public opinions and attitudes are vital in shaping character and attitudes. Since human beings are inherently social creatures, behavior and perception for most individuals depend on interactions with others. Therefore, when public opinion is radically against immigration as it is in many places in the United States, an immigrant child will feel daunted and oppressed, without a clear future. This will have an impact on character development and potential hostility later in life as a defensive mechanism. Community expectations have a similar role in creating a collective consciousness which imprints itself on the individual. The proverb, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is a demonstration of ethos in practice, wherein modern day, community functions as a collective parent through the church, activity centers, or fellow parents on a playground, with the prevalent attitudes shaping the opinions of an individual.

Elite understandings can be attributed to political attitudes that are commonly seen on the news and in public announcements, including policy and legislation which guides behavior and identifies certain aspects as good or immoral. Finally, artistic conventions are especially vital in shaping the ethos in modern day as entertainment and celebrities are viewed as role models, determining certain public perceptions through their art and behavior. Ethos is a complex concept shaped by a variety of influencing factors, but its role in influencing individual characters and behavior is prevalent. In the modern age of social networking and public engagement, it can be argued more so that ethos must be a factor when considering influences and public policy guidance in criminology.

Support of Wilson

The primary theories supporting Wilson’s statement came from the Chicago School of Criminology which began to focus on the sociological origins of crime. Burgess’s Concentric Zone Theory and Shaw and McKay’s Theory of Juvenile Delinquency focused on how neighborhood organization and city growth contributed to crime patterns. It was one of the earliest attempts to identify the social roots of crime by creating frameworks of patterns sociality. Theretofore, in this disorganization model, one’s place of residence influenced one susceptibility to crime. The theorists observed that the nature of the neighborhood rather than individual personalities contributed to crime involvement (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2019). Therefore, supporting Wilson’s primary point regarding the influence of ethos on character and subsequent involvement in a crime. The “zones” included all aspects of the community such as families, schools, and churches, with some of the troublesome areas having broken down public institutions in the midst of unhealthy urban growth, an aspect heavily guided by policy.

Merton’s Strain Theory in 1938 further developed on the social concept and influence of ethos, suggesting that the American culture inherently supported criminalistic behavior. It is a multifaceted issue stemming from the significant emphasis on economic success and ambition to achieve more. Therefore, no one social group is ever satisfied and there is a public pressure to continuously strive for more. However, the ironic consequence is that not everyone chooses to do so through the virtue of hard work but adopts deviant behavior as a means to achieve the desired social mobility, with some populations such as the poor, being burdened the most. This was termed as a “strain” and Merton identified various types of adaptation to address it. Most people conform, but there are certain types which would choose to deviate through various means, including criminal behavior (Lilly et al., 2019). This supports Wilson’s point regarding the influence of social aspects and personality types on deviant behavior. The aspect of criminality comes from temptations, which are driven by sociocultural influences of economic prosperity in combination with personality types which would either conform to the existing status or attempt to deviate through crime.

Evaluation of Wilson

In his essay, Wilson states that scholars have grown to understand the “influence of biological, familial, and peer-group influences on criminality” (pg. 1). By this, he is referring to early childhood development as an essential aspect of these influences. Recent scholarship confirms this claim, suggesting that personalities remain constant through a person’s life beginning with early childhood, regardless of context. Personality attributes which are categorized and are associated with certain traits that are inherently difficult to change, as they are a part of an individual’s biology combined with certain social factors (Live Science Staff, 2010). A study by Atkinson (1999) suggests that character forms as early as three years of age, demonstrating evidence which can predict future adult behavior. Relating it to Wilson’s argument, potential delinquency factors can be identified early on. Such biological factors as delayed verbal and motor development, hyper-activity, and learning disabilities are associated with crime (Atkinson, 1999). This supports the point by Wilson suggesting that character influences need to be considered as part of comprehensive interventions in regard to public policy and schooling that shape an individual’s character at an early age indirectly through parents and communities.

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It can be argued that Wilson is referring in part to social influence, which encompasses individuals changing their behavior and personality to meet the demands of social environments. Social cognition, self-identity, and attitudes are strongly influenced by public-based perceptions. Some behaviors are dependent on situational capacities in the immediate environment, such as the temptations which Wilson mentions driving crime, with peer pressure being a relevant example. Meanwhile, dispositionism supports that behavior is influenced by internal factors such as personality traits that are shaped by social identities from early childhood. One obvious example of such in the United States continues to be an issue of race and socioeconomic class. A large aspect of this depends on cultural as well. The United States as an individualistic culture views behavior as an inherent personal trait rather than the influence of social or situational factors. It is an assumption in sociology known as fundamental attribution error (Lumen, n.d.). Wilson is attempting to challenge the status quo narrative by encompassing social influences into the driving factors of crime. Therefore, if social aspects are present, then they can be influenced by public policy.

Wilson engages in discussion regarding the government’s role in improving character and whether it is a public or private matter. Scholars have differing opinions on this. While it is difficult to change a person’s character, a certain trait does not make one a criminal. The important aspect, partially supporting Wilson’s argument, is to direct such characters into acceptable behavior and social norms. Regardless of government, societies practice some variance of social control, enforcement of norms which can be done on an organized level through criminal justice but also through some aspect of social sanctions among smaller groups of communities and individuals. Social order is important for all involved parties to upkeep (Little, 2014). Therefore, prevention measures can be taken in regard to developmental, community, situational, and criminal justice prevention. These include targeting risk factors at an early age, introducing interventions for institutions change, and deterring potential criminal situations through education and rehabilitation (Welsh & Farrington, 2012). However, others disagree that deterrence and prevention can be effective, not in the traditional sense. While incremental changes can be seen, a policy such as education, increasing penalties, or other means has little meaning in the end since a criminal is driven by personal motives more than anything the government can influence (Johnson, 2019).


Wilson’s statement regarding the influence of ethos on criminal origins and behavior stemming from character is a powerful indication of theoretical shifts of paradigm on the issue. This paper first examined the concept of ethos which can be identified is a set of beliefs and values in society, created through various means ranging from public opinions and communities to politics and mass media. Furthermore, theories were examined to support Wilson’s statement. Theories such as the Burgess’s Concentric Zone Theory with its disorganization model and Merton’s Strain Theory with the adaptation model examine the socio-cultural influence on criminal origin patterns. One theory attributes crime to neighborhood influence which is driven by institutional and public attitudes, while Merton identifies the cultural pressure of economic mobility that people are forced to adapt to, with some choosing a deviant path. Finally, Wilson’s statement was critically analyzed by examining psychological factors, aspects of social influence, and discussing character as a matter of public or public significance which can be influenced through crime prevention. Although there are some potential theoretical conflicts in Wilson’s approach, the author of this paper ultimately agrees with his perceptions and supports the role of policy in affecting the ethos that plays a critical role in character development.


Atkinson, P. (1999). Character formed by 3 years of age. The Sunday Mail. 

Johnson, B. (2019). Deterrence theory in criminal justice policy: A primer. 

Lilly, R. J., Cullen, F. T., & Ball. R. A. (2019). Criminological Theory; Context and Consequences (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Little, W. (2014). Introduction to sociology – 1st Canadian edition. Victoria, Canada: BCcampus.

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Live Science Staff. (2010). Personality set for life by 1st grade, study suggests. 

Lumen. (n.d.). Social psychology and influences on behavior. Web.

Welsh, B. C., & Farrington, D. P. (2012). Crime prevention and public policy. In D. P. Farrington & B. C. Welsh (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of crime prevention (pp. 1-18). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

White, J. (2015). An ethos for the times: Difference, imagination, and the unknown future in child and youth care. International Journal of Child, Youth, and Family Studies, 6(4), 489-515. Web.

Wilson, J. Q. (1995). On character: Essays by James Q. Wilson. Washington, D.C.: The AEI Press.

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