Sociology of Crime

Sociology of crime, or criminology, is the science that studies the nature, extent, causes and control of criminal behavior on both the individual and societal level. Crime, a term used for any act that violates written criminal law, is a form of deviance. Deviance is any behavior that violates social norms and usually causes disapproval in the majority of society. Apart from criminal deviance, there is also non-criminal deviance, or behavior that is widely disapproved of but not prohibited by law, for example alcoholism, excessive gambling and lying. It is difficult to define non-criminal deviance as norms vary in different social groups, times and places.

The main goal of criminology is to find the causes of crime, or the necessary antecedents or conditions of criminal conduct. The two concepts that are central to this sociological science are crime and criminal. Although both terms are defined by law, these definitions have certain limitations from a scholar's perspective. The generally accepted definition of crime is specific forms of conduct that are prohibited by law and that are punishable. One of the main problems with this definition is the fact that criminal law is a reflection of the character and interests of groups of people that influence legislation. These groups may represent the majority of people, but in some cases they may also be a minority.

In addition to law, there are also other norms in society, that are valid within social groups. These conduct norms, or restrictions placed by social groups on its members in order to protect social values, are the products of social life. In his or her life, every person becomes part of several social groups in order to meet some biological or social needs. As a result, a person is supposed to comply with the specific rules of each group that he or she is a member of. Based on his or her membership in a certain group, a person judges behavior as normal (right) and abnormal (wrong) depending on the social values of this group. However, conduct norms are not necessarily translated into legal norms.

According to some scholars, behavior that deviates from social conduct norms should also be considered crime in criminology research. This idea is based on the presumption that as scientists, criminologists have the right to give their own definitions of the subject matter of criminology and do not have to abide by legal qualifications. However, most scholars prefer to work with the legal definitions of crime and criminal as they are unambiguous and therefore suitable to serve as a basis of research.

There are four main theories related to deviance and criminology. According to the differential-association theory of US sociologist Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950), people learn deviant behavior, like other types of behavior, from their environment and from people with whom they associate in different social groups. With his anomie theory Robert Merton (1910-2003), another US sociologist, posits that people employ deviant behaviors when there is a conflict between socially accepted goals and the availability of means to achieve these goals. For example, in the USA wealth is seen as a major goal for most Americans although not everyone has the means to achieve it, especially members of minority and disadvantaged groups. This conflict causes anomie and deviant behavior in the people that have encountered an obstacle in their pursuit of a socially approved goal.

Another theory in criminology is the so-called containment theory of US criminologist Walter Reckless (1899-1988), which emphasizes the existence of inner containment (conscience, values, integrity, morality) and outer containment (police, family, friends, religious authorities.) This theory has been further developed by another US criminologist, Travis Hirschi (1935-), into the so-called social control theory, according to which a person's self-control, consisting of both inner and outer restraints, prevents him or her from breaking social norms.

According to the fourth of the main theories, the labeling theory developed by US sociologist Howard Becker (1928-), the labels in society are one of the main reasons for deviant behavior. This means that certain behaviors are considered deviant and people who show such behaviors are labeled by the conforming members of society. As a result, the labeled people, including drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals, delinquents, prostitutes, sex offenders, retarded people and psychiatric patients, usually have lower self-esteem and may even act more deviantly. Labels in society are often difficult to change, even if there is proof that the labeling is incorrect.

Sociology of Crime: Selected full-text books and articles

Criminology: A Sociological Introduction By Eamonn Carrabine; Paul Iganski; Maggy Lee; Ken Plummer; Nigel South Routledge, 2004
The Many Colors of Crime: Inequalities of Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America By Ruth D. Peterson; Lauren J. Krivo; John Hagan New York University Press, 2006
Growing Up Male: Is Violence, Crime and War Endemic to the Male Gender? By Mohl, Allan S The Journal of Psychohistory, Vol. 33, No. 3, Winter 2006
Social Exclusion, Youth Transitions and Criminal Careers: Five Critical Reflections on 'Risk' By MacDonald, Robert Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, Vol. 39, No. 3, December 2006
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Out of Control: Assessing the General Theory of Crime By Erich Goode Stanford Social Sciences, 2008
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "Age, Sex, and Racial Distributions of Crime"
Psychiatrist and the Science of Criminology: Sociological, Psychological and Psychiatric Analysis of the Dark Side By Rao, T. Sathyanarayana Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 49, No. 1, January-March 2007
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Crime Families: Gender and the Intergenerational Transfer of Criminal Tendencies By Goodwin, Vanessa; Davis, Brent; Tomison, Adam Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, No. 414, May 2011
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.