Chapter 8. Deviance, Crime, and Social Control

8.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Crime and Deviance

Joker Mask Crime Clown
Figure 8.9 Do the masked criminals in The Joker’s criminal gang (The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008)) have back stories that help explain their choice of a life of crime? Or is crime a spontaneous, in the moment, kind of decision? (Photo courtesy of Brecht Bug/Flickr.) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Why do crime and deviance occur? How does one become “a criminal” or “a deviant”? How does crime affect society and how does society affect crime? How do sociologists explain crime? Since the early days of sociology, crime and deviance have been seen as social problems that call for sociological research and explanation in order to find solutions.

Sociologists have developed theories attempting to explain what causes deviance and crime and what they mean to society. These theories can be grouped according to the three major sociological types of knowledge: positivism, critical sociology and interpretive sociology (see Chapter 1. An Introduction to Sociology).

Positivist types of theory focus on identifying the background variables in an offender’s social environment that determine or predict criminal and deviant behaviour. Crime or deviance are taken as relatively straightforward to define. They are simply rule-breaking or law-breaking acts, which can be linked to objective variables in the offenders social backgrounds.

With critical sociology the picture gets more complicated. Critical types of theory focus on the historical context of class, gender, racial, colonial and other power relations in society to explain crime and deviance. Why are certain acts punished as criminal or deviant and certain acts not? Why are certain types of crime or deviance prevalent in one community, gender or social strata and not in others? Institutional regulation, the criminal justice system, and crime itself are seen as arms of different types of power, sometimes as extensions of power and sometimes as resistance.

Finally, interpretive types of theory focus on how the meanings of criminality or deviance get established. Key to understanding crime and deviance is not simply the objective fact of law-breaking or rule-breaking, but the intentions of the individuals involved, the variable meanings the acts or behaviours hold for people, and the social processes through which acts and individuals get defined as criminal or deviant. As Jack Katz (1988) puts it, “What are people trying to do when they commit a crime?” should be the first thing a sociologist asks.

The different paradigms within these types of knowledge lead to different ways of researching and addressing the problems of crime and deviance.


Figure 8.10 Face measurements based on Cesare Lombroso’s criminal anthropology (Photo courtesy of Nicolasbuenaventura/ Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY-SA 3.0

Sociologists who follow the positivist approach view the social world as a place governed by predictable and regular social patterns that can be uncovered through systematic observation. They are concerned with describing law-like relationships between variables that can predict outcomes: if this, then that. What are the background variables — age, family circumstances, economic position, racial or ethnic background, gender, etc. — that cause criminal or deviant behaviours or predict their likelihood in the future? The emphasis in positivism is on identifying factors that are directly observable or measurable, which implies that infractions themselves are straightforward to define. Tappan (1947) defines crime, for instance, as an intentional act that violates criminal law and is subject to penalization by the state. This is a relatively easy thing to identify through crime statistics and victimization surveys.

Early positivism relied on a biological or psychological defect model of crime and deviance to explain law-breaking and rule-breaking behaviours. As Box (1981) describes it, “people who break the rules of society were [seen as] defective, and … the root of this defect lay within them.” It was noted at the beginning of the chapter, for example, that Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) founded the 19th century school of positivism by attempting to isolate specific physiological characteristics of “degeneracy” that could distinguish “born criminals” from normal individuals (Rimke, 2011). Similarly, from the point of view of psychology, deviants could be distinguished by personality defects or traumas that cognitively or libidinally prevented them from adjusting to normal rule-following behaviour. The idea of the sociopath is a case in point.

In sociological positivism, the background variables identified in explanations of crime and deviance are not usually individual defects but “social defects.”  “Deviant behaviour [is] not to be perceived as the manifestation of a defective human being, but as the indicator of a defective social environment” (Box, 1981). Background variables like social disorganization, absence of social controls, and social strain (discussed below) are expected to predict a higher likelihood of criminal or deviant behaviour.

There are numerous frameworks in positivist sociology for identifying which variables of social environment are key. For example, Pratt and Cullen’s (2005) meta-analysis of 214 empirical studies discussed the relative strengths of seven different macro-level predictors of crime derived from seven different positivist theories including social disorganization theory, strain theory, economic deprivation theory, routine activity theory, deterrence theory, social support theory and subcultural theory. Their findings showed the strongest empirical support for explanations based on indicators of concentrated disadvantage, whereas explanations that emphasized lack of deterrence (increased policing, “tough on crime” policies) had the weakest support.

Four influential positivist theories of deviance are Durkheim’s functionalist theory, social disorganization theory, control theory and strain theory.

Émile Durkheim and Functionalism

Within positivism, the functionalist paradigm has been a productive source of explanatory frameworks for crime and deviance. Sociologists who follow the functionalist approach analyse the functions of different social structures, norms or patterns of behaviour in the maintenance of society, understood as a systematic whole.  This, oddly enough, includes crime and deviance, which are persistent social facts in all societies. Deviance, by definition, would appear to be the opposite of normal, yet Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) believed that deviance is a necessary, normal and functional part of normal society. Crime and deviance are disruptive, sometimes brutally so, but they also perform important functions.

Durkheim was aware of the diversity of acts or behaviours that different societies defined as criminal or deviant. He therefore defined crime by the one common external property it shared across different cultures and periods of history: crime is an act that offends the collective conscience and evokes collective punishment.  “[W]e note the existence of certain acts, all presenting the external characteristic that they evoke from society the particular reaction called punishment. We constitute them as a separate group, to which we give a common label; we call every punished act a crime…” (1938 (1895)). Crime and deviance are not defined by their individual motivations or by specific rules and infractions but by the collective response they evoke.

As such, crime and deviance have four important functions in supporting the social solidarity or cohesiveness of societies. They have: (1) a boundary-setting function, marking the moral boundaries that members of society should not cross; (2) a group solidarity function, uniting the group against a common enemy; (3) an adaptive function, allowing society to change its boundaries in response to new circumstances and innovative crimes (for example, the “sit in” protests of the Civil Rights Movement); and (4) a tension-reduction function, reducing the internal tensions of a society by projecting them onto criminal or deviant groups or scapegoats (Kramar, 2011).

Therefore, for Durkheim, the persistent patterns of crime and deviance observed in society could be explained by the functions they performed in maintaining society as a whole. These functions did not cause crime and deviance per se, but they explained why they existed and what their role in society was. It suggests that if crime and deviance did not exist they would have to be invented, otherwise substitutes for these functions would have to be found.

Social Disorganization Theory and Control Theory

Developed by researchers at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, social disorganization theory asserts that crime is most likely to occur in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social control. What they observed from the Chicago court records of juvenile offenders was that rates of crime were not evenly distributed across Chicago. High crime rates were concentrated in particular zones of the city and these rates remained stable over time, regardless of which particular individuals or groups resided there. In other words, crime rates seemed to be products of the areas, not the people per se. As the different ethnic, immigrant and racialized groups transitioned out of these zones and moved to other parts of the city, their crime rates decreased accordingly but the rates in the high crime zones remained stable. This lead the Chicago School sociologists to propose a social ecology theory of the city in which, like the biotic communities of  a natural ecosystem, different groups of people occupied specific niches in an over all system. Human communities were complex systems of mutual dependence that, like ecosystems, go through stages of succession from disruption to climax (or stable) communities.

They termed the disrupted areas zones of transition.  These had emerged near the center of Chicago along the transportation conduits into the city and between the established working class neighbourhoods and the manufacturing district. 1920s and 1930s Chicago was a city in flux. The city’s poorest and newest residents tended to live in these transitional, economically deprived zones, where there was a fractious mixture of racialized groups, immigrant ethnic groups, and non-English speakers. The Chicago School sociologists proposed that the zones themselves were socially disorganized.  They were sites of poor social control and regulation because their populations were fluid and transient and conventional institutions of control like family, schools, work, churches, and voluntary community organizations had not become established there (Shaw and McKay, 1942). In a certain way, this is the opposite of Durkheim’s thesis. Rather than deviance being a force that reinforces moral and social solidarity, it is the absence of moral and social solidarity that provides the conditions for social deviance to emerge.

A run-down neighbourhood.
Figure 8.11 Proponents of social disorganization theory believe that individuals who grow up in impoverished and transient areas are more likely to participate in deviant or criminal behaviours. (Photo courtesy of Phillies1fan777 /English Wikipedia.) Public Domain

Social disorganization theory points to the built environment and overall social organization of cities as the cause of deviance. A person is not born a criminal but becomes one over time, based on factors in their social environment. This theme was taken up by Travis Hirschi’s (1935-2017) control theory, which examines social disorganization from the point of view of the individual.

According to Hirschi, social control is directly affected by the strength of social bonds that tie an individual to the institutional life of society (1969). Many people would be willing to break laws or deviate from the rules to reap the rewards of pleasure, excitement, and profit, etc. if they had the opportunity to do so. Those who do have the opportunity are those who are only weakly controlled by the type of social bonds that tie others to mainstream society and give them a stake in it. Similar to Durkheim’s theory of anomie (Chapter 4. Society and Modern Life), deviance is seen to result where disconnection from society predominates over social integration. Individuals who believe they are a part of society or believe they have a future in society are less likely to commit crimes against it.

Hirschi identified four types of social bond that connect people to society (1969):

  1.  Attachment measures the degree of connection to others. When one is closely attached to other people, one worries about their opinions. People conform to society’s norms in order to gain approval (and prevent disapproval) from family, friends, colleagues and romantic partners.
  2. Commitment refers to the investments people make in conforming to conventional behaviour. A well-respected local businesswoman who volunteers at her synagogue and is a member of the neighbourhood block organization has more to lose from committing a crime than a woman who does not have a career or ties to the community. There is a cost/benefit calculation in the decision to commit a crime in which the costs of being caught are much higher for some than others.
  3. Similarly, levels of involvement, or participation in socially legitimate activities, lessen a person’s likelihood of deviance simply due to lack of opportunity. Children who are members of Little League baseball teams have less time and opportunity to engage in deviant behaviour. “The person involved in conventional activities is tied to appointments, deadlines, working hours, plans, and the like, so the opportunity to commit deviant acts rarely arises” (Hirschi, 1969).
  4. The final bond, belief, is an agreement on common values in society. If a person views social values as beliefs, they will conform to them. An environmentalist is more likely to pick up trash in a park because a clean environment is a social value to that person.

Thus each of the types of bond Hirschi identifies describes a background variable which predicts who is more or less likely to engage in criminal acts. An individual who grows up under conditions where ties to legitimate institutions and authorities are weak, difficult to establish, or distant from the individual’s lived reality and future prospects is more likely to become a criminal than an individual from a privileged background who has a lot more at stake and a lot more to lose by breaking the law. The latter has “skin in the game”, whereas, for the former, the mutual dependencies and complex relationships that form the basis of a healthy “ecosystem” of social control do not get established.

Research into social disorganization theory can greatly influence public policy. How can socially disorganized communities be reorganized?  Evidence from Pratt and Cullen’s (2005) meta-analysis suggests that social disorganization at the neighbourhood level is a stronger predictor of crime than variables concerning the implementation of “harder” law and order criminal justice policies (with the exception of the use of incarceration, which increases crime rates). The public policy implications of the sociological research therefore suggest that rather than using the police to crack down on crime in designated neighbourhoods, public spending and private investment should be used on programs physically located in the most economically deprived neighbourhoods and run by people from those neighbourhoods. This serves to create not only local employment but local institutions of community control, whose absence is in fact the source of the problem of social disorganization. Investments in community based agencies work to strengthen ties within the community and between people in the community and external social services. Research shows that social control is least effective when imposed by outside forces (Figueira-McDonough, 1991). In a similar vein, funding family preservation programs, which focus on keeping families intact and empowered rather than punishing individual offenders, strengthen families’ abilities to resist social disorganization (Nelson, Landsman and Duetelman, 1990). However, in proposing that social disorganization is essentially a moral problem of anomie — that it is shared moral values and social integration that hold communities together  — questions about historical relations of economic inequality, racism, and power do not get asked.

Robert Merton: Strain Theory

Al Capone mugshot in Florida, 1930
Figure 8.12 Al Capone or “Scarface” (1899-1947), the famous prohibition era Chicago gangster. Robert Merton (1938) writes that within the context of social strain, “Capone represents the triumph of amoral intelligence over morally prescribed ‘failure,’ when the channels of vertical mobility are closed or narrowed.” (Photo courtesy of the Miami Police Department/Wikimedia Commons.) Public Domain

Sociologist Robert Merton (1910-2003) agreed that deviance is, ironically, a normal behaviour in modern society, but expanded on Durkheim’s ideas by developing strain theory (1938). He noted that social strains or contradictory forces are built into the structure of society when access to the legitimate means of achieving socially acceptable goals like material or financial success was not evenly distributed. A kind of anomie or normlessless emerged in segments of North American society because of a dysfunctional relationship or disequilibrium between values and norms.

The North American value system glorifies the value and prestige of wealth, while its normative system defines and regulates acceptable means of attaining wealth: a good job, a good education, a good network of contacts, a good familial background, a good neighbourhood, etc. For the majority of people this works without too much conflict. However, not everyone in North American society stands on equal footing. In a class based society not everyone has access to the legitimate means of obtaining success. A person may have the socially acceptable goal of financial success but lack a socially acceptable way to reach that goal. This is a cause of mental and moral conflict for many.

According to Merton’s theory, a person growing up in a neighbourhood where conventional occupational opportunities are limited to unskilled, manual labour will see few opportunities to “get ahead” through legal means. Similarly, an entrepreneur who can not afford to launch his own company may be tempted to embezzle from his employer for start-up funds. When motivated by success but confronted with barriers to attaining it, individuals are caught in a quandary or strain that is built in to the structure of North American society. They are tempted to abandon the norms and rules and adopt alternative, illegitimate solutions (what Merton refered to as “innovations”) to attain the universally revered standards of success. The discrepancy between the reality of structural inequality and the high cultural value placed on economic success creates a strain that has to be resolved by some means.

Table 8.1. Five Possible Modes of Adjustment or Adaptation by Individuals to Social Strain (Merton, 1938)


Cultural goals Institutionalized means
1. Conformity + +
2. Innovation +
3. Ritualism +
4. Retreatism
5. Rebellion +/− +/−

Merton (1938) in fact defined five ways that people adapt to this strain between socially accepted goals and socially accepted ways to pursue them. These are indicated in Table 8.1 in which “+” indicates acceptance, “−” indicates rejection, and “+/−” indicates “rejection and substitution of new goals and standards.”

  1. Conformity: The majority of people in society choose to conform to institutionalized means of attaining success. They pursue their society’s valued goals to the extent that they can through socially accepted means.
  2. Innovation: Those who innovate pursue goals they cannot reach through legitimate means by substituting criminal or deviant means.
  3. Ritualism: People who ritualize lower their goals until they can reach them through socially acceptable ways. These “social ritualists” like middle management bureaucrats, hard workers who accept they will never get ahead or people who “go through the motions” focus on conformity to the accepted means of goal attainment while abandoning the distant, unobtainable dream of success.
  4. Retreatism: Others retreat from the structural strain and reject both society’s goals and accepted means. Some street people, hermits, religious cloisters, voluntary simplicity advocates or “back-to-the-landers” have withdrawn from society’s goal of financial success. They drop out.
  5. Rebellion: Some people rebel, seeking to replace a society’s goals and means with an alternate or revolutionary model.

With respect to crime and deviance, the second category “innovation” is the most relevant. In a class divided society, many youth from poor backgrounds are exposed to the high value placed on material success in capitalist society but face insurmountable odds to achieving it, so turning to illegal means to achieve success is a rational, more effective, in fact normal, solution to the problem. As Merton sums up, “On the one hand, they are asked to orient their conduct toward the prospect of accumulating wealth and on the other, they are largely denied effective opportunities to do so institutionally” (Merton, 1938). Al Capone’s ruthless choice of purely instrumental means over moral means to achieve success is a rational, if anomic, choice within a dysfunctional society.

Critical Sociology

Critical sociology examines macro-level social and economic factors as the causes of crime and deviance. Unlike positivists, critical sociologists do not see these factors as objective social facts, but as evidence of operations of power and entrenched social inequalities. The normative order and the criminal justice system are not simply neutral or “functional” with regard to the collective interests of society. Institutions of normalization, law, and the criminal justice system have to be seen in context as mechanisms that actively maintain the power structure of the political-economic order.

The rich, the powerful, and the privileged have unequal influence on who and what gets labelled deviant or criminal, particularly in instances where their privilege or interests are being challenged. As capitalist society is based on the institution of private property, for example, it is not surprising that theft is a major category of crime. By the same token, when street people, addicts, or hippies drop out of society, they are labelled deviant and are subject to police harassment because they have refused to participate in the productive labour that is the basis of capital accumulation and profit.

Richard Quinney (1977) examined the role of law, policing and punishment in modern society. He argued that, as a result of inequality, many crimes can be understood as crimes of accommodation, or ways in which individuals cope with conditions of inequality and oppression. Predatory crimes like break and enter, robbery, and drug dealing are often simply economic survival strategies. Personal crimes like murder, assault, and sexual assault are products of the strains of living under stressful conditions of scarcit, deprivation and humiliation. Defensive crimes like economic sabotage, illegal strikes, civil disobedience, and eco-terrorism are direct political challenges to social injustice.

Figure 8.13 Corporate crime as a crime of domination. (Figure courtesy of Anonymous9000/Flickr.) CC BY 2.0

On the other hand, crimes committed by people in power are often crimes of domination. Crimes of control are committed by police and law enforcement, such as violations of rights, over-policing minority communities, illegal surveillance and use of excessive force. Crimes of government are committed by elected and appointed officials of the state through misuse of state powers, including corruption, misallocation of funds, political assassinations and illegal wars. Crimes of economic domination comprise white collar and corporate crime, including embezzlement, fraud, price-fixing, insider trading, tax evasion, unsafe work conditions, pollution, and marketing of hazardous products. Crimes of social injury include practices of institutional racism and economic exploitation, violations of basic human rights, or denials of gender, sexual and racial equality, that are often not considered unlawful.

Those in power define what crime is and who is excluded from full participation in society as a matter of course. Quinney pointed out that crimes of domination are not criminalized and policed to the degree that crimes of accommodation are, even though the harms they pose to society are greater and affect more people.

Inequality in normative regulation, law, policing and punishment is compounded in Canada through the legacy of colonialism. Although racial inequality has been formally eliminated by law and policy, racialized minorities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system in large part due to historical colonial narratives linking criminality and race (Mawani and Sealy, 2011). While crime rates have been declining overall, incarceration rates for Indigenous people and Blacks have increased, as has the use of racial profiling and the unequal application of discretionary powers by police and criminal justice authorities. A pattern of prejudice, racial bias and stereotyping is pervasive within the administration of justice.

Critical sociologists argue that this is not so much a product of a few “bad seeds” within the criminal justice system, but of the institutional repercussions of colonialism,  the process whereby Europeans established control over other people’s territories and lives. As the formal structures of colonial segregation were dismantled — i.e.,slavery, the Reserve system, residential schools,legal disenfranchisement, etc. — informal post-colonial segregation was reestablished to control the “freed” populations, who continue to be defined by the same colonial narratives as dangerous, violent, irrational, child-like, unassimmilable, un-civil, or degenerate Others.

Garland (1985) describes one outcome of this colonial legacy as the penal welfare complex. This refers to a system of control that effectively uses the prison and criminal justice system to manage the surplus, largely racialized, underclass of people who have been excluded from normal circuits of civility. Generations of people find themselves caught in a vicious circle of broken households, incarcerated parents or family members, engagement in minor crimes (petty theft, drinking alcohol in public, loitering, drugs, etc.), prison, parole, and back to prison because of parole violations. In the era of neoliberal capitalism, welfare budgets are cut and imprisonment expands, leading to the construction of a semi-permanent quasi-criminal population managed by police, judges, parole officers and social workers.

Crime and Social Class

While positivist theories often emphasize crime and deviance associated with the underprivileged, there is in fact no clear evidence that crimes are committed disproportionately by the poor or lower classes. There is an established association between the underprivileged and serious street crimes like armed robbery or assault, but these do not constitute the majority of crimes in society, nor the most serious crimes in terms of their overall social, personal, and environmental harms.

On the other hand, “suite crimes” or crimes committed by the wealthy and powerful remain an underpunished and costly problem within society. White-collar crime  refers to “crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his [or her] occupation” (Sutherland, 1949). Corporate crime refers to crimes committed by corporate employees or owners in the pursuit of profit or other organization goals. White collar crime benefits the individual involved whereas corporate crime benefits the company or corporation. Both types of crime are more difficult to detect than street crime because the transactions take place in private and are more difficult to prosecute because the criminals can secure expert legal advice on how to bend the rules.

In the United States it has been estimated that the yearly value of all street crime is roughly 5 per cent of the value of corporate crime or “suite crime” (Snider, 1994). Comparable data is not compiled in Canada; however, the Canadian Department of Justice reported that the total value of property stolen or damaged due to property crime in 2008 was an estimated $5.8 billion (Zhang, 2008), which would put the cost of corporate crime at $116 billion (if the same ratio holds true in Canada). For example, Revenue Canada estimates that wealthy Canadians had a combined total of between $75.9 billion and $240.5 billion  in 2013 concealed in untaxed offshore tax havens (Canada Revenue Agency, 2018). In 2020, the Canada Revenue Agency was reported as pursuing an estimated $4.4 billion in taxes from individuals and corporations suspected of concealing wealth in offshore tax havens (Nardi, 2020).

PricewaterhouseCoopers reports that 36 per cent of Canadian companies were subject to white-collar crime in 2013 (theft, fraud, embezzlement, cybercrime). One in ten lost $5 million or more (McKenna, 2014). Recent high-profile Ponzi scheme and investment frauds run into tens of millions of dollars each, destroying investors’ retirement savings. Vincent Lacroix was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2009 for defrauding investors of $115 million; Earl Jones was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2010 for defrauding investors of $50 million; Weizhen Tang was sentenced to 6 years in prison in 2013 for defrauding investors of $52 million. These were highly publicized cases in which jail time was demanded by the public (although as nonviolent offenders the perpetrators are eligible for parole after serving one-sixth of their sentence). However, in 2011–2012 prison sentences were nearly twice as likely for the typically lower-class perpetrators of break and enters (59 per cent) as they were for typically middle- and upper-class perpetrators of fraud (35 per cent) (Boyce, 2013).

This imbalance based on class power can also be put into perspective with respect to homicide rates (Samuelson, 2000). In 2005, there were 658 homicides in Canada recorded by police, an average of 1.8 a day. This is an extremely serious crime, which merits the attention given to it by the criminal justice system. However, in 2005 there were also 1,097 workplace deaths that were, in principle, preventable. Canadians work on average 230 days a year, meaning that there were on average five workplace deaths a day for every working day in 2005 (Sharpe & Hardt, 2006). Estimates from the United States suggest that only one-third of on-the-job deaths and injuries can be attributed to worker carelessness (Samuelson, 2000).

In 2005, 51 per cent of the workplace deaths in Canada were due to occupational diseases like cancers from exposure to asbestos (Sharpe & Hardt, 2006). The Ocean Ranger oil rig collapse that killed 84 workers off Newfoundland in 1982 and the Westray Mine explosion that killed 26 workers in Nova Scotia in 1992 were due to design flaws and unsafe working conditions that were known to the owners. However, whereas corporations are prosecuted for regulatory violations governing health and safety, it is rare for corporations or corporate officials to be prosecuted for the consequences of those violations. “For example, a company would be fined for not installing safety bolts in a construction crane, but not prosecuted for the death of several workers who were below the crane when it collapsed (as in a recent case in Western Canada)” (Samuelson, 2000).

Corporate crime is arguably a more harmful type of crime than street crime, yet white-collar criminals are treated relatively leniently. Fines, when they are imposed, are typically absorbed as a cost of doing business and passed on to consumers, and many crimes, from investment fraud to insider trading and price fixing, are simply not prosecuted. For example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that law enforcement fail to apprehend money launderers 99.8% of the time (UNODC, 2011). From a critical sociology point of view, this is because white-collar crime is committed by elites who are able to use their power and financial resources to evade punishment. Here are some examples:

  1. An expert panel estimated that annual money laundering activity in Canada in 2018 was $46.7 billion and $7.4 billion in British Columbia (Maloney, Somerville and Unger, 2019). The use of real estate as a means to launder money is estimated to be a major contributer to the inflation of real estate prices in Vancouver, increasing property values by approximately 5% and contributing to the affordability crisis. However because of laws protecting the privacy of financial transactions and property ownership information, law enforcement agencies have difficulty tracing who has committed money-laundering crime, where the crime has been committed, or even that a crime has been committed at all.
  2. The KPMG offshore tax avoidance scheme involved creating shell companies for Canadian multimillionaires and billionaires in the Isle of Man, where clients could “give away” their wealth and get back regular tax-free “gifts,”  thus avoiding paying federal taxes. Because of difficultities in prosecuting the cases, the Canada Revenue Agency offered secret amnesty to some clients who had been using the scheme and “settled out of court” with others (Cashore and Zalac, 2021;  Cashore, Ivany & Findlay, 2017).
  3. In the United States, not a single criminal charge was filed against a corporate executive after the financial mismanagement of the 2008 financial crisis. The American Security and Exchange Commission levied a total of $2.73 billion in fines and out-of-court settlements, but the total cost of the financial crisis was estimated to be between $6 and $14 trillion (Pyke, 2013).
  4. In Canada, three Nortel executives were charged by the RCMP’s Integrated Market Enforcement Team (IMET) with fraudulently altering accounting procedures in 2002–2003 to make it appear that Nortel was running a profit (thereby triggering salary bonuses for themselves totalling $12 million), but were acquitted in 2013. The accounting procedures were found to inflate the value of the company, but the intent to defraud could not be proven. The RCMP’s IMET, implemented in 2003 to fight white-collar crime, managed only 11 convictions over the first nine years of its existence (McFarland & Blackwell, 2013).
  5. Canadian pipeline company Enbridge’s 20,000-barrel spill of bitumen (tar sands) oil into the Kalamazoo River, Michigan in 2010 was allowed to continue for 17 hours and involved the company twice re-pumping bitumen into the pipeline. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report noted that the spill was the result of  “pervasive organizational failures,” and documents revealed that the pipeline operators were more concerned about getting home for the weekend than solving the problem (Rusnell, 2012). No criminal charges were laid.
Figure 8.14 In the United States, from 1986 until 2010, the punishment for possessing crack, a “poor person’s drug,” was 100 times stricter than the punishment for cocaine use, a drug favoured by the wealthy. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) Public Domain

Feminist Contributions

Women who are regarded as criminally deviant are often seen as being  doubly deviant. They have broken the law but they have also broken gender norms about appropriate female behaviour, whereas men’s criminal behaviour is seen as consistent with their aggressive, self-assertive character.

This double standard explains the tendency to medicalize women’s deviance, to see it as the product of physiological or psychiatric pathology. For example, in the late 19th century, kleptomania was a diagnosis used in legal defences that linked an extreme desire for department store commodities with various forms of female physiological or psychiatric illness. The fact that “good” middle- and upper-class women, who were at that time coincidentally beginning to experience the benefits of independence from men, would turn to stealing in department stores to obtain the new feminine consumer items on display there, could not be explained without resorting to diagnosing the activity as an illness of the “weaker sex” (Kramar, 2011).

Feminist analysis focuses on the way gender inequality influences the opportunities to commit crime and the definition, detection, and prosecution of crime. In part the gender difference revolves around patriarchal attitudes toward women and the disregard for matters considered to be of a private or domestic nature. For example, until 1969 abortion was illegal in Canada, meaning that hundreds of women died or were injured each year when they received illegal abortions (McLaren & McLaren, 1997). It was not until the Supreme Court ruling in 1988 that struck down the law that it was acknowledged that women are capable of making their own choice, in consultation with a doctor, about the procedure.

Similarly, until the 1970s two major types of criminal deviance were largely ignored or were difficult to prosecute as crimes: sexual assault and spousal assault. Through the 1970s, women worked to change the criminal justice system and establish rape crisis centres and battered women’s shelters, bringing attention to domestic violence. In 1983 the Criminal Code was amended to replace the crimes of rape and indecent assault with a three-tier structure of sexual assault (ranging from unwanted sexual touching that violates the integrity of the victim to sexual assault with a weapon or threats or causing bodily harm to aggravated sexual assault that results in wounding, maiming, disfiguring, or endangering the life of the victim) (Kong et al., 2003). Holly Johnson (1996) reported that in the mid-1990s, when violence against women began to be surveyed systematically in Canada, 51 per cent of Canadian women had been the subject to at least one sexual or physical assault since the age of 16.

The goal of the amendments was to emphasize that sexual assault is an act of violence, not a sexual act. Previously, rape had been defined as an act that involved penetration and was perpetrated against a woman who was not the wife of the accused. This had excluded spousal sexual assault as a crime and had also exposed women to secondary victimization by the criminal justice system when they tried to bring charges. Secondary victimization occurs when the women’s own sexual history and her willingness to consent are questioned in the process of laying charges and reaching a conviction, which as feminists pointed out, increased victims’ reluctance to lay charges.

In particular, feminists challenged the twin myths of rape that were often the subtext of criminal justice proceedings presided over largely by men (Kramar, 2011). The first myth is that women are untrustworthy and tend to lie about assault out of malice toward men, as a way of getting back at them for personal grievances. The second myth, is that women will say no to sexual relations when they really mean yes. Typical of these types of issues was the judge’s comment in a Manitoba Court of Appeal case in which a man pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting his twelve- or thirteen-year-old babysitter:

The girl, of course, could not consent in the legal sense, but nonetheless was a willing participant. She was apparently more sophisticated than many her age and was performing many household tasks including babysitting the accused’s children. The accused and his wife were somewhat estranged (as cited in Kramar, 2011).

Because the girl was willing to perform household chores in place of the man’s estranged wife, the judge assumed she was also willing to engage in sexual relations. In order to address these types of issue, feminists successfully pressed the Supreme Court to deliver rulings that restricted a defence attorney’s access to a victim’s medical and counselling records and rules of evidence were changed to prevent a woman’s past sexual history being used against her. Consent to sexual discourse was redefined as what a woman actually says or does, not what the man believes to be consent. Feminists also argued that spousal assault was a key component of patriarchal power. Typically it was hidden in the household and largely regarded as a private, domestic matter in which police were reluctant to get involved.

Interestingly women and men report similar rates of spousal violence — in 2009, 6 per cent had experienced spousal violence in the previous five years — but women are more likely to experience more severe forms of violence including multiple victimizations and violence leading to physical injury (Sinha, 2013). In order to empower women, feminists pressed lawmakers to develop zero-tolerance policies that would support aggressive policing and prosecution of offenders. These policies oblige police to lay charges in cases of domestic violence when a complaint is made, whether or not the victim wished to proceed with charges (Kramar, 2011).

In 2009, 84 per cent of violent spousal incidents reported by women to police resulted in charges being laid. However, according to victimization surveys only 30 per cent of actual incidents were reported to police. The majority of women who did not report incidents to the police stated that they dealt with them in another way, felt they were a private matter, or did not think the incidents were important enough to report. A significant proportion, however, did not want anyone to find out (44 per cent), did not want their spouse to be arrested (40 per cent), or were too afraid of their spouse (19 per cent) (Sinha, 2013).

Interpretive Sociology

Interpretive sociology is a theoretical approach that can be used to explain how societies and/or social groups come to view behaviours as deviant or conventional. The key emphasis is on the way that the meanings which guide behaviour are constructed in the course of social interactions and become attached to things and people. Research focuses on the social processes through which specific activities and identities are socially defined as “deviant” and then come to be “lived” as deviant. Deviance is something that, in essence, is learned. In interpretive research, crime, deviance and deviants are not approached as quantifiable things or objects, but as the products of processes of criminalization, Othering and identity formation.

  • Criminalization is “the process by which behaviors and individuals are transformed into crime and criminals” (Michalowski, 1985). For example, Becker (1963) notes the processes whereby moral entrepreneurs and authorities come to decide that specific activities are criminal, as well as the sequence of interactions with the criminal justice system that a person goes through in being assigned a criminal identity.
  • Othering is the process in which an individual becomes recognized and stigmatized as socially deviant. In Othering, a deviant,  abnormal or Other group is defined in opposition to a “normal” group.  Negative or deviant characteristics are attributed to behaviours, individuals or groups that set them apart as abnormal, different or “other.” This is a process that involves power relations because not all groups have the power to determine what heir social identity is. For example, Michel Foucault describes the institutional “dividing practices” used in psychology, medicine and criminology to objectify the subjects under their control in relation to norms of sanity, health, and innocence that the institutions themselves define: the “mad and the sane, the sick and the healthy, the criminals and the ‘good boys'” (Foucault, 1994).
  • Identity formation is the process in which an individual creates and sustains a self-image and position in the world. In the study of crime and deviance, identity formation describes the process in which an individual goes from committing an act of deviance or rule breaking to assuming a deviant identity in which rule breaking is a matter of course. It involves a process of aligning subjective self-understanding with external definitions of self.

To sum up, social groups and authorities create deviance by first making the rules and then applying them to people who are thereby labelled as outsiders (Becker, 1963). Deviance is not an intrinsic quality of individuals but is created through the social interactions of various authorities, institutions and individuals.

Deviance as Learned Behaviour

In the early 1900s, sociologist Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950) sought to understand how deviant behaviour developed among people. Since criminology was a young field, he drew on other aspects of sociology including social interactions and group learning (Laub, 2006). His conclusions established differential association theory, stating that individuals learn deviant behaviour from those close to them who provide models of and opportunities for deviance. According to Sutherland, deviance is less a personal choice and more a result of differential socialization processes. Differential association refers to the balance of a persons criminal and non-criminal associations. “A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favourable to violation of the law over definitions unfaviourable to violation of law” (Sutherland and Cressey, 1977). In other words, having a social milieu in which most of ones contacts encourage or normalize criminality predicts the likelihood of becoming criminal, whereas a social milieu where ones contacts discourage criminality predict the opposite. A teenager whose friends shoplift is more likely to view shoplifting as acceptable.

Figure 8.15 Howard Becker playing piano at a club on 63rd Street in Chicago, circa 1950. (Photo courtesy of Howard S. Becker.) Used with Permission.

The concept of deviance as learned behaviour can be illustrated by Howard Becker’s (b. 1928) study of marijuana users in the jazz club scene of Chicago in the 1950s (1953). Becker paid his way through graduate studies by performing as a jazz pianist and took the opportunity to study his fellow musicians. He conducted 50 interviews and noted that becoming a marijuana user involved a social process of initiation into a deviant role that could not be accounted for by either the physiological properties of cannabis or the psychological needs (for intoxication, escape, fantasy, etc.) of the individual. Rather the “career” of the marijuana user involved a sequence of changes in attitude and experience learned through social interactions with experienced users before cannabis could be regularly smoked for pleasure.

Regular cannabis use was a social achievement that required the individual to pass through three distinct stages. Failure to do so meant that the individual would not assume a deviant role as a regular user of cannabis.

  • Firstly, individuals had to learn to smoke cannabis in a way that would produce real effects. Many first-time users do not feel the effects. If they are not shown how to inhale the smoke or how much to smoke, they might not feel the drug had any effect on them. Their “career” might end there if they are not encouraged by others to persist.
  • Secondly, they had to learn to recognize the effects of “being high” and connect them with drug use. Although people might display different symptoms of intoxication — feeling hungry, elated, rubbery, etc. — they might not recognize them as qualities associated with the cannabis or even recognize them as different at all. Through listening to experienced users talk about their experiences, novices are able to locate the same type of sensations in their own experience and notice something qualitatively different going on.
  • Thirdly, they had to learn how to enjoy the sensations. They had to learn how to define the situation of getting high as pleasurable. Smoking cannabis is not necessarily pleasurable and often involves uncomfortable experiences like loss of control, impaired judgement, insecurity, distorted perception, and paranoia. Unless the experiences can be redefined as pleasurable, the individual will not become a regular user. Often experienced users are able to coach novices through difficulties and encourage them by telling them they will learn to like it. It is through differential association with a specific set of individuals that a person learns and assumes a deviant role. The role needs to be learned and its value recognized before it can become routine or normal for the individual.

Procurement into prostitution involves a similar process, one which is manipulated by the procurers or pimps. Hodgson (1997) describes two methods of procurement that pimps use to draw girls into a life of prostitution. After judging a girl’s level of vulnerability, they deploy either a seduction method, providing affection, attention and emotional support for the most isolated girls, or a stratagem method, promising wealth, glamour and excitement for those who are less vulnerable. After a girl has “chosen” to stay with the “family,” they are socialized step by step to comply to the roles, rules and expectations of the world of prostitution. Their former identity is neutralized and attachment to previously learned values and norms is weakened through a process that begins with (a) training in the rules of the sex trade by the pimp’s “wife-in-law” or “main lady,” (b) turning the first trick, which deepens the girl’s identification with street culture and the other prostitutes, and (c) the use of violence to enforce compliance when the girl has second thoughts and the relationship with the pimp deteriorates. At each stage the girl finds herself more deeply entrenched in a world of norms, values and behaviours that are strongly stigmatized in the dominant culture. While various levels of coercion are present, the process of learning, internalizing and acknowledging the deviant self-image and social role of the prostitute is necessary for continued participation in prostitution.

Labeling Theory

Although many people violate norms from time to time, few people would consider themselves deviant. Often, those who do, however, have gradually come to believe they are deviant because they been labelled “deviant” by society. Labeling theory examines the ascribing of a deviant behaviour to another person by members of society. Thus, what is considered deviant is determined not so much by the behaviours themselves or the people who commit them, but by the reactions of others to these behaviours. As a result, what is considered deviant changes over time and can vary significantly across cultures. As Becker put it, “deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to the offender. The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour people so label” (1963).

It is important to note that labeling theory does not address the initial motives or reasons for the rule-breaking behaviour, which might be unknowable, but the outcome of criminal justice procedures that process offenders as deviants. It does not attempt to answer the questions of why people break the rules so much as why particular acts or particular individuals are labelled deviant while others are not. How do certain acts get labelled deviant and what are the consequences?

Sociologist Edwin Lemert expanded on the concepts of labeling theory, identifying two types of deviance that affect identity formation. Primary deviance is the initial violation of norms that does not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others. Speeding is a deviant act, but receiving a speeding ticket generally does not make others view the offender as a bad person, nor does it alter offender’s own self-concept. Individuals who engage in primary deviance still maintain a feeling of belonging in society and are likely to continue to conform to norms in the future.

However, primary deviance can morph into secondary deviance. Secondary deviance occurs when a person’s self-concept and behaviour begin to change after their actions are labelled as deviant by members of society. The person may begin to take on and fulfill the role of a “deviant” as an act of rebellion against the society that has labelled that individual as such. For example, consider a high school student who often cuts class and gets into fights. The student is reprimanded frequently by teachers and school staff, and soon enough, develops a reputation as a “troublemaker.” As a result, the student might take these reprimands as a mark of status and start acting out even more, breaking more rules, adopting the troublemaker label and embracing this deviant identity.

Secondary deviance can be so strong that it bestows a master status on an individual. A master status is a label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual. Some people see themselves primarily as doctors, artists, or grandfathers. Others see themselves as beggars, convicts, or addicts. The criminal justice system is ironically one of the primary agencies of socialization into the criminal “career path.” The labels “juvenile delinquent” or “criminal” are not automatically applied to individuals who break the law. A teenager who is picked up by the police for a minor misdemeanour might be labelled as a “good kid” who made a mistake and who then is released after a stern talking to, or they might be labelled a juvenile delinquent and processed as a young offender. In the first case, the incident may not make any impression on the teenager’s personality or on the way others react to them. In the second case, being labelled a juvenile delinquent sets up a set of responses to the teenager by police and authorities that lead to criminal charges, more severe penalties, and a process of socialization into the criminal identity.

In detention in particular, individuals learn how to assume the identity of serious offenders as they interact with hardened, long-term inmates within the prison culture (Wheeler, 1961). The act of imprisonment itself modifies behaviour, to make individuals more criminal. Aaron Cicourel’s (b. 1928) research in the 1960s showed how police used their discretionary powers to label rule-breaking teenagers who came from homes where the parents were divorced as juvenile delinquents and to arrest them more frequently than teenagers from “intact homes” (1968). Judges were also found to be more likely to impose harsher penalties on teenagers from divorced families. Unsurprisingly, Cicourel noted that subsequent research conducted on the social characteristics of teenagers who were charged and processed as juvenile delinquents found that children from divorced families were more likely to be charged and processed. Divorced families were seen as a cause of youth crime. This set up a vicious circle in which the research confirmed the prejudices of police and judges who continued to label, arrest, and convict the children of divorced families disproportionately. The labeling process acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy in which police found what they expected to see.

Once a label is applied it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-fulfilling prophecies refer to the mechanisms put in play by the act of labeling, which “conspire to shape the person in the image people have of him” (Becker, 1963). A person may or may not fit the label given, but through a series of processes eventually does. Becker notes several elements in the process in which a label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Firstly, someone who has been labelled a criminal or deviant based on committing a specific act of deviance or crime is often considered as criminal and deviant in other respects as well. Their entire personality is tainted. They are considered, at their core, “to be a person ‘without respect for the law'” (Becker, 1963). Secondly, once characterized as such, a person tends to get cut off and isolated from participation in conventional social life even if, prior to the labeling, their deviant activity did not affect their participation. The use of intravenous drugs might not affect a user’s work performance but the public knowledge and subsequent reaction to their drug use will most likely lead to them losing their job. The person who is labelled as an addict is seen as “weak-willed” and unemployable, whether actual job performance is affected or not. Thirdly, as a consequence of the resulting social isolation, the labelled person finds it difficult not to break other norms and laws, which they had otherwise no intention of breaking. They are also more likely to turn to social support from criminal or deviant subcultures where the support from conventional society has been withdrawn. To continue to enjoy the pleasures of using prohibited drugs, the user is obliged to turn to the black market where drugs are expensive and dangerous and forge relationships there. “Hence the treatment of the addict’s deviance places him in a position where it will probably be necessary to resort to deceit and crime in order to support his habit. The behavior is a consequence of the public reaction to the deviance rather than a consequence of the inherent qualities of the deviant act” (Becker, 1963).

Micro sociology: The Foreground of Crime and Deviance

Much of the sociological explanation of crime and deviance focuses on the background variables that lead or make it likely that individuals will break rules. Positivist sociology often examines background factors like broken homes, employment status, neighbourhood or social strain, etc. as causes of criminality or deviance. Critical sociology examines structural inequalities based on class, gender or race, etc. as the historical context of crime and deviance. Micro-sociologists do not necessarily disagree, but emphasize that crime or rule-breaking, whatever its likelihood predicted by background variables, always takes place in a particular situation and a particular moment in time. They draw attention to the foreground variables of rule breaking: the immediate circumstances of the violation, the opportunities and impediments to rule breaking that are present, the different motives, experiences and interpretations of the people involved, and the moods and emotional process of perpetrators (or victims). Without these foreground factors the crime or violation would not take place.

As Katz (1988) puts it, something “in the moment” must exist to propel an individual to commit a crime. Each crime has unique situational or micro-sociological variables that provide the foreground of the crime.

By way of explanation, I will propose for each type of crime a different set of individually’ necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, each set containing (1) a path of action — distinctive practical requirements for successfully committing the crime, (2) a line of interpretation — unique ways of understanding how one is and will be seen by others, and (3) an emotional process — seductions and compulsions that have special dynamics (Katz, 1988).

Katz notes in particular that there is an emotional quality that accompanies different types of crime: the hot-blooded murder, the furtive sneakiness of shoplifting, the hardening of the stickup “hardman,” etc. Each type of crime has its own “seductions and compulsions”— a distinctive and compelling feeling or attraction to the perpetrator in the moment that leads them to overcome resistance. Types of moral emotion such as “humiliation, righteousness, arrogance, ridicule, cynicism, defilement, and vengeance” (Katz, 1988) are especially central to experiences of criminal rule breaking. One of the most compelling attractions of rule breaking is to overcome a challenge and “prove oneself” in some fashion. The highschool shooter seeks to overcome the humiliation of having his masculinity challenged by committing an act of exaggerated violent masculinity. The teenage shoplifter engages in a “thrilling melodrama about the self” in being able to demonstrate personal competence and get away with shoplifting under the noses of adults. These claims to “moral existence,” as Katz describes them, (i.e.,claims to self-validity, self-righteousness or self-vindication, etc.), are compelling motivators in the moment of the act.

Two white boys posing with hand guns.
Figure 8.16 A macro-level explanation of gun violence might point to the culture of violence or the availability of weapons as a cause. A micro-level explanation focuses on the situational processes or pathways that make gun violence possible. Collins (2008) argues that most gun violence is incompetent because of the difficulties people have  overcoming the confrontational tension/fear barrier. (Figure courtesy of Daniel Grosvenor/Flickr.) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Similarly, Collins (2008) argues that micro-sociological or situational variables have to be taken into account in explaining violence. Although background conditions of poverty, racial discrimination, toxic masculinity, family disorganization, abuse, stress, frustration or exposure to media violence, etc. might predispose someone to violence, they are not sufficient to explain specific acts of violence. Micro-sociological evidence shows that in order for violence to take place in actual face-to-face situations, a person has to overcome powerful barriers that are built in to the processes of social interaction itself. He refers to this as a confrontational tension/fear barrier. Violence is difficult to accomplish because the natural tendency in any social interaction is agreement. Dischord and confrontation cause tension, which is uncomfortable and usually avoided, but if the confrontation escalates towards violence, a potent physiological “cocktail” in the form of fear, anxiety and adrenalin kicks in as a barrier to the confrontation going further. “No matter how motivated someone may be, if the situation does not unfold so that confrontational tension/fear is overcome, violence will not proceed” (Collins, 2008). This applies to ordinary street violence, domestic violence and other criminal violence, as well as professional violence such as police violence or military combat, where direct confrontations take place face to face. Violence is correspondingly easier the more distant the combatants are from each other.

For example, Collins describes the escalation of tensions and “bluster” that lead to street fights. Tensions escalate in a confrontation when the individuals start breaking the codes of conversational turn taking and start talking over each other. The argument gets louder and more heated as each person tries to control the “conversational space,” interrupting the other and disrupting the other’s ability to speak. The cognitive content of the dispute tends to dissipate and is replaced by staccato utterances,  insults, and swearing, which have more dramatic impact. However, usually the confrontation will end before coming to violence. One person will leave “in a huff” even if it means loss of face, or the exchange will become boring and lose energy, for both the participants and the audience. Only if specific situational conditions are met will the confrontation become violent.

[C]onfrontations bring tension and fear, which inhibits effective violence; emotional tension gets released into violent attack only where there is a weak victim, or where the conflict is hedged round with social supports to make it a staged fight fought within socially enforced limits. Thus bluster is likely to lead onward to a fight in one of these two circumstances: First, if one side feels much stronger than the other, at least at that moment, the stronger launches an attack. The bluster itself may provide the test of who is weaker; wavering or cringing in the face of bluster, or retreating from it, is one thing that can trigger an attack. Second, if there is a highly interested audience, witnessing the buildup of boast and bluster, the scene is set for a fight, and the principals may not be able to back out of it if they wished (Collins, 2008).

As a result, Collins defines violence micro-sociologically as a process:  “a set of pathways around confrontational tension and fear” (Collins, 2008).

From the micro-sociological perspective, it is important for sociology to determine the situational circumstances of rule-breaking or crime in forming an explanation therefore: “I suggest that a seemingly simple question be asked persistently in detailed application to the facts of criminal experience: what are people trying to do when they commit a crime?” (Katz, 1988).

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Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition Copyright © 2023 by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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