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Theories of Crime Essay

Why do people commit crime? This is relatively strong topic discussed by sociologists that believe criminal or deviant behaviors are not because of ones physical characteristic. This essay will mainly focus on the Functionalist and Conflict Theories of crime. Conflict theorist argue that deviance is deliberately chosen, and often political in nature, where as Functionalist theorist argue that deviance and crime is caused by structural tensions created by social structure. Functionalists argue that people commit crimes because there is something wrong with the society the individual is in, and that this is what causes the individual to commit crime. Crime is caused by the structure of society. Conflict theorists argue that the criminal makes a choice to commit a crime ”in response to inequalities of the capitalist system” (Giddens, 2001).

Subcultural functionalist, Albert Cohen, bases his research on the lower classes. Through his research Cohen found that the lower class adolescents were disadvantaged in respect to success in general life. Cohen believed that the lower class were disadvantaged before they even started to achieve. Cohen argued, majority of the lower class children, do not start at the same position as the middle class. Because of this situation, Cohen thought that lower classes children suffered from status frustration (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000).

Due to this lower class children’s annoyance with their position within society, Cohen developed the theory that the lower class child would develop or form into a sub-culture where “delinquent subculture takes its norms from the larger culture but turns them upside down” (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000). Due to the subculture creating goals, by the delinquent, as unattainable within society, Cohen argued that this is a cause of deviance and crime.

Basically, with Cohens theory, it is mostly based namely on lower class position. Unfortunately, this only recognises that the lower class has more of a greater possibility of becoming deviant in there behavior, and Cohen disregards crimes of higher class. Another suggestion Cohen makes is that all disadvantaged people will perform acts, of deviant, criminal nature to achieve their goals. An important to understand that this is not always the case. Some individuals choose to work hard within society and its laws to gain legitimate success (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000).

Sociologist Merton, another functionalist, developed the Strain Theory, which he updated from Sociologist Durkheim theory of anomie. Durkheim stated in the anomie theory “that circumstances in which social norms are no longer clear and people are morally adrift” (O’Donnell, 1997). Merton then modified Durkeim’s statement by instead stating that “term anomie is to describe the strain which occurs when individuals experience conflict between their pursuit of societies goals and the means society provides to achieve them” (O’Donnell, 1997). Merton mainly focuses on various acts which he believed may lead to acts of crime and deviance. Merton believed that there are various goals pushed by society and that surrounded by a set of means to obtain these goals example like hard work, education, and following the law. Merton says that everybody has the ability to achieve these goals, and then with that developed the five models of adapting to the “strain”.

The four models Merton put forward are conformity, innovation, ritualism and rebellion. Conformity is when a person continues to accept goals and the means to obtain these goals even through failure is almost inevitable. Innovation,is the response when the individual accepts the goals set by society but rejects the means (to obtain these goals) set by society (Jones. P, 1996), also merton goes on to say the individual finds a replacement to societies ‘means’, this being an illegal act (O’Donnell. M, 1997).

The third in Merton’s theory is ritualism, this is where the means and goals of society are adhered to but the individual has lost sight of the goals and has no interest in the outcome of his/her work (Sociological Inquiry, 2003). The fifth part of Merton’s theory is rebellion where the individual rejects both the means and goals set by society, this is recognised as terrorists/radical political parties (P. Taylor , 2002).

Cohen and Merton’s theories are both that of a functionalists perspective. They both in turn believe crime is needed within society, to indicate there is a problem and in turn that problem can be resolved (Sociological Inquiry, 2003).

On the other hand there is the interactionalists perspective on crime and deviance. There are similarities and differences between the functionalists and the conflict theiorists interpretation of why deviance and crime are committed.

Stuart Hall is a conflict theorist, whom in 1972 studied the increasing problem of mugging. Hall believed that “class position was irrelevant in respect of the victom” (ref). He researched and discovered that muggers targeted people whom appeared to come from a similar background to themselves, instead than the poor class stealing from the lower class. Hall believed that the source of moral panic was not the underlying economic problem (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000). This opinion is in completely different to that of both Cohen and Merton who both identify class as a major factor in crime, and both based their theories on the lower classes.

Hall is belief and research concluded that the individuals within society committing the crimes where individuals in society forced into crime due to the nature of the economic situation. Talking another theorist’s view, Marxist, Hall argues that it is

As Hall takes a Marxist view on crime some sociologists argue that economic situation is the cause for crime and deviance which is unavoidable. However Hall’s study is based upon statistics which maintain no bias.

Hall’s study, like that of Cohen and Merton’s, focuses on class. But unlike others sociologists i.e. Cohen and Merton, it acknowledges that criminals can/do target individuals in similar social situations as themselves. Cohen and Merton’s studies gave the impression that the lower classes select the upper classes and intentionally harm them. This study clearly states that anyone is liable to become a victim of crime and acknowledges the influence of the media on crime. Living in a world where the media has such a large influence upon people it is easy to see how many crimes are exaggerated on television and in the newspapers, the term ‘moral panic’ used by Hall is a good description.

Ian Taylor, Paul Walton and Jock Young, new criminologists with studies leading towards Marxist perspective, have developed the theory which they believe criminals and deviants choose to break the laws set by society and decline out of free will. And do believe are influenced by external factors. Taylor’s view, according to the free will theory, is

This theory is completely different to the Functionalists theorists whom believe the opposite. ”the meaningful attempt by the actor to construct and develop his own self-perception” (Haralambos and Holborn, 1991). The free will theory developed by new criminology

This strand of new criminology does not acknowledge or support the link of why crimes and deviant acts are commited through theories like anomie, physiological perspectives and those which include the forming of a subculture. Taylor, Paul and Jock are in complete contrast to the functionalist opinions and actually see crime and deviance as ”actively struggling to alter capitalism” (Giddens, 2001). They see crime, more often than not, as a deliberate act, with a political basis against the state. They have a liberal view on the capitalist society and its restrictions and would base much devotion on the freedom of a future society (M. Haralambos, M. Holborn, 2000). They believe that ethnic minorities, homosexuals and drug users should not be persecuted but accepted by society (M. Haralambos, M. Holborn, 1991).

In conclusion this document discussed that functionalists and conflict theorists have opposing views in relation to the nature and cause of crime and deviance. It has discovered that functionalists see crime and deviance as a product of society. Unlike conflict theorists perceive crime and deviance as choice chosen by the criminal. The functionalists determine that the environment determines and influences the opportunities given to an individual. Individuals have choices in the way they interpret and act upon the opportunities society provides conflict theorists state. The theories present in this document help to form a larger picture looking into cause and affects of crime and deviance.


Giddens. A, (2001), _Sociology_, Polity Press, fourth Edition, UK

Jones. P, (1996), _Studying Society Sociological Theories and Research Practices_, Collins Educational, London

M. Haralambos, M. Holborn, (1991), _Sociology themes and perspectives_, Third edition, Harper Collins, London

M. Haralambos, M. Holborn, (2000), _Sociology themes and perspectives_, Fifth edition, Harper Collins, London

O’Donnell. M, (1997), _Introduction to Sociology_, Fourth edition, Nelson, London

P. Taylor, (2002), _Sociology in focus_, Causeway Press, UK

Sociological Inquiry (2003), _Anomie and Strain: Context and Consequences of Merton’s Theories_ (Vol. 73 Issue 4 Page 471 November 2003), viewed May 5, 2008.


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