Chapter Study Outline

The Study of Deviant Behavior

  • Deviant behavior involves actions that transgress commonly held norms. What is regarded as deviant can shift from time to time and place to place; normal behavior in one cultural setting may be labeled deviant in another.
  • Sanctions, formal or informal, are applied by society to reinforce social norms. Laws are norms defined and enforced by governments; crimes are acts that are not permitted by those laws.
  • Biological and psychological theories have claimed that crime and other forms of deviance are genetically determined, but these have been largely discredited. Sociologists argue that conformity and deviance intertwine in different social contexts. Divergences of wealth and power strongly influence opportunities open to different groups of individuals and determine what kinds of activities are regarded as criminal. Criminal activities are learned in the same way as law-abiding ones and in general serve the same needs and values.

Society and Crime: Sociological Theories

  • Functionalist theories see crime and deviance as produced by structural tensions and a lack of moral regulation within society. Durkheim's term anomie refers to a feeling of anxiety and disorientation that accompanies the breakdown of traditional life in modern society. Robert Merton extended the concept to include the strain felt by individuals whenever norms conflict with social reality. Subcultural explanations draw attention to groups, such as gangs, that reject mainstream values and instead adopt norms celebrating defiance, delinquency, or nonconformity.
  • Interactionist theories focus on deviance as a socially constructed phenomenon. Sutherland linked crime to differential association, the concept that individuals become delinquent through associating with people who are carriers of criminal norms. Labeling theory, a strain of interactionist theory that assumes that labeling someone as deviant will reinforce their deviant behavior, starts from the assumption that no act is intrinsically criminal (or normal). Labeling theorists are interested in how some behaviors become defined as deviant and why certain groups, but not others, are labeled as deviant.
  • Conflict theories analyze crime and deviance in terms of the structure of society, competing interests between social groups, and the preservation of power among elites.
  • Control theories posit that crime occurs when there are inadequate social or physical controls to deter it. The growth of crime is linked to the increasing opportunities and targets for crime in modern societies. The theory of broken windows suggests a direct connection between the appearance of disorder and actual crime.

Crime and Crime Statistics

  • Victimization surveys, like the National Crime Victimization Survey, are one of the main ways that sociologists track crime trends. Crime rates have declined since their peak in the early 1990s, due in part to a strong economy and a declining market for crack cocaine in the mid- and late 1990s.

Victims and Perpetrators of Crime

  • Rates of criminality are much lower for women than for men, probably because of socialization differences between men and women, and the greater involvement of men in nondomestic spheres. Unemployment and the crisis of masculinity have been linked to male crime rates. In some types of crimes, women are overwhelmingly the victims. Rape is almost certainly much more common than the official statistics reveal. In a sense all women are victims of rape, since they have to take special precautions for their protection and live in fear of rape. Homosexual men and women experience high levels of criminal victimization and harassment, yet they are often seen as "deserving" of crime rather than as innocent victims because of their marginalized position in society.
  • Popular fear about crime often focuses on street crimes that are largely the domain of young, working-class males. Official statistics reveal high rates of offense among young people, yet we should be wary of moral panics about youth crime. Much deviant behavior among youth, such as antisocial behavior and nonconformity, is not criminal.
  • White-collar crime and corporate crime occur in the more affluent sectors of society. The consequences of such crime can be farther-reaching than the petty crimes of the poor, but law enforcement pays less attention to them. Organized crime involves institutionalized forms of criminal activity, in which many of the characteristics of orthodox organizations appear but the activities are illegal. Cybercrime describes criminal activity carried out with the help of information technology, such as electronic money laundering and Internet fraud.

Crime-Reduction Strategies

  • Prisons have developed partly to protect society and partly to reform the criminal. But they do not seem to deter crime, and the degree to which they rehabilitate prisoners to face the outside world without relapsing into criminality is dubious. Alternatives to prison include community-based punishment.