Sincenorms are essential for society, then why do people violate norms? Why peoplecommit crime? There are biological, psychological, and sociologicalexplanations for such behavior.

Psychologistsand socio-biologists explain deviance by looking for answers within individuals. They assumethat something in the makeup of the people leads them to become deviant. Theyfocus on genetic predisposition of individuals toward deviance and crime.

Incontrast, sociologists look for answers in factors outside the individual. Theyassume that something in the environment influences people to become deviant.

Biological explanation

Biologicalexplanations focus on geneticpredisposition toward deviance.Biological explanations include the following three theories:

  1. Body type: People withsquarish, muscular bodies are more likely to commit street crime (mugging,rape, burglary).
  2. ‘XYY’ theory. Extra Ychromosome in males leads to crime.
  3. Intelligence: lowintelligence leads to crime.

In1876, Ceasare Lombroso, an Italian physician, compared 400 prisoners with 400army soldiers. He proposed that criminals had distinctive physical features —low foreheads, prominent jaws and cheekbones, protruding ears, excessivehairiness, and unusually long arms. All these features taken together thecriminals resemble apelike ancestors of humans. They are genetically abnormal.

Thistheory has flaws. For example Lombroso’s study sample is not representative ofthe general population. His focus was on comparing the declared criminals withthe army soldiers. How about those criminals who committed crime but have neverbeen caught? Also, criminals may have abnormality because of poverty andmalnutrition. These are class based characteristics and not criminalcharacteristics.

Sheldon(1949) suggested that body type may predict criminality. He crosscheckedhundreds of young men for body type and criminal history, and concluded thatcriminality was most likely among boys with muscular, athletic build. Thereappears to be no conclusive evidence.

Despitesuch researches genetic researchers are still seeking links between biology andcrime.

Regardingthe chromosome theory, it has been found that most criminals have the normal“XY” chromosome combination. So they are not different from those who do notcommit crime. Therefore this could not be the reason. Similarly, most men with“XYY” combination do not commit crime. Hence having an extra “Y” does notnecessarily lead to a person to criminal activity. Furthermore, no women havethis combination of genes, so there should be no women criminals. But that isnot true. Such an explanation based on “XYY” chromosome combination is notacceptable.

Theintelligence theory has its own flaws because some criminals are highlyintelligent. Also their intelligent acts may have been declared as crime. Howabout breaking a computer code for national purposes? Will we call it a crimeor a patriotic service to the nation? Furthermore, most people with lowintelligence do not commit crime.

Thebiological explanations may present some limited but not conclusive explanationfor criminal behavior.

Biologicalfactors may have to interact with other factors.

Psychological explanations:

Psychologicalexplanations of deviance focus on abnormalities within the individual, focusingon what are called personalitydisorders. The supposition is that deviatingindividuals have deviating personalities, that various unconscious devicesdrive people to deviance. The emphasis is that personality disturbance of somesort causes individual to violate social norms.

Control theory by W. Reckless

Insidemost of us, it seems, are strong desires to do a lot of things that would getus in trouble. Yet most of the time we don’t do these things. We mostly keepthem to ourselves, and the temptation, urge, hostility, or desire to dosomething passes. To explain this restraint, Walter Reckless (1973) developed control theory.

Accordingto this theory two systems work against our motivations to deviate.

  1. Inner controlsystem: It includes our internalized morality —call it conscience, ideas of right and wrong, reluctance to violate religious principles.It also includes fears of punishment, feelings of integrity, and the desire tobe a ‘good’ person.
  2. Outer controlsystem: It involves groups — such as friends,family, sub-cultures, police that influence us not to deviate.

Howstrong are the controls, inner as well as outer, determine deviancy of aperson.

Control theory by T. Hirschi

TravisHirschi (1969) developed a control theory, which states that social controldepends on imagining the consequences of one’s behavior. He assumes thateveryone finds at least some deviance tempting. But the prospects of a ruinedcareer could be sufficient to deter most people; for some simply imagining thereactions of family and friends is enough. On the other hand individuals whofeel they have little to lose by deviance are likely to become rule-breakers.

Hirschi linked conformity to fourdifferent types of social control:

  1. Attachment. Strong social attachments encourage conformity; weak relationships,especially in the family and in school, leave people freer to engage indeviance. An individual can well understand that the deviance is likely tobring bad name to his/her family; therefore due to the strong attachment withthe family he/she would not violate the norms of society.
  2. Opportunity. The greater the person’s access to legitimate opportunity, the greaterthe advantages of conformity. By contrast, someone with little confidence infuture success is more likely to drift toward deviance.
  3. Involvement. Extensive involvement in legitimate activities – such as holding a job,going to school, and playing sports – inhibits deviance. People without theseactivities have time and energy for deviant activity.
  4. Belief. Strong belief in conventional morality and respect for authority figuresrestrain tendencies toward deviance. People who have a weak conscience havemore temptation to violate the norms.

Strain theory: How social valuesproduce crime

Functionalistsargue that crime is a natural part of society. Some crime represents values that lie at the very coreof society. To be employed is a social value and thereby it can be a culturallyapproved goal of every youth. To achieve the goal a society also specifies theculturally approved means. The acceptance of goals and the non-availability ofculturally approved means to achieve the goals can create strain, and can leadto the deviation from the norms. The ineffectiveness of the norms to controlbehavior is a situation of anomie or norm-less-ness. As anomie increases, the amount of deviance rises to dysfunctional levels.

R. K.Merton (1968) pointed out that the people who experience strain are likely tofeel anomie, a sense of norm-less-ness. Because the dominant norms (for examplework, education) don’t seem to be getting them anywhere, they have difficulttime identifying with them. They may even feel wronged by the system, and itsrules may seem illegitimate. Matching culturally approved goals to culturallyapproved means creates strain and people deviate from the norms. So When ever people perceive that they cannot attaintheir life goals through the use of legitimate (normative, culturallypermissible) means availablethey use illegitimate (culturally not approved) means.

Lookat the following scenario in Pakistani society:

Materialsuccess: It is culturally defined (approved) goal.

EducationJobs: Culturally approved means to pursue the goal.

Centralbelief: Egalitarian ideology.

Accessto the approved means to achieve the material success varies by the socialclass structure. It creates stress especially for the lower class youth.

Aspart of the survival youth will look for success in getting work through legitimateor illegitimate means because “success (goal) is more important than how(means) success is achieved.” For this purpose they could adopt different ways,and Merton called these as modes of adaptation.

Modes of Adaptation: How people matchtheir goals to their means

  • Innovation:Robbery, burglary, drugs.
  • Ritualism: Lack ofinterest in success but supports the means.
  • Retreatism: Escapism,narcotic addiction
  • Rebellion: Vandalism,senseless violent crimes (counter culture).

Accessto higher education and eventually to good job or career is available to classmembers is known.

Thereare obstacles for certain class or an ethnic group. How to over come theseobstacles? So they disregard some norms because the lower class chap knows thatit is simply impossible to follow the normative means to reach the goal.

Labeling theory by Howard S. Becker

Accordingto labeling theory it is assumed that deviance andconformity result not so much from what people do as from how others respond tothese actions. People may define thesame behavior in number of ways, hence deviance is a relative concept and is determined by the society. Hencedeviance is not a set of characteristics of individuals or groups but it is a process ofinteraction between deviants and non-deviants.

Theseare the reactions of social audiences to alleged acts of deviance.

Whysome people come to be tagged with a ‘deviant’ label? Why some acts, ideas, feelings, attribute isconsidered as deviant? Once a child is labeledas delinquent, he is stigmatized as a criminal. According to Becker, ‘deviant behavior’ is behaviorthat people so label. Deviant behavior itself is not the determining factor inbecoming deviant. It all depends on whether or not a person is labeled asdeviant.

Thelink between the behavior and the label is conditional, not automatic. A crucial condition is having the power to resistbeing labeled for alleged/or actual deviant behavior. Deviant behavior isbehavior that people so label. Labeling itself is means to amplification.

Labelingnot only affects how others see an individual, but also influences his sense ofself-identity. Individual accepts the label and acts as deviant and also learns to bea deviant.

DeviancyAmplification: Deviant identity may start the process of deviancy amplificationi.e. Unintended consequences that can result when, by labeling a behavior asdeviant, an agency of control actually provokes more of that same deviantbehavior. The labeled person incorporates the label into his/her identitythrough secondary deviance and resists change to conformity

Illegitimate Opportunity: ExplainingSocial Class and Crime

Oneof the interesting sociological findings in the field of deviance is that socialclasses have distinct styles of crime. Most delinquent youth emerge from thelower working class. The boys most at risk are those who have internalizedmiddle class values and have been encouraged, on the basis of their ability, toaspire toward middle class future. When such boys are unable to realize theirgoals, they are particularly prone to delinquent activity. The delinquent gangsarise in sub-cultural communities where the chances of achieving successlegitimately are small. Lack of opportunity for success in the terms of widersociety is the main differentiating factor between those who engage in criminalbehavior and those who do not.

Failureof the lower class boys makes them open alternative doors to meeting theirneeds, and these new avenues have been referred to as illegitimate opportunitystructures (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960). They go for robbery, burglary, drugdealing, prostitution, and other remunerative crimes. They develop their own subcultures.

White-Collar Crime             

Theother social classes are not crime-free, but they find a different type of opportunitystructure. For them other forms of crime are functional. The more privilegedclasses avail opportunities for income tax cheating, bribery of publicofficials, embezzlement, and false advertising. Sutherland coined the term white-collar crime torefer to crimes that people of respectable and high social status commit in thecourse of their occupations.

Althoughthe general public seems to think that the lower classes are more prone tocrime, studies show that white-collar workers also commit many crimes. Thisdifference in perception is largely based on visibility. While the crimescommitted by the poor are given much publicity, the crimes of the more

privilegedclasses seldom make the news and go largely unnoticed.

Conflict Theory

Accordingto Marxist thinkers, deviance is deliberately chosen and is political innature. They rejected the idea that deviance is ‘determined’ by factors such asbiology, personality, anomie, or labels. They argued, individuals activelychoose to engage in deviant behavior in response to the inequalities of thecapitalist system. Thus, members of the ‘counter-cultural’ groups regarded as‘deviants’ engage in distinctly political acts, which challenge the socialorder. Such acts may take the form of kidnapping, mugging, and terrorism.

Conflicttheorists considered crimes as a disguised form of protest against inequality,injustice, power, and political system.


Despitethe fact that crime is only one subcategory of deviant behavior as a whole, itcovers such a variety of forms of activity – from shoplifting a bar ofchocolate to mass murder – which it is unlikely that we could produce a singletheory that would account for all forms of criminal conduct.

Source: Introduction toSociology – Virtual University of Pakistan