Sociologists believe that studying theories of deviance are of “tremendous importance to anyone concerned with gaining a valid understanding of deviance in our society” (JD Douglas, 1970). It is important to note that deviance is a general concept that can cover a range of factors, including sexual behaviour and mental illness, but will relate directly to crime in this essay, which will draw upon academic literature to look at some of the key sociological theories for crime and deviance, as well as examples where these theories could be and have been implemented, plus considering problems with the methodology used to to develop theories.I will show that numerous theories exist due to there being numerous interpretations of the term, and because of the diverse range of factors, from social group and class to personal characteristics, that influence criminal tendencies. So what is deviance? All social groups make rules and attempt to enforce them, specifying some actions as right, others as wrong. Someone is seen as an ‘outsider’ if they break these rules.
This ‘outsider’ can be classified as a deviant, not complying with the social and accepted norm. This individual is seen as “a special kind of person”, one that cannot be trusted to live by the given rules.But the person may not agree that their deviant behaviour is due to lack of trust – instead they may not accept the rule (with a different opion from society on what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’), or may not see those setting the rules as having authoritative status – thus the outsider may feel that his judges are in fact the outsiders. It is important to note that the degree to which one is seen as a deviant influences their treatment – we may tolerate someone occasionally drunk, but think that a thief is “less like us” and thus punish them, whereas a paedophile or rapist is seen as a “true outsider”, not wanted in the society.Statistically, deviance is anything that varies too widely from the average. However, this has the problem of giving a “mixed bag” since people who have done nothing wrong such as redheads are seen as deviants. In its medical analogy, deviance is pathological and reveals the presence of a “disease”, where the human organism is not fully “healthy” and thus not working efficiently (Becker, 1973).
However, people cannot agree on what constitutes ‘healthy’ behaviour, with no single definition being able to satisfy even a single group.Others think that deviance is a product of mental disease – in the same way that one cannot help being diabetic, you cannot help being homosexual or addicted to drugs. However, surely the stated factors, particularly the latter one, must be influenced to some extent by society, since an individual is not born as a drug addict. Sociologists use the deviance model based on health – where any processes reducing the chance of survival of society are labelled as deviant, discriminating between functional factors that promote the stability of society in contrast to the dysfunctional disruptors.Another view is that deviance is the failure to obey rules, and if these are well enforced, it is easy to see if someone has violated them and is therefore deviant.
However, since there are many groups in society, an individual could break the rules of one group by abiding by another’s – does that make them deviant? Already, it can be understood why there are so many theories of deviance – there are so many different interpretations of the term depending on the academic field or viewpoint it is looked at from. Within sociology, ideas concerning deviance vary widely.However, as seen many have criticisms or imperfections – perhaps therefore for deviance to further one’s understanding of crime, the interrelationships between various factors must be considered rather than analysing theories independently. Merton (1938) stated that in sociological theory, there is the tendency to claim that the cause of malfunctioning within a social structure is due to man’s “imperious biological drives” not being restrained by social boundaries.
Deviant impulses that break through social control must be biologically derived, with non-conformity seen as being “rooted in human nature”.However, this does not provide any basis for determining non-biological conditions that induce deviance from the social norm. In 1957, Merton developed the concept of the ‘American Dream’, where the society had culturally defined goals, achievable due to the well established institution. As Laurie Taylor (1971) puts it, individuals are in a rigged fruit machine (society), with the more deprived having the option to cheat to increase their chance of success (innovation), play on for the sake of it (ritualism), give up (retreatism) or propose a new game (rebellion).
These reasons can help with our understanding of crime, as one may recognise that whilst a group of criminals may all perform the same act (such as burglary), their motives could be various – the most obvious in our society would be ‘innovation’ in the form of financial success, though this could be linked with ritualism, since being in a downward spiral involving drugs means the need for easy money.Cloward and Ohin are seen as significant in furthering Merton’s work on subcultural theories, being seen as making important advances in Mertonian theory, yet there are several aspects where their theories differ. They see deviance more as a collective endeavour than the adaptation of an individual, and also suggest that deviants may blame the system rather than themselves for their actions.Interestingly this all seems to contradict Downes’ (1995) view that deviants are segregated and “rarely engage in collective efforts” to interpret their behaviour, doing rather than thinking about their actions. Albert Kohen (1965) produces an important alternative theory, criticising Merton’s overemphasis on the individual’s adaptations, and his failure to bring this strand together with reference group theory, when an individual’s goal attainment is likely to be relative to the attainment of others.So here numerous theories can be seen because academics do not seem to agree with even the fundamental basics of deviance, again because the term has various interpretations, and because sociologists appear to have different viewpoints over what is going on in a criminal’s mind – whilst there are some problems with the collection of data, did Merton have enough evidence about crime to make his assertions? It appears that his argument was more qualitative and not backed up by sufficient statistical (or otherwise) evidence.Sociologists of deviance do recognise the problems of using official information, thus using it cautiously and also relying on various other methodology such as participant observation (even this can be problematic, as seen in Barry’s statement to Foster later on). In today’s society, many crimes go unreported sue to fear or the belief that the police will not be interested.
Insurance figures over-represent the middle-class (who may exaggerate claims), under-representing the working class, many of whom lack any insurance (and typically are more susceptible to crime).Caryl Chessman is an example of a former criminal who published a book, explaining his deviant behaviour. However, Douglas warns that Chessman did so for money rather than to aid the reader’s understanding of crime. So when looking at theories of crime and deviance, one must recognise that evidence may not be completely honest. There has been much argument about the “criminal gene” – that the deviant is significantly different to a more conformist individual.Social pathology theories suggest that criminals have distinctive traits – biogenic (genetic oddness), psychogenic (unfavourable family circumstances) and sociogenic (the individual is socialised by parents or their neighbourhood, for example). Lombroso saw it as a mental deficiency, studying 3000 soliders and concluding that those with vitamin deficiency upon the pathology of the brain were the most troublesome, with obscene tattoos for example, helping to develop his theory of avatism. In the 19th Century Lombroso asserted that noses were flat for thieves and beak-like in murderers.
The theory has now been dismissed by many key academics (eg Manning, 1975) – the images of ‘murderers’ below show that surely such an argument can no longer be seen as valid due to so many anomalies, yet his theory that deviance is the “resultant impact of environment on low grade human beings” still exists. So one reason for there being numerous theories is that whilst there have been great changes through the decades and centuries reflecting changing social attitudes, previous theories which may now have been dismissed still remain in literature and are still referred to.Another reason for numerous theories of crime and deviance is because such acts are socially defined and judged differently around the world, both on a macro and micro scale – whilst theories of deviance have implications for politics and policy making, the relationship between the theory and its implementation in the real world is widely variable, since the influence of ideas related to deviance changes “from state to state, administration to administration, government department to government department… ” as Manning (1975) puts it.
What a society sees as normal alters what they see to be deviant behaviour. Cressey, DR (1951) also emphasised how it must be noted that different groups judge different things as deviant – if scientists ignore the variable character in the judgement process, they limit the development and understanding of theories (however, in practice such a factor would be an important aspect of studies). The variation in response to deviance also changes over time, with ‘deviant’ acts such as homosexuality having a much more lenient response in general than previously.