To begin with, it’s very important to understand there is a difference between the seemingly similar ‘crime’ and ‘deviance’. Crime, by definition, is “an action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law”, whereas deviance is “the fact or state of diverging from usual or accepted standards, especially in social behaviour.” Many theories have been created by sociologists and key thinkers, to try and understand and provide explanations for the crimes we see committed, and the deviant behaviour we see people exhibit in our society, but how effective are these theories in exploring the real problems? Are the theories accurate and successful in furthering our understanding? On of the approaches for the comprehension of crime and deviance would be the Functionalist perspective. The broad and general sense from Functionalists is that crime and deviance begins with society as a whole, not the individual, and they aim to explain it in terms of the workings of society – like a human body as every part constitutes to the upkeep of the person (society).
One of the main ways of thinking about crime and deviance, is that it is inevitable. Durkheim goes on to say it is present in all societies (higher rates in more industrialised countries), and is inevitable because the collective sentiments of a society cannot always be shared, or equally committed to, by every member of society, so crime and deviance will occur. If such a society existed – a ‘society of saints’, populated by perfect individuals – deviance would still happen because even without murder or robbery, the slightest slip by an individual would be regarded as a serious offence, with a strong disapproval as a consequence.
A criticism that could be made of Durkheim’s view, however, is that it assumes people are solely reacting to outside forces – how society tells people to act, or how it influences a person. It doesn’t take into account an individual’s perspective from within.
Another view of crime and deviance by Functionalists, is that it’s functional. Durkheim’s argument is that all social change begins with deviant behaviour, crime only becoming dysfunctional when rates are unusually high or low. Without a notion of of crime and deviance, the ‘status quo’ will always be maintained and so no movements of people to challenge oppressors will happen. An example of this could be the most recent Black Lives Matter Movement. People may see this as deviant, as it’s going against many societies’ norms, however, without it, in America specifically, we may always see such race crimes as nothing is being done to challenge the authorities. The Black Lives Matter Movement however, does go against the authorities corrupted interests, thus bringing about change and subsequently more equality.
The aforementioned concept leads directly to Durkheim’s idea of crime strengthening social cohesion. People unite in the face of adversity, reinforced by a societies values and limits of toleration. Social solidarity and a sense of community is established and therefore society is integrated further.
The main criticism of this view, however, is that Durkheim fails to take into account the victims of the crime, by which, it certainly is not functional for those effected. If it was, for example, a burglary, a person may be mentally or even physically scarred, and personal effects or money may have been damaged/stolen, too.
Staying with the Functionalist perspective, Robert Merton is another key sociologist who influences views on crime and deviance. Merton agrees with Durkheim in that, as previously mentioned, crime and deviance reinforces a societies values when social solidarity is created – value consensus. Merton, however, goes on to argue that such values, especially in a Western culture, can themselves create crime. This is because great importance is associated with them, thus creating values of success, competition and wealth, alluding to the ‘American Dream’. Merton suggests that if everyone strives for such a lifestyle, it is simply unattainable because of reasons such as differing class positions – not every member of society is in the same position; inequalities and disadvantages are present. Merton refers to this notion as a ‘strain theory’, highlighting there is a strain between the cultural goals of a society, and the legitimate means to achieve these goals. The people who are in more of a disadvantaged position, are more likely to seek alternative routes to success, i.e crime.
Albert Cohen(1950) rejects this theory, however, and suggests we should see deviance as a collective response to structurally imposed factors, rather than it all being down to an individual.
Another sociological perspective on crime and deviance is realism, which can be split into the two categories of left and right, both reflecting their respective political stances in society – left is labour influenced whilst right is more conservative based. Starting with left realism, the general viewpoint on crime and deviance is that’s it’s a problem which requires practical solutions – solutions that effectively allow us to see specific issues in how crime is affecting individuals, and society as a whole. They believe in gradual changes in how society is run, rather than a violent overthrow of Capitalism, and they believe stricter government policies which create explanations of crime, will lead to practical strategies to combat it. Left Realists claim crime is caused by three main factors, relative deprivation, subcultures and marginalisation.
Lea and Young(1984) strongly refute a survey that was conducted, in which results declared British citizens’ irrational fear of crime was actually the product of media sensationalism. Instead, Lea and Young claim that marginalised groups such as the working class, people of colour and the elderly have a realistic fear of crimes such as street crime, because they are often the victims and are involved in areas of crime the most. They suggest such marginalised groups are often victims because they feel like outsiders with little power to change their disadvantaged situation. A criticism of this idea, however, is that Lea and Young fail to adequately explain why the majority of the white working class, young African Caribbean youth and the elderly, generally don’t turn to crime.
Jack Young(1948), is another Left Realist who states that we are entering a period of time where there is less consensus about moral values, and more emphasis on increasing varieties of subcultures, who claim their views and values are better than those of other subcultures. Young also says that there’s a growing necessity to be avid consumers, focused on instant gratification, meaning there is a rising inequality, resulting in high levels of relative deprivation; lower classes who are perceived to be less wealthy, look to people around them and see their possessions as ‘greater’, and so turn to crime as a means of also being in possession of such items like TV’s and game consoles, for example. These two aspects, combined and individually are, according to Young, worsening crime levels.
Left Realists provide some solutions, however. The first would be to deal with the deeper structural causes of crime – to use government policies to reduce inequalities and creating more opportunities and jobs. Other solutions include raising awareness of crime by teaching people how to adequately secure their premises, and to try and increase trust between police and communities – making them more responsible for their area via things like neighbourhood watch.
The second aspect to Realism is Right Realism, which takes the view that crime is linked to inadequate social control; the blame is placed upon the individual and societies lack of disciplinary action; lawless behaviour is actively chosen and perpetuated by individual selfishness, and does not reflect societies factors as a whole. Wilson(1975) suggests that, as mentioned, inadequate social control in communities is the cause of some crimes. Wilson states that a breakdown and disorder in neighbourhoods creates criminal behaviour as a sense of civility is lost.
Marsland(1988) argues a similar case to Wilson, by saying crime and deviance is linked to the breakdown of the moral fabric of society, suggesting that schools are religion are less of an agent of social control.
Right Realists provide solutions to these arguments, one being that people should disgrace criminals by their behaviour and involvement in crime, and so will subsequently lose their standing in their community, hopefully deterring future criminals from the same behaviour.
Wilson and Kelling believe it’s crucial to try and maintain the character of neighbourhoods to prevent them from deteriorating – the role of the police is essential here to act upon crimes at the first sight of undesirable behaviour e.g alcoholism and drug use. The idea of ‘zero tolerance’ is echoed here.
The final perspective on crime and deviance is Marxism, founded by Karl Marx, whose general approach is that crime and deviance is largely perpetuated by the Bourgeoise. Marxists claim that laws are put in place, and are a reflection of, the Bourgeoise ideology – legal systems and the police all serve the ruling classes interests, therefore keeping the proletariats – the masses – in a state of false class consciousness and stopping them from initiating a revolution to overthrow Capitalism and associated inequalities.
Marxist sociologist David Gordon states that all Capitalist societies are ‘dog-eat-dog’ societies, whereby each person is encouraged to look out for only the interests of themselves, before the interests of others, and their community. Gordon argues that the Capitalist system recommends to people that the self-interested pursuit of profit is good, even harming others and the environment in the process. In our Capitalist society, an immense competitive pressure means that individuals are constantly driven to make more money, profit, and to be more successful than those around us as a way to ensure survival. A pressure to succeed, according to Gordon, means that some people regardless of status, will see breaking the law as insignificant compared to the lucrative rewards of crime, on any scale. Chambliss(1976) similarly echoes Gordon’s view, stating that people use whichever means available to them, to achieve goals – working classes resort to things like street crime, whereas higher classes are likely to commit corporate ‘white collar’ crimes like fraudulent activities, as these ‘higher means’ are at their disposal. Chambliss makes the point that the police wrongly focus their attention on catching petty criminals like shop-lifters, whilst bigger, more economy impacting crimes like embezzlement and money laundering go undetected and thus unsolved. The solution here is clear for Marxists – make all crimes equal in the quest for justice.
Taking into account the things presented to us, it is clear we can draw one conclusion: our understanding is considerably deepened because of the perspectives and theories that aim to try and explain some aspects of crime and deviance. The extent to which we are made aware of issues in society, and the lengths these problems extend to, makes it paramount such studies are studied in detail, to try and omit crime and deviance from our future.