A functionalist analysis of deviance begins with society as a whole. It looks for the source of deviance in the nature of society rather than the individual.

Organic Analogy - Like pain in the body of society, it helps to preserve the organism but it is nevertheless unpleasant. Punishment is the antidote to crime. The social reaction to the offensiveness of crime helps to reinforce collective sentiment and keeps crime low and society balanced.

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Durkheim (1938) arguesCrime is inevitable, universal, relative and functional. A certain amount of crime and deviance could be seen as functional and positive for society:

  • Crime creates social integration as it bonds society together against criminals

  • Strengthens social control & the collective conscience

  • Gives society an opportunity to condemn the deviant behaviour

  • Reasserts boundaries around acceptable behaviour.

  • Necessary to generate social change – challenge old outdated ideas

Durkheim believed that in stable societies crime was low because of a shared value consensus however when crime & deviance occurred it was the result of anomie – where a breakdown of social expectations has occurred e.g. poor socialisation or during time of revolution/riots. However there is evidence that some crime lead to social solidarity (e.g. London riots led to community ‘clean up’ projects).

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A03 Criticisms for Durkheim:

  • It is not clear at what point the “right” amount of crime (necessary and beneficial) becomes “too much” (creating disorder and instability).

  • The term anomie is very vague and can’t be measured

  • Does not adequately explain why some people commit crimes and others do not, or why they commit particular offences.

  • Assumes that norms and laws reflect the wishes of the population and does not consider the possibility that a powerful group is imposing its values on the rest of society

  • If crime is inevitable, what is the function of punishment?

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Merton (1968) argues deviance results from the culture and structure of society. Merton argues that in the USA great importance was attached to financial success and relatively little importance was given to the accepted ways of achieving success.Society was unstable and unbalanced – so there was a tendency for people to ‘reject the rules of the game’ and strive for success by any available means e.g. crime

There are 5 possible ways that members of American society can respond to the financial goals:

  1. Conformity (non-criminal, non-deviant conformist citizen)

  2. Innovation (can’t achieve goals but stick to means)

  3. Ritualism (give up on achieving goals, but stick to means)

  4. Retreatism (drop-outs who give up altogether)

  5. Rebellion (Reject existing goals but substitute new ones to create a new society)

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Merton maintained that American/British society socialises individuals to:

  • Meet certain shared goals -  the ‘American Dream’ (more emphasis placed on this)

  • To follow approved means or ways to achieve the goals e.g. hard work and effort. (meritocracy)

Argued that capitalist societies suffer from anomie (lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group) – as a result of the strain/conflict between the success goals set by society and the legitimate (law abiding) means of achieving them

Strain - a product of an unequal social class structure that blocked many people’s attempts to reach the goals set by society through the legitimate (legal) opportunity structure.

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AO3 Evaluation for Merton:

  • Strengths:

  • Merton offers a solution; to produce equal opportunities in society

  • Merton begins to offer a fuller functionalist account of both the nature and extent of deviance by building on the work of Durkheim.

  • Weaknesses:

  • Taylor (1971) argues that Merton fails to recognise wider power relations. He does not explain where the goals (American Dream) have come from or whose purpose they serve.

  • Assumes there is a value consensus and people deviate because of structural strain in society

  • Not all crime is for economic gain

  • Anomie (though defined differently) is a   difficult term to operationalise(define / understand)

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  • Both use the term anomie.

  • Both start from the premise that there is a value consensusin society.

  • Both believe social control will reduce crime.


  • Durkheim – focuses on the purpose of crime

  • Merton – focuses on the causes of crime

  • Durkheim – anomie = normlessness/moral confusion, usually the result of poor socialisation, that weakens a person’s commitment to shared rules and encourages deviance.

  • Merton – anomie = a state of frustration and normlessness created by the strain people feel between financial success goals in their society and legal means of achieving them

  • Durkheim – doesn’t recognise inequality

  • Merton – recognises inequality and blocked opportunities


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Hirschi (1969) is the figure most associated with control theory, and he shares a similar view to Durkheim; that social order is based on shared values and socialisation through institutions integrating individuals into society.

It starts with the assumption that humans are neither naturally prone to crime, nor are they naturally prone to conformity. Instead humans are essentially rational and they will turn to crime when the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

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Hirschi (1969) argues that all human beings suffer from weaknesses which make them potentially unable to resist temptation and turn to crime - but there some things in society that stop us from giving in to temptation and exercise self-control.

Argues that if social bonds (e.g. family, career) are weakened or broken then a person’s self-control is weakened and they will turn to crime.

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Hirschi identifies four social bonds of attachment which pull people away from crime and towards conformity:

  1. Attachment: the extent to which we care about other people's opinions and desires.

  2. Involvement: how integrated we are so that we neither have the time nor inclination to behave in a deviant/criminal way.

  3. Commitment: the personal investment we put into our lives; in other words, what we have to lose if we turn to crime and get caught.

  4. Belief: how committed individuals are to upholding society's rules and laws?

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AO3 Evaluation of Hirschi

  • Strengths:

  • He recognises the importance of socialisation and social control and maintaining an integrated society through social bonds – this ideas is supported by functionalism

  • Weaknesses:

  • He fails to explain why some people have weaker bonds

  • Fails to explain why weak bonds doesn’t necessarily lead to crime

  • Doesn’t take into account varieties of deviance crime

  • He doesn’t explain why people with strong bonds commit crime (e.g. middle class drug dealers or white collar criminals) and why some people with weaker bonds don’t commit crime

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Albert Cohen (1955) argues working-class boys experience status frustration because they are stuck at the bottom of the stratification system with most avenues to success blocked. Youths rebound from conventional failure (e.g. in schooling). Faced with failure they choose a delinquent subculture where they are able to invert mainstream values in order to achieve status.

This gives working-class youths an opportunity to achieve some status in their peer group which they are denied in the wider society. Cohen identifies elements of revenge in this subculture, to get back at society that has denied them status. This element of revenge helps to explain why a lot of juvenile offenses (such as vandalism, joy-riding, fighting and general anti-social behaviour) are not motivated by a desire for financial gain, but rather by a desire for per-group status by being malicious and causing trouble

Delinquency is a collective rather than an individual response to status frustration and their position in the class structure – the delinquent subculture give these individuals a chance for recognition and prestige in the eyes of their peers (stealing = glory, prowess & satisfaction).

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AO3 Evaluation of Cohen

  • Strengths:

  • It helps to explain working-class delinquency as a group response rather than an individual

  • Helps to explain non utilitarian crime

  • Weaknesses:

  • Makes an assumption that young working-class delinquents accept mainstream values as superior and desirable and develop delinquent values only as a reaction to what they can’t achieve.

  • Miller (1962) argues that it is false to suggest lower working-class delinquents reject mainstream values, as they have always had their own subculture


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Cloward and Ohlin (1960), like Robert Merton, explain working-class crime in terms of goals and means. But they argued that Merton failed to mention the parallel opportunity structure to the legal one. ClowardandOhlin see lower working-class delinquents as sharing their own deviant subcultural values. Because of ‘blocked opportunities’ they cannot function legitimately. So they develop an illegitimate career structure that follows a recognised illegal means of obtaining societies goals. However working-class youth also have unequal access to the illegitimate opportunity structure. Unlike Cohen they identified 3 types of delinquent subculture:

  1. Criminal Subculture (useful crimes, such as theft)

  2. Conflict Violent Subculture (disorganised areas)

  3. Retreatist Subculture (double failure)

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AO3 Evaluation of ClowardandOhlin

  • Strengths:

  • It’s helpful as it gives insights into why working-class delinquency may take different forms in different forms in different social circumstances

  • It accounts for different criminal responses as not all subcultures are the same

  • Weaknesses:

  • Exaggerates the differences between the three types of subculture, they overlap

  • Burke (2009) argues that they falsely assume that the working class is homogenous group. Not everyone gets sucked into illegitimate career structure / simplistic explanation for drug use

  • Ignores crimes of the wealthy and over-predicts working class crime.

  • Miller (1962) saw the lower working-class socialised into distinct deviant subculture which has existed for centuries. This ‘masculine’ subculture revolves around something he call focal concerns which emphasise values such as toughness, smartness, autonomy, trouble, excitement and fatalism. It is an over-conformity to working class values rather than a rejection of dominant values that explains working class delinquency.

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Matza (1961) talks about subterranean values & techniques of neutralisation, subterranean values are values that exist under the surface, deviant desires that exist alongside socially approved values.

  1. Conventional Values – hardworking, respectful, roles such as good father, a professional

  2. Subterranean Values – deviant desires of sexuality, greed and aggressiveness. These are however, generally controlled, but we all hold them, and we all do them in certain social situations e.g. at a party or after drinking

Techniques of neutralisation are justifications used to excuse acts of crime and deviance, such as by denying responsibility; denying that there was a victim or any injury to a victim; claiming that those casting blame had no right to do so, or the deviance was justified by the circumstances.

Matza argues that this shows that delinquents are as much committed to conventional values as anyone else and, furthermore, express condemnation of crimes similar to the ones they themselves commit.

Matza suggest that young people ‘drift’ into and out of deviance as part of the normal process of growing up. He argues that young people are less skilled in suppressing subterranean values and when these drive deviant behaviour they use techniques of neutralisation to justify them.

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AO3 Criticisms of Matza

Postmodernists argue that subcultural theory falls down (as do most theories) for looking for a rational explanation of crime and deviance.

J. Katz (1988) argues that crime is seductive and people engage with it because it is exciting.

S. Lyng (1990) sees people driven by ‘edgework’ attracted by flirting with danger.

Therefore crime is part of an individual’s life choice rather than an attempt to gain status or reject mainstream values.

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Suggests many people involve themselves in some deviant or illegal behaviour, so it is hard to sustain a distinction between deviants and non-deviants; attempts to find the causes of crime are therefore pointless. Seeks to explain why only some people and some acts are defined as deviant or criminal, while others carrying out similar acts aren’t.

Official crime statistics are regarded as social constructs, showing only an unrepresentative group of offenders who have been caught and publicly labelled as criminals

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Becker (1997) highlights the social construction of deviance by stating ‘No action in itself is deviant.’ He suggest that an act only becomes deviant when others perceive and define it as such, and whether or not the deviant label is applied will depend on the societal reaction.

Becker uses the following key terms in labelling theory:

  • Selective policing: The police operate with pre-existing conceptions and stereotypes of what constitutes ‘trouble’, criminal types, criminal areas – this influences how they respond to the different behaviour they come across.

  • Master labels: One that displaces all other features of a person’s social standing – a person is judged solely in terms of one defining characteristic.

  • Deviant careers: Is where people who have been labelled deviant find conventional opportunities blocked to them and so are pushed into committing further deviant acts.

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Becker gives a clear and simple illustration of the labelling argument by drawing on the anthropological study by Malinowski 1948/1982 of a traditional culture on a Pacific island. A youth had killed himself after he had been publically accused of incest. On first inquiry the islanders had expressed horror and disgust – however after deeper investigation it was found that incest on the island occurred quite frequently and was not frowned upon as long as it was kept discreet.

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Edwin Lermert (1972) distinguishes between:

  • Primary deviance - deviance that hasn’t been publicly labelled as such (speeding, minor theft, downloading music illegally – few consequences until someone has found out)

  • Secondary deviance - deviance that follows once a person has been publicly labelled as deviant

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Cicourel (1976) found that 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

He 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 (when middle class youths are arrested, he is less likely to be charged as his background doesn’t fit with the police officer’s idea of a typical delinquent)

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Chambliss (1973) - Saints and Roughnecks x2 high school gangs

  • Saints: Upper-middle class

  • Roughnecks: Lower-working class

Chambliss found that the rate of deviancy was equal between them. However the roughnecks were constantly in trouble and the saints got away with a lot more.

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Jock Young (1971) – Labelling and marijuana users

Notting Hill Hippies

  1. The police tended to see hippies as dirty, scruffy, unstable, immature drug addicts.

  2. Police reaction to these ‘hippies’ in terms of these ideas, could fundamentally alter and transform the social world of the marijuana smoker.

  3. Police action against the marijuana users tended to unite the hippies and made them feel different.

  4. In defence, they retreated into small, closed group.

  5. They excluded outsiders for reasons of security and because the developed a deviant self-concept which made it more difficult to include members of conventional society.

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CRITICISMS =  Labelling theory ISN’T useful

  • Doesn’t explain why people commit deviant acts

  • Left realists such as Lea and Young (1984) attack interactionists for too readily explaining away working class/black crime as a social construction. They argue that such groups docommit more crime and there are real social reasons for it.

  • Whilst Marxists argue that the theory has a weak view of power and social control.  For example, the theory fails to explain why crime and deviance is socially constructed or consider the wider structural origins of crime and deviance – e.g. criminogenic capitalism / crisis of hegemony.  This suggests that labelling theory only offers a partial view on crime and deviance.

  • It is too deterministic and assumes that once a person has been labelled, their deviance will inevitably become worse

  • Labelling theory has too much sympathy for the deviant

  • Marxist argue there is much focus on the working class and not enough on Corporate crime, which reinforces the idea that the working classes are the deviants

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CRITICISMS =  Labelling theory IS useful

  • It doesn’t treat OS on crime as fact it could be argued that not treating OS as fact is a strength because it reveals how OS can be a product of bias and inaccurate law making, which highlights the weakness in other sociological approaches who take them for granted.

  • It has generated a great deal of subsequent research into the effects of labelling. This suggests that interactionist ideas have made a major contribution to the study of crime and deviance.

  • Labelling theory opened up the whole question on who has power in society to not only make the rules but to apply them to certain individuals and drawn our attention to considering why some groups have power and other groups are powerless.

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Marx argued that the laws were generally the codified means by which one class, the rulers, kept another class, the rest of us in check. Marxists recognise that for a society to function efficiently, social order is necessary. However, apart from communist societies, they consider that in all societies, one class – the ruling class – gains far more than other classes.

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Marx argued that the laws were generally the codified means by which one class, the rulers, kept another class, the rest of us in check. Marxists recognise that for a society to function efficiently, social order is necessary. However, apart from communist societies, they consider that in all societies, one class – the ruling class – gains far more than other classes.

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Bonger (1916) argued capitalism is based on greed and selfishness – crime is a normal outcome of these values. He said the poor are driven to commit crime. Crime is primarily the product of unequal power relations and inequality in general. Therefore crime is an understandable rational response to the situation of poverty/Capitalist greed

  • The superstructure (the ideology & institutions of society) serves the ruling classes.

  • The state passes laws, which support ruling class interests (maintain power) e.g. property laws

  • Laws passed reflect the wishes and ideologies of the ruling classes.

  • People have unequal access to the law. Having money to hire a good lawyer can mean the difference between being found not guilty or guilty.

  • Punishment for a crime may depend and varies according to the social class of the perpetrator.

Marxists argue the law is selective as tax evasion is rarely prosecuted but social security fraud is always prosecuted (street crime: $4 billion, corporate crime: $80 billion)

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Althusser said the law is an ideological state apparatus which makes sure it remains normal to have some people that are obscenely wealthy and others that are obscenely poor.

Capitalism is based on the exploitation of the working class at any human cost, to profit from their labour.

  • Crime is the only way to survive poverty

  • Crime is the only way to obtain consumer goods = utilitarian crime

  • Alienation can create frustration = non-utilitarian crime

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Chambliss (1975) argued that the laws to protect private property are the cornerstone of the capitalist economy. The ruling class also have the power to prevent the introduction of laws that threaten their interests.

The Tobacco Epidemic is shifting towards the developing world, where 80% of tobacco-related deaths will occur within a few decades. The shift is caused by a global tobacco industry, marketing strategy that targets young people and adults in developing countries such as China, Egypt, India, Brazil and Thailand.

Smoking adverts are banned in the UK and today smoking in public places is also banned.Only 5% of the world’s population live in a country that fully protects its citizens from the tobacco industry

From a Marxist perspective businesses try to maximise profits by minimising health and safety and often putting workers at risk (1.2 million working people suffering from a work-related illness). One modern tactic is to re-locate to LEDCs.

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  • Strengths

  • It offers a useful explanation of the relationship between crime and capitalist society as a driving force for crime.

  • It shows the link between law making and enforcement and the interests of the capitalist class and by doing so it puts selective law enforcement into the wider structural context of class inequality

  • There are many examples in real life that support the Marxist approach to crime

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  • Weaknesses:

  • It largely ignores the relationship between crime and other inequalities that may be unrelated to class, such as ethnicity and gender.

  • It over-predicts the amount of crime in the working class: not all poor people commit crime, despite the pressures of poverty.

  • Not all capitalist societies have high crime rates e.g. Japan, Switzerland

  • The criminal justice system does sometimes act against the interests of the capitalist class. For example, prosecutions for corporate crime do occur

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Crime is a symbolic resistance against the powerful

  • The oppressed do not always have to challenge the powerful in an ‘obvious way’

  • They can challenge the authority and ideology of the powerful through symbolic gestures e.g. crime

  • These are acts which carry a particular message/embedded with meaning (although sometimes implicit/hidden)

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This type of movement led to the birth of the New Criminology a Neo Marxist approach to crime

  • Sociologists should be critical of the capitalist order because this system of exploitation socially constructs crime the w/c are made to look more criminal because the capitalist ruling class and their laws criminalise them.  Sociologists should reject the capitalist definition of crime and try to uncover the crimes of the rich and powerful.

  • Capitalism needs to find a scapegoat so that the ruling classes can reassert their hegemony and divert people’s attention from wider structural problems such as inequality.

  • The criminal is viewed as a person that is angry at the system and is deliberately struggling for change. Crime is a meaningful and conscious choice with political motives

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Stuart Hall (1978) examines the ‘moral panic’ that developed over the crime of mugging in the 1970s. He wanted to show how mugging could be explained using the fully social theory of Taylor et al

Hall argued that the ‘moral panic’ around Afro Caribbean muggings developed because capitalism was in crisis – economically through unemployment, the state hegemony (authority) was being challenged through strikes. The ‘black mugger’ was used as a scapegoat by the state to distract attention away from the real problems and allow the state to regain control of a British public that had been losing faith in the government. The media labelled black men as muggers enabling the state to divide the working class along ethnic lines. Afro Caribbeans who did turn to crime did so because of unemployment or out of frustration at their exploitation.

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Paul Gilroy (1982) argues Afro Caribbean men are no more criminal than whites but they are labelled by the police and courts and treated unfairly. When black young men do break the law, it is best seen as a political act – fighting back against racist white society and continuing the battle that started after the slave trade. Due to high unemployment rates in the 1980s it became convenient for the authorities to focus on the myth of black crime rather than their failure to ensure full employment.

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  • Weaknesses:

  • Left realists argue that this approach romanticises working class criminals can you explain this?

  • In reality most crime in intra class crime i.e. working class criminal preying on working class victims. How does this challenge capitalism?

  • Burke (2005) argues that this approach is too general to explain crime and too idealistic to tackle crime

  • Feminist accuse this approach of being genderblind (we will explore this argument in topic 2)

  • Strengths:

  • Similarly to traditional Marxism this approach draws attention to the link between inequality and crime

  • This approach has been applied by Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy and so carries some empirical validity

  • This approach has laid the foundation for other radical approach that seek to establish a more just society e.g. feminist theories on crime and left realism

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Realist Theories see crime as a real problem that needs to be tackled and argue there has been a significant rise in crime rate – especially street crime. They are concerned about the widespread fear of crime and impact of crime on its victims and they criticise other theories saying they fail to offer realistic solutions to the problem of crime.

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LEFT = Left realism has left wing beliefs which are usually progressive in nature, support collective rights, aim to support those who cannot support themselves, they also believe in equality. They recognise that there has been a real increase in crime rates and that disadvantaged groups have the greatest fear of crime and it has the greatest effect on their lives. They claim the best way to reduce crime is to reduce the causes of crime.


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Lea and Young's notion of bulimic society is a late modern, media saturated society which raises everyone’s expectation of what the good life is like. As a result the poorest, most deprived people are desperate for the trappings of our consumer culture but they cannot afford to actively participate in this type of society (people ‘gorge’ themselves on media images of expensive consumer lifestyles but are forced, by economic circumstance, to ‘vomit’ out their raised expectations).

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Lea and Youngs = 

We live in a bulimic society where massive cultural inclusion is accompanied by systematic structural exclusion. Young argues that relative deprivation is intensified by three factors:

Growing individualism 

The weakening of informal social control

Growing economic inequality and economic change 

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Lea and Youngs = 

This creates a ‘toxic mix’ that generates crime among young members of deprived communities – excluded from the lifestyles they aspire to they turn to ’edgework’ and crime as a way of releasing their anger and frustrations. Crime can only be tackled once we understand the interrelationships between four elements:

The state and its agencies

The public & informal methods of social control 

The role of the victim.

The offender and their actions

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They argue that the causes of crime are:

The economic structure of society – poverty

Lea and Young used the concepts of relative deprivation, marginalisation and subculture

Crime is a rational response to the lack of legitimate opportunities and powerlessness

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Tackling crime:

  • Accountable policing - policing must be made more accountable to local communities and must deal with local concerns.  Routine beat patrols are ineffective in detecting or preventing crime, and stop and search tactics cause conflict and resentment.

  • Tackling the structural causes of crime:

  • Building strong communities to work out solutions to local problems, creating community cohesion

  • Tackling social deprivation (youth leisure activities, reducing unemployment, improving housing)

  • Intensive parenting support that gets parents and young offenders together to work out solutions, and early intervention through strategies like Sure Start to help children in the poor communities.  

  • Increase minimum wage, a fair wage to ensure people aren’t tempted to become welfare dependent

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Right realists have right wing beliefs which value tradition, they are about individual rights, survival of the fittest, and they believe in economic freedom. They tend to believe they shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s education or health service. They favoured a ‘get tough’ stance on crime, with increased use of prison (and in the USA, the death penalty) and a ‘short, sharp shock’ approach to dealing with young offenders. Right realism emphasizes the idea that individuals choose crime and must be persuaded not to.

Rational choice theory adopts a utilitarian belief that man is a reasoning actor who weighs means and ends, costs and benefits, and makes a rational choice.

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Cornish and Clarke believe that crime is seen as ‘attractive’ by some mostly because of a “lenient” criminal justice system which offers “soft” social control which fuels others to do the same or repeat what they have done before.

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