Theories on Crime and Deviance

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  • Created on: 02-04-13 13:53

Functionalist theory

Durkheim (1938)

Crime has four key characteristics: it is inevitable, universal, relative and functional (when someone is punished for crime it reinforces norms and values, reminding people of the boundaries of acceptable behaviour).

Merton (1949) - Strain theory

Society shares the same American dream- to be rich, successful and fulfilled. Five different ways to respond:

  • Conformity (school and qualifications)
  • Innovation (e.g. burglary for financial profit)
  • Ritualism (e.g. no longer seek a pay rise)
  • Retreatism (drink and drugs)
  • Rebellion (e.g. terrorism)

Messner & Rosenheld (1994) Merton explains why crime rate in USA high in comparison to Japan which promotes values such as civic responsibility

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Subcultural theory

Many crimes do not produce financial gain. e.g. vandalism, graffiti, joyriding, violence

Cohen (1955)

Delinquent behaviour most likely to develop among working class boys doing badly at school. The most likely suffered from status frustration. Academic success very difficult for them so they gained status from peers by stealing, fighting and vandalism.

Cloward & Ohlin (1961) 

Working class boys can belong to 3 subcultures:

  • Criminal: most likely in stable working class communities. Status gained through gang membership. Most crimes for financial gain
  • Conflict: more concerned with antisocial, violent and aggressive crime rather than making money
  • Retreatist: focus on alcohol and drugs
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Subcultural theory pt. 2

Miller (1962)

Working class boys don't intend to break the law, but their focal concerns (trouble, toughness and excitement) make it inevitble that crimes will be committed

Nightingale (1993)

Black gang members want to achieve the American dream but as they are excluded educationally, economically, and pollitically from mainstream US culture, they are forced to gain them through crime

Downes (1996)

Working class boys 'hung around' together but not in any sense an organised gang. He found little evidence of status frustration. Even in large cities there were no equivalents to the Bloods or the Crips

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Subcultural theory pt. 3

UK gangs 

Little serious sociological research into UK gangs, however gun crime and stabbings have increased.

Bennett & Holloway (2004)

Studied data from interviews with almost 5,000 arrestees across England and Wales and found 15% had current or past experience as gang members. From this it's estimated there could be 20,000 active gang members in the UK

Middle class gangs

Korem (1994)

Key factor that pushes people into gangs is family problems. e.g. divorce, or parents too busy with work to play with children. Gang becomes the substitute family. Family problems better predictor than low incomes for explaining why people join gangs

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Subcultural theory pt. 4

Female gangs

Thrasher (1920's)

Women have a very limited role in gangs, and exist only to serve the male gang members in a social or sexual sense.

Campbell (1984)

Women in gangs were armed but didn't fight. Wife of gang leader helped parcel drugs and manage the accounts. She was well respected and only slept with gang leader

Laidler & Hunt (2011)

Although the 'homegirls' committed crimes, within the gang they conformed to gender roles and had to ensure they didn't have sex with too many members in case they were labelled negatively

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Criticism of subcultural theory

Based on acceptive the validity of official statistics

Matza (1964)

Research into gangs is too deterministic; studies imply that once you join a gang, you cannot escape and commit your life to a deviant lifestyle. Young men simply drift in and out of criminal activity. Subterranian values exposed through alcohol and drugs

Social action theorists 

Young men are labelled and picked up by the police


Real criminals in society are not working class gang members but corporate criminals. The criminal justice system is biased

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Environmental theory

Shaw & McKay (1930s)

In Chicago, the levels of crime decreased the further from the city centre to the suburbs. Zone 2 (closest to city centre) had higher levels of crime as the zone of transition as immigrnats would move there since it was cheaper. Less stable because had less sense of community so didn't care about neighbours. Crime becomes  neew way of life and diviant values are passed from one generation to the next.

Sutherland (1974) - differntial association

Some people law abiding and others not. The more you spend time with people who aren't law abiding, the more likely you are to turn to crime. Depends on the status of person (ie family member), time spent with them and stage of life associated with them. More crime in the city because there are more people with criminal attitudes who influence each other. 

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Environmental theory pt. 2

British studies

Morris (1957) 

The local council's policy in Croydon to house 'problem' families together created high crime areas.

Baldwin & Bottoms (1976)

Law abiding families leave as soon as crime begins, and friends and family of problem famlies move in, so tipping speeds up. If antisocial families outweigh law abiding families, the area had tipped and is seen as a problem estate.

Wilson & Kelling (1982) - Broken Windows theory

If a single broken window in an abandoned house is left unmended, other windows will get broken and the area will soon go downhill

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Environmental theory pt. 3

Privatisation of public space

Private security police guards and CCTV used to control how people access and use spaces such as shopping centres.'Undesirables' are kept out. exclusion of groups of teenagers forces them to estates where they are more likely to become deviant and encounter police

Nocturnal economy

Hobbs & Lister (2000)

Thousands of drunken teenagers in the early hours of weekends will lead to increased crime. Most violent crime between drunk/drugged males but females increasingly involved.

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Criticism of environmental theory

Based on the acceptance of official statistics

Social action theory

Gill (1977)

Police targeted the Luke Street whenever a crime had been committed; this led to further resentment and more fighting with the police, hence more arrests. Developed into a delinquent area, not because the people were bad, but because of the way other people interacted with them and labelled them

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Social action theory

  • The vast majority of the population have broken the law and could be seen as criminal.
  •  Social action theorists challenge the use of official statitstics and argue they are no more than social constructs
  • Concerned with how groups are labelled as criminal by those with more power in society

Becker (1963)

Deviancy is relative concept decided by people in society with power. Whether an act is labelled as deviant depends on who, when, and where. Also depends on negotiations with police- those with cultural capital (Bordieu) may be able to talk their way out of trouble

The master label takes precedence over all other labels. A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when the master label becomes internalised or accepted.

Jock Young (1971)

Marjuana only an insignificant event for the majority of hippies in Notting Hill. However, because of negative label by police and rejection by mainstream society they accepted the label of 'hippie drug user'. This process is known as deviancy amplification.

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Social action theory pt. 2

Braithwaite (1989)

Disintegrative shaming has the effect discussed by labelling theorists such as Becker. Offender is made to feel an outsider, and rejoing criminal subculture and continure to break the law

Reintegrative shaming means the offender is given another chance. Used in Japan, where there is a strong sense of community and people are more interdependent. Crime rates are low.

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Criticism of social action theory

Left and right realists- Too much sympathy for the criminals and not enough for the victims

Focus too much on the labelling process and not enough on why someone breaks the law in the first place (but, social action theorists might respond that all people break the law, only some get caught)

Too deterministic and imply that once you have been labelled, a deviant career is inevitable

Marxists accuse them of focusing too much on the working clss and not on corporate criminals

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Social action theory and mental illness

In the UK it is not criminal to be mentally ill, bur it is often regarded as deviant.

The medical/psychiatric model

People who portray signs of bizarre behaviour and suffer from a real condition need to be treated by a qualified medical practitioner. Can be treated with antidepressants and phychoanalytic approach

Labelling model of mental illness

Power of doctors and psychiatrists to label someone as mentally ill. Mental illness doesn't exist, it's just a convenient label to explain strange behaviour.

Szasz & Scheff 

There is no such thing as mental illness. People go through stages of feeling unhappy, lonely and miserable but to label and treat as an illness is wrong,

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Social action theory and mental illness pt. 2

Rosenhan (1973)

Once you are admitted into a mental hospital it is difficult to convince people that you are not ill.

Rosenhan asked 8 researchers to get admitted into asylums by pretending they were hearing voices. Once admitted they behaved normally but were treated as if schizophrenics. Anything they did were sign as a sign of mental illness. Although not detected by the staff, many patients suspected.

In a seperate study, staff who knew about Rosenhan's study were informed that one or more pseudo patients would be admitted. 1/5th of patients were considered to be impostors. NO pseudo patients were used, all were genuine patients


Mental illness is a very real condition but is more difficult to diagnose than a physical condition. Labelling approach is dangerous and naive. Rosenhan's study is seen as unethical for the small study and dated becayse there is now an increased focus on care for the mentally ill

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Traditional Marxism

  • Capitalism itself is a crime. The economic system is based on the exploitation of so many by so few. The proletriat work and make profit for the bourgeoisie. 
  • Economic system is based on competition, selfishness and greed, which is why crime is so high in capitalist countries like the UK and US. 
  • Capitalism needs to be replaced by communism

Slapper and Tombs (1999)

  • Corporate crime: law breaking by or for corporations which furthers their interest. Mainly financial crimes (e.g. pension providers prociding misleading advice) and negligence (e.g. minimising health and safety).
  • White-collar crime: by the individually rich or powerful as furtherance of their own interests, often against corporations within which they are working e.g. Nick Leeson
  • State crime: committed by governments such as terrorism, torture, war crimes, genocide and corruption. 

Box (1981)

Official statisics underestimate extent of corporate and white-collar crime which creates a falso view that most crime is committed by the working class

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Criticism of traditional Marxism

  • Communist countries like China, Russia and Cuba still have crime. Perhaps as Durkheime argued, crime is inevitable
  • Communist countries like China and former Soviet Union have had a poor record on negligence, working conditions and pollution. Western countries have stricter health and safety and strict laws to protect the environment
  • Most people are more concerned with mugging, car theft and burglary
  • Many victims of crime are working class
  • If capitalism causes crime, in theory crime should be committed by the poorest in society such as the elderly
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Traditional Marxism pt. 2

Selective law enforcement reinforces upper class power


  • selecting working class individuals means the blame is focussed on individuals and not systems and institutions
  • imprisonment of individuals legitimately neutralises opposition
  • imprisoned labelled as 'misfits'
  • mainly working class so diverts attention from middle class crime
  • moral panics divert attention
  • divides the working class as they see their enemies as the criminals, and not the ruling class
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New Criminology

Share some of the views of Traditional Marxists:

  • Crime results from the inequalities of capitalist society
  • Society should undergo a radical change

However Taylor, Walton and Young (1973) insist that criminals choose to break the law. Crime is not caused by biology, anomie, subcultures, environment, labelling or poverty. Crimes are deliverate with political motives e.g. Black Power Movement, Women's Liberation. Crimes against society involve the redistribution of wealth. 

They hope for Capitalism to be replaced not by Communism, but by a tolerant Socialist society which tolerates hippies, homosexuals etc.

Gilroy- the myth of black criminality

Black criminals defending themself and hitting back at society which treats them unjustly; hitting back against police harassment, racially motivated attacks and discrimination. Racial stereotypes and prejudice exist to divert attention drom a crisis of capitalism in the 1970's,

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New Criminology pt. 2

Hall- 'Mugging', the media and moral panic

Moral panic over mugging was a symptom of the crisis of capitalism. It was also a crisis of hegemony because of the rising unemployment in 1970 challenged the idea of fairness. The moral panic of the 'Black Mugger' divided the working class on racial grounds. The media helped create the idea of break down in law and order, which led to more agressive policing. 


Dounes and Rouch

  • The book contradicts itself. It claims that black crime was not rising but being amplified by police labelling. It then claims black crime was rising because of unemployment. 
  • The book fails to prove that the moral panic over mugging was caused by a crisis in capitalism. There have been numeroud moral panics at different times of affluence e.g. Mods & Rockers in the 1960's and Molester's/pervs in the 1980's.
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Left realism

The working class are the real victims of crime. However, unlike Marxists they see themselves as 'realists'- people are not just passive victims of the capitalist system.

Relative deprivation

Runciman (1966)

Political revolutions only occured when the poor became aware if the sheer scale of the differences between themselves and the rich. Without this knowledge they generally accepted their poverty

Lea & Young (1984)

It is not poverty or unemployment that directly causes crime. The expectations of the 1930's youth were much lower than those of contemporary young people who feel resentful of what they actually earn compared with their aspiratons

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Left realism pt. 2


Certain groups in the population are more likely to suffer economic, social and political deprivation. There is no way for them to influence decision-makers and thus they feel powerless.


Specific sets of values, forms of dress nd modes of behaviour develop that reflect the problems that their members face. For Lea & Young (1984) subcultures develop because their members subscribe to the dominant values of society but are blocked off (because of marginalisation).

Policy implications

Government and local authorities ought to respond to the concerns of the victims of crime, whilst tackling the causes of crime. Advocate committees of people to advise the police on their concern. Greater investment should be made in supporting and training young people

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Criticism of left realism

Marxism- it's not actually 'realistic' and it ignores the 'real' causes of crime. Left realism helps continue the capitalist system.

Right realism- It ignores the crimes of the more powerful groups in society and simply concentrates on street crime

Carlen (1992) Left realism accepts the establishment's view of what crime is and so concentrates it's attention on street crime and burglary. It ignores the way that society harms women, and there ought to be greater attention on things like domestic violence. 

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Right realism

Wilson (1982)- Broken Windows

Crime flourishes in social control breaks down. Any community is likely to engage in 'incivilities'. In most communities, this behaviour is prevented from going further by the comments and actions of other members of the local community.

The police engage in law enforcement (ensuring law is not broken and apprehending officers if they have committed an offence. 

Instead, police should be concentrating on order maintenance (using the law to ensure that smaller incivilites such as rowdy youths, noisy parties and public drug use are all crushed). These ideas were adopted in New York under the slogan 'zero tolerance' and there appeared to be a decline in crime.

Wilson & Herrnstein (1985)

No cause of crime that governments can control. Crime is inevitable. However, people are more likely to commit crime if they are not socialised into acceptable behaviour patterns by their family.

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Criticism of right realism

Platt & Takagi (1977)

  • it concentrates exclusively on working class crimes
  • it fails to explain the causes of crime- apart from inadequate socialisation
  • ignores the ideas of justice and law enforcement in favour or maintenance of social order
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Postmodern approaches

  • There is no point in trying to explain crime using grand narratives such as functionalism or Marxism. Each criminal act is a unique, one-off event

However, this ignores the wealth of sociological evidence that suggest some groups are more likely to commit crimes than others

  • Crime is part of an individual's lifestyle choice, self-expression and creativity

However, this appears to celebrate criminality and ignores many social factors which have led you to becoming a criminal

  • To fully recognise and support diversity and choice, different policing styles are needed for different areas

However, social action theorists and Marxists claim that the police already treat groups differently, normally at the expense of the young, poor, and minority ethnics

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