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Sociology: The Core, 6/e
Michael Hughes, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Carolyn J. Kroehler
James W. Vander Zanden, The Ohio State University (Emeritus)

Deviance and Crime

Chapter Summary

The Nature of Deviance

In all societies the behavior of some people at times goes beyond that permitted by the norms. Social life is characterized not only by conformity but by deviance, behavior that a considerable number of people view as reprehensible and beyond the limits of tolerance.

  • Social Properties of Deviance.
    Deviance is not a property inherent in certain forms of behavior; it is a property conferred upon particular behaviors by social definitions. Definitions as to which acts are deviant vary greatly from time to time, place to place, and group to group. We typically find that norms are not so much a point or a line but a zone. Deviant acts also can be redefined, as has happened in recent years in the United States. Most societies can absorb a good deal of deviance without serious consequences, but persistent and widespread deviance can be dysfunctional. But deviance may also be functional by promoting social solidarity, clarifying norms, strengthening group allegiances, and providing a catalyst for change.

  • Social Control and Deviance.
    Societies seek to ensure that their members conform with basic norms by means of social control. Three main types of social control processes operate within social life: (1) those that lead us to internalize our society's normative expectations (internalization), (2) those that structure our world of social experience, and (3) those that employ various formal and informal social sanctions.

Theories of Deviance

Other disciplines are concerned with deviance, particularly biology and psychology. Sociologists focus on five main theories.

  • Anomie Theory.  Émile Durkheim contributed to our understanding of deviance with his idea of anomie. Robert K. Merton built on Durkheim's ideas of anomie and social cohesion. According to his theory of structural strain, deviance derives from societal stresses.

  • Cultural Transmission Theory.  
    A number of sociologists have emphasized the similarities between the way deviant behavior is acquired and the way in which other behavior is acquired-the cultural transmission theory. Edwin H. Sutherland elaborated on this notion in his theory of differential association. He said that individuals become deviant to the extent to which they participate in settings where deviant ideas, motivations, and techniques are viewed favorably.

  • Conflict Theory.  Conflict theorists ask, "Which group will be able to translate its values into the rules of a society and make these rules stick?" and "Who reaps the lion's share of benefits from particular social arrangements?" Marxist sociologists see crime as a product of capitalist laws.

  • Labeling Theory.  Labeling theorists study the processes whereby some individuals come to be tagged as deviants, begin to think of themselves as deviants, and enter deviant careers. Labeling theorists differentiate between primary deviance and secondary deviance.

  • Control Theory.  Control theory attempts to explain not why people deviate but why people do not deviate. Travis Hirschi argued that young people are more likely to conform if their bond to society is strong. This bond has four parts: attachment, involvement, commitment, and belief.

Crime and the Criminal Justice System

Crime is an act of deviance that is prohibited by law. The distinguishing property of crime is that people who violate the law are liable to be arrested, tried, pronounced guilty, and deprived of their lives, liberty, or property. It is the state that defines crime by the laws it promulgates, administers, and enforces.

  • Forms of Crime.  An infinite variety of acts can be crimes. Federal agencies keep records on index crimes—violent crimes against people and crimes against property. Juvenile crime is crime committed by youth under the age of 18. Organized crime is carried out by large-scale bureaucratic organizations that provide illegal goods and services in public demand. White-collar crime is crime committed by relatively affluent persons, often in the course of business activities. Crime can be committed by corporations and by governments. In victimless crime no one involved is considered a victim.

  • Measuring Crime.  Statistics on crime are among the most unsatisfactory of all social data. A large proportion of the crimes that are committed go undetected; others are detected but not reported; and still others are reported but not officially recorded.

  • Drugs and Crime.  Drugs and crime are related both directly—selling, using, and possessing illegal drugs all are crimes—and indirectly—drug involvement often leads to other sorts of crimes. Drug problems can be dealt with by recognizing that addiction is a brain disease. Other approaches include continued prohibition, depenalization, or legalization.

  • Women and Crime.  A growing percentage of youth and adults in the criminal population is female. One-quarter of the youth arrested in the United States are girls; overall, one in five arrests are female. Girls are more likely than boys to be arrested for such offenses as running away from home.

  • The Criminal Justice System.  The criminal justice system is made up of the reactive agencies of the state that include the police, the courts, and prisons. Of every 100 felonies committed within the United States, only 36 are reported to the police. Of that 36, only 7 or 8 are cleared by arrest. Of those 7 who are arrested, only 5 are prosecuted and convicted. Only 1 is sent to prison.

  • The Purposes of Imprisonment.  
    There have been four traditional purposes of imprisonment: punishment, rehabilitation, deterrence, and selective confinement.