An introduction to crime and deviance

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Crime and Deviance



  • Crime- An act which breaks the criminal laws of society.

  • Deviance- refers to the behaviour which is disapproved of by most people in society and which does not conform to society's norms and values.


Durkheim's functionalist theory:

  • Socialisation and Social control are two key mechanisms which allow social solidarity to occur in society.

The inevitability of crime:

  • Functionalists see too much crime as destabilising society.

  • They also see crime as inevitable and universal- Durkheim, 'crime is normal... an integral part of all healthy societies.'

  • There are two reasons why C&D are found in all societies; 1.Not everyone is equally effectively socialised into the shared norms and values. 2. Different groups develop their own subculture and what the members of the subculture regard as normal, mainstream culture may see as deviant.

  • Durkheim also discusses that in modern societies there is a tendency towards anomie (normlessness). The diversity of modern societies means that the collective conscience is weakened, and this results in higher levels of C&D.

The positive functions of crime:

  • For Durkheim, crime also fulfils two important functions; boundary maintenance and adaptation.

  • Boundary Maintenance- In Durkheim's view, the purpose of punishment is to reaffirm society's shared rules and reinforces social solidarity, this is done through the rituals of the courtroom which dramatises the wrongdoing and stigmatises the offender. This reaffirms the values of the law-abiding majority and discourages others from rule breaking.

  • Adaptation- For individuals that want change, there must be some scope for them to challenge and change existing norms and values which is deviance. However, in the long run their values may give rise to a new culture and morality. If those with new ideas are suppressed, society will stagnate and be unable to make necessary adaptive changes. Thus for Durkheim, neither a very high nor a very low level of crime is desirable.

Other functions of crime:

  • Cohen identifies another function of deviance; a warning that an institution is not functioning properly. Functionalists such as Erikson build on Durkheim's point and argue that if crime and deviance perform positive social functions, then perhaps it means society is actually organised so as to promote deviance.


  • Durkheim doesn't explain how much of deviance is needed for society to function successfully.

  • It can be argued that functionalists explain the existence of crime in terms of its supposed function but this doesn't mean society actually creates crime in advance with the intention of strengthening solidarity.

  • Functionalism looks at what functions crime serves for society as a whole and ignores how it might affect different groups or individuals within society. - Is solidarity reinforced within the victim?

  • Crime doesn't always promote solidarity. It may have the opposite effect leading to people becoming isolated e.g. forcing women to stay indoors for fear of attack.

Hirschi: 'Control Theory'

  • Developed Durkheim's idea of shared values into the idea of social bonds.

  • According to Hirschi, there are four types of social bonds:

  1. Attachment- we care about others?

  2. Commitment- what would we lose?

  3. Involvement- has time for crime?

  4. Belief- believes in obeying rules?

  • If shared bonds are not strong, it will lead to crime and deviance.

  • According to Hirschi, the family is crucial in developing the strength/weakness of social bonds. This was reinforced by the study conducted by Farrington and West.

  • They carried out a longitudinal study of working class males between 1953 to the late 1980s. 6% of their sample did 50% of the crime.

  • There as a direct correlation between crime and poor parenting, with the parenting more likely to be both poor and single parent.

Merton's strain theory:

  • Strain theory argues that people engage in deviant behaviour when they are unable to achieve socially approved goals by legitimate means. Merton adapted Durkheim's concept of anomie to explain deviance. Merton's explanation combines two elements:

  • Structural factors- society's unequal opportunity structure.

  • Cultural factors- the strong emphasis on success goals and the weaker emphasis on using legitimate means to achieve them.

  • For Merton, deviance is the result of a strain between two things; 1. The goals that a culture encourages individuals to achieve. 2. What the institutional structure of society allows them to achieve legitimately.

The American Dream

  • The ideology of the 'American Dream' tells Americans that their society is a meritocratic one where there is opportunity for all. However, in reality many disadvantaged groups are denied opportunities e.g. inadequate schooling.

  • The resulting strain produces frustration and this in turn creates a pressure to resort to illegitimate means such as crime. Merton calls this pressure to deviate, the strain to anomie. The pressure to deviate is further increased by the fact that American culture puts more emphasis on achieving success at any price that upon doing it by legitimate means.

  • To summarise, the goal creates a desire to succeed, and lack of opportunity creates a pressure to adopt illegitimate means, while the norms are not strong enough to prevent some from succumbing to this temptation.

Deviant adaptations to strain

  • Merton argues that an individual's position in the social structure affects the way they adapt and respond to the strain to anomie. Logically, there are five different types of adaption:

  • Conformity- Individuals accept the culturally approved goals and strive to achieve them legitimately. This is most likely amongst the middle class.

  • Innovation- Individuals accept the goals of money success but use ‘new’, illegitimate means such as theft to achieve it.

  • Ritualism- Individuals give up on trying to achieve the goals, but have internalised the legitimate means and so they follow the rules for their own sake.

  • Retreatism- Individuals reject both the goals and the legitimate means and become dropouts.

  • Rebellion- Individuals reject the existing society’s goals and the legitimate means, but replace them with new ones in a desire to bring about revolutionary change and create a new kind of society.

Evaluation of Merton:

  • He explains patterns shown in official crime statistics; e.g. most crime in property crime because American society values material wealth so highly.

  • His theory is criticised as it takes official statistics at face value. These over-represent working-class crime, so Merton sees crime as a mainly working-class phenomenon.

  • Marxists argue that it ignores the power of the ruling class to make and enforce the laws in ways that criminalise the poor but not the rich.

  • It assumes there is value consensus- that everyone strives for ‘money success’ – and ignores the possibility that some may not share this goal.

  • It only accounts for utilitarian crime for monetary gain, and not crimes of violence, vandalism etc. It is also hard to see how it could account for state crimes such as genocide.

  • It explains how deviance results from individuals adapting to the strain to anomie but ignores the role of group deviance, such as delinquent subcultures.

Subcultural strain theories:

  • Subcultural strain theories see deviance as a product of a delinquent subculture with different values from those of mainstream society.

A.K. Cohen: Status Frustration:

  • Cohen agrees with Merton that deviance is largely a lower-class phenomenon. However, Cohen criticises Merton’s explanation of deviance on two grounds:

  • 1. Merton sees deviance as an individual response to strain, ignoring the fact that much deviance is committed in or by groups, especially among the young.

  • 2. Merton focuses on utilitarian crime committed for material gain. He largely ignores crimes such as assault, which may have no economic motive.

  • Cohen focused on deviance among working class boys and argued that they faced anomie because of a middle class dominated school system. Their inability to succeed in this middle class world leaves them at the bottom of the status hierarchy.

  • In Cohen’s view, they resolve their frustration by rejecting mainstream middle class values and they turn instead to other boys in the same situation, forming or joining a delinquent subculture.

Alternative status hierarchy:

  • According to Cohen, the delinquent subculture inverts the values of mainstream society- turns them upside down. The subculture praise what society condemns. The subculture’s function is that it offers the boys an alternative status hierarchy in which they can achieve, having failed in the legitimate opportunity structure.

  • A strength of Cohen’s theory is that it offers an explanation of non-utilitarian deviance among the working class. Cohen’s ideas of status frustration, value inversion and alternative status hierarchy help to explain non-economic delinquency such as vandalism.

  • However, Cohen assumes that working class boys start off sharing middle-class success goals, only to reject these when they fail. He ignores the possibility that they didn’t share the goals of the middle class and so never saw themselves as failures.

Cloward and Ohlin: three subcultures:

  • Cloward and Ohlin agree with Merton that working class youths are denied legitimate opportunities to achieve ‘money success’, and that their deviance stems from the way they respond to this situation.

  • Cloward and Ohlin attempt to explain why different subcultures respond in different ways to a lack of legitimate opportunities. In their view, the key reason is not only unequal access to the legitimate opportunity structure but unequal access to illegitimate opportunity structures.

  • Cloward and Ohlin argue that different neighbourhoods provide different illegitimate opportunities for young people. They identify three types of deviant subcultures that result:

  • Criminal subcultures provide youths with an apprenticeship for a career in utilitarian crime. They arise in neighbourhoods where there is a longstanding and stable local criminal culture with an established hierarchy of professional adult crime.

  • Conflict subcultures arise in areas of high population turnover. This results in high levels of social disorganisation and prevents a stable professional criminal network developing. Its absence means that the only illegitimate opportunities available are within loosely organised gangs.

  • Retreatist subcultures- ‘Double failures’- those who fail in both legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures. According to Cloward and Ohlin, many turn to a retreatist subculture based on illegal drug use.

Evaluation of Cloward and Ohlin

  • They agree with Merton and Cohen that most crime is working-class, thus ignoring crimes of the wealthy. Their theory is too deterministic and over-predicts the extent of working class crime. They ignore the wider power structure, including who makes and enforces the law.

  • They provide an explanation for different types of working-class deviance in terms of different subcultures. However, they draw the boundaries too sharply between the different types. In Cloward and Ohlin’s theory, it would not be possible to belong to more than one of these subcultures simultaneously e.g. some ‘retreatist’ users are also drug dealers making a living from this utilitarian crime.

  • Strain theories have been called reactive theories of subculture. This is because they explain deviant subcultures as forming in reaction to the failure to achieve mainstream goals. Such theories have been criticised for assuming that everyone starts off sharing the same mainstream success goal.

  • Matza claims that most delinquents are not strongly committed to their subculture, as strain theories suggest, but merely drift in and out of delinquency.

Miller: 'Focal Concerns'

  • Miller argues that the lower class with its own values and culture passed on down through the centuries, not a 'subculture'.

  • The working class has six focal concerns:

  1. Smartness- witty, look good

  2. Trouble- violence

  3. Excitement- thrill seeking

  4. Toughness- masculine, strong

  5. Autonomy- don't get pushed around

  6. Fate- accept life, wider fate.

  • The six focal concerns cause crime and deviance.

Evaluation of Miller

  • Too deterministic- he talks about the idea of how you're born into a subculture.

  • What about interaction with other classes e.g. through school?

  • Don't the 'focal concerns' apply to all males across all classes.

Matza: 'Drift theory' and Subterranean Values

  • Everyone has subterranean values (bad temptations that we have the potential to do).

  • Matza is a critic. Matza states that through subterranean values, individuals justify themselves:

  • Appeal to higher loyalties- e.g. appeal to religion

  • Denial of responsibility- when you refuse to take responsibility.

  • Denial of the victim- doesn't deserve to be a victim.

  • Denial of injury- when you justify yourself.

  • Condemnation of condemns- condemning someone who is wrong e.g. serial killer.

Drift theory

  • Young people feel like they lack control. They do not feel the constraining bonds of society. At this stage, young people will drift in and out of crime. They are susceptible to peer pressure. It doesn't mean you'' have a deviant career and settle into normal jobs and become less law abiding adults.

Evaluation of Matza:

  • Why do youth commit crime to gain control? Other actions?

  • What about working class dominance?

  • Sincerity about guilt doubtful?

  • Difficult to prove 'drift' and too deterministic.

British Studies

  • Wilmott- studied on working class London. He looked at young people and tried to find a subculture but found none. He explained crime because individuals were bored and visible.

  • Downes- conducted his study in East London (deprived area). His study was based on adolescents and he found no evidence for subcultures but found evidence to support Matza's idea of leisure values. Leisure values- young people are in the stage of life when they want to have fun.

  • Both of these criticise subcultural theorists. USA vs. UK criticisms- Little evidence in Britain to support American subcultural theories. Both structural strain between deviant minority and mainstream majority & terms of culture ad behaviour. Finally, later studies reject subculture anyway and move towards Marxist approaches.

Recent Strain theories:

  • Recent theories have argued that young people may pursue a variety of goals other than money success e.g. popularity with peers.

  • Like earlier strain theorists, they argue that failure to achieve these goals may result in delinquency. They also argue that middle-class juveniles too may have problems achieving such goals, thus offering an explanation for middle-class delinquency.


The social construction of crime:

  • For Becker, a deviant is simply someone to whom the label has been successfully applied, and deviant behaviour is simply behaviour that people so label.

  • This leads labelling theorists to look at how and why rules are made. They are particularly interested in the role of moral entrepreneurs. These are people who lead a moral ’crusade’ to change the law in the belief that it will benefit those to whom it is applied. However, Becker argues that this new law invariably has two effects:

  • The creation of a new group of ‘outsiders’- outlaws or deviants who break the new rule.

  • The creation or expansion of a social control agency (police) to enforce the rule and impose labels on offenders.

  • Becker notes that social control agencies themselves may campaign for a change in the law to increase their own power. Thus it is not inherent harmfulness of a particular behaviour that leads to new laws being created but rather the efforts of powerful individuals and groups to redefine that behaviour as unacceptable.

Who gets labelled?

Whether a person is arrested, charged and convicted depends on factors such as:

  • Their interactions with agencies of social control e.g. police

  • Their appearance, background and personal biography

  • The situation and circumstances of the offence.

Cicourel- the negotiation of justice

  • Cicourel found that officers’ typifications- their common sense theories or stereotypes of what the typical delinquent is like- led them to concentrate on certain ‘types’. This resulted in law enforcement showing a class bias, in that working class areas and people fitted the police typifications most closely. Cicourel found that other agents of social control within the criminal justice system reinforced this bias.

  • In Cicourel’s view, justice is not fixed but negotiable. E.g. when a middle class youth is arrested, he is less likely to be charged because his background doesn’t fit with the police’s ‘typical delinquent’.

Topic vs resource

  • Cicourel's study has implications for the use we make of official crime statistics. He argues that these statistics do not give us a valid picture of the patterns of crime and cannot be used as a resource. Instead we should treat them as a topic for sociologists to investigate.

The effects of labelling

Primary and secondary deviance

  • Primary deviance refers to deviant acts that have not been publicly labelled. Lemert argues that it is pointless to seek the causes of primary deviance since it is so widespread that it is unlikely to have a single cause.

  • Secondary deviance is the result of societal reaction- that is, of labelling. Once an individual is labelled, others may come to see him only in terms of the label. This becomes his master status or controlling identity, overriding all others.

  • This may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the individual acts out or lives up their deviant label, thereby becoming what the label says they are. Lemert refers to the further deviance that results from acting out the label as secondary deviance.

  • Secondary deviance is likely to provoke further hostile reactions from society and reinforce the deviant’s ‘outsider’ status. This may lead to the individual joining a deviant subculture that offers deviant career opportunities and role models, rewards deviant behaviour, and confirms his deviant identity.

  • The work of Lemert illustrates the idea that it is not the act itself, but the hostile societal reaction by the social audience, that creates serious deviance. Ironically, therefore, the social control processes that are meant to produce law abiding behaviour may in fact produce the very opposite.

Deviance amplification

  • The deviance amplification spiral is a term used to describe a process in which the attempt to control deviance leads to an increase in the level of deviance. This leads to greater attempts to control it and, in turn, this produces yet higher levels of deviance. More and more control produces more and more deviance, in an escalating spiral or snowballing feedback process.

  • The example of Mods and Rockers can be used to explain deviance amplification spiral – A moral panic which received press exaggeration lead to growing concern with moral entrepreneurs calling for a ‘crackdown’. The police responded by arresting more youths and imposing higher penalties. This seemed to confirm the truth of the original media reaction and provoked more public concern, in an upward spiral of deviance amplification. At the same time, the demonising of the mods and rockers as ‘folk devils’ caused further marginalisation and resulted in more deviant behaviour on their part.

Labelling and criminal justice policy

  • Labelling theory has import policy implications. They add weight to the argument that negative labelling pushes offenders towards a deviant career. Therefore logically, to reduce deviance, we should make and enforce fewer rules for people to break.

  • Labelling theory implies that we should avoid publicly ‘naming and shaming’ offenders, since this is likely to create a perception of them as evil outsiders and, by excluding them from mainstream society, push them into further deviance.

Reintegrative shaming

Braithwaite identifies a more positive role for the labelling process. He distinguishes between two types of shaming (negative labelling):

  • Disintegrative shaming, where not only the crime, but also the criminal, is labelled as bad and the offender is excluded from society.

  • Reintegrative shaming, by contrast labels the act but not the actor- as if to say, ‘he has done a bad thing’, rather than ‘he is a bad person’.

  • The policy of reintegrative shaming avoids stigmatising the offender at the same time as making aware of the negative impact of their actions upon others and then encourages others to forgive him and accept them back into society.

  • This makes it easier for both offender and community to separate the offender from the offence and re-admit the wrongdoer back into mainstream society. Braithwaite argues that crime rates tend to be lower in societies where reintegrative rather than disintegrative shaming is the dominant way of dealing with offenders.

Evaluation of labelling theory:

  • It tends to be deterministic, implying that once someone is labelled, a deviant career is inevitable.

  • Its emphasis on the negative effects of labelling gives the offender a kind of victim status. Realist sociologists argue that his ignores the real victims of crime.

  • By assuming that offenders are passive victims of labelling, it ignores the fact that individuals may actively choose deviance.

  • It fails to explain why people commit primary deviance in the first place, before they are labelled.

  • It implies that without labelling, deviance would not exist. This leads to the strange conclusion that someone who commits a crime but is not labelled has not deviated.

  • It fails to analyse the source of power in creating deviance. For example, Marxists argue that it fails to examine the links between the labelling theory and capitalism.

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