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Crime and Deviance: Debates

What are the key debates surrounding crime and deviance? Crime statistics don't tell the whole story - learn more about the different factors affecting crime with our dedicated analysis.

Crime stastistics

In the past, figures of crime were based on the official statistics provided by the police and courts. However, sociologists began to question whether these figures were a valid indicator of real crime rates. To become a ‘crime’ an event had to be reported by the public and recorded as a crime by the police. Many crimes such as domestic violence, illegal drug taking and vandalism may not be reported, leading to what became known as the ‘dark figure’ of crime. At the same time police priorities may alter at different times and in different places. For example, they may have ‘clampdowns’ on drug taking at certain times, this making any comparisons impossible.

As a response to these criticisms new methods of discovering the facts and figures of crime were developed. Victim surveys took the approach of asking a large sample of the public about their experiences of crime. This approach was pioneered by Left Realists in a series of local victim studies, revealing that crime represented a real problem for people in inner-city areas. The government started their own large-scale victimisation survey, the British Crime Survey, in 1982. This is now known as The Crime Survey for England and Wales and takes place annually, using a sample of around 50,000 people.

Victim surveys reveal a proportion of the ‘dark figure’ but still under-represent crimes that have no clear victim or that the public are unwilling to talk about. These may include domestic violence, sexual offences and white-collar and corporate crimes. Feminist researchers have developed sensitive interviewing techniques for victim studies to encourage women to talk about their experiences of victimisation but these often only involve small samples.

Self-report studies are another method of finding out about crime. They involve asking a sample of people whether they have actually committed any crimes or deviant acts. Self-report studies are particularly useful in the study of youth crime (juvenile delinquency) as they provide information about the social characteristics of offenders. For example, they show that the gender difference in offending is less than that shown in the official statistics. However, despite the best efforts of researchers to keep answers confidential and respondents anonymous, there remains some doubt over the validity of data derived from self-report studies.

Social class and crime

There is a close link between social class and offending. For example, in 2006 around 50% of new prisoners were either unemployed or in the lowest occupational categories, compared with 22% in the general population.

Left Realists argue that relative deprivation is an important cause of crime. Deprivation alone is not enough – in the 1930s there was widespread unemployment but low crime rates. It is only when certain groups feel disadvantaged compared to others around them that that they may seek illegitimate methods of achieving the goals that many people crave for – wealth and material goods.

Some Marxists believe that crime is an inevitable response when the working class are so disadvantaged in extremely unequal societies such as the UK. Others believe that capitalism is such a vicious form of social organisation that all social groups will adopt any means possible to achieve material success and status. However, the deviant activities of poorer groups are much more likely to be dealt with severely by the authorities while the immoral gains made by the rich (white-collar crimes – see section on Key concepts) will be ignored, tolerated or not regarded as deviant at all. Thus tax avoidance and health and safety violations by huge corporations are often dealt with ‘informally’ while social disorder on the streets, such as the 2011 English riots, is ruthlessly dealt with by the police and courts.

Ethnicity and crime

The relationship between ethnicity and crime is both complex and controversial; complex because of the diversity of ethnic groups in the UK, and controversial because of the difficult relationships between some members of minority ethnic groups and the police.

In general terms, minority ethnic groups are over-represented in criminal statistics. In 2011 Black ethnic groups made up around 3% of the population but over 8% of arrests, 14% of all ‘stop and searches’ and 13.5% of prisoners. Asian ethnic groups made up about 5% of the population but over 10% of ‘stop and searches’ and nearly 6% of arrests.

Some explanations for these patterns focus on racism in the criminal justice system. Reiner argues that the police experience high levels of tension and stress. As a response they develop what he calls a ‘canteen culture’ where values of suspicion, cynicism and racism dominate. After the racist murder of the Black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 the government-commissioned McPherson Report found evidence of ‘ institutional racism’ in the police. This term referred not to the individual racism of officers but to the ways in which the routine activities of the police were informed by stereotypical and negative views about minority ethnic groups.

Sociologists influenced by Marxism such as Scraton and Gilroy have identified some Black street crime and disorder as a form of rebellion against the discrimination faced by Black youth. More recently, sociologists such as Bourgois have focused on the ways in which Black subcultures have developed ‘alternative economies’ in the face of social exclusion and racism. These may involve both illegal and semi-legal activities, ranging from drug dealing to washing car windscreens on the street.

It is very difficult to draw clear conclusions about the relationship between ethnicity and crime. One reason for this is that ethnicity links closely to social class. The Black population in the UK is disproportionately in lower occupational groups so it is difficult to separate out ethnicity and social class as the important variables in affecting crime rates.

Gender and crime

Official data shows that male crime outnumbers female crime by a ratio of approximately 4 to 1, although the crime rate amongst young women is rising. This pattern is reflected in both the USA and in other European countries.

Sociologists have looked to the processes of socialisation and social control to explain the low crime rate amongst women. Socialisation for many females may emphasise caring and cooperation whereas males are more likely to be presented with models of masculinity based on aggression, risk and competition. Heidensohn also notes that women are more likely to experience social control in key areas of social life – at home, at work and in public places – and will thus have less opportunity to commit crime.

Another way to look at the issue of gender and crime is to examine why the male crime rate is high. Messerschmidt argues that many boys are socialised into hegemonic masculinity – a set of norms and values emphasising toughness, aggression, individuality and risk-taking. These norms and values are more likely to lead to the formation of deviant subcultures and tolerate force and aggression as solutions to problems.

It may be the case that gender differences in crime rates are constructed by the criminal justice system itself. It has been suggested that a ‘ chivalry factor’ exists which means that the police and courts treat women more leniently than men. This argument has been hotly disputed by a range of feminist critics, some of whom have argued that women are actually dealt with more severely than men in many cases. For example, sexually promiscuous girls are more likely to be taken into care than boys and female victims of sexual crimes are often treated as though they were the guilty party, provoking the assault.

Gender roles are changing rapidly and the crime rate for young girls is increasing – future analysis of gender and crime will need to take these changes into account.