Critically discuss three sociological approaches to explaining crime? One of the most predominant areas of study in sociology is in the explanation of crime and deviance in society. Criminal acts are those which violate established formal laws, whereas deviance refers to the breaking of social norms. Crime and deviance are a social construct as they are decided by the people in a society and can vary greatly depending on the society in question, as well as the time period being studied.
In the past research focussed on pursuing biological explanations for people committing criminal or deviant acts. The prevalence of convicted male criminals and the discovery of the XYY chromosome pattern in male prison inmates lead some scientists to propose the ‘super male’ condition, with the extra Y chromosome causing increased aggression and tendency towards criminal behaviour. However this study failed to take into account that the XYY chromosome pattern existed in males in general society (affecting 1 in 1000 male births) who had never committed criminal acts.
Sociologists now attempt to explain deviance in terms of social and cultural influences. There are three main sociological approaches to explaining crime and deviance; functionalist theory, action theory and conflict theory. The functionalist approach to deviance regards it as a natural and necessary function in society, serving to reaffirm our cultural values and even have a role in reforming those values.
The French sociologist David Emile Durkheim was one of the principle proponents of structural functionalism and viewed deviance and crime as a beneficial, unifying force in society, in the context of how social members react to deviance. When violation of the traditional cultural and legal laws takes place, members of a society are able to recognise and reaffirm with each other the moral boundaries of their society. By coming together in opposition to the violation, members of a society demonstrate their mutual adherence to common social norms.
For example, two people discussing a murder and commenting on how unacceptable it is, are actually declaring their mutual recognition of social boundaries and upholding what their society sees as morally right and wrong. Durkheim also proposed that social views to activities considered deviant could change and that those activities could eventually become part of the socially accepted norm, changing society. For example, attitudes towards homosexuality have changed significantly in the last 50 years, with decriminalisation leading to tolerance and eventual acceptance by general society.
This social change occurs when a segment of society begins to support acts considered deviant, causing society as a whole to reconsider its collective position and advance its cultural boundaries, conceivably for the benefit of all. Strain theory, proposed by Robert Merton and advanced by Albert Cohen, Richard Cloward, Lloyd Ohlin and Robert Agnew, argues that it is the structure of society that causes crime due to the pressure put on society’s members to achieve common social goals.
For example, the capitalist ‘American Dream’ of financial success has lead some, who are unable to achieve this goal through conventional means (often the poor and powerless), to turn to crime as a way of gaining financial prosperity. This can lead to the formation of criminal subcultures where different values become important such as fearlessness and resentment towards authority. This allows those who are unable to achieve success conventionally to gain status and respect within their own subculture.
The Mafia are a prime example of a criminal subculture that has developed due to the pressure to achieve common social, and in Western society financial, goals. The main criticism of functionalist approaches to crime and deviance is the assumption that society shares common values and that those values are determined by a collective social conscience. It fails to recognise the influence of those in power in a society to regulate what constitutes deviance and what our common values are, leading to the poor and powerless most often being considered the main perpetrators of crime.
Functionalism views society as functioning like an organic, interdependent body, with each part functioning in unison for the benefit of the whole. This ‘big picture’ perspective fails to take into account individual human interactions and is considered the most conservative sociological approach to crime and deviance, possibly out of touch with modern sociology. The action theory approach (also known as the symbolic interactionist perspective) to crime and deviance is based in the interactions of people within a society rather than with the ‘big picture’ functionalist point of view.
Action theory places emphasis on how others react to deviant behaviour, as opposed to the behaviour itself. One of the most significant influences in this area of study is Howard Becker’s labeling theory (also referred to as social reaction theory). Becker proposes that deviance is not intrinsic to a particular activity, but that it is the ‘label’ that those within general society give to those acting out with social normality, that in fact is the cause of crime and social deviance.
For example, an individual convicted of a crime and sent to prison may find that they are labelled an ‘ex-con’ or ‘jailbird’ upon their release. This label could lead to difficulty finding employment and may also result in the individual receiving increased scrutiny from the police. With general society (‘non-jailbirds’) rejecting the individual, they may only find social acceptance with other ‘jailbirds’, potentially leading to further criminal acts being committed in order to conform with the ‘jailbird’ subculture they have found themselves in.
This development of a deviant career is not due to the individual being innately criminal but a direct result of the labelling process itself, essentially stereotyping the individual and setting up a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. This theory does not explore who is society has the power to determine which labels are positive and negative. Control theory is another aspect of the action theory approach to deviance and criminality which asserts that those who have a stake in society are less likely to engage in deviant or criminal acts.
Those people who are excluded from society have less to lose and are more likely to commit crimes. Again, this does not address who in society has the power to decide what is considered deviant and what is not. The third and final main sociological approach to deviance and crime is conflict theory. This theory shares the functionalist view of society as an interdependent ‘organism’ with integrated parts, but contends that the conflict between social classes cause society to function for the benefit of some at the expense of the rest.
In the context of crime and deviance, inequality is considered to be the primary cause, with the wealthy having an advantage in defending themselves from criminal prosecution and cultural exclusion. An assertion is made that groups of people in a society compete for resources and that the class in power oppresses those who are in the ‘underclass’. Crime and deviance result from the underclass challenging the interests of those in power, with the powerful defining what constitutes a crime or social taboo. For example, the legal system