Sociological Theories of Crime

Why is it important to study crime from a sociological angle? One (short) answer would be that it helps us to understand the relationship between society, crime and the individual who committed the crime. 

Sociological Theories of Crime Sociological Theories of Crime

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Table of contents

    Other reasons may be to prevent similar criminal activity from happening again; whatever the reason, sociological theories of crime aim to uncover the intricacies of crime in society.

    • In this explanation, we will study the various sociological theories of crime.
    • We will first look at the foundations of sociological theories of crime.
    • Then, we'll examine a definition and explain how sociological theories of crime address the causation and prevention of crimes.
    • We will dive into examples of sociological theories of crime and their different perspectives.
    • Finally, we'll evaluate the sociological theories of crime.

    What are the foundations of sociological theories of crime?

    On a fundamental level, what are the foundations of sociological theories of crime?

    There are numerous hypotheses as to why people commit crimes. Some may think that committing a crime is rational, with the offender considering the benefits and drawbacks of doing so before the criminal activity. Others may hold the opinion that criminals are inherently different from law-abiding people in terms of biology or psychology.

    However, the one thing these two theories have in common is that they both emphasize the role of the criminal. In other words, they view crime as an individual issue rather than one that affects the entire community.

    Sociology, on the other hand, argues that society shapes the circumstances in which criminal activity occurs. Put differently, society influences people to commit crimes. Let's explore what sociological theories of crime are, and what they address.

    Sociological theories of crime: meaning, causation and prevention

    Before considering causation and prevention discussed by sociological theories of crime, the definition of such theories is as follows:

    Sociological theories of crime try to interpret crime through societal conditions and explain deviant or criminal behaviour through the circumstances in which they occur.

    As we have mentioned above, sociologists suggest that societal conditions trigger individuals to commit crime, thus proposing that criminal behaviour is not natural. It is not innate to humans but rather circumstantial.

    Theories of crime in sociology attempt to explain both the causation of crime and how it can/should be prevented.

    We will look at examples of different sociological theories of crime below.

    The following section provides an overview of each theory. For more detail, including theory evaluations, visit our separate articles dedicated to each sociological theory of crime!

    Sociological Theories of Crime, Close up image of red and white police tape sealing off a crime scene, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Sociology believes that crime is a product of society.

    Examples of sociological theories of crime

    There are a number of sociological theories that address crime. Let's explore some examples in brief.

    Functionalist theories on crime

    Functionalists believe that society needs a certain level of crime, as this is inevitable, and it also performs significant positive functions. Therefore, all crime should not/cannot be prevented. Two influential functionalist sociologists are Émile Durkheim (1964) and Robert Merton (1949).

    Durkheim’s perspective on crime

    Durkheim stresses that not all members of society can commit to shared norms, values and beliefs and that exposure to different experiences or circumstances is what makes them different to one another. As a result, some end up breaking the law.

    The three functions of crime according to Durkheim are:

    • Regulation: when a person is apprehended for a crime, everyone else in society becomes aware of which actions are socially acceptable and unacceptable. Mass media, e.g. newspapers, the courts and other institutions in contemporary society broadcast the boundaries of admissible behaviour.

    • Integration: when the whole community unites against a crime, protests and expresses their outrage together, a sense of belonging to a particular community is strengthened.

    • Change: the law clearly states what is or isn’t permissible in society, but it isn't fixed. People notice when the laws don’t line up with the shared values and beliefs of the majority. Offenders constantly test the boundaries of permitted action, and if their "crimes" reflect the wishes or changing attitudes of the population, this can lead to legal reform. Eventually, this can spur social change.

    Merton’s strain theory of crime

    Strain theory suggests that crime occurs when there are insufficient legitimate means or opportunities available to achieve the goals set by society e.g. financial success. This can happen to people from low-income backgrounds, those who were not well-educated, those who lacked social networks and career opportunities, and so on.

    People become frustrated that they cannot succeed in life conventionally, such as by obtaining a good job or working hard. Consequently, a ‘strain’ or tension develops between the goals and the means of achieving them, producing ‘anomie’ - a social condition characterised by the dismantling or destruction of the moral principles, guidelines, or standards that people generally aspire to. Without these moral standards, people turn to crime to achieve their goals.

    Social control theory of crime

    Social control theory sees crime as an outcome of social institutions, such as family or the local community, losing control over individuals. This would also include a breakdown of trust in the government and the police.

    Hirschi (1969) suggests that criminal activity occurs when the strength of attachment between the individual and society - social bonds - weaken. There are essentially four types of social bonds:

    1. Attachment

    2. Commitment

    3. Involvement

    4. Belief

    According to social control theory, the ‘typical delinquent’ can usually be assumed to be a young, single and unemployed individual instead of a married and employed individual. This is because the theory suggests that those who have well-established bonds of attachment and are employed and involved members of social institutions are unlikely to go astray.

    Subcultural theory of crime

    This perspective explains crime and deviance as an aspect of certain subcultures and mainly focuses on crimes specific to the working class. It argues that deviance is the outcome of individuals who experience status frustration.

    Status frustration, a concept created by A. Cohen (1955), describes the feelings of individuals who desire social status but who lack the opportunities or means to succeed, which causes a feeling of inadequacy and personal failure.

    As a result, these people, who feel excluded from mainstream culture, end up joining subcultures, which have their own rules and ways of attaining high status (often related to deviant acts). They are subsequently rewarded for being deviant and are given the recognition they never received from wider society.

    Subcultural theorists, in contrast to social control theorists, highlight the peer group that encourages individuals to commit crimes. The theory also explains non-utilitarian crimes such as vandalism as a response to marginalisation.

    Theories of crime: sociological positivism

    The above theories are also collectively known as the sociological positivist view on crime. This refers to a school of criminological thought that suggests that societal factors such as poverty, lack of education, and the negative influence of subculture influence the individual to commit criminal acts.

    Sociological positivism is not to be confused with positivist criminology, which argues that criminals are not shaped by nurture or society but are born that way.

    Marxist theories on crime

    Marxists generally agree on the fact that most crime can be prevented by dismantling capitalist structures but disagree on the origins of crime. Let's look at the perspectives of traditional Marxists and neo-Marxists.

    Traditional Marxism on crime

    Marxists believe that capitalism is ‘criminogenic’, i.e. that it creates crime, and that although all social classes break the law, the criminal activities of the elite are what cause the most harm.

    They emphasise the class structure in explaining crime – the ruling class are the lawmakers and benefit from the laws, as they are less likely to get caught or punished for the crimes they commit. Conversely, the working classes commit crimes due to the ‘dog-eat-dog’ values of the capitalist structure, such as greed, selfishness and materialism. They are punished and portrayed as criminals.

    Traditional Marxists also argue that law enforcement works in favour of the ruling class in society by performing ideological functions. It reflects bourgeois ideology, such as protecting wealth and property over workers' rights. Snider (1993) argues that agencies of the criminal justice system, such as the police and court systems, control the masses by keeping them in a state of false consciousness - establishing ineffectual labour laws to obscure the reality of exploitation and preventing revolt.

    Neo-Marxism on crime

    Unlike classical Marxists, Neo-Marxists believe that crime is an after-effect of capitalism, not caused by capitalism. Theorists such as Taylor, Walton and Young (1973) believe that not all working-class criminals are forced to break the law; rather, some of them actively choose to do so.

    However, they argue that moral panics over comparatively minor crimes committed by the working class make the audiences side with the ruling class against the marginalised. This helps in maintaining the capitalist social order. Neo-Marxists also argue that crime can sometimes be positive, particularly if committed by the working class or marginalised groups as a way to rebel against their conditions.

    Neo-Marxists propose that criminology should remain focused on pointing out the injustices of the capitalist structure in order to create positive change in society.

    Sociological theories of crime, Close up image of credit cards and lock picker on laptop, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Theorists have differing views on the causes of crime: individual choice or societal ills?

    Interactionist theories on crime

    Interactionism or social action theory stresses that crime is socially constructed and that there are no inherently deviant acts. Certain acts are labelled by society as criminal or deviant, based on who is performing the act. Thus, not everyone who is labelled a criminal has actually caused harm, and many who have caused harm are not labelled as criminals.

    The two key theories within interactionism are labelling theory and moral panic theory.

    Labelling theory of crime

    This theory claims that the agents of social control often label the powerless in society as criminals based on stereotypical assumptions - from their class background to their appearance and attitude. Young, working-class individuals who do not conform to middle ideas of respectability - looking "rough", not having a posh accent, etc. - are more likely to be suspected and punished.

    This leads to deviancy amplification (exaggeration of criminality by the media), the self-fulfilling prophecy (when otherwise innocent people start to correspond to the label of "criminal"), and eventual criminal careers.

    Moral panic theory of crime

    Created by S. Cohen (1972), moral panic theory puts forward the argument that deviant subcultures are common targets of moral panics, which are exaggerated outbursts of the public over the morality or behaviour of a group or individual. Interactionists argue that the media plays a crucial role in creating moral panics, overstating the extent of the behaviour of certain groups, which portrays them as ‘folk devils’ and a threat to the social order.

    Realist theories on crime

    Sociological realist theories on crime originated as a response to the increased rates of victimisation of disadvantaged groups, which also often went unreported.

    Since previous conceptions of crime tended to neglect the victim, the birth of right realism and left realism was a reaction to this. Its supporters suggest taking practical steps to avoid crime, which they view as a highly significant societal issue.

    Left realism on crime

    Left realists believe that social inequality is the prime reason for crime, and that community interventions can reduce crime. Left realists tend to focus on working-class crime, arguing that other theories such as Marxism focus too much on crimes by the rich. Theorists such as Lea and Young (1986) assert that one should work with the system to improve the lives of the victims, who are also mostly from working-class backgrounds.

    In the opinion of left realists, marginalisation, relative deprivation, and the influence of subcultures are the prime reasons for criminal activities. Left realists argue that crime can be controlled by:

    • bringing different agencies in the community together

    • policing

    • understanding why people commit crimes

    • tackling poverty and marginalisation

    Right realism on crime

    Contrary to left realists, right realists believe that poverty and deprivation are not to be blamed, instead holding individuals responsible for crimes. Their theory is predicated on the premise that when people's behaviour goes unchecked, they engage in criminal behaviour. They argue that this happens when individuals, particularly young men, have weak social bonds (as explored above in Hirschi's social control theory), or when children are born out of wedlock and insufficiently socialised by low-income, lone-mother families (according to Murray (1996)).

    Right realists do agree that increased levels of ‘social disorder’ are related to the weakening of the agents of social control. However, they state that tough measures are to be taken to reduce crime, such as zero-tolerance policing or punishing childbirth out of wedlock.

    How do we evaluate sociological theories of crime?

    Generally, sociological theories of crime can be evaluated by examining what they do and do not consider in their attempts to address crime: the role of society, communities, individuals, working-class crime, elite crime, and so on.

    You can find detailed evaluations of the various sociological theories of crime, and their sub-theories, in their respective explanations!

    Sociological Theories of Crime - Key takeaways

    • Sociological theories of crime try to interpret crime through societal conditions and explain deviant or criminal behaviour through the circumstances in which they occur.
    • Functionalists believe that society needs a certain level of crime, as this is inevitable, and it also performs significant positive functions. Different theorists argue for the role of strain, social control, and subcultures in causing crime.
    • Marxists generally agree on the fact that most crime can be prevented by dismantling capitalist structures but disagree on the origins of crime. They believe that the CJS works in favour of the ruling class.
    • Interactionism or social action theory stresses that crime is socially constructed and that there are no inherently deviant acts. Certain acts are labelled by society as criminal or deviant, based on who is performing the act. Moral panics play a significant role in this.
    • The birth of both right realism and left realism was intended to centre victims and to offer more practical solutions to crime. However, left realism focuses on social inequality, while right realism blames individuals for crime.
    Sociological Theories of Crime Sociological Theories of Crime
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Sociological Theories of Crime

    What are sociological theories of crime?

    Sociological theories of crime try to interpret crime through societal conditions and explain deviant or criminal behavior through the circumstances in which they occur. 

    Which social theory best explains crime?

    It is difficult to determine which sociological theory best explains crime, as it is a very complicated, multifaceted issue. 

    What is an example of sociological crime theory?

    An example of a sociological crime theory is functionalism, which believes that a certain amount of crime is necessary to maintain social order.

    How does sociology relate to criminology?

    Sociology relates to criminology because it studies the causes, nature and prevention of crime along with other aspects of crime.

    Why are sociological theories important in criminology? 

    Sociological theories are important in criminology because they may provide insight into the causes and prevention of crime.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    James Q. Wilson and Richard Hernstein (1985) state that young men are ______ and _______ predisposed to committing crimes.

    Travis Hirschi (1969) argues that we are more likely to commit crimes when our social ties to the wider community are strong. True or false?

    Wilson and Hernstein (1985) emphasise the element of choice in deviance. In order to reduce crime, the ______ need to outweigh the ______. 

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