Crime and deviance

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Definition of deviance= violation of rules and norms of a particular social group. Goode (1978) defines it as behaviour that some people in society find offensive and which excites or would excite in these people disapproval, punishment, condemnation or hostility. While this definition might be useful to some extent, it is limited in that not all deviant acts are offensive and not all deviant acts attract negative sanctions, for example a soldier who risks his life over and above the call of duty is a deviant but that kind of act may be rewarded as bravery. This means that deviance can either have negative or positive sanctions.

Deviance varies in terms of time (where the war veterans of today were once called terrorists), context (where for example, homosexuality is a crime in Zimbabwe and not in south Africa) and the person who is committing the deviant act (for example, sex by young unmarried adults and sex by married couples).

Distinguishing deviance from crime

Deviance is that type of behaviour that does not conform to society’s norms and values while crime is behaviour that violates the laws of the land and attracts official punishment. Therefore crime is formally punishable deviance. But this does not mean that those acts that are made law are more serious than deviance in general. There are however, other deviant acts that are not criminal offences for example, mental illness and divorce.

Spiritual /religious explanations of deviance

The belief is found in both African traditional religion and Christianity where deviance is said to be caused by evil spirits. Both the cause and the cure are said to be found in the supernatural. The world is viewed as a battleground between two opposing forces (evil and good) that compete to control the world including the minds, behaviour and lives of people. Though people are at every point of their lives at the mercy of these 2 opposing forces, there is a degree of choice on the part of the humans. Certain things can be done if people want to avoid control by evil spirits. In Christianity one has to be born again and claim the protection of god who is more powerful than evil spirits. In African traditional religion one must live peacefully with one’s ancestral spirits that protect the individual. The manifestation of the evil spirits takes place in 2 ways; through temptation and possession (where the evil spirit takes over the control of the human being causing them to do things they would otherwise not do). The solution is that one must consult diviners or church pastors.

The pathological approach to deviance

The approach is twofold; the physiological and the psychological. Both view deviance as an illness.

Biological explanations

  1. These are influenced by writings of Lombrosso an Italian doctor who wrote in his book the criminal man that criminals have certain biological characteristics peculiar to them. During his autopsy of Villela a famous criminal, Lombrosso discovered that Villela’s skull was shaped like that of an ape. Lombrosso concluded that Villela was an atavist (an evolutionary throwback (backward). There according to Lombrosso all criminals are atavists, who are a result of evolutionary accidents. The atavists are more of animals and therefore prone to acts of crime. Lombrosso argued that there are genetic characteristics that are manifested in the physical appearance of deviance. These include, large jaws, large nipples, high cheekbones, large ears, extra toes, extra fingers and insensitivity to pain.

  2. The explanation by Sheldon and Glueck- they associate deviance with a body type called a mesomorph. This is an athletic, aggressive, boisterous and tense individual and therefore prone to criminal tendencies.

  3. The British criminologists (1960) they argued that crime resulted from chromosome abnormality. Normal individuals have xx for women and xy for men. There are instances where in men there is an extra y and this is what leads to an inclination towards deviant behaviour.

  4. Psychological explanations- deviance is either caused by psychologically inherited personality or incomplete socialisation. Hans Eysenck (1970) argues that people who are extroverts are likely to commit crimes because they like excitements, talking risks and chances that are impulsive. Bowlby also argues that children who do not experience emotional support from their mother will suffer from maternal deprivation. They will also develop a psychopathic personality (acting impulsively without regard for consequences of their actions and without ant sense of guilt).

Critique of all these theories (from Taylor, Walton and Young 1973 in the New criminology)

  1. To use physical appearance is biased because children from the working class are more likely to have characteristics of mesomorphs. This results from the environment in which they grow up (involvement in manual labour makes them physically fit).

  2. Those who make the laws usually have a bias towards those in lower strata therefore the working class people are likely to be thieves because of their economic conditions.

  3. Psychological theories ignore cultural and social factors that affect individuals in adult life. Individuals are not captives of their childhood experiences but are capable of changing.

The functionalist perspective of deviance

    1. Deviance is a necessary function. According to Durkheim a limited amount of crime is necessary and beneficial to society. Society cannot do without deviance. However, too much crime can bring about the collapse of society. Through deviance boundaries of acceptable behaviour are constantly defined and made known to all. Thus some form of publicity/drama or public punishment is needed to reaffirm the norms of society. These days newspapers, televisions and radios perform this publicity function with their often lurid accounts of criminal acts. Deviance increases in times of anomie. The only criticism levelled on this kind of thinking is that it emphasises on the idea that the law reflects collective conscience whereas it ignores that power is an important factor that can influence the lawmaking process.

    2. A. Cohen on the functions of prostitution. He argued that it is a safety valve; it provides a relatively harmless way of expressing discontent and in the process protecting the marriage. It is also viewed as a warning device- a sign that some aspects of society are ineffective and draws the attention of decision makers and policymakers that something should be done. Deviance is therefore not the disease but only a symptom. What we should be worried about is not the deviant behaviour but the causes of such behaviour.

    3. Merton’s strain theory- it was formulated in the 1930s in response to the great depression period of enormous unemployment and social upheavals in the USA. He argued that crime was one possible outcome of a society that attempted to impose upon people values that were incompatible with the economic reality. He also argued that there was a tremendous cultural stress on being successful (the goal) yet it was virtually impossible for the majority of the population to achieve success in a socially acceptable manner (means). The desire to achieve socially stressed goals actively promoted deviant behaviour.

Responses to the situation




















Because people are socialised differently different classes respond differently to the situation. The working class are then more likely to rebel than any other group.

Interactionists and deviance

Interactionists are concerned with 2 things; how an individual comes to be labelled as a deviant and the consequences for that person being so labelled (the process of labelling and the deviant career) and how certain acts come to be defined as deviant (the process of law creation). Howard Becker advanced the labelling theory where he argued that social groups create deviance by making rules whose infraction constitutes deviance. In other words without rules there will be no deviance. Deviance therefore is not in the quality of the act but rather that the act violates certain rules and functions created by society. Three concepts advanced by labelling theorists are

  1. Variability- that the process of labelling is not straightforward but varies according to age gender, etc. for an act to be defined as deviant it depends on who has committed it, when and where, for example being naked is normal behaviour in certain circumstances, in the presence of certain people but in other circumstances nudity is deviance.

  2. Negotiability- that some people may have the power to reject a negative label while others are unable to master enough resources to deny the negative label and so must accept it. Therefore, a deviant is one who the label of deviant has been successfully applied. Any act can become deviant when others choose to define it as such. Thus according to Becker, the difference between the criminals and us is that criminals get caught. Once a person is labelled a deviant and the label sticks, this will affect their future behaviour. If a person accepts the label and behaves according to it, this is called a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is the stage where deviance becomes a career and the individual behaves in a deviant way in order to fulfil the label. However, Lauer (1982:210) says some people may have been accidentally labelled as deviants and put in institutions meant to correct their behaviour but unfortunately these institutions have created deviance in them by hardening these people. Therefore far from serving as a deterrent or as a place for rehabilitation, prisons are more likely to be good training grounds for further deviance.

  3. Master status- once a label is successfully applied it takes precedence over all other labels and all actions of the individual are interpreted in light of the deviant label.

Edwin Lemert argues that societal reaction to an act is the most important factor in explaining deviance. He identifies primary and secondary deviance. Where primary deviance includes the small deviant and widespread acts which are common and tend to be regarded as normal. All of us have committed such acts though we have not been publicly labelled. Secondary deviance is where one gets caught and the deviant label is applied to them.

Critique of interactionism (from Taylor, Walton and young the new criminology 1973)

  1. The argument that deviance is created during the interaction process is inaccurate since acts are deviant even before being defined as such for example murder is deviant regardless of who defines it.

  2. They overlook the question of power in the definition of deviance. For example why is it deviance to smoke mbanje and legal to smoke Madison?

The Marxist view of deviance

Their main question is who makes the laws and for whose benefit? The definition of what is criminal reflects the dominant social values. The law therefore serves the interests of the powerful. The less powerful are more likely to be arrested and put in prison. The crimes of the powerful, compared to the relatively powerless, go unpunished because it is not the purpose of the law as it is enforced, to punish them. The main question is; why is causing the death of another person while in a fit of temper during a street fight, regarded as murder, while the death of workers due to exposure to dangerous chemicals is considered at worst as worth a fine? This is besides the fact that management is quite aware of risks involved. Among the working class crime acts as a redistributive mechanism where the poor steal from the rich.

Criticism of Marxism

  1. They ignore the consequences of street crimes where the poor steal from the poor.

  2. They do not explain crime in communist societies that have at least as high crime rates as capitalist ones.

Sub- cultural views on crime and deviance (Cohen 1955 and Miller 1962)

Deviance is a subculture. Cohen (1955) who studied delinquent boys discovered that there is nothing wrong with delinquents- they simply perceive the world in a different way and act accordingly. A subculture is a distinctive set of values that guide behaviour. It exists within mainstream culture. Lower class boys suffer from status frustration/deprivation therefore they develop alternative ways of gaining status and may thus lead to delinquency. Some of these acts are not motivated by economic ends, for example graffiti writing and vandalism. THE END

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