Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime

Last Updated: 25 January 2024

One of the ways criminologists understand crime is through social inquiry. Sociological theories have proven to be a significant part of literature and understanding of how crime occurs. These theories assert that crime is a result of the social environment.

While all the sociological theories of crime agree that society is to blame or praise for an individual's behaviors, they differ in several ways. Some focus on the different features of the environment, others show why the social environment leads to crime and others show how individuals (groups) differ in understanding crime.

This article examines some of the notable sociological theories, their perspective on crime, their criticism, and their limitations. It will also look at applying these theories in understanding criminal behaviors.

What is Crime?

Criminologists define crime as a deliberate act or omission that violates a society's laws. However, different fields will agree that there is no definitive answer because crime is highly complex

For instance, activities or behavior that are legal in one country is illegal in another. In addition, as societies and cultures evolve, things deemed criminal will no longer be criminal.

. There are various classifications of crime in sociology:

Despite the differences in definition, studying and understanding the different types of criminology theories is important in society. Those who want to be part of the criminal justice system can greatly benefit from understanding the underlying causes of criminal behavior. They can then use this knowledge to devise strategies for solving and possibly preventing them from happening.

Theoretical Perspectives on Crime in Sociology

To understand more about crime, you have to consider what theories say about it. Sociology theories provide the context and perspective needed to understand and solve crime through sociological context. These theories state that crime occurs because of societal conditions. Let us dive into each specific theory to learn more.

Conflict Theory

Theorist Karl Marx developed conflict theory in the 19th century to try to explain the differences in the capitalist economy between the working (proletariat) and the ruling class (bourgeoisie).  

According to Marx, conflict between the ruling and working classes births crime. He examined the difference in society between classes and ranks over material possessions. Notably, those with more power or material possessions use it to exploit those weaker and powerless as they try to maintain what they have. The poor feel the need to have an equal distribution of resources among each member of society, but the rich do not want that. This results in constant struggles and resentment, leading to criminal behaviors.

According to the conflict perspective, the definition of crime is determined by the wealthy and powerful in society. Basically, a select few in society are responsible for making laws that are meant to protect the wealthy.

Modern Conflict Theory

Karl Marx set the groundwork for conflict theory, but it was later expanded by other philosophers. Among the philosophers who expanded on the theory was C. Wright Mills. According to Mills, modern societies are not similar to that of the past. He argued that there is an unequal power balance brought about by a hierarchical ladder in industries. The power elite, those at the top of the ladder, are in charge of those below them. Mills believed those in the government, military, and those in charge of the economy were the most powerful groups in society. They maintain power within their elite circle by choosing their relatives to manage these positions and access the same privileges.

Conflict Theory of Deviance

Deviance is another aspect of conflict theory. Deviance is defined by actions and behaviors that violate social norms. Therefore, committing crimes and not following laws are acts of deviance. According to the conflict theory of crime, people who engage in acts of deviance (usually the poor) are punished more severely. Additionally, those who appear less powerful will be labeled deviant just based on how they appear.

Origins of Conflict between the Different Groups

Assumptions of Conflict Theory

According to conflict theory, human beings are inherently self-centered and competitive, always fighting over limited resources, thus resulting in conflict. The theory holds the following assumptions:


Every kind of interaction between human beings boils down to competing for resources. This then creates different classes and ranks in the society that is always struggling to get and own the resources. For instance, when there are scarce resources, it creates competition among individuals. According to conflict theory, human beings compete instead of cooperating.

Structural Inequality

A hierarchical ladder will be created when people compete over limited resources. Some people will be placed in higher ranks than others will. This structure will benefit these people more than others. A structural inequality will be created when people have more wealth and power over others.


In a society with structural inequality, there will be tension and conflict, which will result in a revolution. Many times, this revolution does not occur gradually. Instead, it is abrupt.


According to conflict theory, war is another possibility when there is prolonged tension, just like a revolution. However, war is not a bad thing; it cleanses society. War allows the destruction of the current societies, leading to the formation of new structures. However, there will still be some fragments of war.

Criticisms of Conflict Theory

Conflict theory has been criticized for various reasons.

Consensus Theory

This theory is the opposite of conflict theory. It states that humans are willing and ready to cooperate to share limited resources instead of fighting each other.

Ignoring Stability

Conflict theory ignores the existing peace and stability in society. It only takes a partial view of society and only of the strife. Critics argue that human beings are inherently good and that conflict theory only focuses on creating an ideology on human flaws and faults.


Conflict theory states that conflict in society is brought about by the struggle for power between the rich and the poor. The irony is that, even in a poor or weak group, there is still a struggle for dominance. Therefore, the issue is not about the rich vs. the poor because of a conflict.

Additionally, if human beings were prone to conflict, then there would not be a need for existing conflict resolution as a peacekeeping measure. That said, the theory only applies to war, political discord, and famine situations.

Social Learning Theory

This theory suggests that human behaviors are learned through socialization.

Albert Bandura, a psychologist, theorized social learning theory in 1977 as an alternative to the B.F. Skinner's study on behavior. Skinner suggested that a person's behavior is a result of consequences received. However, Bandura stated that people learn through observation. He argued that once a person observes this behavior, they imitate it. Bandura referred to this as observational learning.

Bandura developed social learning theory after conducting a famous Bobo Dolls experiment in the 1960s. In this study, children were shown a film in which a person was physically abusing a doll. The experiment showed that children learn behavior by observing and imitating it. He concluded that televised shows glamorized violent behaviors.

Bandura's study overturned Skinner's theory that learning resulted from conditioning. It also disputed the prevailing theory suggesting that watching violent behavior mitigated impulses in young kids.

However, the Canadian-American psychologist maintained that people did not observe and emulate anyone's behavior. A person will only repeat the behavior of someone they admire or someone similar to them. In this instance, this person becomes a role model.

He suggested that observation may or may not change someone's behavior. Any behavioral change could be either positive or negative. However, all this will depend on the following factors.

Attentiveness- for someone to learn and imitate a behavior, they must pay attention.

Retention- copying and performing a behavior is impossible if you cannot remember it. One has to retain the information they have observed and memorize it to learn it successfully.

Reproduction- for a person to model new behavior, they must be able to reproduce it exactly how they observed it.

Motivation - one can only reproduce a behavior if motivated to do so. For instance, if a child observes someone stealing money and using it to get something nice, they will feel the need to do the same to also get something nice for themselves. This is referred to as vicarious reinforcement.

Identification is when a person eventually takes on a bad behavior they have observed.

Additionally, a person will observe and study rewards and punishment; if they feel the rewards are greater than the punishment, they will imitate the behavior. On the other hand, if they like the rewards less than the risks, they will not engage in the behavior.

How Social Learning Theory Explains Crime

As per social learning theory, when a person is born, they are not motivated to commit or conform to crime. So why does a person commit crimes? The theory stresses the process of learning. It states that there is a link between a person's cognition, behavior, and environment.

Social learning theory argues that people learn to commit crimes the same way they learn how to engage in other behaviors through association with others.

Primary groups, particularly families, significantly influence how people learn. People who associate with delinquents are more likely to engage in delinquency.

However, one does not have to be in close contact with others to emulate their behavior; they can learn it through the media, believing they favor such activities.

Social learning theory argues that the following factors influence whether a person will engage in criminality:

Differential Reinforcement

People are likely to teach others to engage in criminal activities based on the reinforcement (either positive or negative) and punishment of that particular behavior. Notably, there is a high chance that a crime will occur if there are:

In positive reinforcement, a person's behavior results in good things, for instance, money, wealth, power, status, etc. On the other hand, negative reinforcement results in the removal of something bad. For instance, someone is labeled a coward for not stealing, so they decided to steal for the labeling to stop.

Some environments encourage bad behavior and thus reinforce crime. This reinforcement could be deliberate or not. For example, a child is throwing tantrums because of a toy a parent took, so to calm them down, the parent gives them the toy. That parent has just reinforced bad behavior without knowing. Therefore, the child will repeat that behavior because of the rewards. A first-time offender who sees the benefits of crime is likely to engage in subsequent criminal activities.

Beliefs Promoting Crime

Some people are likelier to encourage crime by teaching others beliefs favoring crime. Some are taught that crime is bad. Therefore, they will internalize this belief and will never engage in crime. However, some are taught that crime pays, so they commit it because they see nothing wrong.

Nevertheless, not all crimes are approved. For instance, few criminals view serious crimes such as rape and murder as not "good." Beliefs favoring crime fall into three categories.

The first is that there are people who view minor crimes as necessary. For instance, drug abuse, gambling, etc. The second is that some approve of certain forms of crime. They believe these crimes are wrong, but there are instances when they are justifiable. For instance, they believe murder is wrong, but in certain instances, it is justifiable, particularly when defending oneself. The third group is those whose beliefs are conducive to crime. These beliefs don't necessarily approve of crime. However, they make it appear nice.


Modeling is about learning through observation and is commonly referred to as observational learning. People model others' behavior naturally. For instance, from a young age, a child imitates their caregiver's actions. So they learn how to hold a spoon, play ball, etc. Modeling involves a certain neuron called the mirror neuron. Those who imitate behaviors are called models. Crime is modeled behavior, and it is imitated by those close.


Social learning theory has its roots in the theory of differential association. Dr. Sutherland. According to Sutherland, crime is learned through interactions with other people. Through this interaction, they take in criminal behavior's values, attitudes, and motives. He also argued that the social disorganization of a group could be blamed for crime, and it could explain why there was more prevalence of crime in certain areas than in others.


Albert Bandura's theory set the groundwork for social learning theory by Ronald Arkers. According to Arkers, criminality is learned through motivation from the crime and those they associate with. When there are more positive results from criminality, people will be highly motivated to commit crimes.

Criticisms of the Social Learning Theory

Despite the importance of social learning theory, it has been criticized for so many things:

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a theory developed by George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), but later on, the theory was backed by Charles Cooley and Herbert Blumer.

Symbolic Interactionism came after functionalism and conflict theories. The theory switches the attention from social events to individual meanings and interpretations. Mead introduced aspects of symbolic interactionism by arguing that people act based on how they interpret the meaning of the world around them. Weber believed that society is the product of human activity. The theory tries to understand human behaviors through the social context lens.

According to the theory, people interact with different things daily, things they deem meaningful, such as materials, relationships, symbols, actions, etc.

The symbolic theory relies on the meaning people attach to certain societal elements that influence their actions. In a society, people communicate with each other through languages and symbols. They believe that in the same way a symbol represents objects or ideas, objects and ideas can also represent symbols. Therefore, one can make sense of people's behavior by examining this. The theory argues that instead of being shaped by society, people are shaping it. People play an active role when giving meaning to their social environment.

A popular explanation of symbols interactionism is the differential association by Edwin H. Sutherland. The theory asserts that people learn behavior by interacting with those close to them. These people not only teach them how to commit crimes but also the beliefs, values, and motives that come with them. These values and beliefs teach people why it is okay to commit crimes. Sutherland believed that if a person associates with deviant individuals early on in life, they are more likely to become deviant themselves. Differential association theory has become one of the most influential sociological theories.

Another explanation of symbolic interactionism is the labeling theory, which holds that deviance is a result of imposed labels. When someone is labeled a criminal, they are likely to integrate this label into themselves and become lawbreakers.

Example of Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism can be complex to grasp, so it is important to start small. Some symbols are much easier to detect, and they hold significant meanings in society. The following are examples of symbolic interactionism.

How Symbolic Interactionism Defines Crime

Consider the following example,

Steve lives in an environment that promotes criminal activities. All of Steve's friends are criminals, and they have been ripped big from such activities. They drive expensive cars and have money to spend every day; they can get jewelry and so many expensive things. Because of what these friends have acquired, they now get respect from those around them. Their actions, gestures, words, and behaviors are symbols. Even though what they are engaging in is against the law, what Steve's friends have achieved is good. So Steve will be encouraged to commit crimes so that he can be like them and enjoy the same rewards.

Put differently, an individual's actions are not determined by objective truth but by subjective truth. They define their truth. Each day, people are vigorously being selective of the information in their environment to transform it into something meaningful. People don't just observe the environment; they are actively producing their own interpretation.

Crime and deviance occur because of the social interaction processes and the meaning of behaviors.

Principles of Symbolic Interactionism

Hubert Blumer shared the following principles about symbolic interactionism:


Strengths of Symbolic Interactionism

Like other sociological theories, symbolic interactionism has its strengths and limitations. The following are the strengths of the theory.

Limitations of Symbolic Interactionism


Therefore symbolic interactionism is not enough to explain how crime occurs or the motivations behind it.

Structural-functionalism Theory

Also known as functionalism, structural-functionalism attempts to explain why society is the way it is. This theory looks at the social structure that shapes society. It believes that society evolved over the years like an organism. The functionalist theory looks at both social structure and functions, and it addresses society and how its different elements function.

The theory argues that it is because of the relationship between the different social institutions, e.g., family, religion, and education. Structural-functionalism sees society as a complex structure with different interrelated parts designed to meet every individual's needs.

Structural-functionalism was introduced by British Victorian philosopher Herbert Spencer between (1820-1903). Spencer viewed society as much like a human body with different systems that work together for the good of the whole. Just as the body works together to keep the body functioning and in good condition, the different parts of society work together to keep it functioning.

After Spencer, functionalism developed slowly, with prominent sociologists adding more to the theory. These sociologists include Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, and Kingsley Davis, who tried to understand the concept of society. They argued that social phenomena are the same as dynamically interdependent variables. This is to say that each institution is designed to fulfill certain functions, and they keep on existing because it functions.

Emile Durkheim Structural Functionalism

Perhaps one of the most influential sociologists was Emile Durkheim. He applied Spencer's theory, but his approach was a bit different. He was more interested in how social and personal forces influenced a person's behavior. Durkheim's argument was that cultural and social traits had a direct impact on a person's behavior. His attention was on the following issues:

Formation of the society and what holds them together,

Durkheim argued that society does not have one function or many instructions, each playing the same function. Instead, it is made of interrelated and interdependent parts serving different purposes that all work together to ensure stability. He also added that society is also held together by common values, symbols, and languages. When any of these parts fail to fulfill their roles, problems will arise in society.

Emile Durkheim identified terms such as social facts in trying to understand how society functions. He believed that even though individuals make up society, one must look beyond them and as social facts. Social fact

All these things serve either one or multiple functions in society. For instance, one part of society, the police, is responsible for protecting people against criminals, while another (the judicial system) is to punish criminals).

Talcott Parson Structural Functionalism

Parson's perspective on structural functionalism came in the 1950s when he published his book "The social system." He focused his attention on the structure of the society and how they relate to each other. He argued that these structures are shaped by their functions. Parson also added that the different social roles people adopt are determined by how they support society in general. He identified subsystems, each serving different purposes in society. The subsystems include:

Parsons introduces the social action theory, which believes that every person's personality is different from their social background. Society is a result of individual interaction and the meanings given by them. The theory explains human behavior at a microscopic level to understand more about social structures. He began by providing an example of the everyday interaction of two individuals faced with several choices about their actions. These choices have been influenced and restricted by both physical and social factors. People have expectations of each other. So for an individual to act, they will have to do what is right depending on the norms and values of the society they live in.

Parsons proposed the following principles to understand the complexity of society:

Adaptation- this is the relationship between the system in a society and its surrounding. Every need of the people should be met by giving them food and shelter.

Goal Attainment- this is the most important part. Every human being is born with a purpose. They have to fulfill this purpose; otherwise, their life will be of no value.

Integration- This involves the adjustment of the different aspects of the social structure.

Pattern Maintenance- this involves maintaining the values of the society.

Robert Merton Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalism experienced a lot of refinement thanks to Robert Merton. He agreed with the people but believed that the theory was generalized. Merton argued that in a society, the social process results in manifest functions which are sought. It also results in latent functions which are unsought. Manifest functions are the intent behind social laws and processes. They are positive actions designed to improve society. Latent functions are intended actions that bring positive changes.

Merton acknowledged that not all parts of society contribute positively to the stability of society. There are elements in society that could lead to negative events. These elements are referred to as dysfunctions.

Structural Functionalism and Crime Emile Durkheim Perspective

To understand more about crime and how it occurs, the functionalism theory suggests that we look at how society is. Emile Durkheim shared the following aspects of crime.

Crime is Inevitable

Durkheim argued that crime is inevitable and is a normal part of society. He pointed out that in every society, there will be aspects of crime, and in most advanced societies, the crime rates will be higher. Durkheim argued that crime is inevitable because of the following reasons:

Durkheim also argued that deviance is necessary for society as it will lead to the occurrence of social change.

Crime Leads to Positive Functions

Durkheim also added that a certain amount of deviance is good for society. They argued that crime leads to the following in society:

Social regulation- crime reaffirms the functions of boundaries in societies of what is acceptable and what is not. For instance, when a person commits a robbery and is caught, he/she will be punished. When others see this, they will know that robbery is unacceptable behavior.

Social integration - crimes will strengthen social cohesion. After a serious crime has occurred, people will be outrageous and will come together to condemn it. When the community comes together, they become more unified.

Social change- when criminals commit crimes, they are testing boundaries that have been set in place. When the law is not in accordance with people's feelings and opinions, it leads to legal reforms.

Dysfunctional of Crime

Crime only becomes dysfunctional when there is too much or too little of it. It would then lead to a breakdown in the social order. If it is too little, it will not be enough for social change.

Criticism of Durkheim's Structural Functionalism

The following are some of the criticism of Durkheim's Structural Functionalism versions:

Robert Merton's Functionalism on Crime

Merton attempted to explain his thoughts on crime during the post-depression period in the USA. He aimed to understand why there were high crime rates, especially among the poor black-American community, i.e., those on the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy.

Merton suggested that crime occurred because of the relationship between the culture and social structure of American society. He argued that Americans share similar values and norms when it comes to working for the American Dream. This dream is supported by the different institutions in society, family, education, etc. They were socialized to believe that if one works hard enough for

will be rewarded with a good job, wealth, and status because their society was a meritocracy.

However, he argued that the American dream was just a myth and that not everyone can access it. This is because the means for achieving it, e.g., education, is not accessible to everyone. His sentiments were the structural organization would be amended to make sure that there was an equal distribution of resources. But this wasn't possible. Merton explained this further in his social strain theory. He argued that because of legitimate means for people to nearby success, they resorted to crime. He added that there was a strain between the means for success and personal goals hence the occurrence of crimes in society.

Merton shared the following in response to the strain in society.

Conformity- following the rules set in place to achieve success, some people will choose to abide by them. Conformists form the main part of the society. They are those who choose to shun crime and obey the laws set in place. Without this group, society will be in chaos and a state of disorder.

Innovation - this is a type of adaptation in which people desire to achieve success, but they don't use socially acceptable means to achieve them. Instead, they come up with their own means.

Ritualism - ritualists are those people who abandon socially accepted goals a bit. They are okay with working through the means.

Retreatism - in this adaptation, people retreat by rejecting both the socially accepted goals and means. For instance, some of the beggars in the streets have rejected the means of achieving financial success and resorted to begging others.

Rebellion - some people in the society have rebelled against the socially accepted goals and replaced them with their own. For instance, terrorist groups have resorted to overthrowing socially accepted goals by using violent means, including killing innocent people.

However, despite the existing strain, some poor people believe in working hard through accepted means to achieve accepted goals. In short, they continue to be respectful to other people and be law-abiding citizens.

Limitations Structural Functionalism

Even though the functionalist theory has managed to explain crimes in the context of society, it has faced a few criticisms.

Application of Theories in Understanding Crime

In sociology, crime is a label attached to certain types of behaviors that go against the laws of society. Therefore, an act only becomes criminal when agents of the state label it so. The following example shows how different crimes can be in different societies. Stabbing someone with a knife and killing them is considered a crime in the U.K., but if a soldier kills a person in a war-torn area, it is not.

Laws about crimes also differ by country. For instance, homosexuality is allowed in several countries but in others; it is punishable even by death.

To solve the issues of crime in society, one must first find out why it occurs. Sociological theories have provided reasons why crimes occur and why they differ within the social context across locations, and why some people are more likely than others to commit crimes. The theories highlight the importance of a person's environment and how it influences crime.

Gaining a deeper understanding of how crime occurs in society through the different sociological theories is essential in coming up with ways of preventing crime. The theories usually explain actions that are considered cruel and oppressive in society. With this knowledge, a society can put strategies in place to deter people from engaging in criminal activities.

Robert Merton's theory on social strain suggests that people commit crimes because of their inability to achieve their goals by socially acceptable means. So they resort to using unacceptable means to attain these goals. Therefore, criminologists and sociologists can devise ways that can make these socially acceptable means easily accessible to everyone.

Sociological theories provide a deeper examination of a certain social phenomenon and how it influences crime. For instance, if criminals are motivated to commit crimes, society can reform the laws to attack these motivations.

A theory like social learning in social work can be applied in two areas. In social learning theory, learning criminal behavior is the same as learning good behavior. Criminologists and other researchers can use the theory to know why aggressiveness, violence, and other acts of criminality are copied and imitated through observational learning. It can also be used to investigate how individuals with good traits could be role models and foster desirable behaviors.

Conflict theory asserts that wealth gaps are the major cause of criminality in society. If there is increased inequality in society, civil unrest, and war will break out.

With this understanding, the government or those in power can put measures in place to reduce the degrees of social inequality.

The structural functionalism theory can help in community development, thus reducing crimes. This theory states by creating multiple helpful institutions, deviant behaviors will be reduced. Therefore, communities should create policies and procedures to build and manage different institutions.

Symbolic interactionism theory has become more relevant in today's society as the world has become more interconnected thanks to the internet. Even though this has made it easy for people to imitate each other's behavior, fortunately, society can take advantage of this and encourage good behavior.

Approaches to Dealing with Crimes in a Society

When people understand theories explaining crimes, they can design the right approaches to dealing with them. There are four different approaches to crime in a criminal justice system.


This involves measures that are out in place to discourage criminals or would-be criminals from engaging in crimes. For instance, the installation of CCTVs in areas that are likely to experience high rates of crime. This increased the possibility of one being caught if they engaged in any criminal activity hence deterring them from committing crimes.


Criminologists believe that as long as a criminal is no longer within the community, then they will not be able to commit crimes. Also, removing a criminal from the community and restraining them gives people assurance that the criminal will no longer terrorize them by committing the crime they were engaging in. People agree that it is the responsibility of law enforcement to make society safe by removing dangerous criminals. This approach can be supported by the differential association theory by Sutherland, which believed that when people associate with criminals, they become criminals.


This is perhaps the oldest justification for punishment in the criminal justice system. Criminologists believe that lawbreakers should be punished because they deserve it. They believe that the punishment must be proportional to the crime.


This involves setting programs to prevent recidivism among convicts by improving their behaviors, mental health, and skills. Rehabilitation programs are designed to focus on the following:

Building previously convicted persons is one of the best ways to show them that crime is no longer a good thing. It tells them that there are other ways and means they can use to achieve socially accepted goals.

Final Word

Sociological theories offer criminologists a simple understanding of why crimes occur in society. These theories also help us understand why a particular behavior occurs.

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Some of these theories focus more on social factors in a society, such as poverty and the mannerisms of groups of people.

Others tend to focus more on how a person's beliefs and values influence their behavior. With this knowledge, a society can come up with different ways of dealing with crimes and criminals in society.

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