Written By Athirah


Society used to misinterpret deviance with crime as both are related to behaviour that unacceptable by the society. In simple definition, deviance is behaviour that departing from social norms. Deviance will only become a crime when that behaviour violated the norm in society as well as breaking the law. In term to examine the reasons crime being commit by an individual, it is important to understand different perspective of theories. The significant of understanding criminal theories are contributed to finding suitable methods to handle and prevent crime in the society. Criminologist and sociologist throughout the history tried to come out with theories that explain and understand the fact of crime. Since there are a lot of theory and perspective that explain crime, these articles will be focusing only on four different perspectives and theories.

Marxist Explanation of Crime

Based on Marxist theory, crime is inevitable in capitalism as it is criminogenic by its very nature and tending to cause crime. Marxist stated that capitalism is responsible for much of the crime committed in the society. Furthermore, Marxists argue that capitalism as an economic system that characterized by exploitative and unequal relationship between ruling minority which controls and monopolizes wealth and a powerless majority such as labour power minorities. Capitalism breeds crime because it encourages selfishness, greed, materialism, exploitation, inequality, and poverty. For an example, poverty may force the poor to commit crime as a means of survival. People are becoming self-seeking selfish individuals who see crime as merely as an alternative way to achieve their goals. The mass media has contributed to this criminogenic environment that encourage society to aspire to the goal of self-enrichment. This capitalist system applies ‘need to win at all costs’ statement.

This culture of capitalism results in rich and poor alike committing crime. Other Marxists such as Althusser argues that the law is an ideological state apparatus which functions in the interest of the capitalist class to maintain and legitimate class inequality. For an example, the capitalist is reluctant to pass laws that regulate the activities of businesses or threaten their profitability. Laws have been passed which seem to benefit the working-class, health and safety, trade union rights, equal opportunities for ethnic minorities and women, but these are weakly enforced or modified to suit the interests of the ruling class. Stephen Box argues that ruling class have the power to prevent laws being passed which are not in their interest. As an example, deaths of workers because of infringements of health and safety laws are a civil rather than criminal offence. Marxists point out that law enforcement is selective and tends to favour the rich and powerful such as social security fraud which is largely committed by the poor inevitably attracts prosecution and often prison yet tax fraudsters, who are wealthy and influential person rather than ordinary taxpayers that very rarely get taken to court.

Functionalist Explanation of Crime

Functionalist analysis of crime starts with society. It seeks to explain crime by looking at the nature of society rather than at individual perspectives. Emile Durkheim argued that crime is an inevitable and normal aspect of social life because not every member of society can commit to the collective sentiments (the shared values and morals beliefs of society). Since individuals are exposed to different influences, it was ‘impossible for them to be all alike’ hence some people would inevitably break the law. Durkheim also stated that a certain amount of crime was functional for society. Three positive functions of crime include social regulation, social integration, and social change. Social regulation explains or making it clear to the society about particular action concerned is unacceptable when the police arrest a person. Moreover, crime is to strengthen social cohesion when the whole community joins together in outrage and the sense of belonging to a community and this build social integration.

While social change is referred to further action that performed by the criminals is to provide a constant test of the boundaries of permitted action. When the law is clearly out of step with the feeling and values of the majority, legal reform is necessary. However, Durkheim argued that crime only became dysfunctional when there was too much or too little of it. In term of too much of crime would affect social order to break down while too little crime would not be sufficient capacity for positive social change. Durkheim’s perspective or view of punishment was to control crime and to maintain the collective sentiments. According to Durkheim a healthy society or community requires both crime and punishment to be in balance and to be able to change. Durkheim also argues that all social change begins with some form of deviance. In order for changes to occur, yesterday’s deviance becomes today’s norm. Functionalist including Durkheim believe that society and community has universal norms and values that are reinforced by certain crimes being punished in public. Postmodernists argue society is so diverse, there is no such thing as standard.

Interactionist Theories of Crime: Labelling Theory

Interactionists argue that people do not become criminals because of their social background, but crime emerges because of labelling by authorities. They see crime as the product of micro-level interactions between certain individuals and the police, rather than the result of external social forces. They suggest that most people commit deviant and criminal acts only some are caught and stigmatised for it. ‘’Deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ’offender’. Deviant behaviour is behaviour that people label’’ – Horward Becker (1928). Becker believed that once a label has been applied to an individual, it may be granted master status. All other aspects of the individual’s life are no longer regarded as important as the label of deviant, and deviancy becomes a central activity. A deviant career usually follows.

Labelling theory is incredibly hard to prove, as we cannot know how deviant an individual was before they were labelled. Some acts will always be regarded as deviant whether they are labelled or not. Not everyone reacts to labels. Some labelling theorists are criticised for ignoring the causes of deviance. Some labelling theorists are criticised for ignoring the causes of deviance. Often, the wealthy define deviancy for the poor, men for women, older people for younger people and racial or ethnic majority groups for minorities. In other word, society’s dominant groups create and apply deviant label to subordinate groups. For example, convicts may struggle to find employment after they’re released from prison because of their criminal background. This makes them more likely to internalize the deviant label and engage in misconduct. Even if the labelled individuals do not commit any more crimes, they must forever live with the consequences of being formally deemed a wrongdoer.

Realist Explanation of Crime

            There are two types of realism, both share same features in common, but there are significant differences. Right realism is associated with the right wing neoliberal government of Margaret Thatcher which came to power in 1979, although most of the governments which followed have adopted more right realist policies. Right realism believes individuals make a rational choice to commit crime such as zero tolerance policing. Right realism tend to focus on the individuals as being responsible towards the crime they commit, arguing that we need to get tough on criminals to reduce crime. Main element in the right realist theory of crime is the idea of rational choice theory. Rational choice theory states that most criminals are rational actors. If the criminals calculates that the risk of getting caught is low, or the punishment if they are getting caught will not be the worst, and they are more likely to commit crime. For example, rational choice theory predicts that crime will increase if crime brings higher rewards relative to working within the rules of society. Rewards could be material, or things like higher status or more security.


            While left realist, is related to Marxism and the new criminology but tries to focus on finding practical ways of solving crime. Left realists point out that the victims of street crime are most likely type of ‘ordinary crime’. Three main causes of (working class street) crime are relative deprivation, subcultures and marginalisation. Deprivation itself is not directly responsible for crime, for example, living standards have risen since the 1950s so the level of deprivation has fallen, but the crime rate is much higher today than it was in the 1950s. Moreover, left realist see subcultures as a group’s collective response to the situation of relative deprivation. There are many different subcultural adaptations to blocked opportunities. Unemployed youth are marginalised which they have no specific clear sense of goals and resulting the feelings of frustration. Having no access to legitimate political means to pursue their goals, frustration can be expressed through violence.

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