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Chapter 6: Deviance, Crime and Social Control

6.2 Explaining Deviance

Using Your Sociological Imagination

Before reviewing this section, based on your sociological understanding of human behavior thus far, answer the following question:

Why do people deviate (violate social norms)?

After reading this section of the text, return to your answer to see which of the theories best reflects your answer.


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

Theoretical Perspective


Summary of Theory

Functional Perspective

Durkheim’s Theory

Deviance serves a purpose by clarifying norms, strengthening social bonds among people reacting to deviance and deviance can lead to positive social change.

Social Ecology

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.

Structural Strain

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

Differential Justice

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.


Interaction Perspective


Differential Association

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.

Social Control

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.


Functionalist Explanations

Several theories 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.

image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Émile Durkheim wrote that deviance could 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.

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 people in the United States would be out of work!

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 nation 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, poorly maintained or non-existent green spaces 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 & Bales, 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).


Think Like a Sociologist

Numerous research studies, conducted in the U.S. and other countries, have found a correlation between personal and property crimes and the availability of green space within a community (Shepley, et. al., 2019). In communities with little green space or having dilapidated parks and yards, the rate of crime is typically higher than in those communities with well-maintained and more expansive green spaces. Researchers propose that planting trees in urban spaces, as well as establishing community gardens and local city parks, are effective strategies to help reduce crime.

What is it about well-maintained green spaces that leads to lower rates of crime?


Strain Theory

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, conformity.

Faced with strain, some people continue to value economic success but come up with new means of achieving it. They may rob people or banks, sell illegal drugs, commit fraud or use other illegal means of acquiring money or property. Merton calls this adaptation innovation.

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 ritualism. This adaptation does not involve deviant behavior but is a logical response to the strain people experience.

image of person living on the streets with their dogs

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. Many of today’s homeless people might be considered retreatists. Franco Folini – Homeless woman with dogs – CC BY-SA 2.0

In Merton’s fourth adaptation, retreatism, 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.

Conflict Perspective: Differential Justice

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). Because of their poverty and race, poor people and minorities are more likely 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.

Moreover, in the theory of , researchers 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, 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).

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist perspectives 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, 2013).


Think Like a Sociologist

Recent cases demonstrate the continued prevalence of the issues outlined above. For instance, during the trials of prominent sex offenders Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Larry Nassar, patterns of sexual predation and assault of girls and women going back decades were shown. While these men eventually received lengthy prison sentences, their cases revealed that they had used their power and wealth to avoid criminal prosecution for many years, leaving behind many victims.

Other cases demonstrate there are still significant gender inequalities within the criminal justice system. Take for instance the 2015 sexual assault of Chanel Miller. Miller, who was unconscious at the time of the assault, was attacked by Brock Turner, a student athlete at Stanford University. During the trial, Turner was found guilty on three charges of felony sexual assault. Prosecutors recommended that Turner receive a six-year prison sentence, however the judge in the case sentenced Turner to just six months in county jail, stating that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on [Turner].” Turner was released from jail after having served just three months of his sentence. As a result of outrage over the lenient sentence, a concerted effort to recall Judge Aaron Persky, then a California Superior Court judge, ensued and in 2018, Santa Clara County, CA voters recalled him from the bench. Additionally, following this case, California lawmakers passed legislation mandating tougher sentences for defendants convicted of sexually assaulting unconscious victims (Dwyer and Martin, 2019).

What other steps can be taken to reduce the victimization of girls and women, and ensure when crimes do happen that justice is served?


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.

image of 2016 U.S. gymnastics team with their gold medals

Four of the five members of the gold-medal winning 2016 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team were among hundreds of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse victims. In 2017, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian, Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas revealed that they had all been sexually assaulted by Nassar. Also pictured (center) is Laurie Hernandez. Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil – Wikimedia Commons – CC-BY-2.0

Symbolic Interaction Explanations

Because symbolic interactionism focuses on the meanings 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 to deviate while 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 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.

image of parents helping teach child to ride her bike

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. Agung Pandit Wiguna 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).

Labeling Theory

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.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

As noted above, due to labeling, job applicants with criminal records struggle to obtain jobs. In the late 1990’s activists began to advocate for laws that would “ban the box” on job applications. Such laws prohibit the use of conviction and arrest history questions on job applications, giving individuals with criminal convictions a fair chance to compete. “Ban the Box” laws, also known as fair-chance hiring laws, have since proliferated, with 36 states, the District of Columbia and over 150 U.S. counties adopting these policies (Avery and Lu, 2020).

What are the potential pros and cons of such laws?

What other policies could be adopted to offer people with criminal convictions a fair chance at job opportunities?

Interested in learning more?  Check out this website: 

Ban the Box: U.S. Cities, Counties and States Adopt Fair Hiring Practices


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.

Test Yourself


Section 6.2 References

Akers, R. L. and C. S. Sellers. (2008). Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Avery, Beth and Han Lu. (2021, October 1).  Ban the box: U.S. cities, counties, and states adopt fair hiring policies. National Employment Law Project. Retrieved from https://www.nelp.org/publication/ban-the-box-fair-chance-hiring-state-and-local-guide/.

Barkan, S. E. (2009). The value of quantitative analysis for a critical understanding of crime and society. Critical Criminology, 17, 247–259.

Bellair, P. E. and T. L. McNulty.  (2009). Gang membership, drug selling, and violence in neighborhood context. Justice Quarterly, 26, 644–669.

Bohm, R. M. and B. Vogel. (2011). A Primer on crime and delinquency theory (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Chambliss, W. J. (1973). The saints and the roughnecks. Society, 11, 24–31.

Chesney-Lind, M. and L. Pasko. (2004). The female offender: Girls, women, and crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Clark, W. V. T. (1940). The ox-bow incident. New York, NY: Random House.

Daly, K. and  M. Chesney-Lind. (1988). Feminism and criminology. Justice Quarterly, 5, 497–538.

Dwyer, C. and Rachel Martin.  (2020, January 3). Chanel Miller, sexual assault survivor, on the ‘immense relief’ of going public. KCUR 89.3 – NPR in Kansas City. Retrieved from https://www.kcur.org/2019-09-24/chanel-miller-sexual-assault-survivor-on-the-immense-relief-of-going-public.

Gans, H. J. (1996). The war against the poor: The underclass and antipoverty policy. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gilfus, Mary E. (2002, December). Women’s Experiences of Abuse as a Risk Factor for Incarceration. Harrisburg, PA: The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

Griffin, S. (1971, September). Rape: The all-American crime. Ramparts, 10, 26–35.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mears, D. P., X. Wang, C. Hay and W. D. Bales. (2008). Social ecology and recidivism: Implications for prisoner reentry. Criminology, 46, 301–340.

Merton, R. K. (1938). Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review, 3, 672–682.

Pager, D. (2009). Marked: Race, crime, and finding work in an era of mass incarceration. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Reiman, J. and P. Leighton. (2010). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class, and criminal justice (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Renzetti, C. M. (2013). Feminist criminology. Routledge.

Sampson, R. J. (2006). How does community context matter? Social mechanisms and the explanation of crime rates. In P. O. H. Wikström & R. J. Sampson (Eds.), The Explanation of Crime: Context, Mechanisms, and Development (pp. 31-60). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Shepley, M., N. Sachs, H. Sadatsafavi, C. Fournier and K. Peditto.  (2019, December 14). The impact of green space on violent crime in Urban Environments: An evidence synthesis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.  Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/16/24/5119/htm.

Sutherland, E. H. (1947). Principles of criminology. Philadelphia, PA: J. P. Lippincott.

Welsh, B. C. and D. P. Farrington (Eds.). (2007). Preventing crime: What works for children, offenders, victims and places. New York, NY: Springer.

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