If we want to reduce violent crime and other serious deviance, we must first understand why it occurs. Many sociological theories of deviance exist, and together they offer a more complete understanding of deviance than any one theory offers by itself. Together they help answer the questions posed earlier: why rates of deviance differ within social categories and across locations, why some behaviors are more likely than others to be considered deviant, and why some kinds of people are more likely than others to be considered deviant and to be punished for deviant behavior. As a whole, sociological explanations of deviance highlight the importance of social inequality, the social environment and social interaction. As such, they have important implications for how to reduce these behaviors. We now turn to the major sociological explanations of crime and deviance, summarized below..
Table 6.1 Theory Snapshot: Summary of Sociological Explanations of Deviance and Crime
Functionalist Perspective Theories
Deviance serves a purpose by clarifying norms, strengthening social bonds among people reacting to deviance and deviance can lead to positive social change.
Certain social and physical characteristics of neighborhoods with higher rates of deviance contribute to this deviance. These characteristics include dysfunctional social institutions, poverty, dilapidation, population density and population turnover.
Deviance results from the gap between the cultural emphasis on economic success and the inability to achieve such success through legitimate means by some individuals or groups.
Conflict Perspective Theories
Different social classes have distinct patterns of crime due to differential access to institutionalized means.
People with power use the legal system to secure their position at the top of society and to keep the powerless at the bottom. The poor and minorities are more likely, because of their lower status, to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned.
Gender inequality, sexism and antiquated views about relationships between the sexes underlie sexual assault, rape, intimate partner violence, and other crimes against women.
Interactionist Perspective Theories
Criminal behavior is learned by interacting with close friends and family members who teach us how to commit crimes and also about values, motives and rationalizations we need to adopt in order to justify breaking the law.
Deviance results from weak bonds to conventional social institutions and social groups, as well as a lack of internalization of expected cultural norms.
Deviance results from being labeled a deviant.
Several explanations may be grouped under the functionalist perspective in sociology, as they all share this perspective’s central view on the importance of various aspects of society for social stability and control.
Émile Durkheim: The Functions of Deviance
As noted earlier, Émile Durkheim said deviance is normal, but he did not stop there. In a surprising and still controversial twist, he also argued that deviance serves several important functions. First, Durkheim said, deviance clarifies social norms and increases conformity. This happens because the discovery and punishment of deviance reminds people of the norms and reinforces the consequences of violating them. If your class were taking an exam and a student was caught cheating, the rest of the class would be instantly reminded of the rules about cheating and the punishment for it, and as a result they would be less likely to cheat.
A second function of deviance is that it strengthens social bonds among the people reacting to the deviant. An example comes from the classic story The Ox-Bow Incident (Clark, 1940), in which three innocent men are accused of cattle rustling and are eventually lynched. The mob that does the lynching is very united in its frenzy against the men, and, at least at that moment, the bonds among the individuals in the mob are extremely strong.
A final function of deviance, said Durkheim, is that it can help lead to positive social change. Although some of the greatest figures in history—Socrates, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. to name just a few—were considered the worst kind of deviants in their time, we now honor them for their commitment and sacrifice. All of these functions together comprise .
Sociologist Herbert Gans (1996) pointed to an additional function of deviance: deviance creates jobs for the segments of society—police, prison guards, criminology professors, and so forth—whose main focus is to deal with deviants in some manner. If deviance and crime did not exist, hundreds of thousands of law-abiding people in the United States would be out of work!
Émile Durkheim wrote that deviance can lead to positive social change. Many Southerners had strong negative feelings about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, but history now honors him for his commitment and sacrifice. U.S. Library of Congress – public domain.
Although deviance can have all of these functions, many forms of it can certainly be quite harmful, as the story of the mugged voter that began this chapter reminds us. Violent crime and property crime in the United States victimize millions of people and households each year, while crime by corporations has effects that are even more harmful and far reaching, as we discuss later. Drug use, prostitution, and other “victimless” crimes may involve willing participants, but these participants often cause themselves and others much harm. Although deviance, according to Durkheim, is inevitable and normal and serves important functions, that certainly does not mean any national should be content to have high rates of serious deviance. The sociological theories we discuss point to certain aspects of the social environment, broadly defined, that contribute to deviance and crime and that should be the focus of efforts to reduce these behaviors.
Social Ecology Theory
An important sociological approach, begun around the early-1900’s by sociologists at the University of Chicago, stresses that certain social and physical characteristics of some communities raise the odds that people living in these communities will commit acts of deviance, including crime. This line of thought is now called the (Mears, Wang, Hay & Bales, 2008). Many criminogenic (crime-causing) neighborhood characteristics have been identified, including high rates of poverty, population density, dilapidated housing and residential mobility. All of these problems are thought to contribute to , or weakened social bonds and dysfunctional social institutions, that make it difficult to socialize children properly and to monitor suspicious behavior (Mears, Wang, Hay & Blaes, 2008; Sampson, 2006).
Much empirical evidence supports social ecology’s view about negative neighborhood conditions and crime rates and suggests that efforts to improve these conditions will lower crime rates. Some of the most persuasive evidence comes from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (directed by sociologist Robert J. Sampson), in which more than 6,000 children, ranging in age from birth to 18, and their parents and other caretakers were studied over a 7-year period. The social and physical characteristics of the dozens of neighborhoods in which the subjects lived were measured to permit assessment of these characteristics’ effects on the probability of delinquency. A number of studies using data from this project confirm the general assumptions of the social ecology approach. This body of research in turn suggests that strategies and programs that improve the social and physical conditions of urban neighborhoods may well help decrease the crime rates (Bellair & McNulty, 2009; Sampson, 2006).
Failure to achieve the American dream lies at the heart of Robert Merton’s (1938) famous . You may recall, Durkheim attributed high rates of suicide to anomie, or normlessness, that occurs in time when social norms are unclear or weak. Adapting this concept, Merton wanted to explain why poor people have higher deviance rates than the non-poor. He reasoned that the U.S. values economic success above all else and also has norms that specify the approved means for achieving economic success. Because the poor often cannot achieve the American dream of success through the conventional means of achieving higher education and working, they experience a gap between the goal of economic success and the means of achieving this goal. This gap leads to strain or frustration. To reduce their frustration, some people resort to several adaptations, including deviance, depending on whether they accept or reject the goal of economic success and/or the means of achieving the goals. Table 6.2 “Merton’s Structural Strain Theory” presents the logical adaptations of individuals to the strain they experience. Let’s review these briefly.
Table 6.2 Merton’s Structural Strain Theory
Goal of Economic Success
Means of Working
+ means accept
– means reject
± means reject and work for a new society
Despite experiencing strain, most people continue to accept the goal of economic success and continue to believe they should work to make money. In other words, they continue to conform to the cultural norms and remain good, law-abiding citizens. Merton calls their adaptation, .
Faced with strain, some people continue to value economic success but come up with new means of achieving it. They rob people or banks, sell illegal drugs, commit fraud or use other illegal means of acquiring money or property. Merton calls this adaptation .
Other people continue to work at a job without much hope of greatly improving their lot in life. They go to work day after day as a habit, even when they no longer accept the goal of economic success. Merton calls this third adaptation . This adaptation does not involve deviant behavior but is a logical response to the strain people experience.
One of Robert Merton’s adaptations in his strain theory is retreatism, in which people abandon society’s goal of economic success and reject its means of employment to reach this goal. Some homeless people might be considered retreatists. Franco Folini – Homeless woman with dogs – CC BY-SA 2.0.
In Merton’s fourth adaptation, , some people withdraw from society by isolating themselves, becoming vagrants or by becoming addicted to alcohol, heroin, or other drugs. Their response to the strain they feel is to reject both the goal of economic success and the means of achieving the goal.
Merton’s fifth and final adaptation is rebellion. Here people not only reject the goal of success and the means of achieving the goal, but work actively to bring about a new society with a new value system. These people are the radicals and revolutionaries of their time. Because Merton developed his strain theory in the aftermath of the Great Depression, in which the labor and socialist movements had been quite active, it is not surprising that he thought of rebellion as a logical adaptation of the poor to their lack of economic success.
Although Merton’s theory has been popular over the years, it has some limitations. Perhaps most important, it overlooks deviance such as fraud by the middle and upper classes and also fails to explain murder, rape, and other crimes that usually are not done for economic reasons. It also does not explain why some people choose one adaptation over another.
Merton’s strain theory stimulated other explanations of deviance that built on his concept of strain. , developed by Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960), tried to explain why the poor choose one or the other of Merton’s adaptations. Whereas Merton stressed that the poor have differential access to legitimate means (working), Cloward and Ohlin stressed that they also have differential access to illegitimate means. For example, some people live in neighborhoods where organized crime is dominant and will get involved in such crime; others live in neighborhoods rampant with drug use and will start using drugs themselves.
In a more recent formulation, two sociologists, Steven F. Messner and Richard Rosenfeld (2007), expanded Merton’s view by arguing that in the United States crime arises from several of our most important values, including an overemphasis on economic success, individualism, and competition. These values produce crime by making many Americans, rich or poor, feel they never have enough money and by prompting them to help themselves even at other people’s expense. Crime in the United States, then, arises ironically from the country’s most basic values.
Conflict Perspective Explanations
Explanations of crime rooted in the conflict perspective reflect its general view that society is a struggle between the “haves” at the top of society with social, economic, and political power and the “have-nots” at the bottom. Accordingly, they assume that those with power pass laws and otherwise use the legal system to secure their position at the top of society and to keep the powerless on the bottom (Bohm & Vogel, 2011). The poor and minorities are more likely because of their poverty and race to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. These explanations also blame street crime by the poor on the economic deprivation and inequality in which they live rather than on any moral failings of the poor.
In the theory of , theorists argue that elite deviants can hide their crimes and avoid criminal labels due to the power and resources they have at their disposal. In contrast, the criminal justice system directs its energies against violations by the working class and low-income individuals have little power and ability to counteract these efforts. Ultimately, the law and criminal justice system work to protect the interests of the dominant class and regulate populations perceived as posing a threat to the interests of the affluent.
Not surprisingly, conflict explanations have sparked much controversy (Akers & Sellers, 2008). Many scholars dismiss them for painting an overly critical picture of capitalist economies and ignoring the excesses of non-capitalistic nations, while others say the theories overstate the degree of inequality in the legal system. However, much evidence supports the conflict assertion that the poor and minorities face disadvantages in the legal system (Reiman & Leighton, 2010). Simply put, the poor cannot afford good attorneys, private investigators, and the other advantages that money brings in court. Also in accordance with the conflict perspective’s views, corporate executives, among the most powerful members of society, often break the law without fear of imprisonment, as we shall see in our discussion of white-collar crime later in this chapter. Finally, many studies support the conflict perspective’s view that the roots of crimes by poor people lie in social inequality and economic deprivation (Barkan, 2009).
on crime and criminal justice also fall into the broad rubric of conflict explanations and have burgeoned in recent decades. Much of this work concerns rape and sexual assault, intimate partner violence and other crimes against women that were largely neglected until feminists began writing about them in the 1970s (Griffin, 1971). Their views have since influenced public and official attitudes about rape and domestic violence, which used to be thought as something that girls and women brought on themselves. The feminist approach instead places the blame for these crimes squarely on society’s inequality against women and antiquated views about relations between the sexes (Renzetti, 2011).
Another focus of feminist work relates to the arrest and legal processing of females for crimes associated with their attempts to escape domestic violence and other forms of abuse. Research studies on incarcerated females have found that the victimization experienced by these girls and women is often linked with their entry into the criminal justice system (Gilfus, 2002). For instance, if a girl runs away from home due to sexual abuse, and, lacking support, commits petty theft or an act of prostitution, she may be prosecuted for these crimes. Given that the crimes committed result for the circumstances associated with her abuse, in such a case, feminists ask, what penalty should she face?
A third focus concerns the gender difference in serious crime, as women and girls are much less likely than men and boys to engage in violence and to commit serious property crimes such as burglary and motor vehicle theft. Most sociologists attribute this difference to gender socialization. Simply put, socialization into the male gender role, or masculinity, leads to values such as competitiveness and behavioral patterns such as spending more time away from home that all promote deviance. Conversely, despite whatever disadvantages it may have, socialization into the female gender role, or femininity, promotes values such as gentleness and behavior patterns such as spending more time at home that help limit deviance (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004). Noting that males commit so much more crime, Kathleen Daly and Meda Chesney-Lind (1988, p. 527) wrote,
“A large price is paid for structures of male domination and for the very qualities that drive men to be successful, to control others, and to wield uncompromising power.…Gender differences in crime suggest that crime may not be so normal after all. Such differences challenge us to see that in the lives of women, men have a great deal more to learn. “
Three decades later, that challenge still remains.
Gender socialization helps explain why females commit less serious crime than males. Boys are raised to be competitive and aggressive, while girls are raised to be gentler and nurturing. Philippe Put – Fight – CC BY 2.0.
Symbolic Interactionist Explanations
Because symbolic interactionism focuses on the means people gain from their social interaction, symbolic interactionist explanations attribute deviance to various aspects of the social interaction and social processes that normal individuals experience. These explanations help us understand why some people are more likely than others living in the same kinds of social environments. Several such explanations exist.
Differential Association Theory
One popular explanation for deviance emphasizes that deviance is learned from interacting with other people who believe it is okay to commit deviance and who often commit deviance themselves. Deviance, then, arises from normal socialization processes. The most influential such explanation is Edwin H. Sutherland’s (1947) , which says that criminal behavior is learned by interacting with close friends and family members who are themselves deviant. These individuals teach us not only how to commit various crimes but also the values, motives, and rationalizations that we need to adopt in order to justify breaking the law. The earlier in our life that we associate with deviant individuals and the more often we do so, the more likely we become deviant ourselves. In this way, a normal social process, socialization, can lead once normal people to commit deviance.
Sutherland’s theory of differential association was one of the most influential sociological theories ever. Over the years much research has documented the importance of adolescents’ peer relationships for their entrance into the world of drugs and delinquency (Akers & Sellers, 2008). However, some critics say that not all deviance results from the influences of deviant peers. Still, differential association theory remains a valuable approach to understanding deviance and crime.
Social Control Theory
Travis Hirschi (1969) argued that human nature is basically selfish and thus wondered why people do not commit deviance. His answer, which is called , was that their bonds to conventional social institutions and social groups, such as the family and schools, keep them from violating social norms.
Travis Hirschi’s social control theory stresses the importance of bonds to social institutions for preventing deviance. His theory emphasized the importance of attachment to one’s family in this regard. Photo by Agung Pandit Wiguna from Pexels.
Hirschi outlined four types of bonds to conventional social institutions: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.
Attachment refers to how much we feel loyal to these institutions and care about the opinions of people in them, such as our parents and teachers. The more attached we are to our families and schools, the less likely we are to be deviant.
Commitment refers to how much we value our participation in conventional activities such as getting a good education. The more committed we are to these activities and the more time and energy we have invested in them, the less deviant we will be.
Involvement refers to the amount of time we spend in conventional activities. The more time we spend, the less opportunity we have to be deviant.
Belief refers to our acceptance of society’s norms. The more we believe in these norms, the less we deviate.
Many studies find that youths with weaker bonds to their parents and schools are more likely to be deviant. But the theory has its critics (Akers & Sellers, 2008). One problem centers on the chicken-and-egg question of causal order. For example, many studies support social control theory by finding that delinquent youths often have worse relationships with their parents than do non-delinquent youths. Is that because the bad relationships prompt the youths to be delinquent, as Hirschi thought? Or is it because the youths’ delinquency worsens their relationship with their parents? Despite these questions, Hirschi’s social control theory continues to influence our understanding of deviance. To the extent it is correct, it suggests several strategies for preventing crime, including programs designed to improve parenting and relations between parents and children (Welsh & Farrington, 2007).
If we arrest and imprison someone, we hope they will be deterred from committing a crime again. assumes precisely the opposite: it says that labeling someone deviant increases the chances that the labeled person will continue to commit deviance. According to labeling theory, this happens because the labeled person ends up with a deviant self-image that leads to even more deviance. Deviance is the result of being labeled (Bohm & Vogel, 2011).
This effect is reinforced by how society treats someone who has been labeled. Research shows that job applicants with a criminal record are much less likely than those without a record to be hired (Pager, 2009). Suppose you had a criminal record and had seen the error of your ways but were rejected by several potential employers. Do you think you might be just a little frustrated? If your unemployment continues, might you think about committing a crime again? Meanwhile, you want to meet some law-abiding friends, so you go to a singles bar. You start talking with someone who interests you, and in response to this person’s question, you say you are between jobs. When your companion asks about your last job, you reply that you were in prison for armed robbery. How do you think your companion will react after hearing this? As this scenario suggests, being labeled deviant can make it difficult to avoid a continued life of deviance.
Labeling theory also asks whether some people and behaviors are indeed more likely than others to acquire a deviant label. In particular, it asserts that non-legal factors such as appearance, race, and social class affect how often official labeling occurs. William Chambliss’s (1973) classic analysis of the “Saints” and the “Roughnecks” is an excellent example of this argument. The Saints were eight male high-school students from middle-class backgrounds who were very delinquent, while the Roughnecks were six male students in the same high school who were also very delinquent but who came from poor, working-class families. Although the Saints’ behavior was arguably more harmful than the Roughnecks’, their actions were considered harmless pranks, and they were never arrested. After graduating from high school, they went on to college and graduate and professional school and ended up in respectable careers. In contrast, the Roughnecks were widely viewed as troublemakers and often got into trouble for their behavior. As adults they either ended up in low-paying jobs or went to prison.
Labeling theory postulates that those labeled as deviant, caused one to be deviant. Labeling theory’s views on the effects of being labeled and on the importance of nonlegal factors for official labeling remain controversial. Nonetheless, the theory has greatly influenced the study of deviance and crime in the last few decades and promises to do so for many years to come.
Differential Association Theory – Criminal behavior is learned by interacting with close friends and family members who teach us how to commit crimes and also about values, motives and rationalizations we need to adopt in order to justify breaking the law.
Differential Justice Theory – People with power use the legal system to secure their position at the top of society and to keep the powerless at the bottom. The poor and minorities are more likely, because of their lower status, to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned.
Differential Opportunity Theory – Different social classes have distinct patterns of crime due to differential access to institutionalized means.
Labeling Theory – Deviance results from being labeled a deviant.
Social Control Theory – Deviance results from weak bonds to conventional social institutions and social groups, as well as a lack of internalization of expected cultural norms.
Social DisorganizationTheory – Weakened social bonds and dysfunctional social institutions make it difficult to socialize children properly and to monitor suspicious behavior.
Social Ecology Theory – Certain social and physical characteristics of neighborhoods with higher rates of deviance contribute to this deviance. These characteristics include dysfunctional social institutions, poverty, dilapidation, population density and population turnover.
Strain Theory – Deviance results from the gap between the cultural emphasis on economic success and the inability to achieve such success through legitimate means by some individuals or groups.
deviance is functional for society because it clarifies norms, increases conformity, strengthens social bonds and can lead to positive social change
a theory on deviance which states that community characteristics, such as high rates of poverty, dilapidation, population density and population turnover, result in higher rates of deviance
weakened social bonds and social institutions that make it difficult to socialize children properly and to monitor suspicious behavior
deviance results for the gap between the goals of a society and the ability of individuals to achieves those goals
individuals who accept both the goals of society and the means to achieve those goals
individuals who accept the goals of society but use deviant means to achieve those goals
individuals who reject the goals of society but continue to conform to the norms of society, regardless.
individuals who reject both the goals of society and the means to achieve those goals, and who withdraw from society
a theory which states different social classes have distinct patterns of crime due to differential access to institutionalized means
a conflict theory which states people with power use the legal system to secure their position at the top of society and to keep the powerless at the bottom, and that low income and minority groups are more likely, because of their lower status, to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned
inequality against women, antiquated views about relations between the sexes and gender socialization result in violence against women and gender differences in crime rates
an interactionist theory which states deviance is learned by interacting with friends and family members who are deviant in their actions or who perceive deviance as acceptable
deviance results from weak bonds to conventional social institutions, such as families and schools
the theory that states deviance results from being labeled a deviant and treated as such