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Crime and Deviance Essay

Sociologists define deviance as behaviour that is recognized as violating expected rules and norms. Deviance is more than simple non-conformity; it is behaviour that departs significantly from social expectations. In the sociological perspective on deviance, a subtlety distinguishes it from commonsense understandings of the same behaviour.

  • The sociological definition of deviance stresses social context, not individual behaviour. Sociologists see deviance in terms of group processes, definitions and judgements, not just as unusual individual acts.
  • The sociological definition of deviance recognizes that not all behaviours are judged similarly to all groups. What is deviant to one group may be normative (non-deviant) to another. Understanding what society sees as deviant also requires understanding the context that determines who can judge some behaviours as deviant and others not.
  • The sociological definition of deviance recognizes that established rules and norms are socially created, not just morally decreed or individually imposed. Furthermore, sociologists emphasize that deviance lies not just in behaviour itself but also in the social responses of groups to the behaviour.

Sociologists distinguish between two types of deviance: formal and informal. Formal deviance is behaviour that breaks laws or official rules. Crime is an example. There are formal sanctions against formal deviance, such as imprisonment and fines. Informal deviance is behaviour that violates customary norms. Although such deviance may not be specified in the law, it is judged to be deviant by those who uphold society’s norms. An example is the body piercing that is popular among young people. No laws prohibit this practice, yet it violates common norms about dress and appearance and is judged by many to be socially deviant even though it is fashionable for others.

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Sociological Theories on Crime and Deviance. Functionalism. Recalling that functionalism is a theoretical perspective that interprets all parts of society, including those that may seem dysfunctional, as contributing to the stability and continuance of the whole. At first glance, deviance seems dysfunctional for society. Functionalist theorists argue otherwise. They contend that deviance is functional because it creates social cohesion. Branding certain behaviours that are considered normal, giving people a heightened sense of social order. Norms are meaningless unless there is deviance from the norms, and deviance is necessary to clarify society’s norms. Group coherence then comes from sharing a common definition of legitimate behaviour. The group’s collective identity is affirmed when people defined as deviant are ridiculed or condemned by group members.

EMILE DURKHEIM: THE STUDY OF SUICIDE. The functionalist perspective on deviance stems originally from the work of Emile Durkheim. One of the latter’s central concerns was how society maintains its coherence or social order. He saw deviance as functional for society because it produced solidarity among society’s members and made several important sociological points. Durkheim was the first to argue that the causes of suicide were to be found in social factors, not individual personalities. Second, observing that the rate of suicide in a society varied with time and place, Durkheim looked for causes linked to time and place rather than only to emotional stress. Finally, Durkheim argued that suicide rates are affected by the different social contexts in which they emerge.

He looked at the degree to which people feel integrated into the structure of society and their social surroundings as social factors producing suicide. Building from this, Durkheim analyzed 3 types of suicide: anomic suicide, altruistic suicide, and egoistic suicide. Important to Durkheim’s studies of deviance is the concept of anomie, defined as the condition that exists when social regulations in society break down. This term refers not to an individual state of mind but social conditions. The controlling influences of society are no longer effective, and people exist in a state of relative normlessness. Anomie is reflected in how individuals feel, but its origins are in society. When common norms and values no longer regulate behaviour, individuals are left without moral guidance.

  • Anomic suicide occurs when the disintegrating forces in the society make individuals feel lost or alone. For example, studies of college campuses trace the cause of campus suicides to feelings of loneliness and a sense of hopelessness.
  • Altruistic suicide occurs when there is excessive regulation of individuals by social forces. An example is someone who commits suicide for the sake of a religious or political cause, such as suicide bombers (e.g. The 11th September attack of the World Trade Centre)
  • Egoistic suicide occurs when people feel completely detached from society. This helps explain the high rate of suicide among the elderly in the United States. Ordinarily, people are integrated into society by work roles, ties to family and community, and other social bonds. When these bonds are weakened, the likelihood of egoistic suicide increases. Unfortunately, many elderly people have lost family and social ties, making them more susceptible to egoistic suicide.

MERTON: STRUCTURAL STRAIN THEORY. The functionalist perspective on deviance has been further elaborated by the sociologist Robert Merton. Merton’s structural strain theory traces the origins of deviance to the tensions caused by the gap between cultural goals and the means people have to achieve these goals. In society, culture establishes goals for people; social structures provide or fail to provide the means to achieve those goals. According to Merton, in a well-integrated society, people use acceptable means to achieve the goals society establishes. In other words, the goals and means of society are in balance. However, when the means are out of balance with the goals, this produces strain, and deviance is likely to occur. According to Merton, this imbalance, or disjunction, between cultural goals and structurally available means can actually compel the individual into deviant behaviour.

To explain further, a collective goal in United Stated society is to achieve economic success. Education and jobs are legitimate means to do so, but not all groups have access to those means. The result is a structural strain that produces deviance. Poor people are most likely to experience these strains because they internalize the same goals and values as the rest of society but have blocked opportunities for success. Thus, structural strain theory helps explain the moderately high correlation that exists between unemployment and crime. Conformity is likely to occur when the goals are accepted by the individual, and the means toward attaining the goals are made available to the individual via the social structure. If this does not occur, then cultural-structural strain exists. At least one of four possible dorms of deviance is likely to result: innovative deviance, retreatism deviance, ritualistic deviance, or rebellion.

Considering the case of female prostitution: The prostitute has accepted the cultural values of dominant society – obtaining success and material wealth. Yet if she is poor, then the structural means to attain these goals are less available to her, and turning to prostitution – a type of innovative deviance – is a likely result. The stockbroker who engages in illegal insider trading constitutes another example of innovative deviance: The cultural goals (wealth) are accepted, but non-traditional means (insider trading) are available and used. Other forms of deviance also represent this disjunction, or strain, between goals and means. Retreatism deviance becomes likely when neither the goals nor the means are available.

Examples of retreatism are the severe alcoholic, or the homeless person, or the hermit. Ritualistic deviance is illustrated in the case of some eating disorders among college women, such as bulimia (purging one’s self after eating). The cultural goal of extreme thinness is perceived as unattainable even though the means towards attaining it are plentiful, for example, food, monetary funds, and proper diet methods. Finally, rebellion as a form of deviance is likely to occur when new goals are substituted for more traditional ones. New means are undertaken to replace older ones, as by force or armed combat. “Skinheads” is one of the examples of this type of deviance.

HIRSCHI: SOCIAL CONTROL THEORY. Taking functionalist theory in another direction, Travis Hirschi has developed social control theory to explain deviance. Social control theory posits that deviance occurs when a person’s/group’s attachment to social bonds is weakened. Most of the time, people internalize social norms because of their attachments to others. People care what others think of them and, therefore, conform to social expectations because they accept what people expect. Social control theory, like the functionalist framework from which it stems, assumes the importance of the socialization process in producing conformity to social rules.

When that bond is broken, deviance occurs. Social control theory suggests that most people probably feel some impulse toward deviance at some times, but that the attachment to social norms prevents them from participating in deviant behaviour. When conditions arise that break those attachments, deviance occurs. This explains why sociologists find that juveniles whose parents exercise little control over violent behaviour and who learn violence from aggressive peers are most likely to engage in violent crimes.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES. Functionalism emphasizes that social structure, not just individual motivation, produces deviance. Functionalists argue that social conditions exert pressure on individuals to behave in conforming or non-conforming ways. Types of deviance are linked to one’s place in the social structure; thus, a poor person blocked from economic opportunities may use armed robbery to achieve economic goals, whereas a stockbroker may use insider trading to achieve the same. Functionalists acknowledge that people choose whether to behave in a deviant manner but believe that they make their choice from among socially prestructured options. The emphasis in functionalist theory is on social structure, not individual action. In this sense, the functionalist theory is highly sociological.

Functionalists also point out that what appears to be dysfunctional behaviour may actually be functional for society. An example is a fact that most people consider prostitution to be dysfunctional behaviour. From the point of view of an individual, that is true: It demeans the women who engage in it, puts them at physical risk, and subjects them to sexual exploitation. From the view of functionalist theory, however, prostitution supports and maintains a social system that links women’s gender roles with sexuality, associates sex with commercial activity, and defines women as passive sexual objects and men as sexual aggressors. In other words, what appears to be deviant may actually serve various purposes for society.

Critics of the functionalist perspective argue that it does not explain how norms of deviance are first established. Despite its analysis of its ramifications of deviant behaviour for society, functionalism does little to explain why some behaviour is defined as normative and others are illegitimate. Who determines social norms and on whom such judgements are most likely to be imposed are questions seldom asked by anyone using a functionalist perspective. Functionalists see deviance as having stabilizing repercussions in society, but they overlook the injustices that labelling someone deviant can produce. Others would say that the functionalist perspective too easily assumes that deviance has a positive role in society; thus, functionalists rarely consider the differential effects that the administration of justice has on different groups. The tendency in functionalist theory to assume that the system works for the good of the whole too easily ignores the inequities in society and how these inequities are reflected in patterns of deviance. These issues are left to sociologists who work from the perspectives of conflict theory and symbolic interaction.

Marxism. Conflict theory emphasizes the unequal distribution of power and resources in society. It links the study of deviance to social inequality. Based on the work of Karl Marx, conflict theory sees a dominant class as controlling the resources of society and using its power to create the institutional rules and belief systems that support its power. Like functionalist theory, conflict theory is a macro-structural approach; that is, both theories look at the structure of society as a whole in developing explanations of deviant behaviour. Because some groups of people have access to fewer resources in a capitalist society, they are forced into crime to sustain themselves. Conflict theory posits that the economic organization of capitalist societies produces deviance and crime. The high rate of crime such as theft, robbery, prostitution, and drug selling results from the economic status of these groups. Rather than emphasizing values and conformity as a source of deviance, as do functional analyses, conflict theorists see a crime in power relationships and economic inequality.

The upper classes, conflict theorists point out, can also better hide crimes they commit because affluent groups have the resources to mask their deviance and crime. As a result, a working-class man who beats his wife is more likely to be arrested and prosecuted than an upper-classman who engages in the same behaviour. In addition, those with greater resources can afford to buy their way out of trouble by paying bail, hiring expensive attorneys, or even resorting to bribes. Corporate crime is a crime committed within the legitimate context of doing business. Conflict theorists expand our view of crime and deviance by revealing the significance of such crimes. They argue that appropriating profit based on the exploitation of the poor and working-class is inherent in the structure of the capitalist society. Elite deviance refers to the wrongdoing of wealthy and powerful individuals and organizations. Elite deviance includes what early conflict theorists called white-collar crime.

Elite deviance includes tax evasion; illegal campaign contributions; corporate scandals, such as fraudulent accounting practices that endanger or deceive the public but profit the corporation or individuals within it; and even government actions that abuse the public trust. The ruling groups in society develop numerous mechanisms to protect their interests, according to conflict theorists who argue that law, for example, is created by elites to protect the interests of the dominant class. Thus the law, supposedly neutral and fair in its form and implementation, works in the interest of the most well-to-do. Another way that conflict theorists see dominant groups as using their power is through the excessive regulation of populations that are a potential threat to affluent interests. Periodically, sweeping the homeless off city streets, especially when there is a major political event or other elite event occurring, is an example.

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Conflict theory emphasizes the significance of social control in managing deviance and crime. Social control is the process by which groups and individuals are brought into conformity with dominant social expectations. Social control can take place simply through socialization, but dominant groups can also control the behaviour of others by marking them as deviant. An example is the historical persecution of witches during the Middle Ages in Europe and during the early colonial period in America. Witches often were women who were healers and midwives – those whose views were at odds with the authority of the exclusively patriarchal hierarchy of the church, then the ruling institution.

One implication of conflict theory, especially when linked with labelling theory, is that the power to define deviance confers an important degree of social control. Social control agents regulate and administer the response to deviance, such as the police and mental health workers. Members of powerless groups may be defined as deviant for even the slightest infraction against social norms, whereas others may be free to behave in deviant ways without consequence. Oppressed groups may actually engage in more deviant behaviour. Still, it is also true that they have a greater likelihood of being labelled deviant and incarcerated or institutionalized, whether or not they have actually committed an offence. This is evidence of the power wielded by social control agents. When powerful groups hold stereotypes about other groups, the less powerful people are frequently assigned deviant labels. As a consequence, the least powerful groups in society are subject most often to social control. Poor people are more likely to be considered criminals and more likely to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned than middle and upper-class people.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES. The strength of conflict theory is its insight into the significance of power relationships in the definition, identification, and handling of deviance. It links the commission, perception and treatment of crime to inequality in society. It offers a powerful analysis of how the injustices of society produce crime and result in different systems of justice for disadvantaged and privileged groups. Not without its weaknesses, however, critics point out that laws protect most people, not just the affluent, as conflict theorists argue.

In addition, although conflict theory offers a powerful analysis of the origins of crime, it is less effective in explaining other forms of deviance. For example, how would conflict theorists explain the routine deviance of middle-class adolescents? They might point out that much of the middle-class deviance is driven by consumer marketing. Profits are made from the accoutrements of deviance – rings in pierced eyebrows, “gangsta” rap music, and so on – but economic interests alone cannot explain all the deviance observed in society. As Durkheim argued, deviance is functional for the whole of society, not just those with a major stake in the economic system. Feminism. Statistics show an overwhelming level of male crime in comparison to females. In this handout, we will attempt to explain why.

  1. Official crime statistics show that males are roughly four times more likely to commit crimes than females. However, women are involved in all types of crime and female crime is rising.
  2. Self-report study data shows that females are less likely to offend than males.
  3. Victim surveys show that women are more likely to be victims of sexual and violent assaults than males. They also show that women fear a range of crimes more than men.
  4. Female crime has largely been neglected by most sociological theories of crime and deviance. Radical feminists such as Heidensohn (1986) suggest this is because of the domination of sociology by men. The result is that crime issues relating to males, social class, and ethnicity have been at the centre of most sociological theories of deviance.

Liberal & Radical Feminism. These early feminist explanations largely accept the statistics and believe that females are less criminally inclined than males. They stress that women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence and sexual assaults than men. Why women are less criminally inclined – liberal feminists. Liberal feminists such as Steffensmeier and Allan (1991) maintain that women are socialized into a different set of moral values than men. For example, they suggest that females are socialized to be caring, compassionate and are therefore less likely to commit a crime, especially violent crime. Why women are less criminally inclined – radical feminists, radical feminists such as Heidensohn (1986) claim that women’s lower crime rates can be explained in terms of patriarchy. She claims that both in the private sphere (family) and the public sphere (work and leisure), men exert power and social control over women.

Heinsohn argues that the consequence of this is that women have fewer opportunities to commit crimes and acts of deviance. Why women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence and sexual assaults – radical feminists, radical feminists such as Kelly (1988), claim that women’s greater risk of domestic violence and sexual assaults are the results of patriarchy. They claim that such violent crimes are the product of male power and control in families and society. Radical feminists also highlight that such experiences impact a lot of all women’s lives. This is because women fear crime more than men and, consequently, adopt various avoidance behaviours, for example, not going out alone at night.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF LIBERAL AND RADICAL FEMINISM. Radical feminist ideas have gained empirical support. Dobash & Dobash (1979) support the view that domestic violence produces patriarchal marriage relationships. They found that domestic violence was often triggered by the husband’s perception that his wife was not carrying out her ‘duties.’ This suggests there is some validity in radical feminist ideas. Liberal and radical feminist theories have been questioned on empirical grounds. Panorama’s research into violent women would seem to suggest that violent crime is, in fact, a significant and growing problem amongst females (e.g. girl gangs and female domestic abusers). This suggests that the validity of liberal and radical feminist ideas has to be questioned. Liberal and radical feminist theories have been criticized on a theoretical level. Postmodern feminists would suggest the ideas are dated and do not take into account the significant changes which have occurred in women’s lives. For example, women’s greater (if unequal) access to paid employment. This suggests that liberal and radical feminist ideas only offer a partial view on crime and deviance.

Interactionist Feminism. Interactionist feminists reject official crime statistics, seeing them as little more than a social construction. They point out that females are under-represented in the statistics, and therefore the statistics do not present an accurate picture of the social distribution of criminality. The extent of crime and deviance by gender is socially constructed. Interactionist feminists abandon attempts to offer causal explanations of female crime and deviance. Instead, they examine the social processes that lead certain women to be under-represented in official crime statistics. Interactionist feminists share Becker’s (1963) idea that the social distribution of crime and deviance is dependent on processes of social interaction between the deviant and powerful agencies of social control. Interactionist feminists suggest that females are less likely to be policed and labelled deviant than males. Perhaps this is because of sexism and chivalry within the police.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF INTERACTIONIST FEMINISM. Interactionist feminist theories have gained empirical support. Campbell (1981) found that females were more likely to receive cautions from the police than males. Hedderman and Hough (1994) claim that female offenders are far less likely than male offenders to receive a custodial sentence for nearly all serious offences. This suggests there is some validity in the interactionist feminist ideas. Interactionist feminist theories have been questioned on empirical grounds. Steven and Willis (1979) question the potential biasing effect of the police on crime statistics. This is because they point out that the police initiate only 8% of recorded crimes. This suggests that the validity of interactionist feminist ideas has to be questioned. Interactionist feminist theories have been criticized on a theoretical level. Marxist feminists would argue that social class is ignored. They would point out that selective law enforcement is not only tied to gender but also social class. This suggests that interactionist feminist theory only offers a partial view on crime and deviance.

Post Modern Feminism. Postmodernist feminists largely reject the official statistics. They believe females are under-represented in the statistics and attempt to explain in causal terms recent rises in female criminality and deviancy. The causes of female crime and deviance

  1. Women’s liberation. Postmodern feminists claim that the increase in female aggressive behaviour is linked to shifting gender roles. They also argue that the rise in female white-collar crime is linked to increased female participation in the workplace.
  2. Poverty. Postmodern feminists such as Naffine (1987) claim that changes in global economies have given rise to a ‘pink-collar ghetto’ of insecure, low-wage, part-time jobs. It is suggested then that women employed in the ‘pink-collar ghetto’ engage in petty crime because of economic necessity.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF POST-MODERN FEMINISM. Postmodern feminist theories have gained empirical support. Fagan (1993) notes in America that black women are drawn into the drug industry due to poverty and lone parenthood. This suggests there is some validity in the postmodern feminist ideas. Postmodernist theories have been criticized on a theoretical level. Biological theories stress the importance of PMS in the causation of some female violent crime. This suggests that postmodern feminists only offer a partial view on crime and deviance.

Symbolic Interactionism. Whereas functionalist and conflict theories are macro-sociological theories, certain micro-sociological theories of deviance look directly at the interactions people have with one another as the origin of social deviance. Symbolic interaction theory holds that people behave as they do because of the meanings people attribute to situations. This perspective emphasizes the meanings surrounding deviance, as well as how people respond to those meanings. Symbolic interaction emphasizes that deviance originates between different groups and is defined by society’s reaction to certain behaviours. W.I Thomas explained deviance as a normal response to the social conditions in which people find themselves. He called this situational analysis, meaning that people’s actions and the subjective meanings attributed to these actions, including deviant behaviour, must be understood in social, not individualized, frameworks.

DIFFERENTIAL ASSOCIATION THEORY. Thomas’s work (The Chicago School) laid the foundation for a classic theory of deviance: differential association theory. Differential association theory interprets deviance, including criminal behaviour and white-collar crime, as behaviour one learns through interaction with others. Edwin Sutherland argued that becoming a criminal or a juvenile delinquent is a matter of learning criminal ways within the primary groups to which one belongs. To Sutherland, people become criminals when they are more strongly socialized to break the law than obey it. Those who “differentially associate” with delinquents, deviants, or criminals learn to value deviance. The greater the frequency, duration, and intensity of their immersion in deviant environments, the more likely they will become deviant.

Critics of differential association theory argue that this perspective tends to blame deviance on the values of the particular groups. The differential association has been used, for instance, to explain the higher rate of crime among the poor and the working class, arguing the cause is that they do not share the values of the middle class. This explanation, critics say, is class-biased, both because it overlooks the deviance that occurs among the middle class and elites and because it understates the degree to which disadvantaged groups share the values of the middle class. Disadvantaged groups may share the values of the middle class but cannot necessarily achieve them through legitimate means.

LABELLING THEORY. Labelling theory interprets the responses of others as the most significant factor in understanding how deviant behaviour is both created and sustained. This theory stems from the work of W.I. Thomas, who wrote, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Labelling is the assignment or attachment of a deviant identity to a person by others, including by agents of social institutions. Therefore, the people’s reaction, not the action itself, produces deviance due to the labelling process. Once applied, the deviant label is difficult to shed. Linked with conflict theory, labelling theory shows how those with the power to label someone deviant and impose sanctions wield great power in determining deviance. When police, court officials, school authorities, experts of various sorts, teachers, and official agents of social institutions apply a label, it sticks.

Furthermore, because deviants are handled through complex organizations, bureaucratic workers “process” people according to rules and procedures, seldom questioning the basis for those rules or being willing or able to challenge them. Bureaucrats are unlikely to linger over whether someone labelled deviant deserves that label, even though they use their judgements and discretion in deciding whether to apply the label. This leaves tremendous room for all kinds of social influence and prejudice to enter the decision of whether someone is considered deviant. Once the deviant label is applied, it is difficult for the deviant to recover a non-deviant identity. Once a social worker or psychiatrist labels a client mentally ill, that person will be treated as mentally ill, regardless of his or her mental state. Pleas by the accused that he or she is mentally sound are typically taken as more evidence of the illness.

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A person’s anger and frustration about the label are taken as further support for the diagnosis. A person need not have engaged in deviant behaviour to be labelled deviant. Convicted criminals are formally and publicly labelled wrongdoers, treated with suspicion even afterward. Labelling theory helps explain why convicts released from prison have such high recidivism rates (return to criminal activities). The label “criminal” or “ex-con” creates great difficulty in finding legitimate employment. Labelling theory points to a distinction often made by sociologists between primary, secondary and tertiary deviance. Primary deviance is the actual violation of a norm or law, when someone breaks the law or violates a norm.

Secondary deviance is the behaviour that results from being labelled deviant, regardless of whether the person has previously engaged in deviance. A student labelled a troublemaker, for example, might accept this identity and move from being merely mischievous to engage in escalating delinquent acts. In this case, the person at least partly accepts the deviant label and acts following that role. Tertiary deviance occurs when the deviant fully accepts the deviant role but rejects the stigma associated with it, as when lesbians and gays proudly display their identity.

DEVIANT IDENTITY. Another contribution of labelling theory is the understanding that deviance refers not just to something one does but also to something one becomes. Deviant identity is the definition a person has of himself or herself as a deviant. The formation of a deviant identity, like other identities, involves a process of social transformation in which a new self-image and new public definition of a person emerges. Most often, deviant identities emerge over time. A drug addict may not think of himself/herself as a junkie until she realizes she no longer has any non-using friends. In this example, the development of a deviant identity is gradual, but deviant identities can also develop suddenly.

A person who becomes disabled as the result of an accident may be given a deviant label. No longer can that person conform to society’s definition of normal behaviour. Although the person has done no wrong and has had no choice about his/her condition, society applies a stigma to disability. People respond differently to the disabled person. Someone who enters this status, especially suddenly, has to adjust to a new social identity. In short, the application by the society of a label to a person frequently causes that person to take on a personal identity consistent with the label.

DEVIANT CAREERS. In the ordinary context of words, a career refers to the sequence of movements a person makes through different positions in an occupational system. A deviant career refers to the sequence of movements people make through a particular subculture of deviance. Deviant careers can be studied sociologically like any other career. People are socialized into new “occupational” roles and encouraged, both materially and psychologically, to engage in deviant behaviour. The concept of a deviant career emphasizes a progression through deviance: Deviants are recruited, given or denied rewards, and promoted or demoted.

The concept of a deviant career helps explain why being caught and labelled deviant may actually reinforce, rather than deter, one’s commitment to a deviant career. For example, hospitalized mental patients are often rewarded with comfort and attention for “acting sick” but are punished when they act normally – for instance, if they rebel against the boredom and constraints of institutionalization. Acting the role will foster their career as a “mentally ill” person. As with legitimate careers, deviant careers involve evolution in the person’s identity, values and commitment over time. Deviants, like other careerists, may have to demonstrate their career commitment to their superiors, perhaps bypassing certain tests, as when a gang expects new members to commit a crime, perhaps even shoot someone.

People’s reactions to particular behaviours also sustain deviant careers. This explains why being caught and labelled deviant may reinforce, rather than deter, one’s commitment to a deviant career. The first arrest on weapon charges may be seen as a rite of passage that increases social status among peers in the gang. Whereas those outside the deviant community may think that arrest is a crime deterrent, it may encourage a person to continue along a deviant path. Punishments administered by the authorities may even become badges of honour within a deviant community. Thus, labelling a teenager “bad” may encourage the behaviour because the juvenile sees the label as a positive affirmation of identity.

DEVIANT COMMUNITIES. Deviant behaviour is not just the behaviour of maladjusted individuals. It often takes place within a group context and involves group response. Some groups are organized around particular forms of social deviance; these are called deviant communities. Like subcultures and countercultures, deviant communities maintain their own values, norms and rewards for deviant behaviour. Joining a deviant community separates that person from conventional society and tends to solidify deviant careers, given that the deviant individual receives rewards and status from the in-group.

Disapproval from the out-group may enhance one’s status within. Deviant communities also create a worldwide view that solidifies the deviant identity of their members. They may develop symbolic systems, such as emblems, forms of dress, publications, and other symbols that promote their identity as a deviant group. Gangs wear their colours; prostitutes have their own vocabulary of tricks and johns; skinheads have their insignia and music. All are examples of deviant communities. Ironically, subcultural norms and values reinforce the deviant label both inside and outside the deviant group, thereby reinforcing the deviant behaviour.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES. The strength of labelling theory is its recognition that the judgements people make about presumably deviant behaviour have powerful social effects. Labelling theory does not, however, explain why deviance occurs in the first place. Labelling theory may illuminate the consequences of a young man’s violent behaviour, but it does not explain the origins of the behaviour. The weakness of the labelling theory is that it does not explain why some people become deviant and others do not. Although it focuses on the behaviours and beliefs of officials in the enforcement system, labelling theory does not explain why those officials define some behaviours as deviant or criminal, but not others. This shortcoming in the analysis of deviance has been carefully scrutinized by conflict theorists who place their analysis of deviance within the power relationships of race, class and gender.

New Criminology Theory (New Right Realism and New Left Realism). Right realism sees crime, especially street crime, as a real and growing problem that destroys communities, undermines social cohesion and threatens society’s work ethic. Right realist views correspond with conservative governments as they see it as a workable solution to curb rising crime. It’s led to a shift in thinking, away from researching the causes of crime and towards a search for practical crime control measures. They view the best way to reduce crime as through control and punishment rather than rehabilitating offenders or tackling causes of crime such as poverty. Right realism reflects this political climate. They criticize other theories for failing to offer any practical solutions to the problem of rising crime. They regard theories such as labelling and critical criminology as too sympathetic to the criminal and hostile to law and order. Right realists are less concerned with understanding the causes of crime and more concerned with offering realistic solutions.

Although their main emphasis is on practical crime reduction, they do offer explanations for the causes of crime. Right realists reject the idea put forward by Marxists and others that structural or economic factors such as poverty and inequality are the causes of crime. For example, against Marxists, they argue the old tend to be poor but have a low crime rate. Wilson and Herrnstein (1985) put forward a biosocial theory of criminal behaviour. They argue crime is caused by a number of biological and social factors. Biological differences between individuals make some people innately predisposed to commit crimes than others. For example, personality traits such as aggressiveness, extroversion, risk-taking and low impulse control put some people at greater risk of offending. Herrnstein and Murray (1994) argue the main cause of crime is low intelligence, which they also see as biologically determined.

However, while biology may increase the chance of an individual offending effective socialization can decrease this risk. It involves learning self-control and internalizing moral values of right and wrong. Right realists argue the best agency of socialization is the nuclear family. Charles Murray (1990) argues crime is increasing because of a growing underclass who is defined by deviant behaviour and who fails to socialize properly. Murray argues the underclass is growing as a result of welfare dependency. Murray argues the welfare state’s “generous revolution” since the ’60s has allowed more people to become dependent on the state. It’s led to the decline of marriage and growth of lone-parent families as women and children can live off benefits. This means men no longer have to take responsibility for supporting families, so they no longer need to work. However, lone mothers are ineffective socialization agents for boys. Absent fathers mean boys lack adequate male role models.

Thus young males turn to other often delinquent role models on the street and gain status through crime rather than supporting families through a steady job. Murray argues the underclass is not only a source of crime. Its very existence threatens society’s cohesion by undermining the values of hard work and personal responsibility. The rational choice theory assumes individuals have free will and the power of reason. A rational choice theorist such as Ron Clarke (1980) argues the decision to commit a crime is a choice based on a rational calculation of the likely consequences. If the perceived rewards of crime outweigh the perceived costs of crime, then people will be more likely to offend. Right realists argue currently, the perceived costs of crime are too low, and thus, the crime rate has increased. For example, they argue there’s often little risk of being caught and punishments in any case lenient. Marcus Felson (1998) uses routine activity theory. Felson argues for a crime to occur, there must be a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of a capable guardian.

Offenders are assumed to act rationally, so the presence of a guardian is likely to deter them from offending. Felson argues informal guardians such as those provided by the community are more effective than ones such as the police. Right realists don’t believe it’s worth trying to deal with causes of crime such as poverty as they can’t easily be changed. They seek to devise practical measures to make crime less attractive. Their main focus is on control, containment and punishing offenders rather than eliminating the underlying causes of their offending or rehabilitating them. Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) article on broken windows argues it’s essential to maintain the orderly character of neighbourhoods to prevent crime from taking hold. Any sign of deterioration, such as vandalism, must be dealt with immediately. They advocate a zero-tolerance policy towards undesirable behaviour such as begging. The police should focus on controlling the streets, so law-abiding citizens feel safe. Crime prevention policies should reduce rewards and increase the costs of crime to the offender, for example, by target hardening with greater use of prison and maximizing their deterrent effect.

However, right realism is criticized both for explanations of crime and its solutions. Right realism ignores wider structural causes such as poverty. It overstates offender’s rationality and how far they make cost-benefit calculations before committing a crime. While it may explain some utilitarian crime, it may not explain violent crime. Its view that criminals are rational actors freely choosing crime conflicts with its view that their behaviour is determined by their biology and socialization. It also overemphasizes biological factors; for example, Lilly et al. (2002) found IQ differences account for less than 3% of differences in offending. Right, realists-are preoccupied with petty street crime and ignore corporate crime, which may be more costly and harmful to the public. Advocating a zero-tolerance policy gives police free rein to discriminate against ethnic minorities, youth etc. It also results in the displacement of crime to other areas.

Jones (1998) notes that right realists policies in the USA failed to prevent the crime rate from rising. It overemphasizes control of disorder rather than tackling underlying causes of neighbourhood decline, such as lack of investment. Jock Young argues left realism developed as a response to two main factors; the need to take the rising crime rate seriously and to produce practical solutions and the influence of right realism on government policy. Like Marxists left realists to see society as an unequal capitalist one. However, unlike Marxists, left realists are reformists and not revolutionary socialists; they believe in the gradual social change rather than the violent overthrow of capitalism as the way to achieve greater equality. They believe we need to develop explanations of crime that will lead to practical strategies for reducing it in here and now, rather than waiting for a revolution and a socialist utopia to abolish crime.

The central idea behind left realism is that crime is a real problem and one that particularly affects the disadvantaged groups who are its main victims. They accuse other Marxists of not taking crime seriously. Traditional Marxists have concentrated on the crimes of the powerful such as corporate crime. Left realists agree this is important but argue it neglects working class crimes and their effects. Neo-Marxists romanticize the working class criminals as latter-day robin hoods, stealing from the rich as an act of political resistance to capitalism. Left realists argue working-class criminals mostly victimize other working-class people, not the rich. Labelling theorists see working-class criminal’s victims of discriminatory labelling by social control agents. Left realists argue this approach neglects the real victims – working-class people who suffer at the hands of criminals.

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Part of the left realist’s project is to recognize there have been real increases in crime since the 1950s, especially working-class crime. Young (1997) argues this has led to an aetiological crisis, a crisis in explanation, for theories of crime. For example, critical criminology and labelling theory tend to deny that the increase is real. They argue instead it’s the result of an increase in reporting of crime or an increasing tendency to label the poor. Thus the increase in crime statistics is just a social construction, not a reality. However, left realists argue the increase is too great to be explained in this way and is a real one; more people are reporting crime because more people are falling victim to crime. As evidence, they cite the findings of victim surveys such as the nationwide British crime survey and many local surveys. Taking crime seriously also involves recognizing who is most affected by crime.

Local victim surveys show that the scale of the problem is greater than official statistics. They also show disadvantaged groups have a greater risk of becoming victims; for example, unskilled workers are twice as likely to be burgled than other people. Thus understandably, disadvantaged groups have a greater fear of crime and have a greater effect on their lives. For example, fear of attack prevents women from going out at night. At the same time, these groups are less likely to report crimes against them, and the police are often reluctant to deal with crimes such as domestic violence, rape or racist attacks. The second part of the left realist project to take crime seriously involves explaining the rise in crime. Lea and Young (1984) identify three related causes of crime; relative deprivation, subculture and marginalization.

Lea and Young argue crime has roots in deprivation. However, deprivation itself is not directly responsible for the crime. For example, poverty was high in the 1930s, but the crime was low. Contrastingly since the ’50s living standards have risen but so has the crime rate. W.G. Runcimans (1966) uses the concept of relative deprivation to explain crime. It refers to how deprived someone feels in relation to others or compared to their own expectations. It can lead to crime when people feel resentment that others unfairly have more than them and resort to crime to obtain what they feel they’re entitled to. Leas and Young explain the paradox that today’s society is both more prosperous and crime-ridden. Although people are better off, they’re now more aware of relative deprivation due to media and advertising, which raises everyone’s expectations for material possessions.

Those who can’t afford them resort to crime instead. However, relative deprivation doesn’t necessarily lead to crime. Young (1999) argues it’s a combination of relative deprivation and individualism. Individualism is a concern with the self and one’s own individual rights rather than those of the group. It causes crime by encouraging the pursuit of self-interest at the expense of others. Left realists argue increasing individualism is causing the disintegration of families and communities by undermining the values of mutual support and selflessness on which they’re based. It weakens the informal controls that such groups exercise over individuals, creating a spiral of increasing antisocial behaviour, aggression and crime.

For left realists, a subculture is a group’s collective solution to the problem of relative deprivation. However, different groups may produce different subcultural solutions to the problem. For example, some turn to crime to close the deprivation gap while others find religion offers them spiritual comfort and what Weber calls a theodicy of disprivilege; and explanation for their situation. Such religious subcultures may encourage respectability and conformity. Key Pryce (1979) found in the black community in Bristol identified a variety of subcultures or lifestyles, including hustlers, Rastafarians, saints and working-class respectable. Left realists argue criminal subcultures still subscribe to values and goals of mainstream society, such as materialism and consumerism. For example, young (2002) notes there are ghettos in the USA where there is full immersion in the American dream. However, opportunities to achieve goals legitimately are blocked, so they resort to street crime instead.

Marginalized groups lack both clear goals and organizations to represent their needs. Groups such as workers have clear goals, such as better pay and organizations such as trade unions pressure employers and politicians. Thus they have no need to resort to violence to achieve such goals. In contrastingly unemployed youth are marginalized. They have no organization to represent them and no clear goals, just a sense of resentment and frustration. Being powerless to use political means to improve their situation, they express their frustration through criminal means such as violence and rioting. Young (2002) argues we are now living in a stage of late modern society, where instability, insecurity and exclusion make the problem of crime worse. He contrasts today’s society with the period preceding it, arguing the 50s were the golden age of modern capitalism. It was a period of stability, security and social inclusion, with full employment, a comprehensive welfare state, low divorce rates and relatively strong communities.

There was general consensus about right and wrong and lower crime rates. Since the 70s, instability, insecurity and exclusion have increased. Deindustrialization and the loss of unskilled manual jobs have increased unemployment and poverty, especially for the young and ethnic minorities. In contrast, many jobs are now insecure short-term or low paid. These changes have destabilized family and community life and contributed to rising divorce rates as new right government policies designed to hold back welfare spending on the poor. All this has contributed to increased marginalization and exclusion of those at the bottom. Meanwhile, greater inequality between rich and poor and the spread of free-market values encouraging individualism has increased the sense of relative deprivation. Young notes the growing contrast between cultural inclusion and economic exclusion as a source of relative deprivation.

Media saturated late modern society promotes cultural inclusion; even the poor have access to the media’s materialistic, consumerist cultural messages. Similarly, there’s a greater emphasis on leisure which stresses personal consumption and immediate gratification and leads to higher expectations for the good life. At the same time, despite the ideology of meritocracy, the poor are systematically excluded from opportunities to gain the glittering prizes of a wealthy society. Young’s contrast between cultural inclusion and economic exclusion is similar to Merton’s notion of anomie – that society creates crime by setting cultural goals such as material wealth while denying people the opportunity to achieve them by legitimate means such as decent jobs.

A further trend in late modernity is for relative deprivation to become generalized throughout society rather than being confined by those at the bottom. There is widespread resentment at the undeservedly high rewards that some receive. There is also relative deprivation downwards. The middle class, who have to be hardworking and disciplined to succeed in an increasingly competitive work environment, resent the stereotypical underclass as idle, irresponsible and hedonistic, living on undeserved state handouts. The result of the trend towards exclusion is that the amounts and types of crime are changing in late modern society. Firstly crime is more widespread and is found increasingly throughout the social structure, not just at the bottom of it. It’s also nastier with an increase in hate crimes, often the result of relative deprivation downwards, for example, attacks against asylum seekers.

Reactions to crime by the public and state are also changing. With late modernity, society becomes more diverse, and there’s less public consensus on right and wrong, so that the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour becomes blurred. At the same time, informal controls become less effective as families and communities disintegrate. This, along with rising crime, makes the public more intolerant and leads to demands for harsher formal controls by the state and increased criminalization of unacceptable behaviour. Late modern society is thus a high-crime society with a low tolerance for crime.

The final part of the left realist project is to devise solutions to the problems of crime. They argue we must improve both policing and control and deal with the deeper structural causes of crime. Kinsey, Lea and Young (1986) argue police clear-up rates are too low to act as a deterrent to crime and that police spend too little time actually investigating crime. They argue that the public must become more involved in determining the police’s priorities and style of policing. The police depend on the public to provide them with information about crimes. However the police are losing public support, especially in inner cities and among ethnic minorities and the young. Thus the flow of information dries up, and police instead rely on military policing, such as swamping an area and using random stop and search tactics. This alienates communities who see the po9lice victimizing local youth. It results in a vicious circle; locals no longer trust the police and don’t provide them with information, so the police resort to military policing.

Left realists argue that policing must therefore be made more accountable to local communities and must deal with local concerns. Routine beat patrols are ineffective in detecting or preventing crime, and stop and search tactics cause conflict. The police need to improve their relationship with local communities by spending more time investigating crime, changing priorities and involve the public in policing policy. Left realists also argue that crime control cannot be left to the police alone – a multiagency approach is also needed. It involves agencies such as local councils, social services and the public. However, left realists do not see improved policing and control as the main solution. They argue the causes of crime lie in the unequal structure of society, and major structural changes are needed if we want to reduce levels of offending. For example, young argues we must deal with inequality of opportunity and the unfairness of rewards, tackle discrimination, provide decent jobs for everyone, and improve housing and community facilities.

We must also become more tolerant of diversity and cease stereotyping whole groups of people as criminals. Left realists have had more influence on government policy than most theories on crime. They have similarities with the new labour stance of tough on crime, tough on causes of crime. For example, new labours’ firmer approach to the policing of hate crimes echoes left realist concerns to protect vulnerable groups from crime. However, Young sees these policies as nostalgic and doomed attempts to recreate the golden age in the 50s. Young criticizes the record of governments, including new labour. He argues they have largely only addressed the symptoms such as anti-social behaviour; they have been tougher on tackling crime than crimes underlying issues such as inequality.

Left realism has succeeded in drawing attention to the reality of street crime and its effects on victims of deprived groups. However, it has been criticized. Henry and Milovanovic (1996) argue that it accepts the authority’s definition of street crime being committed by the poor instead of defining the problem as being one of how powerful groups do harm to the poor. Marxists argue it fails to explain corporate crimes, which are more harmful even if less conspicuous. Interactionists argue that because left realists rely on quantitative data from victim surveys, they cannot explain offenders’ motives. Instead, we need qualitative data to reveal their meanings. Their use of sub-cultural theory means left realists assume that value consensus exists and that crime only occurs when this breaks down. Relative deprivation cannot fully explain crime because not all those who experience it commit a crime. The theory over-predicts the amount of crime. Its focus on high-crime inner-city areas gives it an unrepresentative view and makes crime appear a greater problem than it is.

There are both similarities and differences between the two types of realism. For example, both left and right realists see crime as a real problem and fear of crime as rational. On the other hand, they come from different ends of the political spectrum; right realists are neoconservative, while left realists are reformist socialists. It’s reflected in how they explain crime; right realists blame individual lack of self-control while left realists blame structural inequalities and relative deprivation. Likewise, political differences are reflected in their aims and solutions to the problem of crime; the right prioritizes social order achieved through a tough stance of offenders while the left prioritise justice achieved through democratic policing and reforms to create greater equality.


  • Sociology: The Essentials By Margaret L. Anderson and Howard F. Taylor

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