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Crime and Deviance: Important Writers

Who are the important writers and theorists related to crime and deviance? From Durkheim to Hall, learn more about the key influences on the study of criminology.

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

Writing at the turn of the 20th century, Durkheim argued that crime and deviance were an inevitable part of every society. In fact a small amount could actually be positive although higher levels were a warning sign that society was out of balance in some way.

In his famous study ‘Suicide’ he showed how even the most individual of acts could be explained by the state of society. Rates of suicide varied across social groups, regions and countries and his statistical analysis concluded that these variations were caused by social conditions. For example, the suicide rate increased during times of rapid social change (e.g. in times of economic boom) and when individuals lacked integration into wider social groups (e.g. the suicide rate is higher for single people than married).

Durkheim saw a limited amount of deviance as having some positive effects. Societies need rebels to question the way things are and suggest positive social changes. Also, the response to deviance helps ‘boundary maintenance’ in a society by showing people the limits of acceptable behaviour and also enforces social solidarity by drawing people together in shared outrage at deviant acts.

Robert Merton (1910-2003)

Merton developed the ideas of Durkheim (see above) to explain how different forms of deviance were related to people’s position in social structure. He argued that societies needed to ensure that the goals set were matched with the means provided for people to achieve those goals. So, if the goals of a society were to be wealthy then society needed to provide its members with the means to achieve wealth. This is the principle at the heart of the ‘American Dream’ – anyone can make it to the top given the effort and talent.

In practice Merton noted that opportunities are not available to all – the ‘American Dream’ is just not a reality for many people – and deviance can be the result. Many people are conformists who accept the means and the goals and are able to achieve a reasonable level of success. However, this is not always the case. Merton identified four possible responses:

    Howard Becker (1928)

    In the early 1960s Becker and his colleagues at the University of Chicago were key figures in the development of what has become known as labelling theory. This theory completely changed the focus of criminology from trying to understand acts of deviance in terms of social structure and the background off the offender to a concentration on the ways in which the forces of social control themselves could provoke and even encourage deviance. Becker famously stated that ‘Deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’’. That is, a person does not come to be seen as ‘deviant’ unless other people have judged them to be so. So someone may buy drugs to sell to their friends but they do not become a criminal unless they are arrested and taken to court.

    This process of ‘labelling’ has major effects on the individual and those around them. They may begin to change their identity and see themselves as deviant while others will change their perception of them, coming to see them in terms of their deviance. The label of ‘deviant’ can become a ‘master status’ in that it dominates the way that person is viewed. It can also cause the person labelled to become more committed to deviance – that is, the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This escalation of deviance is known as secondary deviance – deviance caused by the process of labelling.

    Becker’s work initiated a string of research analysing the process of labelling, usually focusing on the experiences of marginalised groups such as drug takers and gangs. Becker argued that sociologists should take the side of powerless groups – or underdogs – who were often on the receiving end of labelling.

    The preferred method of research for Becker and his colleagues was ethnography using participant observation. This approach allowed the researchers like Becker to empathise with these underdog groups and see the world from their point of view.

    Labelling theory has been heavily criticised for being over-sympathetic to deviant groups and for its lack of attention to the effects of crime and deviance on victims. However, its focus on the social construction of deviance remains very important in any understanding of issues such as the relationship between gender, ethnicity and deviance.

    Jock Young (1942-2013)

    Jock Young was a key figure in the development of British criminology. His ideas have been a driving force in the development of the sociology of deviance since the 1960s.

    In 1971 Young’s book ‘The Drugtakers’ adopted an ethnographic approach to understanding ‘hippies’ in London. It showed how a police clampdown on marijuana smokers encouraged that group to go further ‘underground’ and in doing so begin to mix with users and dealers of harder drugs. This made them identify themselves as deviant. Thus their initial deviance was amplified by the process of labelling.

    By the 1970s Young had become aware of the deficiencies of labelling theory in failing to take into account wider power relations in society. He became one of the initiators of the ‘New Criminology’ movement which linked labelling theory with a neo-Marxist perspective (see Stuart Hall below).

    In the 1980s Young turned away from neo-Marxism which he described as ‘left idealism’ – impractical and theoretical. Instead he developed Left Realism, a new approach which attempted to be practical and realistic while maintaining socialist principles. See the ‘Key concepts’ section for more on Realism. Left Realism focused on practical measures to deal with the real problem of crime and many of its proposals became influential in Labour party policy. Left Realism pioneered local victim surveys, advocated community policing and restorative justice (where the offender faces up to their victim). It also argued that crime rates would only reduce with a fairer distribution of opportunities and income.

    At the start of the 21st century Young embraced the idea of ‘late modern’ society. He saw society as becoming more uncertain and unstable, with a breakdown of consensus about what is right and wrong. Social exclusion is increasing at the same time as individualism is growing and the media feeding everyone the view that wealth and the ownership of consumer goods is the key to happiness. This means that relative deprivation is increasing, even for the middle classes who resent both the underclass and the unjustified huge salaries of bankers. The result is that crime increases throughout the social structure and new types of unpleasant acts such as ‘hate crimes’ grow. At the same time there are public calls for harsher sentences and more and more behaviour becomes criminalised.

    Perhaps Young overemphasises the dire consequences of late modernity, especially as crime rates now seem to be reducing and the divorce rate declining. Nevertheless he remains the most influential British criminologist of the late 20th century.

    Stuart Hall (1932-2014)

    Stuart Hall was an important cultural analyst and commentator and Director of the influential Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (BCCCS) in the 1970s. This group of sociologists pioneered the analysis of subcultures, seeing the lifestyle, norms and dress of groups like skinheads as methods of symbolically resisting modern capitalism.

    In terms of the sociology of deviance, Hall’s major contribution is his co-authorship of ‘Policing the Crisis’. This study is a key text in the neo-Marxist ‘New Criminology’ movement, attempting to produce a ‘fully social theory of deviance’, taking into account wider social structure along with the labelling process.

    ‘Policing the Crisis’ focused on the moral panic about ‘mugging’ in the early 1970s. Hall argues that at this time capitalism was experiencing an economic crisis and there was a danger of social uprising and revolution. At the same time a moral panic developed about street crime which, although not new, became labelled as ‘mugging’ and was associated with young Black males. This moral panic justified heavy police presence in inner-city areas where there had been most danger of rebellion. In this way potential uprising was averted. Hall’s argument thus explains the moral panic and subsequent labelling of young Black males in terms of a Marxist analysis of society.