What is crime, exactly? Why does it occur? What are some different types of crime? Why are some offensive behaviors considered crimes, but others are not? And what can we do to influence rates of criminal behavior in society? There are many sociological theories of crime, and each approaches these types of questions in a slightly different way.
Some popular social theories tend to focus on social or structural factors of society, such as learned mannerisms or the influence of poverty on the behavior of various groups. Others are focused on how a person’s values are affected by socialization. Each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Understanding the criminal mind is essential for those who want to work in fields such as criminal justice or criminal psychology. In order to understand various sociological theories about crime, it helps to start by learning the four main theories about social deviance. Those theories can help provide a useful and necessary context for approaching other kinds of sociological theories and will allow you to develop a deeper understanding of crime and the criminal mind.
Theories & Assumptions in Sociology
In everyday society, people often treat the word “theory” as interchangeable with “hypothesis.” However, theory means something very specific in a sociological/scientific context. Theories are perceptual tools that people use to order, name, and shape a picture of the world. As such, they play an essential role in the way we interpret facts.
Several competing theories attempting to explain the same evidence can arrive at separate conclusions. That’s because every theory relies on some set of assumptions, and in the case of sociological theories of crime, those are often assumptions about the nature of individual people, the group, and the relationship between the two. In other words, differing assumptions about human nature and its relation to social order.
What is Crime in Sociology?
A legal definition of crime can be simple: crime is a violation of the law. However, the definition of crime within sociology isn’t quite as simple. There are many different ways to define crime, many different theories about the origins of criminal activity, and just as many sociological theories of crime.
While there is no simple definition within the field of sociology, broadly speaking, you could say that crime is the study of social deviance and violations of established norms. But why do those norms exist? Some sociologists ask us to reflect on the creation of individual laws: Whose interests are served by the law in question? Who benefits, and who pays the costs of various behaviors that are classified as illegal? Sociological theories of crime need to explain a diverse range of social phenomena.
Definitions of crime have implications for the kind of questions you ask, the kinds of data you use to study criminal behavior, and the kinds of theories applied. Some of the most commonly defined types of crime in sociology include:
- Violent crime – A crime in which a person is harmed or threatened. Violent crimes include murder, assault, rape, sexual assault, robbery, kidnapping, and harassment.
- Property crime – Property crime involves criminal activity that does not do bodily harm to a person, but rather focuses on private property. This type of crime involves burglary, theft, arson, defacement of property, motor vehicle theft, and more.
- White-collar crime – White-collar crime is the name for acts of fraud committed by businessmen. Violent behavior is typically not associated with white-collar crime. Rather, these types of crimes are committed to gain or avoid losing money or property. Some examples of white-collar crimes include money laundering, corporate fraud, mortgage fraud, Ponzi schemes, and embezzlement among others.
- Organized crime – Organized crime refers to criminal activity committed by an organized group of individuals at a local, regional, national, or international level. Some groups commonly associated with organized crime include the mafia, terrorist groups, and mobsters. Drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, and counterfeiting are among some of the most prevalent illegal activities committed under the banner of organized crime.
- Consensual or victimless crime – Consensual crime refers to crimes that do not directly harm other individuals or property. Rather, individuals choose to participate in risky behaviors that may be considered against the law. This includes indulging in drug use, prostitution, or obscenity.
Outside of these five types of crime in sociology, you can find a wealth of different ideas. For example, some sociologists would argue even apparently criminal acts can’t be called criminal until a full evaluation of the situation has been made. For that reason, it’s important to be able to understand patterns of crime in a sociological context.
Understanding Patterns of Crime in Sociology
While the words “crime” and “deviance” are often used interchangeably, there are subtle differences. Committing a crime violates social laws, while deviant behavior violates social norms and rules. However, deviant behavior can also tiptoe over the line of criminal behavior.
While there are many different sociological theories about crime, there are four primary perspectives about deviance: Structural Functionalism, Social Strain Typology, Conflict Theory, and Labeling Theory. Starting with these theories can provide the context and perspective necessary to better appreciate other sociological theories of crime.
Structural Functionalism argues deviant behavior plays a constructive part in society as it brings together different parts of the population within a society. That’s because deviance helps to demarcate limitations for acceptable and unacceptable behavior, which in turn serves to affirm our cultural values and norms.
While deviant behavior can throw off social balance, society may adjust social norms in the process of restoring that balance. In other words, deviant behavior can then contribute to social stability in the long term because it challenges norms while promoting social cohesion.
Social Strain Typology
Social Strain typology proposes that deviant behavior can be classified by typology that’s based on a person’s motivations or adherence to cultural objectives, as well as their beliefs about how they can obtain those goals. The main “types” of social deviance being: ritualism, innovation, rebellion, ritualism, retreatism, and conformity.
This theory also suggests that people can turn towards deviant behavior while pursuing accepted social values/goals. For example, some people turn to crime for the culturally accepted value of seeking to lead a wealthy life. Deviance can mean breaking one norm to place another before it, which is a fundamental insight of social strain typology.
Conflict Theory views deviant behavior as a consequence of material inequality between various socio-political groups. Those groups might be drawn along the lines of gender, religion, race, class, and so on. Each sociopolitical group has a tendency to perceive its own interests in completion with others. In other words, the members of various groups tend to perceive rights and other social privileges as a zero-sum game, where gains for outsiders mean losses for your own group.
Groups that find themselves in an unequal social position in society will be inclined to deviant behavior to change those circumstances, including the structures which helped create them. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” From the perspective of Conflict Theory, people often act in defiance from social norms to express a grievance.
Labeling Theory argues that deviant behavior is often a consequence of having a deviant-like label applied to a person. For example, a teacher labeling a student as a troublemaker. That label can then be mentally adopted by the person it’s been assigned to, leading them to exhibit the actions, attitudes, and behaviors associated with it.
In short, this theory tends to focus on how people become deviant as a result of others forcing that identity upon them. It allows us to develop a better understanding of how a person’s previous behaviors can be reinterpreted in relation to the symbolic labeling they encountered over the course of their lives.
Studying Sociological Theories of Crime at National University
Gaining a deeper understanding of sociological theories of crime can lay a firm foundation in a career path such as criminal justice, or psychology, and help to serve and protect communities. Applying the understanding of these theories, using critical thinking skills to connect the dots, and levying them against additional skills required for professionals in these fields can prove ideal for individuals who have a strong sense of justice and a desire to better understand human behavior at its best and worst.
National University is a regionally accredited university with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. Students learn to apply major sociological theories to a variety of circumstances, including understanding criminal behavior. Graduates can apply their skills to a wide range of fields, from marketing to law enforcement. National University also has several degrees in criminal justice that enable graduates to pursue degrees in an equally wide range of criminology-related career paths.
This post was updated on December 14th, 2022 to allow for the most up-to-date information.