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Crime and Deviance: Key concepts

Discover more about the key concepts related to crime and deviance, from labelling and white-collar crime to moral panic and get tips for your own essays and coursework.


Over 100 years ago it was quite radical to suggest that rates of crime and deviance could alter with the state of society. But this was the claim made by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (see below). A high rate of deviance, he argued, could tell us something about the state of social order in a society. Anomie refers to a state of unbalance in society where individuals are not regulated by a set of clear norms and values. In these conditions individuals are freed from the usual social constraints and this can lead to high rates of deviance. Durkheim showed how suicide rates increase in times of both economic boom and slump. In these conditions life becomes unpredictable – fortunes can be won or lost very quickly and old values become less relevant to individuals experiencing this uncertainty.

The concept of anomie was later used to explain different forms of deviance by Robert Merton (see section on Important writers).


In some situations it can become the norm to commit criminal or deviant acts. This is the case when a group develops values that are supportive of deviant behaviour. This type of group is known as a subculture. A subculture shares some elements of the overall culture but has distinctive features of its own. A group of drug takers may share wider social norms such as eating with a knife and fork but may view illegal drug taking as ‘normal’. In fact someone in the group not taking drugs might actually be seen as deviant by other members of the subculture.

Subcultures are most commonly associated with young people who have yet to become fully committed to conformist social norms and values. Their status as ‘in between’ childhood and adulthood may lead to confusion about identity and cause them to identify strongly with other people in the same situation – their peers. Subcultural theories are commonly used to explain juvenile delinquency such as vandalism.

The idea of subculture has been used by sociologists influenced by different perspectives. For example, labelling theorists may see subcultures developing as a result of labelling while Marxist sociologists view them as a symbolic method of resisting capitalism.


Some people who commit deviant acts may never be identified and are able to continue to lead ‘normal’ lives. Others (whether or not they have actually committed deviant acts) may be identified as ‘deviant’ and this can affect the way others view them. The label of deviant can become a ‘ master status’ so that the person labelled cannot escape from the deviant label because it is the first thing anyone thinks of when interacting with that person.

Labelling someone as ‘deviant’ also affects the way the labelled person views themselves. Sometimes it can make them change their self-image so that they actually become more committed to deviance. Deviance that occurs as a result of labelling is referred to as secondary deviance. In effect, the label has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An example would be the label of ‘ex-prisoner’. Once a person is known to have spent time inside prison, that label will become a ‘master status’, affecting perceptions of them and possibly preventing them from getting a job, housing and forming new relationships. The effects of the label may actually result in encouraging them to go back to crime.

Labelling theory was developed by the American sociologist Howard Becker (see section on Important writers).

Moral Panic

Most people have very limited direct experience themselves so rely on the mass media to inform their opinions.

On several occasions over the last 50 years the media have focused on a youth group (often a subculture) and produced a series of sensationalised reports, inflaming public opinion and creating a distorted representation of the group or issue.

In a famous study from the 1960s Stan Cohen coined the term ‘moral panic’ to describe these events and ‘folk devils’ to describe the groups who were victims of the sensational reporting. His study focused on press coverage of the skirmishes between ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ at various holiday resorts in the early 1960s.

Subsequently the term moral panic has been applied to a variety of other youth groups such as skinheads, punks and, more recently, ‘hoodies’.


During the 1980s some sociologists began to criticise existing criminology (for example Marxist perspectives) for being too theoretical and not addressing the real problems of crime and fear of crime that affected many thousands of people in their everyday lives. The term ‘realism’ came into use to describe approaches to crime and deviance that emphasised crime and fear of crime as real problems, suggested practical policies to reduce crime, and took into account the experiences of victims.

Realism comes in two forms, each associated with a different political viewpoint. Left Realism is influenced by socialist values and Right Realism by conservative values.

Left Realism is associated with the work of John Lea and Jock Young (see section on Important writers) They accuse Marxists of being ‘Left Idealists’ because they romanticise working class criminals and refuse to offer any solutions to crime beyond revolution. Lea and Young pioneered local victim studies which found that fear of crime damaged the quality of life of thousands in inner-city areas. They argue that there are three main causes of street crime: relative deprivation (feeling worse off than others around you), subculture (groups developing deviant values) and marginalisation (disengagement from communities and social institutions). Street crime is also provoked by military-style policing that makes the police seem like an ‘occupying force’ rather than as community support. Their solutions to crime involve changes in policing and a more equal distribution of income and opportunities.

Right Realism is particularly associated with the ideas of the American sociologist James Q. Wilson. Wilson argues that crime and disorder thrive when informal social controls in an area begin to break down. He argues that the police should clamp down on ‘incivilities’ such as litter, minor vandalism and groups of young people ‘hanging around’. If this kind of behaviour goes unchecked, areas soon decline into high-crime communities where no law-abiding citizens want to live. Wilson’s arguments for ‘zero-tolerance’ policing have proved very influential and been used to explain the huge reductions in crimes in cities such as New York. However, his work has also been criticised for simply ‘shifting’ crime from one place to another and for failing to understand the motivations behind deviant behaviour.

White-collar crime

Middle-class office jobs used to be known as ’white-collar’ work, referring to the fact that these occupations often required workers to wear formal shirts and ties. Although the phrase ‘white-collar’ is rarely used today in this context it is still used to describe certain types of crime. The term was first used by Sutherland (1941) to describe ‘crime committed by persons of high social status and respectability in the course of their occupations’. Croall uses a much broader definition of white-collar crime which includes occupational crime, corporate crime and organised crime.

Croall uses the term occupational crime reflects Sutherland’s original definition above. Corporate crime occurs when individuals or groups commit crime to gain more profit or advantage for their business, not directly for their personal gain. Organised crime refers to groups of people who co-ordinate their activities to gain money from crime, often under the guise of business.

White-collar crime rarely appears in criminal statistics. This is because it is not often reported, detected or prosecuted. Sometimes people do not even know they have been the victims of white-collar crime; members of the public may not be aware that they have purchased counterfeit designer goods for example. Also, white-collar crime is often ignored in victim surveys such as the Crime Survey for England and Wales.

Much of the sociological research into white-collar crime is about exposing its extent. For example, Tombs concluded that the number of deaths that occur as a direct result of work e.g. diseases, accidents outnumber the number of murders in any one year.

Sometimes a range of other words are used to describe white-collar crime such as wrongdoing, mis-selling, malpractice and irregularities. Use of these terms plays down the importance of white-collar crimes.