Crime and Deviance - Key Perspectives Revision

Here are some notes which are aimed to help those revising key perspectives in crime and deviance.

I’m not including every perspective here and I’m just concentrating on key evaluation points. The reason for that is two-fold.

Firstly, at this stage you should already be fairly familiar with the key points of the main perspectives, or if you’re not, know enough about how to get that sorted pretty swiftly. 

Secondly, its absolutely vital that you evaluate knowledge rather than regurgitate it and these notes are intended to help you do that by focusing on the strengths or weaknesses of key perspectives.  The notes which follow will therefore focus on: functionalism, marxism, interactionism, and postmodernism.

Criticisms of physiological theories
1.Those discussed here are unrepresentative and generalisations should not be made from them.  Lombroso for instance, based his study on the inmates of Italian prisons.  The physical characteristics and ill health he identifies, may simply reflect the fact that the inmates were drawn from the poorest sections of Italian society.  Therefore factors such as their height, stunted growth, etc., rather than being the causes of their criminality, may just be the result of their poverty.

2.That Lombroso’s sample was unrepresentative is also important for another reason.  The sample may have been representative of all those in prison, but it would not necessarily have been representative of all criminals – presumably many criminals activities went undetected.  Therefore, a sociological approach would argue (think back to discussion of definitions and social construction) that trying to base a theory of criminality only on the characteristics of the prison population is not a methodologically sound way to proceed.

3.Elaborating on the point above, Lombroso neglects the role of social factors - both as possible causes of crime and deviance, and also in the wider sense that he does not consider that crime and deviance themselves are socially constructed.

4.The physiological factors identified by those such as Kelly, Brunner, and Moir and Jessel, may themselves be the result of environmental or social factors, e.g. poor diet (caused by poverty) could have physical/physiological effects. 

5.The study by Hutchings and Mednick suggests that there may be a biological/genetic aspect to criminal behaviour, but it does not explain precisely how genetic factors would operate – it simply identifies a relationship and then concludes that genetic factors must operate.

6.The more modern genetic explanations may also end up, like Lombroso, by becoming biologically or genetically reductionist.  This means that they attempt to explain the most complex human and social behaviour by reducing to genetic/biological mechanisms.  As many contemporary biological scientists would point out (including e.g. Steven Rose), genetic factors, whilst important to understanding human behaviour and functioning, are not the sole determinants of our behaviour.  We have to consider the role of nature and nurture, and our genes do not develop in a laboratorybut in a social environment where they are subject to many influences.

7.A theoretical point – as Foucault argues, the key to understanding the power of these scientific approaches is to understand their history.  For Foucault this means we have to understand the discourses developed by social elites – professions such as psychiatrists, criminologists, and so on, and the vested interests which they have in becoming self-appointed experts.  Lombroso (and the more recent attempts at biological reductionism) can be seen in this light.

Strengths of the Functionalist Approach

Lots of students learn how to parrot out criticisms of functionalism – and indeed, there’s a lot to be critical of if, like me, you favour a conflict approach. But, it’s not always as simple as that. For example, consider this:

Durkheim may have been a functionalist, but even many non-functionalists would approve of his analysis of crime and deviance in one important respect. Durkheim shows us that there is such a thing as society, and that it is this thing (it is an object) that creates crime and deviance.  Crime and deviance are socially constructed - they are not natural, obvious, or theologically inspired categories.  They are concepts that were brought into the world solely by humankind.  Moreover, Durkheim goes beyond this and shows us how socially constructed definitions of crime and deviance are linked into a wider social structure, though here sociologists from different traditions may want to part company from Durkheim’s analysis.  Still, it beats the non-sociological views hands down. Crime, and deviance are social things – you cannot understand them unless you acknowledge that they are socially constructed.

The Marxist approach
Firstly, remember that there are different versions of this perpective – Marxist, Neo-Marxist, and of course, it influenced the New Criminology of the late 70s and 80s.  Secondly, here are some of the key, and easy, criticisms which are most frequently made (though many of these are points the new criminology tried to tackle):

1.Marxism tends to make the assumption that all crime is the result of economic factors and structures. This implies that in a communist society there would be no crime. However, the USSR did not succeed in abolishing crime, and neither has China or Cuba.

2.Marxism is economically reductionist.  Not all behaviour and criminal behaviour can be seen as being caused by economic factors. 

3.Since it is a structural theory, Marxism may underplay the role of free will and choice – or in sociological terms – agency.  The more recent theories – especially the New Criminology, which are influenced by Marxism, attempt to address this point.

Interactionist Approaches to Crime and Deviance

The common points here really refer back to the key structure/action debate – so tie that in and you should do well, though you do have to be specific.

So, here are just a few criticisms of the interationist approach as applied to crime and deviance:

•The neglect of structure means that, for some, interactionists can’t really explain where power comes from and why it is that, for example, it is predominantly young, black males, who are labelled criminal.

•Interactionist accounts fail to explain why people commit such acts in the first place.

•If crime is about labelling and so on, why aren’t all working class people or black males, negatively labelled?

A ten point guide to Postmodernism and Crime

Summary of Postmodernist approaches to Crime – very much a simplified and potted version.

1. Society has changed – socially, economically, culturally, and politically.
2. Identity is now about consumption, not class, race, gender. We can choose our identity now. Nb critics of pomo say we have to choose, we are forced to choose.
3. There is a consumer culture – this is how identity is created, and e.g. through mass media, not through class, race, gender.
4. Consumer culture promotes individualism.
5. So people think of themselves as individuals. They are free of obligations to others.
6. This means that there are no rules in a sense – you can do what you want.
7. At the same time, if there are big gaps between expectations and achievements (the haves and the have-nots) it can result in a ‘culture of resentment’.
8. This means that there is no reason why people shouldn’t commit crime to get what they want – so they can make their choices in terms of identity.
9. Other sociologists, influenced by postmodernism, use the idea of social exclusion – there are big gaps between the haves and have nots and ‘wild spaces’ (Lash and Urry) of cities where poor and rich live right next to each other. This leads to distrust and resentment and high crime rates.
10. Globalisation. Crime is now a global phenomenon, e.g. organized crime crosses national boundaries. People in Britain can be victims of crime committed a long way overseas.  Or crime committed in the UK can be part of a network of international crime, e.g. cars stolen in UK and sold in Africa or elsewhere.  This means there is more risk and its harder to control crime.


(I) Exaggerates extent and novelty of social change

(II) Culture of resentment – not necessarily new

(III) Hard to measure or test this theory

(IV) Fragmentation of class, race, gender, hotly disputed.

(V) The idea that ‘you can do whatever you want’ is far too exaggerated.

Wake up with today’s latest teaching resources & student support

Subscribe to our daily digest and get today’s content delivered fresh to your inbox every morning.

Or follow us

Explore tutor2u