While vandalism and skipping school are both seen as 'bad' behaviour, what differentiates the two acts? Why can't you be fined or sent to jail for skipping school? Or for waking up late?
The study of crime and deviance in sociology looks at criminal and deviant behaviour in society. Although it may seem obvious, it is helpful to look at the definitions of crime and deviance when considering why crime is a social problem. It is also certainly helpful to distinguish 'crime' from 'deviance'.
- We will start by looking at the definitions of crime and deviance, including the differences between the two.
- Next, we will go over brief summaries of some sociological theories of crime.
- We will briefly look at the social distribution of crime.
- Lastly, we will consider crime prevention and punishment.
Although there is a lot of information, note that these topics are summarised in brief, as you will find separate explanations on each topic. Let's begin.
Crime and deviance definition
Although they are related and can overlap, crime and deviance definitions are different. Crime is illegal, while deviance may be frowned upon, but it is not illegal.
Let's look at the official definitions of crime and deviance below.
What is crime?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, crime is:
an illegal act for which someone can be punished by the government".
Crimes are acts committed within the public sphere, which means that they are punishable by public authorities. Anyone can commit a crime, intentionally or unintentionally, and there are many different types of crime. You might be familiar with a lot of them.
Crimes against the person (e.g. assault).
Crimes against property (e.g. theft, fraud, vandalism).
Financial crime (sometimes known as white-collar crime).
Green crimes.(Video) Difference between Crime and Deviance | What is Deviance and Crime
Human rights crimes.
For a deeper understanding of what constitutes a 'crime', we should distinguish it from a 'violation of the law'. All of the above types of crime are violations of the law, and so are punishable by a public authority. However, not all violations of the law are crimes. Some violations, such as a breach of contract, are violations of private law. These are enforceable by private entities, such as individuals or businesses, through civil proceedings.
What is deviance?
The definition of 'deviance' is acting in a deviant manner.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, someone is 'deviant' if they are 'straying or deviating, especially from an accepted norm'. In sociology, deviance refers to actions that fall outside the scope of accepted norms, values, and behaviours.
For example, if a group of people in a public place are drinking and playing loud music, it may be seen as deviant because they are 'loitering'. Even if they are not breaking the law, their behaviour may be seen as anti-social and, therefore, deviant.
What is the difference between crime and deviance?
All crimes are deviances, but not all deviances are crimes. Deviances can be used to describe behaviours that are socially and morally 'unacceptable'. For this reason, not everyone will agree on what constitutes deviant behaviour. Social and moral values differ according to individuals and their cultures.
This is called the context-dependency of deviance. This refers to the perception of behaviours as deviant (or not), depending on their social, cultural, moral, and historical contexts.
Here are two examples.
Adultery as an example of crime vs. deviance
In some countries, adultery is illegal. Regardless of social or moral perceptions, an adulterer will be punished by the relevant laws. In the UK and many other countries, adultery is not illegal.
However, many will disapprove of this behaviour because it is seen as ruining the sanctity of marriage. It goes against norms and values, specifically the one that states one should stay faithful to their spouse. Therefore, it is deviant behaviour.
Dropping out of school as an example of crime vs. deviance
In some cultures, it is common for young people to drop out of school and seek employment instead of pursuing higher education. As a result, it is unlikely that the act of dropping out of school will be considered deviant in that context.
However, in other cultures where a strong emphasis is placed on higher education, dropping out of school can be seen as deviant behaviour, as it may show a lack of discipline or ambition for the future.
In both examples, cultural contexts affect how behaviour is viewed.
Fig. 2 - Drinking too much, whilst not illegal, may be viewed as deviant behaviour.
Sociological theories of crime
These are summaries of the key sociological theories of crime that we will be looking at to explore crime and deviance further.
Functionalism on crime and deviance
Functionalism looks at the role of crime in the overall functioning of society. Functionalists believe some crime is necessary for the healthy functioning of society, as it enables the strengthening of social norms and values. Too much crime, however, threatens social solidarity and may cause anomie. Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton are key functionalist theorists in crime and deviance.
The social construction of crime and deviance: labelling theory
Interactionists take the approach that crime and deviance is a social construction. The labelling theory of crime is an interactionist perspective: it states that crime is not due to individuals' behaviour, but rather individuals being labelled by authorities. There is no such thing as an inherently deviant act, as deviance is 'socially constructed'. Labelling individuals as 'criminals' leads to a 'self-fulfilling prophecy'. This can also be applied to education and deviance in education. Howard Becker is a key theorist in this regard.
Conflict theory on crime and deviance: Marxism
As a key conflict theory on crime and deviance, Marxism looks at how crime is perceived and treated based on the social class of the criminal. Marxists argue that unequal power structures and injustices in society result in crime. Therefore, society is 'criminogenic'.
While individuals from all social classes commit crimes, bourgeoisie crimes are usually more harmful but go unpunished because the bourgeoisie controls the justice system and institutions. Karl Marx and William Chambliss are key Marxist theorists in crime and deviance.
A criminogenic society is a society that is likely to cause criminal behaviour.
Realist theories on crime and deviance
This splits further into right-realist and left-realist theories. Right-realist theories emphasise that the criminal is responsible for their crimes, not societal and economic structures.
Right-realist theorists believe in making tough measures to control and prevent crime. As such, it is associated with right-wing neoliberal governments such as Margaret Thatcher's in the late 1970s-80s. Key right realist theories include:
Rational choice theory
Broken windows theory
Underclass theory, by Charles Murray
Left-realist theories of crime argue that inequality, marginalisation and relative deprivation are the main causes of crime. Left realism emphasises crime prevention through community orientation and fostering better relationships between communities and enforcement authorities. Key left realist theories:
Other approaches to crime and deviance: postmodernism and feminism
Postmodernist theories of crime argue that crime and its causes are complex. Due to globalisation, media, and consumerist changes we have increased personal freedom, increasing the likelihood of committing crimes. Pressure to conform to a fast-paced, materialistic society may result in more crimes committed as employment levels also fluctuate. Postmodern theories of crime explain how crime patterns have changed and how the causes of crime differ in recent times.
Feminist theories explore gender differences in crime and its causes. The theories present explanations for why there are differences between men and women's crime rates, such as the role of socialisation in men and women.
The social distribution of crime
This refers to the patterns and spreads of crime across different social groups. We will be looking at the social distribution of crime in the UK. Sociologists aim to explain why certain crime patterns are present in some social groups more than others. For example, why are crimes more likely to be committed by individuals living in urban areas rather than rural areas?
We will be looking at sociological theories for distributions of crime in each of the following social groups:
We will also be looking at other factors affecting crime rates, such as globalisation and the media. We will consider other types of crime, such as green crimes, human rights crimes, and state crimes.
Fig. 3 - Why do some people commit more crimes and different types of crimes than others?
Crime prevention and punishment
We will consider the two main reasons behind the punishment of criminals. These are 'reduction', and 'retribution'.
Reduction refers to the motive of punishing criminals to reduce and prevent crime. Retribution refers to the motive of simply punishing the criminal for their actions.
Crime and Deviance - Key takeaways
- Crimes are acts committed within the public sphere, making them punishable by public authorities.
- Deviance refers to behaviours that fall outside the scope of accepted norms, values, and behaviours.
- The context-dependency of deviance refers to the perception of behaviours as deviant (or not), depending on their social, cultural, moral, and historical contexts.
- Sociological theories of crime explain why crimes occur and the reasons behind them. Theories include functionalism, Marxism, labelling theory, realism, postmodernism, and feminism.
- The social distribution of crime refers to the patterns and spreads of crime across different social groups. Sociologists aim to explain why certain crime patterns are present in some social groups more than others.