Compare and contrast two main sociological theories of crime and deviance

8 August 2016

Compare and contrast the two main sociological theories of crime and deviance. Deviance and crime are wide-ranging terms used by sociologists to refer to behavior that varies, in some way, from a social norm. Cultural Norms are society’s propensity towards certain ideals; their aversion from others; and their standard, ritualistic practices. Essentially the ‘norm’ is a summation of typical activities and beliefs of group of people. This essay will evaluate the sociological theories associated with crime and deviance and to compare and contrast these main theories.

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And find links between these theories to today’s society. There are various Sociological deviance theories, including Structuralist: why do some people break the rules? , Marxists: who makes the rules, and who benefits from their enforcement? , and Interactionist: How did this person become processed (labeled) as a deviant? Sociology asserts that deviance is problematic, yet essential and intrinsic to any conception of Social Order. It is problematic because it disrupts but is essential because it defines the confines of our shared reality.

According to sociologist , William Graham Sumner, deviance is a violation of established contextual, cultural, or social norms, whether folkways, mores, or codified law (1906). It can be as minor as picking one’s nose in public or as major as committing murder. Although the word “deviance” has a negative connotation in everyday language, sociologists recognize that deviance is not necessarily bad (Schoepflin 2011). In fact, from a structural functionalist perspective, one of the positive contributions of deviance is that it fosters social change. For example, during the U.S. civil rights movement, Rosa Parks violated social norms when she refused to move to the ‘black section” of the bus, and the Little Rock Nine broke customs of segregation to attend an Arkansas public school. Crime as cited by Mustapha is any action that breaks the law of the land and is punishable by formal controls (2009). Many theories and explanations have been put forward as to what cause crime in society, the Macro –sociological theories of crime and deviance are based on the premise that they arise from society’s social structure or organization .

Taking the functionalist view in perspective, this approach based mainly on the work of Durkheim, argues that deviant and criminal behaviour plays an active, constructive role in society by ultimately helping to cohere different populations within a particular society. Durkheim postulated that a certain amount of crime and deviance as normal and an integral part of all healthy societies. (Haralambos and Holburn,2008). This is because it acts as a ‘safety valve’, providing a relatively harmless way for someone to express their discontent.

For example, Cohen said that “prostitution performs such a safety valve function without threatening the institution of the family”, this is because he believed this crime of prostitution could relieve the stress in a discrete way without damaging the rest of the clients life. Clinard believed that crime also served the function of acting as a warning device. This is because the crime indicates that there is an aspect of society that is malfunctioning. So the crime draws attention to the problem within society, which can then be fixed. Durkheim stated that crime in society isn’t genetically produced, but is natural in society.

However, he did say that too much crime was dangerous in a society. The functionalist continue to say that deviance and helps to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. It draws lines and demarcates boundaries. This is an important function that affirms the cultural values and norms of a society for the members of that society. In addition to clarifying the moral boundaries of society, deviant behaviour can also promote social unity by creating an “us-versus-them” mentality in relation to deviant individuals. Finally, deviance and crime is actually seen as one means for society to change over time.

Deviant behaviour can imbalance the social equilibrium but—in the process of restoring balance—society will adjust norms. With changing norms in response to deviance, the deviant behaviour can contribute to long-term social stability. This provides the key to understanding the disruption and recalibration of society that occurs over time. Some traits that could cause social disruption will be stigmatized. As traits become more mainstreamed, society will gradually adjust to incorporate the formerly stigmatized traits. Take, for example, homosexuality.

In urban America 50 years ago, homosexual behaviour was considered deviant. On the one hand, this fractured society into those marked as homosexuals and those unmarked as normative heterosexuals. While this us-versus-them mentality solidified social identities and solidarities within the two categories, there was nevertheless an overarching social schism. As time went on, homosexuality came to be accepted as more mainstream. To confirm an article entitled “Most say homosexuality should be accepted by society” reveals that among the findings from the latest Pew Research Center political typology survey, released May

The survey conducted ,stated that while the public is divided over same-sex marriage, a majority of Americans (58%) say that homosexuality should be accepted, rather than discouraged, by society. Among younger people in particular, there is broad support for societal acceptance of homosexuality. More than six-in-ten (63%) of those younger than 50 – 69% of those younger than 30 – say that homosexuality should be accepted. Far fewer of those 50 and older (52%) favour societal acceptance of homosexuality. On this note, Merton developed on Durkheim’s point that too much crime is dangerous to society .

Merton observed American culture. He said that this society bought into the ‘American dream’ of having a successful career with lots of money, material possessions and a nice family. Merton said that in a balanced society everyone will be happy, however, he said American society isn’t balanced, so when people struggle to live up to societies norms and values they try and find other ways of achieving this success, and act normlessly. Merton called this a strain to anomie, and it is this normless behaviour which he said caused crime in society.

Merton said there are five ways in which members of American society could respond to this strain to anomie: Conformiity, Innovation, Ritvaiailism, Retreatism, Rebellion. Merton believed the pressure exerted on people to succeed, a strain to anomie, meant that if they didn’t they would act normlessly to cope, and this could manifest itself in any of the 5 ways mentioned above. There are weaknesses mentioned to the functionalist perspective as  critics say they exaggerates working class crimes and ignores white-collar crimes committed by the wealthy in society.

­The biggest criticism of Merton’s work is that it doesn’t explain why people commit crimes that can’t be explained by a strain to anomie. For example freedom fighters who act criminally because of commitment rather than the effects of anomie. However, evidence shows that after communist countries moved to free market economies (which stress the importance of individual material success) crime rates have rocketed. Similarly, as the UK moved to Thatcherism (which again places more value on material success and hard work) crime rates increased.

This suggests that the strain to achieve what society considers ‘success’ can lead to crime, so it supports Merton’s view. However the Marxist perspective has a different view to this, they believe that the capitalist system is responsible for creating crime to protect their interest by reducing strains inherent in the capitalist mode of production, while the functionalist believe that crime and deviance establishes the moral boundaries of the community. Marxist theory suggests that deviant behaviours result from social, political, or material inequalities of a social group.

In response to these inequalities, certain groups will act defiantly in order to change their circumstances, change the social structure that engendered their circumstances, or just to “act out” against their oppressors. An example of conflict theory would be the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in the fall of 2011. Angered at the extreme inequalities in wealth distribution in the United States, protesters began to organize more communal ways of living in Zucotti Park—near Wall Street in New York City—in order to protest the lavish means of life of those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder.

The protesters were deviating from social norms of coherence in order to articulate grievances against the extremely wealthy. Their actions and perspectives demonstrate the use of conflict theory to explain social deviance. So the ruling class as cited by Mustapha(2009) is keen on maintaining the status quo, that is the norms and values of capitalist society (ideology). The “soft edge” of control is ideology- the “hard edge” is the police, the armed forces, the courts and prisons.

To concretize an article entitled “Youth Curfew”, where Commanding officer for the Kingston Western police division in Jamaica, Senior Superintendent Steve McGregor, has disclosed there is to be a curfew for children in the West Kingston community. Under this measure children will not be allowed to be on the streets after 9 o’clock at night. The Marxist would view this as the ruling class way of enforcing their power over the lower class in relation to this planned curfew . Functionalist on the other hand might view this as a natural state as the social order in society is reinforced by law and collective conscience.

As the article mentioned that with the aid of community members who are on board with the idea of this curfew will aid the police in curbing gang violence in the division. To conclude, the ideas brought forward b both functionalist and Marxist aid in giving light to the many concerns that revolve around crime and deviance and to open understanding of this. While both theories had their own interpretation of crime and deviance and proved to be applicable to society, there were limitations certain issues that both theories failed to mention. They are nevertheless both important having a greater appreciation of crime and deviance.

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