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Australian & New Zealand J. Criminology, (December 1981), 14 (249-252).


J J Ray*


To a sample of 54 club members, 32 shop assistants, 36 schoolboys and 43 Lebanese immigrants was administered a set of 32 questions concerning attitudes to shoplifting and the Ray (1974) Alienation scale. There were no significant differences on mean attitude to shoplifting among the four groups and all groups overall were strongly disapproving of shoplifting. On two groups there was a significant correlation between alienation and acceptance of shoplifting. The 32 attitude to shoplifting items were shown to form a scale of satisfactory reliability.


With Australia's origin as a repository for criminals, it must be no surprise that sympathy for the criminal is an historic element in Australian culture. This sympathy is best shown in the still well-known case of Ned Kelly. Kelly was a highway robber with none of the redistributive morality of a Robin Hood and yet he very rapidly became and has since remained a folk hero. His main distinction appears to have been the difficulty the police experienced in capturing him. A question that arises, however, is whether the Ned Kelly syndrome of disrespect for legality and the law is still a force in contemporary bourgeois Australia.

There is reason to believe that the Australia which created the Ned Kelly myth might not now be so sympathetic to it. Not only does Australia have roughly twice the average personal disposable income than the Britain which sent out the convicts now has, but Australians now see themselves as overwhelmingly middle class. Kemp (1978) tabulates data to show that while only one-third of the British see themselves as middle class (or better), roughly two-thirds of Australians fall into the same category. Times have changed.

Despite this, however, Jackson (1970) reports findings that suggest that the Ned Kelly morality may be very much alive and well -- at least among our young people. In a sample of 120 Grade 6 school children, he found that 99% had at some time stolen and that 75% said they would yield again in at least one of a set of hypothetical temptation situations. One of the set of situations was that of shoplifting. Ned Kelly would surely feel at home today given these results.

Nonetheless, children have not learnt the restraints and more "responsible" attitudes that are expected of adults so the question of attitude to crime among the population at large remains an open one. It is the purpose of this paper to provide data which might help elucidate the question either way. For the purpose of illustration, the crime chosen for study will be shoplifting. As a fairly minor crime, it is one where sympathy with the criminal could be more plausibly expressed than it could with, say, rape or murder. The main hypothesis, then, will be that Australians still tend to approve of at least some crime against property.


Rather than taking one large sample of the community at large, the methodology adopted was to take four smaller samples of four distinct community groups. Australia is a diverse society and statistical averages could well conceal real inter-group differences.

The four groups selected were: a bourgeois group, a migrant group, a group of shop-assistants and a group of schoolchildren. In line with Jackson's findings, a secondary hypothesis was that the schoolchildren group would be more approving of shoplifting than any of the others. The shop assistants were selected as a working-class group with particular experience of shoplifting and its implications. It seemed likely that they might be particularly condemnatory of shoplifting. Groups with potentially contrasting attitudes were thus selected.

The bourgeois group was sampled from among members of a tennis and a bowling club. The migrant group was sampled from among the Lebanese community, the schoolchildren were a class from a local high school and the shop assistants were contacted in local large stores. For the Lebanese community, the questionnaire was translated into Arabic (1).

The questionnaire administered in each case contained a set of 32 items expressing a considerable range of attitudes to shoplifting -- 16 being pro-shoplifting and 16 anti-shoplifting. It also contained demographic questions and the Ray (1974) alienation scale. This scale was included to test another secondary hypothesis to the effect that approval for shoplifting might be correlated with alienation from the society at large. It was as such an attempt to explain attitudes to shoplifting as well as document their prevalence.


The final sample was comprised of 54 club members, 32 shop assistants, 36 schoolboys and 43 Lebanese. The 32 attitude to shoplifting items were treated as a single Acceptance of Shoplifting scale. Its coefficient "alpha" (Cronbach, 1951) reliability (an index of scalability) was .72 for the club members, .75 for the shop assistants, .78 for the schoolboys and . 75 for the Lebanese. This indicates that there is such a thing as an overall attitude to shoplifting among all four groups and that the 32 items can validly be summed to provide a single overall measure of it.

The reliability of the Alienation scale was .80, .85, .55 and .74 respectively. This indicates that among the schoolboys only the Alienation scale did not work well.

The mean acceptance of shoplifting scores (SDs in brackets) among the four groups were: 53.79 (8.08), 53.59 (8.39); 57.52 (9.39) and 53.90 (8.79) respectively. None of these differences were (obviously) statistically significant. In fact, the mean scores of the three adult groups were as near to identity as could be possibly expected. The results then contradict three commonsense hypotheses: That native-born Australians would be more tolerant of crime than those not born in Australia; That schoolchildren will be more tolerant of crime than adults; and that shop assistants will be more intolerant of shop-directed crime than others.

The most important finding of all, however, is the absolute level of approval for shoplifting. As the theoretical midpoint on the scale (the point of indifference) was 64 (32 items multiplied by the midpoint - 2 - of each item), it may be seen that the three adult samples scored over a standard deviation below this. Thus Australians vehemently disapprove of shoplifting. This overall rejection is so strong as apparently to wash out inter-group differences.

Among the club members there was a significant correlation between attitude to shoplifting and alienation (the alienated approved more - r = .246) and attitude to shoplifting and age (the younger approved more - r = -.245).

Among the shop assistants there were no significant correlations with attitude to shoplifting but among the schoolboys (mean age 13 years) alienation was again a predictor (r = .344). Among the Lebanese only occupation predicted attitude. Those in non-manual occupations were more tolerant.

The 32 attitude to shoplifting items used above are given in the Appendix. Since the four samples had deliberately been chosen for their potential contrast in attitudes to shoplifting and since no significant differences had in fact been found, there seemed some validity at this stage in combining the four samples to form a single overall "Australian" sample. The sample of 165 people so formed did then show considerable range in age, occupation, education and ethnicity; 58 were women.

On this sample the mean score on attitude to shoplifting was 54.59 (8.79) and there were significant correlations with alienation (r = .225) and age (r = -.204) only. Sex, occupation and education did not correlate with attitudes to shoplifting.


Clearly, sympathy for Ned Kelly in modern-day Australia would be much less than it once was. A certain admiration for the criminal is no longer typically Australian. Australians have become thoroughly bourgeois in their attitudes to crime as in their attitudes to other things. Sympathy for minor crime such as shoplifting is now as symptomatic of alienation from Australian society as it would be in other countries.

As noted above, the present data have also been valuable for the number of commonsense theories about inter-group differences that they show to be false.

In particular they are at some variance with the results reported by Jackson (1970). This difference could hardly be accounted for by age as the two samples would appear to have been very similar in this respect. It is more probably to be accounted for by the different type of questions asked on the two occasions. The present sample showed that schoolboys disapproved of shoplifting. Jackson showed that on certain occasions they might engage in minor crime and dishonesty. That attitudes and behaviour may be at variance is well-known -- the well-known "Do as I say, not as I do" syndrome. In such circumstances the contradiction between the present results and the Jackson results is only apparent.

What has been shown is that there is very little social support for shoplifting in present-day Australia.


(1) I would like to thank Shaun Murphy, Boutros Semaan, Lucas Scott and Robert Bozek for their help both in gathering the samples and in suggesting questions to be asked in tapping attitude to shoplifting.


{Articles below by J.J. Ray can generally be accessed simply by clicking on the name of the article. I am however also gradually putting online a lot of abstracts, extracts and summaries from older articles by other authors so if an article not highlighted below seems of particular interest, clicking here or here might just save you a trip to the library}

Cronbach, L J, "Coefficient Alpha and the Internal Structure of Tests. " Psychometrika (1951) 16: 297-334.

Jackson, M S, "The Motives of Children who Yield in Temptation to Steal Situations." (1970) 3 Australian & New Zealand J. Criminology, 231-7.

Kemp, D A, Society and Electoral Behaviour in Australia. Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1978.

Ray, J.J. (1974) Who are the alienated? Ch. 52 in Ray, J.J. (Ed.) Conservatism as heresy Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co.


The Acceptance of Shoplifting scale. Items marked "R" were scored "1" for "Yes" and "3" for "No". The remainder were scored "3" and "1" for the same answers respectively. "Not sure" or "?" was on all occasions scored "2". As administered, the scale did not of course contain the "R" identifications.

PUBLIC OPINION POLL - Attitudes to shoplifting

In this survey we wish to get a sample of opinions from people in all walks of life. There are no right or wrong answers as far as this survey is concerned. We only want to get your own personal view. Please say what you really think as far as possible. You indicate agreement or disagreement with each statement by circling a number under the "Yes" or the "No".

1 R Shoplifting is a crime.
2 Everybody shoplifts at some time in their life.
3 R Shoplifters are weak characters.
4 Shoplifting may be excusable if a person is in need.
5 Shoplifting is only a minor problem.
6 R Shoplifters should be treated like any other criminals.
7 R Shoplifters are parasites.
8 Easily accessible displays are just a temptation to shoplifting.
9 There are too many security staff around stores nowadays.
10 Shoplifting is OK if it is big stores that you are hitting.
11 R Shoplifting is inexcusable in a society as well-off as Australia.
12 R Shoplifting just makes goods more expensive for everybody else.
13 R Shoplifting is anti-social.
14 With prices as high as they are, you can't blame people for shoplifting occasionally.
15 Shoplifting is mainly a problem limited to children.
16 R Shoplifting is immoral.
17 Much shoplifting is simply due to staff making people wait too long to be served.
18 R The police should pay more attention to shoplifting.
19 Shoplifting is one of the least important sorts of crime.
20 Taking of small items should not be classed as shoplifting.
21 R Shoplifting is an expression of poor moral fibre.
22 R Shoplifting is against the interests of all of us.
23 R Shoplifters should all be given prison sentences.
24 Shoplifters are victims of our society.
25 If people see shoplifting, they shouldn't interfere.
26 R Shoplifting undermines our social system.
27 R Stores should invest more in anti-shoplifting equipment.
28 R Store detectives should have full police powers.
29 Shoplifters should not be prosecuted.
30 R It's everybody's duty to help prevent shoplifting.
31 Shoplifting is a blow struck against excessive profits.
32 If there was more equality of incomes, there would be less shoplifting.

* MA, PhD, MAPsS, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of NSW, Kensington NSW.


There would however seem to be some "Ned Kelly" effect in Australian attitudes. It has been shown by Ray & Furnham (1984) that Australians are much more anti-authority than are the English. Evidently, however, being anti-authority does NOT extend to tolerating crime.


Ray, J.J. & Furnham, A. (1984) Authoritarianism, conservatism and racism. Ethnic & Racial Studies 7, 406-412.

Replication is one of the cornerstones of science. A new research result will normally require replication by later researchers before the truth and accuracy of the observation concerned is generally accepted. If a result is to be replicated, however, careful specification of the original research procedure is important.

In questionnaire research it has been my observation that the results are fairly robust as to questionnaire format. It is the content of the question that matters rather than how the question is presented (But see here and here). It is nonetheless obviously desirable for an attempted replication to follow the original procedure as closely as possible so I have given here samples of how I presented my questionnaires in most of the research I did. On all occasions, respondents were asked to circle a number to indicate their response.

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