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Sociological Theories of Deviance

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'With reference to specific research evidence (theories and studies), identify, analyse and evaluate the contribution made by the consensus, conflict and interpretivist approaches to deviance and social control.'

Sociological theories of deviance differ from physiological and psychological explanations as they do not see deviance is as something that is innate to the individual but as a product of society in question and understandable within its context. For this essay I am going to examine different approaches to the subject and their application to methods of control.

Many sociological theories that emerged during the 1950's developed from the ideas of Durkheim. Durkheim's view of society was that it is based on consensus, and it members shared a set of core values called a collective conscience. Durkheim rejected the commonsense definition of crime as something that is harmful to society, he argued instead that a certain amount of deviance is functional to society for a variety of reasons; it helps to clarify the boundaries needed for society to operate, it promotes conformity by uniting the non-deviant population in condemnation of the deviant and makes an example of them through their punishment; but could also exists as a precursor of social change when that was needed, and was proof of society's ability to adapt. Durkheim argued that an act was only criminal in relation to society's reaction to it: "We do not condemn it because it is a crime but it is a crime because we condemn it"(Durkheim, 1998, pp.123-4;orig.pub.1886). In this respect Durkheim was the originator not only of functionalist theories of deviance are also of labelling theory, he argues that it is society's labelling and reaction to the act that creates deviance but that this process has a positive function in society and that punishment of the offender strengthens the social solidarity among the conforming population. In Durkheim's view a certain amount of deviance is not only inevitable due to individual differences but also desirable, as stated earlier, in promoting conformity or social change; however too much crime becomes a problem to society and is indicative of deeper problems; in industrial societies the breakdown of social cohesion could lead to a rise of individuality that he termed anomie.

Durkheim can be seen as the originator of sociological theories of deviance and making an important break from biological and psychological theories, and placing the causes of crime and deviance within a social context. However his consensus view of society does not take into account the class divisions inherent to it and ignores the issue of power in society, and whose interests the law serves. Also he makes no indication of what amount of crime is too much, and how to assess this.

Durkheim's theory of anomie was developed in Robert Merton's strain theory. Merton highlighted a strain or tension between the cultural goals that are internalised through the process of socialisation, and the ability of people to achieve these goals through legitimate means. An example of this is the 'American Dream', the idea that if you work hard you can obtain economic success and status, big house, nice car and so on. In reality, not everyone can achieve these goals, and Merton argued it is this strain that produces deviance. Merton suggested five ways in which individuals adapt to the strain: through conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion. Of these, only conformity is non-deviant as the rules and goals of society are adhered to. Innovation is accepting society's goals, (material success), but pursuing them through illegitimate means, for instance through theft or fraud. Ritualism is defined as adhering to legal means but giving up on the goals, just going through the motions. Retreatism is giving up on the goals and the means, and withdrawing from society; for instance through vagrancy or addiction, and rebellion is not only to reject society's goals but attempt to replace them with an alternative set of values for instance political terrorists or revolutionaries. Merton is critical of the social values of Western society and sees the drive towards competition and individual wealth as motivating people to break the law as legitimate means are denied to them, and his work developed the idea of relative deprivation as a cause of crime. However, it is criticised as relying on official statistics and ignoring white collar crime; again assuming consensus in society and ignoring the issue of power.

Merton's work was highly influential, but criticised for being based on individual responses to strain and not taking into account communal responses or subcultures. This was taken up by the Chicago School which saw that social division and crime rates within Chicago were linked to geographical boundaries or zones. The inner city was termed a zone of transition where slum housing and rapid patterns of migration led to a lack of community. Sutherland's concept of differential association explained deviance as a behaviour learned through association with other deviants, which led to the development of theories regarding criminal subcultures. Cohen (1955) argued that frustration among working-class youths branded failures and unable to achieve their goals led to status frustration, and the development of delinquent subculture starting in schools with boys in lower streams being branded educational failures developing an anti-school subculture which gave them some status. Cloward and Ohlin (1960) developed the ideas of Merton to argue that different opportunity structures existed for those who had few legal opportunities; a criminal subculture which had its own role models and career path was available to some but not all; in the absence of this they might turn to a conflict subculture based around violence, or a retreatist subculture, with those who cannot achieve status any other way turning to drugs or alcohol.

While the Chicago School and subculture theories stemmed from a functionalist tradition, they pioneered ethnography as a method of social research, which led to the development of a new form of interactionist sociology that rejected the positivist use of official statistics and their macro socioogical view of society as having its own laws, and governing behaviour from the top down. Instead they argue that deviance is a learned behaviour and consequence of labelling and face-to-face interactions between the person labelled as deviant, and the agents of social control. While positivist theories assume the existence of social laws, interactionists argue that the only way to understand the development of deviant behavior and subcultures is by examining the labelling and interactions that take place to produce it.

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