Crime & Deviance

Crime refers to an act which breaks legal rules (the law) and can lead to official punishments or sanctions, such as a fine or going to prison.

Deviance refers to any act which breaks social rules/norms and can lead to social punishments or sanctions, such as social ostracism or bullying.

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Crime & Deviance

An act can be criminal and deviant - breaking both social and legal rules.

An act can be deviant but not criminal - breaking social, but not legal rules.

An act can be criminal but not deviant - breaking legal, but not social rules.

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Crime & Deviance

The Normative Definition

Functionalists and the New Right = Value consensus - assume that we all collectively share and agree on the same values. Durkheim assumed there was a collective conscience, thus we all agree what is deviant/normal and legal/illegal. If the collective conscience breaks down then the crime/deviance rate increases.

The Relativistic Definition

Society is viewed as made up of competing or emerging values. Crime and deviance is culturally determined. There is not an absolute way of defining a deviant act. Deviance varies from time-to-time, place-to-place and person-to-person.

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The Interactionist View (Relativistic)

The context in which behaviour occurs is crucial to how it will be judged/evaluated. Crime & Deviance are dynamic and emerge from complex interactions between groups or individuals. Becker argued that what is defined as deviant or criminal depends on labelling and the social reaction of others.

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The Marxist View (Relativistic)

Crime & Deviance is relative as it is a reflection of who is in power. The bourgeoisie create laws which benefit them and maintain their position and disadvantage the W/C, maintaing ruling-class ideology. M/C and U/C - less likely to be criminalised and seen as deviant. They believe the law is selectively enforced more aggressively against the W/C.

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The Feminist View (Relativistic)

Crime & Deviance is relative as it is a reflection of who is in power. It is men who create laws which benefit them and maintain their position and oppress women, maintaining patriarchal ideology. In some countries laws are created which oppress and criminalise women e.g. in Afghanistan it is illegal for women to walk down the street without a male relative. Even in the UK there are behaviours that are seen as normal for men and deviant for women e.g. walking around with your top off. Arguably, this is a way for men to dominate and control womens sexuality in society.

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Durkheim (1893) - Positive functions of crime

Durkheim saw crime as an invetibale and normal aspect of social life and thus was found in all societies, for 2 reason:

  • Not everyone is effectively socialised into the shared norms and values of society, so some individuals will be prone to deviate.
  • There is a diversity of lifestyles and values, where different subcultures have a distinct set of norms and values which may deviate from mainstream.

Durkehim and Anomie

Anomie is present when social controls are weak, when the moral obligations that constrain indivuals and regulate theire behaviour are not strong enough to function effectively. He associated a growth in anomie with a shift to a more individualistic society and especially periods of social change. When individuals may become unsure of norms and rules, consequently they are at a greater risk of breaking them.

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Durkheim's 4 positive functions:

  • Strengthening collective values. Punishment reminds people of the boundaries between right and wrong, leading to 'boundary maintenance'. Punishments therefore serve to reaffirm societies shared rules and reinforce social solidarity.
  • Enabling social change. Deviance allows new ideas to develop, enabling society to change and progress.
  • Acting as a 'safety valve'. Crime can release the stresses in a society, providing an outlet for discontent while avoiding more serious challenges to the social order.
  • Acting as a warning device.Highlights that society is not working properly, and there is a potential threat to the social order. As a result, policy makers need to establish appropriate ways of dealing with these issues.
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Eriksen (1966) - Society promotes crime and deviance

He argues that if crime and deviance perform positive social functions, the it means society is organised so as to promote crime and deviance. He suggests that the true function of agencies of social control may actually be to sustain a certain level of crime rather than to rid society of it. Societies sometimes also manage and regulate deviance rather than seeking to eliminate it entirely e.g. festivals, carnivals, demonstrations...

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  • Durkheim's work has made a very important contributions to the functionalist perspective on crime.
  • His work was very radical through his belief that a certain amount of crime was becessary for the health of society as the deeds of some lead to social change and move society forward, contributing to the 'march of progress'.


  • Durkehim ignores the victims.
  • Does not give sufficient explanation for why some people commit crimes in the first place.
  • Crime does not always produce social solidarity, it may have the opposite effect.
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Merton (1938, 1968) - Strain to Anomie

Merton suggested crime and deviance is a result of the strain between the culture and structure of society, meaning there is a strain between:

  • The goals that a culture encourages individuals to achieve.
  • What the institutional structure of society allows the to achieve legitimately.

Merton examined American society, and found its culture attached great importance to success, in terms of money and material possessions. Individuals are expected to pursue these goals by legitimate means. The ideology of 'The American Dream' states all members of society have equal opportunity of success if they try hard enough (Meritocracy).

The strain between the cultural goal of money and success, and the lack of legitimate means to achieve it, produces frustration and pressure to resort to illegitimate means. Merton calls this pressure to deviate, the strain to anomie. This is increased more as American society puts more emphasis on achieving success than the accepted ways of achieving. Winning the game becomes more important than playing by the rules.

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Merton suggests 5 ways in which members of society respond to the strain of anomie:

  • Conformity - Individuals conform to both the success goals and the legitimate means of achieving them.
  • Innovation - Individuals reject the legitimate means of achieving success and innovate by turning to deviant means.
  • Ritualism - Individuals give up trying to achieve success goals because there occupations prevent them from doing so, but as they have been strongly socialised to conform to social norms they do not turn to crime.
  • Retreatism - Individuals reject both the goals of success and the normative means of achieving it.
  • Rebellion - Individuals reject conventional goals and means, and replace them with alternatives.
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  • Merton shows how normal and deviant behaviour can arise from the mainstream goals of success.
  • His theory explains the patterns shown in official crime statistics.


  • Merton takes official statistics at face value assuming most crime is committed by W/C. His theory cannot explain crime committed by successful M/C and U/C members of society who have the means of success.
  • His theory is too deterministic. It assumes crime is caused by events outside a persons control. Although most W/C people will experience strain to anomie, not all will commit crime.
  • Merton assumes there is a value consensus. However, crimes can be committed for a variety of reasons.
  • He mainly explains crime as motivated by utilitarian aims, which does not explain crimes such as vandalism or domestic violence.
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Messner & Rosenfeld (2001) - Institutional Anomie Theory

Focus on the 'American Dream'.

Argue its obsession with individual money success encourages people to adopt an 'everything goes' mentality in the pursuit of wealth.

Societies based in a free-market capitalism and lacing adequate welfare provision, high rates of crime are inevitable.

Downes & Hansen (2006) provide evidence. In a survey of crime rates and welfare spending in 18 countries, they found that societies that spent more on welfare had lower rates of imprisonment.

Societies that protect the poor have less crime.

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Subcultural strain theory of crime.

The idea that certain social groups develop norms and values which differ from those held by other members of society, and are provided with alternative opportunity structure for those who are denied the chance to achieve by legitimate means.

1. Cohen (1955) - Status Frustration

2. Cloward and Ohlin (1961) - Illigitimate Opportunity Structures

3. Miller (1962) - Focal Concerns

4. Matza (1964) - Theory of Dirft

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Albert Cohen (1955) - Status Frustration

Cohen agrees that while the W/C held the success goals of mainstream culture they had little opportunity to achieve them due to educational failure and low skilled, low paid jobs. As a result they experienced status frustration.

They resolve this by rejecting the success goals of mainstream culture, replacing them with an alternative set of norms and values through which they can achieve success and gain prestige. The result is a delinquent subculture.

Within a delinquent subculture, there is an alternative status hierarchy, where high value is put on deviant activities, such as vandalism and steaing. The positive rewards are not motivated by money, but by status and prestige to be gained in the eyes of their peers.

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  • Offers explanation of non-utilitarian deviance among W/C
  • Ideas of status frustration and alternative status hierarchy have been widely used in the soiciology of deviance


  • Assumes that W/C boys start off sharing M/C success goals and that crime is a reaction to that (reactive theory).
  • Cohen exaggerates the values of the group. Willis would argue that W/C youths might simply vandalise for a 'laugh'.
  • Subcultural theory is overwhelmingly about male subcultures. Collinson (1996) argues that deviance is less to do with subcultures and more to do with masculinity.
  • Cohen fails to explain why subcultures take on different forms.
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Cloward and Ohlin (1961) - Illegitimate Opportunity Structures

They argue different neighbourhoods provide different opportunities for young people to lean criminal skills and develop criminal careers. They identified 3 types of deviant subcultures:

  • Criminal subcultures: Emerge when there is an established pattern of organised adult crime, which provides a 'learning environment' for a career in utilitarian crime. They are exposed to criminal skills and deviant vaues from criminal role models, and have the opportunity to rise up the criminal hierarchy.
  • Conflict subcultures: Arise in areas with a high population turnover, resulting in social disorganisation, preventing a stable criminal network from developing. Access to both legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures are blocked, leaving only loosely organised gangs as a means to success. Violence provides a release for young mens frustration, as well as a means of gaining status and respect within their subculture.
  • Retreatist subcultures: Emerge among those who have failed to succeed in both legitimate and illegitimate opportuninty structures, As 'double failures', individuals retreat into a subculture organised mainly around drug use.
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  • Show how W/C delinquency is not just concerned with material gain, but can be centred on other factors
  • Give explanations for the variety of delinquent subcultures that emerge


  • Tend to box off subcultures and ignore overlaps between them
  • Feminists argue that women face as many, if not more, blocked career opportunities as men yet statistically do not commit as much crime
  • Can be accused of providing a reactive theory of subculture, as they assume everyone starts off by sharing the same mainstream goals
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  • Miller (1962) argues instead, that the L/C has its own independent culture seperate from mainstream culture, with its own values. This subculture does not value mainstream success in the first pace, therefore is not frustrate by failure. Miller agrees crime and deviance is widespread among the L/C, he argues this arises oyt of an attempt to achieve their own goals into which they are socialised. He calls this focal concers.
  • Matza (1964) argues crime and deviance is a normal experience of most you people; who 'drift' in and out of deviance as they grow up. Rather than being committed to a deviant lifestyle, as subcultural theory suggests, Matza's theory of drift shows how deviant acts are causal and intermittent rather than a way of life.
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