Evaluating 2 Major Sociological Theories of Crime and Deviance

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Introduction to Crime and Deviance

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Crime refers to behaviour that is contrary to the established formal laws in a society. On the other hand, deviance refers to acting contrary to the established social norms. Sociologists use the term deviance in reference to that behaviours which is usually hard to control legally. Both crime and deviance are popular and excising areas of assessment for both sociologists and in the field of sociology as they constitute a social problem. Sociological theories of deviance dwell on the ‘social’ elements of deviance (Andersen & Taylor 2007). certain deviant behaviours often go against the accepted norm but are not necessarily criminal. For example, walking on the wrong side of the road may not be a criminal activity such as stealing or killing, but is nonetheless a deviance of the accepted norm namely, walking on the right side of the road.  On the other hand, these theories appreciate the fact that a person could as well behave differently under the same circumstances. For example, crime is correlated with unemployment, although there are some unemployed individuals who still obey the law. The constituent of criminality and crime is highly relative , not to mention that it tends to be socially defined.  In addition, it is also determined by the prevailing laws in a certain society, within a certain place, and at a given point in time. Sociological explanation to deviance and crime  are concerned with the link between culture and the individual, as well as how the two elements work to develop each other. Deviance for example is a social construct and as such, looking at the individual per se means that you will miss the broader aspects (Lawson & Heaton 2009). The current essay endeavours to evaluate two major sociological theories of crime-Marxism and Functionalism. To start with, the essay will define the two aforementioned theories, their background, individual characteristics, and important theorists who have contributed to them. A critical assessment of the two theories will also be examined.

relationship between crime and deviance

Marxism and Crime

Marxists basically view crime and deviance as outlined by the ruling class. In addition, Marxists argue that  the ruling class use crime and deviance as a form of effecting social control. In other words, failure to conform results in punishment. Institutions like the justice system, schools, the family, religion, the police and prisons have been developed with a view to ensuring that we conform (Lawson Heaton 2010). Marxists further argue that white collar crimes (these are the types of crimes that are often committed by individuals with the most powers in the society) tend to be ignored, even as the focus is on crimes committed by the less powerful members of the society, such as street crimes and burglary (Jewkes 2011). These are often seen as being more serious than the white collar crimes. Marxists also opine that various social classes tend to be policed differently. According to Marxists, the working class tend to experience the highest level of policing but even then, there are more criminals among the working class and for this reason, it becomes easier to detect crimes in this form of social class.

Such Marxist sociologists as Frank Pearce, Laureen Snider and Milton Mankoff view power as  predominantly being in the hands of the controllers and owners of the means of production. The superstructure is an indicator of the link between the comparatively powerless and the powerful: the subject and the ruling classes. In this case, the state, the law, the agencies o social control, as well as the various definitions of deviance, are an indicator and fulfils the interests of the ruling-class (Pfohl 1994). Laws are indicative of the interests of the ruling class or the  bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie parliament passes these laws, often disguised in a counterfeit democratic process. The police then move to implement these laws with the support of a powerful media.

Majority of the Marxists sociologists are aware of the many laws handling the issue of property in a capitalist society. They argue that these laws are indicative of the inordinate importance accorded to property protection by the law (Zay 1993). Capitalism led to the enhanced significance of commerce and trade. This led to development of many laws geared towards safeguarding the interests and property of the emerging capitalist class.

Both Marxists and neo-Marxists agree that there is widespread crime in the various social strata. This statement has been supported by several self-report studies. For example, Snider notes that ‘many of the most serious anti-social and predatory acts committed in modern industrial countries are corporate crimes’ (1993). Snider (1993) further opines that ‘street crimes’ link robbery, burglary and murder result in less harm in comparison with ‘white collar crime’ or corporate crime, even though the former are often viewed as the most serious forms of crime.  In particular, Snider was referring to such corporate crimes as Hatfield train crash as well as the Zeebruge ferry disaster. Consequent inquiries revealed that all the all the organizations involved in these accidents had put more emphasis on profits, at the expense of safety.  The UK introduced the ‘corporate manslaughter’ crime in an attempt to cover these kinds of events. As a result, boards of directors would be on the receiving ends of the law  in case such tragedies reoccurred.

According to Marxists, crime grows out naturally from a capitalist society. They contend that crime is usually generated by a capitalist economy for a number of reasons: the economic infrastructure has a huge impact on beliefs, values, and social relationships; the capitalist style of production stress on profit maximization and wealth accumulation; behaviour is motivated by economic self-interest, as opposed to public duty (Downes & Rock 2011).

Capitalism encourages personal gain, as opposed to collective well-being. Tis is because private ownership of property is at the heart of capitalism. Capitalism brings in competition, and in this respect, it is sen as being natural, normal, and even genetic. As Chambliss has noted, capitalism discourages cooperation and mutual aid as these seeks to benefit everybody. Instead, capitalism encourages individual achievement. The self-interest, greed and hostility that emanates from capitalism tends to motivate most crimes at the various levels in the society (Walklate 2007).

Marxists are of the opinion that the police target certain groups or people, such as those in poverty, ethnic minorities, the conspicuous, and the young. Marxists are further convinced that where crime is concerned, governments often manufacture statistics to fulfill their intentions, in addition to winning public approval for actions that the government may have taken, and which would ordinarily be interpreted as encroaching on freedoms (Pearce 1976).  In light of this, Marxists opine that nearly 42% of all government statistics on crime are both misleading and false (Hall 2012).

Criticism of Crime and Deviance

Marxism has been criticized on grounds that it tends to ignore individual motivation. Other critics claim that it is highly deterministic, and that it seldom takes into accounts ideas of individual free-will. Also, Marxism has been criticized for its failure to consider the link between crime and such other forms of inequalities like ethnicity and gender. The notion by Marxism that crime in predominant among the working class is also defective because there are many poor people who do not commit crime (Giddens  & Sutton 2013). Another misleading assumption by the Marxist theory of crime and deviance is that capitalist societies are characterized by high levels of crime. Again, this is misleading because we have a number of capitalist societies where the level of crime is very low. Another criticism from Marxism has come from the left realists who contend that Marxism mainly emphasize on crimes committed by the powerful, all the while ignoring small crimes like murder and burglary that take place too frequently among various classes and end up harming victims very badly.


The origin of the functionalist theory is attributed to Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist. His interests were accelerated by his love for modern, and secular capitalist societies that showcased their ability to remain strong even after the decline of the church, the noble and the ruling elite’s periods. Durkheim sought to explain the moral order in the contemporary society and in order support his view, it was imperative that he developed his approach to the evaluation of the society (Liska & Messner 1998). Laws and rules were also essential in the modern period as this was the one way that the society would be consolidated together. Therefore, norms could not be orally translated or enforced through informal means. As such, legislation through the courts and law enforcements were required. One of the assumptions that Durkheim arrived at is that the modern society has been weakened following a degradation of collective conscience. This is contrary to the early human stages that exercised collective conscience, a behaviors that regulated their actions against violation of moral boundaries.

Functionalists just like the conflict and labeling theory tend to evaluate implications of crime and their control policies. They do not seek to explain why people indulge in criminal behavior. Functionalists further favor that crime offenders are repressed for their deeds through use of justifiable sanctions. This is unlike the sociological, biological and psychological models that exonerate criminals by stating that they have limited free will (O’Malley 1987; Merton 1996). As such, functionalism differ from the rest of the theories in matters crime causation following its apparent positive inclination of deviant behavior. This is to imply that crime is not in any way a hindrance to societal order but rather, an incentive for legal responses that facilitate proper functionality.

Moreover, the functionalist perspective is very simple. It espouses that the society is similar to the human body. Therefore, all parts of the body are required for optimal functionality. Durkheim espouse that the society cannot be without crime (Holdaway 1993). This is attributed to the fact that not everyone in the society will agree with the collective efforts of the society and as such, will choose to deviate from the set standard beliefs and norms. Durkheim further espouses that a certain degree of crime is an integral part of every functional society. This implies that people have a certain safety valve through which they can ably communicate their discontent. Cohen (1965) purports that prostitution is a moral deviation that offers the function of a safety valve without necessarily injuring the family set up. As such, when people execute criminal activities, they are sounding a warning device to indicate that an aspect of the society is highly malfunctioned. Consequently, criminal acts to draw attention and insights to the problems faced in the society, leading to desirable solutions. Durkheim further asserts that criminal activities are natural to the society and not a genetical issue.

Despite acknowledging the positive impacts of crime in the society, Durkheim also admitted that many criminal activities would result to a danger in the society. A view that was highly elaborated by Merton. In his studies, Merton resolves to analyze the American culture. He gathered that the society has created an implied American dream that insinuates a nice career, nice family, lots of money and material possessions. As such, due to the imbalance created, people that are not able to attain the American dream improvise ways to meet their goals through normless acts (Markowitz & Felson 1998).  However, if the society was balanced, everyone would be happy as they do not have to live up to societal norms and values.

Functionalists argue that crime differs from one society to another. Although we can reduce crime, we can never really do away with it for good. Even if we lived in a “society of saints” whereby everyone is deemed perfect, the expectation is that at some point, one of these individuals would have to “slip up” (Krohn,  Lizotte & Hall 2010). Functionalists also contend that although human beings possess a “collective consciousness” as regards what is not acceptable or acceptable, such values and norms tend to change over time.

With regard to crime, functionalism argue that the public imposing of punishments or formal action aids in the reinforcement of collective ideas regarding social morality. This also aids in the reinforcement and reaffirming of existing values and boundaries (Downes & Rock 1998).  Another issue of concern regarding functionalism is that the occurrence of “nasty” crimes play a key role in strengthening the communities (Tierney 2013), as evidenced by their mutual loathing for it (for example, the 9/11 bombing of the Twin Towers by terrorists). Functionalists also contend that the occurrence of crime, coupled with sympathy for criminals could potentially trigger a debate, in addition to heralding a change in laws and values.

Criticism of the theories of Crime and Deviance

Some critics of functionalism argue that certain crimes brings no benefit to society. For example, child abuse does not benefit anybody. Another criticism leveled against functionalism is that functionalists are at pains to explain the occurrence of crime to start with, but only provide the roles that it fulfills. Functionalism has also been accused of disregarding individuals in society. For instance, it is hard to explain the functional role of crime to the victims. In general most critics contend that functionalism is outdated.


Sociological theories of crime are concerned with the social elements of deviance and crime. Marxism and Functionalism are two of the leading sociological theories of crime. Whereas Marxism views crime and deviance as being outlined by the ruling class in a bid to bring about social control, on the other hand, functionalism tries to justify the functional role of crime in society. In this respect, functionalists argue that there can never be zero crime in the society. Functionalists also contend that crime does have its positive effect non society. For instance, Cohen, a functionalist, argues that prostitution acts as a safety valve even as it symbolizes moral deviation.  Both of these two theories have been criticized on different levels. Critics of functionalism argue that functionalists are unable to explain why crime happens but instead, they are mainly concerned with the roles it fulfills. In contrast, critics of Marxism argue that the theory rarely considers individual free-will and that it ignores individual motivation.

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