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Crime and Deviance. Why do people commit crimes?. 19th century  It was believed that criminals were born , not made criminal tendencies were biologically given , not learned Cesare Lombroso (1870s, Italian criminologist ) Criminal types could be identified by anatomical features

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why do people commit crimes
Why do people commit crimes?
  • 19th century  It was believed that
    • criminalswereborn, not made
    • criminaltendencieswerebiologicallygiven, not learned
  • CesareLombroso (1870s, Italiancriminologist)
    • Criminaltypescould be identifiedbyanatomicalfeatures
    • Studiedappearanceandphysicalcharacteristics of convictedcriminals (shape of skullandforehead, jaw size, armlength)
    • Concludedthatcriminalsdisplayedsigns of atavism(they had traitsheldoverfromearlierstages of humanevolution).

Lombroso’stheorywasdiscreditedthroughlack of evidence, yet biologicalexplanations of crimehavecontinuedoverthelastcentury.

somatotype theory

Somatotypetheorydistinguishedthreemaintypes of humanphysique, eachlinkedto a type of personality, claimingthatone body typewasdirectlyassociatedwithdelinquency.

Mesomorphs (muscularactivetypes), theoryargues, tendto be moreaggressiveandphysical, andthereforemorelikelytobecomedelinquentthanectomorphs (thinphysique) andendomorphs (roundandfleshyphysique)!


There is no evidence that any traits of personality are inherited in this way, and even if they were, their connection to criminality would only be a distant one.

  • If biological approach cannot answer the question “why do people commit crimes?”, what other approaches could work better?
    • Psychology
    • Sociology
psychological approaches to criminality
  • Psychologicalapproachesconcentrate on personalitytypes.
  • Mostresearchcarriedout in prisonsandotherinstitutionssuch as asylums, and in thesesettingspsychiatricideaswereespeciallyinfluential.
  • Emphasisplaced on distinctivetraits of criminals (feeble-mindedness, moral degeneracy).
  • Eysenck (1964) suggestedthatabnormalmentalstateswereinherited, andthatthesecouldeither
    • Predisposeandindividualtocrime, or
    • Createproblemsduringsocializationprocess

Psychopaths are withdrawn, emotionless characters who act impulsively and rarely experience feelings of guilt.

  • Individualswithpsychopathictraits do sometimescommitviolentcrimes, but thereareproblemswiththeconcept of psychopath:
    • It is not clearthatpsychopathictraitsinevitablyleadinevitablytocriminaltraits.
    • Nearlyallstudies of peoplethatpossessthesetraitshavebeen of convictedprisonersandtheirpersonalitiestendto be presentednegatively.

Psychologicaltheories of criminality can explainsomeaspects of crime.

Whilesomecriminalsmaypossesspersonalitycharacteristicsdistinctfromtheremainder of thepopulation, it is improbablethatmajority of criminals do so.

Therearemanydifferenttypes of crime, fromviolentandaggressivemurderstocalculatedandwell-plannedfraud, fromrapetopettytheft ...

It is not possibletosupposethatthosewhocommitcrimessharethesamepsychologicalcharacteristics.


Bothbiologicalandpsychologicalapproachestocriminalitypresumethatdeviance is a sign of something “wrong” withtheindividual, ratherthanwiththesociety.

Crimes is seen as causedbyfactorsoutside an individual’scontrol, embeddedeither in the body ormind.

Bothbiologicalandpsychologicaltheoriesarepositivist in nature (trytoidentifycauses of crime, treatcausesandpreventcriminalbehavior).


Anysatisfactoryaccount of nature of crimemustconsiderthesocialinstitutions of a society.

Thesocialandculturalcontext in whichcrimeanddeviancetakeplace.

Whatexactly do wemeanby “crime” and “deviance?

basic concepts
Basic Concepts

Deviance – non-conformity to a given set of norms accepted by a significant number of people in a society

Crime – non-conformist conduct that breaks a law

Sanction – any reaction from others to individual / group behaviour aimed at ensuring compliance to norms

Criminology tends to focus on crime whilst the sociology of crime and deviance is broader, taking in non-criminal forms of social deviance


Sanctionsmay be positive (offeringrewardsforconformity) ornegative (punishingbehaviorthatdoes not conform).

Sanctions can be leviedinformally (lessorganizedandmorespontaneousractionstonon-conformity) orformallyappliedby a specific body of peopleor an agencytoensurethatnormsarefollowed – courts, prison, laws).


Thesociologicalstudy of deviancedirectsattentiontotheissue of powerandtheinfluence of socialclass.

Deviancefromorconformitytosocialrulesornormscallsforthequestion “whoserulesarethey?”.

Socialnormsarestronglyinfluencedbydivisions of powerandclass.






functionalist theories

Seecrimeanddevianceresultingfromstructuraltensionsand a lack of moral regulationwithinsociety.

Iftheaspirationsheldbyindividualsandgroups do not coincidewithsociety’savailablerewards, thedisperitybetweendesiresandtheirfulfilmentwill be seen in thedeviantmotivations of some of itsmembers.

emile durkheim
Emile Durkheim

Anomie: lack of clear norms to guide behaviour leading to disorientation and anxiety.

In modern societiestraditionalnormsandstandardsbecomeunderminedwithoutbeingreplacedbynewones.

No clearstandardstoguidebehavior in a givenarea of social life.

Characteristic of modern societies with emphasis on individual choice and freedom


AccordingtoDurkheim, crimeanddeviancearesocialfacts; inevitableandnecessaryelements of modern societies.

  • Two positive functions of deviance:
    • Adaptivefunction, it can introducenewideasandchallengesintosocietyand be an innovativeforce (bringaboutsocialndculturalchange).
    • Boundary maintenance, between us (the good people) and them (the deviants); hence provoke a collectiveresponsethatheightensgroupsolidarityandclarifysocialnorms.
  • Durkheim’sideaswereinfluential in shiftingattentionfromindividualexplanationstosocialforcesandrelations.
robert k merton
Robert K. Merton

Anomie: The strain put on individualswhenwidelyacceptedculturalvaluesconflictwiththeirlivedsocialreality.

Foundthesources of crimewithinthesocialstructure of Americansociety. What happens when not everyone can achieve the American Dream?

Thosewho do not succeedfindthemselvescondemnedfortheirinabilitytomakematerialprogress. Thenthere’spressuretotrytogetaheadbyanymeans, legitimateorillegitimate.


Devianceandcrimeareproducts of thestrainbetweenvaluesandtheunequaldistribution of legitimateopportunitieswithinsociety.

  • Five responses:
    • Conformists: accept cultural goals and means
    • Innovators: accept goals, devise new means (crime)
    • Ritualists: reject goals, ritual acceptance of means
    • Retreatists: reject both goals and means
    • Rebels: aim to replace cultural goals and means
critical points

Mertonfailedtoappreciatethesignificance of subcultures in sustainingdeviantbehavior.

Reliance on officialstatistics is problematic.

Overestimatestheamount of lowerworkingclasscriminality, implyingthateveryone in thisclassshouldexperiencethestraintowardscrime.

contemporary significance

Whensociety as a wholebecomesmoreaffluent, why do crimeratescontinuetorise?

Inemphasizingthesocialstrainbetweenrisingaspirationsandpersistentstructuralequations, Mertonpointstothe sense of relativedeprivationamongworking-class as a motivatorfordevaintbehavior.

Demonstratesthatindividualchoicesandmotivationsaremadewithinthewidersocialcontext, whichshapesthosedecisionsaccordingtoplace of socialgroupsanddifferentialopportunitiesavailabletothem.

subcultural accounts
Subcultural Accounts

FollowingMerton, Cohensawadaptiveresponsesresultingfromcontradictionswithinsociety as occuringcollectivelythroughtheformation of subcultures.

US studies of 1950s and 1960s

Young men from poor neighbourhoods: no opportunities to achieve, so replace mainstream values with the values of gang loyalty, aggression, toughness, delinquency.

May be particularly acute where young men initially accept mainstream values but are constantly frustrated in their attempts to realise them.

redefining deviance

Durkheimthoughtthatsocietyneedsdeviancebecausethroughdefiningdeviancewebecomeaware of what is not deviantandlearnthestandardsweshare as members of society.

It is not necessarytoeliminate devince completely, thesocietyneedsneedstokeep it withinacceptablelimits.

Erikson (1966) “Definingdeviancedown”

Whathappenswhentheamount of deviantbehaviorgetstoohigh?


Thesocietyredefinesdevianceso as toexemptmuchconductpreviouslystigmatizedandraisingthe “normal” levelsothatbehaviorseen as abnormalbyearlierstandards is no longerconsideredto be so.

    • Deinstitutionalization of mentalhealthpatients
  • Functionalisttheoriesemphasizeconnectionsbetweenconformityand devince in differentsocialcontexts.
  • Criticizedforpresumingthat
    • middle-classvalueshavebeenacceptedthroughoutthesociety.
    • A mismatch of aspirationsandopportunities is confinedtothelessprivileged.
      • White-collarcrime
interactionist theory

Deviance as a sociallyconstructedphenomenon.

Rejectthe idea thattherearetypes of conductthatareinherentlydeviant.

How do behaviorscometo be defined as deviant?

Whycertaingroupsand not othersarelabelled as deviant?

labelling theory
Labelling Theory
  • Deviance not as a set of characteristics of individualsorgroups but as a process of interactionbetweendeviantsandnon-deviants.
  • Deviance isn’t a property of the individual or group but the relationship between ‘deviants’ and those who define them thus.
  • Whysomepeoplecometo be taggedwith a deviantlabel?
  • In what circumstances might the following acts be seen as deviant or as normal?
    • Sitting at a bus shelter
    • Dancing in the street
    • Smoking marijuana
    • Appearing naked in public

Deviant acts produce deviant individuals only through the process of labelling.

  • Peoplewhorepresenttheforces of lawandorder, orareabletoimposedefinitions of conventionalmorality on others do most of thelabelling.
  • Thelabelsthatcreatecategories of devianceexpressthepowerstructure of society.
      • Therules in terms of whichdeviance is definedareframedbythewealthyforthepoor, by men forwomen, byolderpeopleforyoungerpeople, andbyethnicmajoritiesforminoritygroups.

Once a child is labelled a delinquent, s/he is stigmatizedandlikelyto be considereduntrustworthy.

  • HowardBecker: Deviantbehavior is behaviorthatpeoplesolabel.
    • Critical of criminologicalapproachesthatsaw a cleardistinctionbetweenthe “normal” andthe “deviant”.
  • Deviance is not aboutbehavior but label.

Lemert (1972). Labellingdoes not onlyaffecthowotherssee an individual, but alsoinfluencestheindividuals sense of self-identity.

Deviance is quitecommonplaceandpeopleusuallygetawaywith it (trafficviolations vs small-scaletheftfromworkplace).

Primarydeviance (initialact of transgression)

Secondarydeviance (individualsacceptthelabelandseethemselves as deviant)


TheSaintsandtheRoughnecks (Chambliss, 1973)

Theconnectionsbetweenmacrosociologicalfactorslikesocialclassandmicrosociologicalphenomenasuch as howpeoplebecomelabelled as deviant.

Paradox of socialcontrol (learningto be deviant is accentuatedbytheveryorganizationsthatare set uptocorrectdeviantbehavior)

Deviancy amplification: acceptance of a label as ‘deviant’ can create further deviant behaviour

  • Beginwiththeassumptionthat no act is intrinsicallydeviantorcriminal.
  • Criticsarguedthatcertainactsareuniversallyandconsistentlyprohibitedacrossallsocieties, such as murder, rapeandrobbery.
    • Is killingalwaysregarded as murder?
    • Maritalrape?
  • Labellingchangesover time.

Focusingheavily on secondarydeviance, labellingtheoristsneglecttheprocessesthatleadpeopletocommitacts of primarydeviance.

    • Labelling of certainactivities as deviant is not completelyarbitrary
      • Differences in socialization, attitudesandopportunitiesinfluencehow far peoplearelikelytoengage in behaviorlabelled as deviant.
  • It is not clearwhetherlabellingactuallydoeshavetheeffect of increasingdeviantconduct.
    • Delinquentbehaviorincreasesafterconviction, but is it result of labelling? Otherfactors, such as increasedinteractionwithotherdelinquentsorlearningaboutnewcriminalopportunitiesmayalso be involved.
conflict theories

Based on elements of Marxistthought, New Criminologyarguesthatdeviance is deliberatelychosenandoftenpolitical in nature.

Rejectthe idea thatdeviance is determinedbyfactorssuch as biology, personality, anomie, socialdisorganizationorlabelling.

Rather, peopleactivelychoosetoengage in deviantbehavior in responsetotheinequalities of thecapitalistsystem.

Members of counterculturalgroups (BlackPower, gayliberation) wereengaging in politicalactswhichchallengedthesocialorder.

the new criminology
The New Criminology

New Criminologyframestheanalysis in terms of thestructure of thesocietyandtheprotection of thepower of therulingclass.

Marxist inspired analysis:

  • Laws and values are created by and in the interests of the ruling class
  • Working-class deviance is a form of resistance against the power of the ruling class
  • The working class is more closely policed than the middle classes
  • Fear of crime and urban unrest distract the public’s attention from the real problems of capitalism
  • White-collar and corporate crime often go undetected and unpunished

StuartHall (1978) PolicingtheCrisis

Mugging as a moral panicencouragedbythestateandthemedia as a way of deflectingattentionawayfromrisingunemployment, decliningwagesandotherdeepstructuralflaws in society.

Muggersoverwhelminglyportrayed as black.

Crimeanddeviancepatterned in such a waythatsomesocialgroups, such as youngblackandsouthAsiancommunities, weremorelikelyto be victims of crimeorseen as a social problem thanothers.


Rejectthe idea thatlawsare “neutral”, to be appliedevenlyacrosspopulation. Lawsaretoolsusedbythepowerfultomaintaintheirownprivilegedpositions.

As inequalitiesincreasebetweentherulingclassandtheworkingclass, lawsbecomemoreimportantinstrumentswhichthepowerfulusetomaintainorder.

Criminaljusticesystem – moreoppressivetowardsworking-classoffenders (cocaineandcrackcocaine).

Taxlegislationdisproportionatelyfavorsthewealthy. Lawenforcementfocuses on lesspowerfulsegments of thesociety (prostitutes, drug-users, pettythieves) ratherthanpursuingwhite-collarcriminalswhicharemoreharmfultothesociety.


New criminologywidenedthedebateaboutcrimeanddeviancetoincludeincludeissuessuch as

    • Levels of harm
    • Socialjustice
    • Power
    • Politics
  • Crimeoccurs at alllevels of societyandshould be understood in thecontext of inequalitiesandcompetinginterests.
new left left realism
New Left / Left Realism

1980s, a newstrand of criminologyappearedknown as “New Left” or “LeftRealism” based on theideas of newcriminology.

Distanceditselffrom “leftidealism”, whichtheysaw as romanticizingdevianceanddownplayingthereal problem of crime, particularlyamongtheworking-class.

LeftRealismmovedawayfromthe idea thatmassmediacreatedunneccsarypublicdisquietbyexaggeratingthefigures, orthatmostcrimewas a disguised form of protest againstinequality.

Instead, it emphasizesthatcrimeratesare on therise, andthepublic is rightto be worried.


LeftRealists, hence, arguedthatcriminologyneedstoengagemorewiththerealissues of crimecontrolandsocialpolicy, ratherthandebatethemabstractly.

Accepts a class-based analysis of society and power.

Drawsattentiontothevictims of crime.

Victim surveys give a fuller picture of crime than official statistics. Theyrevealthatcrime is a serious problem, particularly in impoverishedinner-cityareas.

Poorest and most disadvantaged at greater risk of crime than other social groups. Crimeandvictimizationconcentrated in marginalizedneighborhoods.


Criminal subcultures develop where groups are marginalized or socially excluded.

      • Not onlyduetopoverty, but duetopoliticalmarginalizationandrelativedeprivation (people’sexperience of beingdeprived of thingsthattheyandeveryone else is entitledto).
      • RememberSocialExclusionandthecase of Tarlabaşı!! Processesthatoperatetodenysomesocialgroupsfullcitizenshipwithinsociety.
  • Criminalizedyouthgroupsoperate at themargins of respectablesocietyandpitthemselvesagainst it.
      • Risingcrimeratesamongblackyouth can be attributedtothefailure of racialintegrationpolicies.
  • Leftrealismadvancesrealisticproposalsforchanges in policingproceduresand arguesfor community involvement in policing to build trust.

Lawenforcementneedstobecomemoreresponsivetocommunities, ratherthanrelying on militarypolicingtechniques.

      • Locallyelectedpoliceauthoritiesthatareaccountabletocitizens.
      • Citizensmoreinvolved in settingpolicingprioritiesfortheirarea.
  • LeftRealism, a morepragmaticandpolicy-orientedapproachthanitspredecessors.

Critics of LeftRealismaccepttheimportance of thierstress on victimization, but criticizetheirfocus on individualvictimswithinnarrowconfines of thepoliticalandmedia-drivendiscussion of thecrime problem.

Focus on mostvisibleforms of criminality (streetcrimes) andneglectoffensescarriedoutbythestateorlargecorporations.

Criticizedto be toomuchgrounded in mainstreamcriminologywith a focus on changingpoliciesandlosingtheradicaledge of newcriminology.

control theories

Controltheoriespositthatcrimeoccurs as a result of imbalancebetweenimpulsestowardcriminalactivityandthesocialorphysicalcontrolsthatdeter it.

Lessinterested in individualmotivationsforcarryingoutcrimesbased on theassumptionthatgiventheopportunity, everyrationallyactingpersonwouldengage in deviantacts.

Crimesareresult of situationaldecisions (a personseeing an opportunityandtakingadvantage of it).


Hirschi (1969) arguedthathumansarefundamentallyselfishbeingswhomakecalculateddecisionsaboutwhetheror not tocommitcrimebyweighingthepotentialbenefitsagainstrisks.

  • Fourtypes of socialbondslinkingindividualstosocietyandlaw-abidingbehavior
      • Attachment
      • Commitment
      • Involvement
      • Belief
  • Whenbondswithsocietyareweak, delinquencyanddeviancemayresult.
  • Lowlevels of self-controlareresult of inadequatesocialization (at homeor in school).
right realism
Right Realism
  • Socialcontext: electionsuccesses of Thatcher and Reagan, vigorouslaw-and-orderapproachestocrime in bothcountries (UK and US).
  • Deviance seen as a property of an individual (pathology)who acts selfishly, immorally and with poor self-control.
  • Escalation of crimedueto moral degeneracy,
      • Decline of individualresponsibility (dependence on welfare)
      • Liberal education
      • Collapse of thenuclearfamilyandcommunities
      • Erosion of traditionalvalues

Dismissive of othertheoreticalapproaches, particularlythosethat link crimetopovertyandclass-basedinequalities.

  • Favours:
    • Strong sentencing policies with use of prison as punishment and deterrence (growth of prisonpopulation)
    • Zero-tolerance and target-hardening policing strategies, situational crime prevention
      • Suchtechniques do not engagewithunderlyingcauses of crime (poverty, socialinequalities, unN) andprotectonlycertainsegments of thepopulationanddisplacedelinquencyintootherareas.

Use of exclusion orders

      • Inresponsetofeeling of insecurityamongcertainsegments of population, publicspacesaretransformedinto “securitybubbles”.
      • Youngpeopleexcludeddisproportionatelybecausetheyareperceived as greaterthreattosecurity.
  • Expansion of policeforces in responsetoincreasingcrime
      • Doeshavingmorepolicetranslateintolowercrimerates?
      • What is the role of thepolice in controllingcrime?
broken windows
  • Wilson andKelling (1982) “Broken Windows”
  • Anysign of socialdisorder in a communitywillencouragemoreseriouscrimestoflourish.
      • Oneunrepairedwindow is a signthat no onecares
      • Minoracts of deviance can leadto a spiral of crimeandsocialdecay.
  • Problem: Howwillthepoliceidentifywhatconstitutessocialdisorder?
      • Wihout a systematicdefinition, policemightseeanything as a sign of disorderandanyone as a potentialthreat.
        • Increasingcomplaints of policeabuseandharrasment, particularlybyyoung, urban, black men (potentialcriminal)

George Zimmerman (neighborhoodwatch, white) shotdeadTrayvon Martin (16 year-old, blackmale)

sociological theories of crime
Sociologicaltheories of crime

Emphasizecontinuitiesbetweencriminaland ‘normal’ behavior.

Thecontexts in whichcertainactsareseen as criminalandpunishablebylawvarywidelyandarelinkedtoissues of powerandinequalitywithinsociety.

Socialcontext is important in criminalactivities. Sociallearningandsocialsurroundingsareinfluential in whethersomeoneengages in criminalact.


Theway in whichcrime is understtoddirectlyaffectsthepoliciesdevelopedtocombat it.

      • Ifcrime is outcome of deprivationorsocialdisorganization, policiesmight be aimed at reducingpovertyandstrengtheningsocialservices.
      • Ifseen as opportunisticandfreelychosenbyindividuals, thencounteringattemptsrely on changingenvironments.