• A crime is an illegal act that is punishable by law. If a person commits a crime and is detected, they could be arrested, charged, and prosecuted. If found guilty, they will receive a sentence such as a community order, fine, or imprisonment. Some illegal acts are not necessarily seen as deviant. For example, parking cars on double yellow lines or using a mobile phone whilst driving, even though these activities are against the law.
  • Deviance refers to behavior that does not conform to a society’s norms or rules. If a person behaves in a way that is seen as deviant and this is discovered, it could lead to negative sanctions such as being told off, ignored, or ridiculed. Some, but not all, deviant acts are also illegal. Legal deviance is behavior that is seen as ‘abnormal’ by most people in a society but it does not break the law.


Many sociologists argue that while crime involves legally defined behavior, deviance is socially defined.

Whether an act is considered deviant or not depends on how people view and label the act. This means that deviance is judged according to the social setting or the context in which it takes place.

Historical evidence suggests that what is considered as deviant can change over time. E.g.

attitudes to smoking and to homosexuality have changed in Britain post World War II.

Cross-cultural evidence suggests that what is seen as deviant can vary across cultures. E.g.differing attitudes as to what is acceptable for women to wear and what is seen as appropriate within their group or society.

Both historical and cross-cultural evidence also suggest that what is classed as criminal behavior can change over time and vary between cultures. E.g. alcohol consumption was illegal in 1920s America and is still restricted in some countries today.


Formal social control is based on written rules that are set out in laws or in codes of conduct. It is the control of people’s behavior that is based on written laws and rules. It is usually associated with the ways in which the state regulates and controls people’s behavior through, for example, the police force, the courts, and prisons.

Agencies of social control are the various groups (such as peer groups) and organizations (such as the police force) in society that control or constrain people’s behavior and actions. Agencies of formal social control are bodies that make the formal written rules, enforce them or punish people who break them.

Informal social control is based on unwritten or ‘taken-for-granted rules and is enforced through social pressure from groups such as families, friends, or beers. It is the control of people’s behavior that is based on social processes such as the approval or disapproval of others.

One way which individuals are encouraged to conform to informal social rules is through peer pressure when a group exerts social pressure on its members to conform the group’s norms. Another way is through the rewards and punishments that some parents use to encourage their children to behave appropriately.


  • Agencies of social control: the groups and organizations in society that control or constrain people’s behavior and actions
  • Crime: an illegal act which is punishable by law
  • Deviance: behavior which does not conform to society’s norms and values and, if detected, is likely to lead to negative sanctions. Deviance can be – but is not necessarily – illegal
  • Formal social control: control of people’s behavior based on written laws and rules. Formal social control is usually associated with the ways the state regulates and controls our behavior. The agencies of formal social control include the police force, courts, and prisons
  • Informal social control: control of people’s behavior based on social processes such as the approval or disapproval of others. Informal social control is enforced via peer pressure. The agencies of informal social control include peer groups and families
  • Negative sanctions: sanctions that punish those who do not conform to the group’s expectations, for example by ignoring them
  • Peer group: a group of people who share a similar status and position in society, such as people of a similar age, outlook or occupation
  • Peer pressure: the social pressure that a peer group puts on its members to encourage them to conform to the group’s norms
  • Positive sanctions: sanctions that reward those who behave according to the groups expectations, for example through praise
  • Social order: this occurs when society is stable, ordered and runs smoothly without continual disruption


There are several different sociological explanations for criminal and deviant behavior which focus on social factors.

Inadequate socialization within families

  • This is an explanation of young people’s involvement in crime and deviance. It highlights the negative influence of the home environment and the failure of parents to socialize their children adequately. New Right approaches argue that children whose parents fail to take responsibility for socializing them to accept society’s norms and values correctly are more prone to crime.

Sub-cultural theories

  • Sub-cultural theories explain crime and deviance in terms of the values of a particular subculture and the influence of the peer group. Young males, in particular, learn such deviant behavior by joining a peer group/gang where deviant behavior is the norm such as vandalism or joyriding. Albert Cohen, a sub-cultural theorist, argued that working-class boys joined delinquent subcultures to gain status within their peer group.

Relative deprivation

  • People feel relatively deprived when they see themselves as badly off relative to the living standards of the particular group that they may compare themselves to. For example, a bank clerk who wants a mansion with a pool like that owned by their regional manager may commit fraud to acquire the necessary funds because they could never afford it any other way.

Marxist explanations

  • This approach links crime to social inequalities that are built into capitalism. In a capitalist society, not everyone can gain wealth and status so some people commit crimes to acquire the consumer goods and material possessions that others have and that the media promotes. The Marxist approach is the belief that the legal system operates in favor of the rich. For example, rich people who commit expense account fraud or tax evasion are less likely to be convicted than working-class people who commit benefit fraud.

Labeling theory

  • Labeling theory explores how and why some people become labeled as deviant or criminal. Cicourel, a phenomenologist, argued that a delinquent is someone who has been labeled as such. Being labeled deviant/criminal may result from the reaction of other people (such as the police) and may not be entirely due to an individual’s actions or behavior. Labeling someone may help to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing that person further towards deviance/crime.


  • Relative deprivation: this occurs when individuals or groups feel that they are badly off in relation to the living standards of their peers
  • Status: refers to social positions linked to occupations and families. Can also refer to the amount of prestige/social standing that an individual in a particular social position is given by other members of the group or society
  • Status frustration: Albert Cohen argued that working-class boys experience status frustration when they try – but fail – to meet middle-class expectations at school
  • Stereotype: a fixed, standardized and distorted view of the characteristics of a particular group which are often based on prejudice
  • Subculture: a social group which differs from the dominant/main culture in terms of its members’ values, beliefs, customs, language, dress or diet and so on.

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