Since norms are essential for society, then why do people violate norms? Why people commit crime? There are biological, psychological, and sociological explanations for such behavior.

Psychologists and socio-biologists explain deviance by looking for answers within individuals. They assume that something in the makeup of the people leads them to become deviant. They focus on genetic predisposition of individuals toward deviance and crime.

In contrast, sociologists look for answers in factors outside the individual. They assume that something in the environment influences people to become deviant.

Biological explanation

Biological explanations focus on genetic predisposition toward deviance. Biological explanations include the following three theories:

  1. Body type: People with squarish, muscular bodies are more likely to commit street crime (mugging, rape, burglary).
  2. ‘XYY’ theory. Extra Y chromosome in males leads to crime.
  3. Intelligence: low intelligence leads to crime.

In 1876, Ceasare Lombroso, an Italian physician, compared 400 prisoners with 400 army soldiers. He proposed that criminals had distinctive physical features — low foreheads, prominent jaws and cheekbones, protruding ears, excessive hairiness, and unusually long arms. All these features taken together the criminals resemble apelike ancestors of humans. They are genetically abnormal.

This theory has flaws. For example Lombroso’s study sample is not representative of the general population. His focus was on comparing the declared criminals with the army soldiers. How about those criminals who committed crime but have never been caught? Also, criminals may have abnormality because of poverty and malnutrition. These are class based characteristics and not criminal characteristics.

Sheldon (1949) suggested that body type may predict criminality. He crosschecked hundreds of young men for body type and criminal history, and concluded that criminality was most likely among boys with muscular, athletic build. There appears to be no conclusive evidence.

Despite such researches genetic researchers are still seeking links between biology and crime.

Regarding the chromosome theory, it has been found that most criminals have the normal “XY” chromosome combination. So they are not different from those who do not commit crime. Therefore this could not be the reason. Similarly, most men with “XYY” combination do not commit crime. Hence having an extra “Y” does not necessarily lead to a person to criminal activity. Furthermore, no women have this combination of genes, so there should be no women criminals. But that is not true. Such an explanation based on “XYY” chromosome combination is not acceptable.

The intelligence theory has its own flaws because some criminals are highly intelligent. Also their intelligent acts may have been declared as crime. How about breaking a computer code for national purposes? Will we call it a crime or a patriotic service to the nation? Furthermore, most people with low intelligence do not commit crime.

The biological explanations may present some limited but not conclusive explanation for criminal behavior.

Biological factors may have to interact with other factors.

Psychological explanations:

Psychological explanations of deviance focus on abnormalities within the individual, focusing on what are called personality disorders. The supposition is that deviating individuals have deviating personalities, that various unconscious devices drive people to deviance. The emphasis is that personality disturbance of some sort causes individual to violate social norms.

Control theory by W. Reckless

Inside most of us, it seems, are strong desires to do a lot of things that would get us in trouble. Yet most of the time we don’t do these things. We mostly keep them to ourselves, and the temptation, urge, hostility, or desire to do something passes. To explain this restraint, Walter Reckless (1973) developed control theory.

According to this theory two systems work against our motivations to deviate.

  1. Inner control system: It includes our internalized morality — call it conscience, ideas of right and wrong, reluctance to violate religious principles. It also includes fears of punishment, feelings of integrity, and the desire to be a ‘good’ person.
  2. Outer control system: It involves groups — such as friends, family, sub-cultures, police that influence us not to deviate.

How strong are the controls, inner as well as outer, determine deviancy of a person.

Control theory by T. Hirschi

Travis Hirschi (1969) developed a control theory, which states that social control depends on imagining the consequences of one’s behavior. He assumes that everyone finds at least some deviance tempting. But the prospects of a ruined career could be sufficient to deter most people; for some simply imagining the reactions of family and friends is enough. On the other hand individuals who feel they have little to lose by deviance are likely to become rule-breakers.

Hirschi linked conformity to four different types of social control:

  1. Attachment. Strong social attachments encourage conformity; weak relationships, especially in the family and in school, leave people freer to engage in deviance. An individual can well understand that the deviance is likely to bring bad name to his/her family; therefore due to the strong attachment with the family he/she would not violate the norms of society.
  2. Opportunity. The greater the person’s access to legitimate opportunity, the greater the advantages of conformity. By contrast, someone with little confidence in future success is more likely to drift toward deviance.
  3. Involvement. Extensive involvement in legitimate activities – such as holding a job, going to school, and playing sports – inhibits deviance. People without these activities have time and energy for deviant activity.
  4. Belief. Strong belief in conventional morality and respect for authority figures restrain tendencies toward deviance. People who have a weak conscience have more temptation to violate the norms.

Strain theory: How social values produce crime

Functionalists argue that crime is a natural part of society. Some crime represents values that lie at the very core of society. To be employed is a social value and thereby it can be a culturally approved goal of every youth. To achieve the goal a society also specifies the culturally approved means. The acceptance of goals and the non-availability of culturally approved means to achieve the goals can create strain, and can lead to the deviation from the norms. The ineffectiveness of the norms to control behavior is a situation of anomie or norm-less-ness. As anomie increases, the amount of deviance rises to dysfunctional levels.

R. K. Merton (1968) pointed out that the people who experience strain are likely to feel anomie, a sense of norm-less-ness. Because the dominant norms (for example work, education) don’t seem to be getting them anywhere, they have difficult time identifying with them. They may even feel wronged by the system, and its rules may seem illegitimate. Matching culturally approved goals to culturally approved means creates strain and people deviate from the norms. So When ever people perceive that they cannot attain their life goals through the use of legitimate (normative, culturally permissible) means available they use illegitimate (culturally not approved) means.

Look at the following scenario in Pakistani society:

Material success: It is culturally defined (approved) goal.

Education Jobs: Culturally approved means to pursue the goal.

Central belief: Egalitarian ideology.

Access to the approved means to achieve the material success varies by the social class structure. It creates stress especially for the lower class youth.

As part of the survival youth will look for success in getting work through legitimate or illegitimate means because “success (goal) is more important than how (means) success is achieved.” For this purpose they could adopt different ways, and Merton called these as modes of adaptation.

Modes of Adaptation: How people match their goals to their means

  • Innovation: Robbery, burglary, drugs.
  • Ritualism: Lack of interest in success but supports the means.
  • Retreatism: Escapism, narcotic addiction
  • Rebellion: Vandalism, senseless violent crimes (counter culture).

Access to higher education and eventually to good job or career is available to class members is known.

There are obstacles for certain class or an ethnic group. How to over come these obstacles? So they disregard some norms because the lower class chap knows that it is simply impossible to follow the normative means to reach the goal.

Labeling theory by Howard S. Becker

According to labeling theory it is assumed that deviance and conformity result not so much from what people do as from how others respond to these actions. People may define the same behavior in number of ways, hence deviance is a relative concept and is determined by the society. Hence deviance is not a set of characteristics of individuals or groups but it is a process of interaction between deviants and non-deviants.

These are the reactions of social audiences to alleged acts of deviance.

Why some people come to be tagged with a ‘deviant’ label? Why some acts, ideas, feelings, attribute is considered as deviant? Once a child is labeled as delinquent, he is stigmatized as a criminal. According to Becker, ‘deviant behavior’ is behavior that people so label. Deviant behavior itself is not the determining factor in becoming deviant. It all depends on whether or not a person is labeled as deviant.

The link between the behavior and the label is conditional, not automatic. A crucial condition is having the power to resist being labeled for alleged/or actual deviant behavior. Deviant behavior is behavior that people so label. Labeling itself is means to amplification.

Labeling not only affects how others see an individual, but also influences his sense of self-identity. Individual accepts the label and acts as deviant and also learns to be a deviant.

Deviancy Amplification: Deviant identity may start the process of deviancy amplification i.e. Unintended consequences that can result when, by labeling a behavior as deviant, an agency of control actually provokes more of that same deviant behavior. The labeled person incorporates the label into his/her identity through secondary deviance and resists change to conformity

Illegitimate Opportunity: Explaining Social Class and Crime

One of the interesting sociological findings in the field of deviance is that social classes have distinct styles of crime. Most delinquent youth emerge from the lower working class. The boys most at risk are those who have internalized middle class values and have been encouraged, on the basis of their ability, to aspire toward middle class future. When such boys are unable to realize their goals, they are particularly prone to delinquent activity. The delinquent gangs arise in sub-cultural communities where the chances of achieving success legitimately are small. Lack of opportunity for success in the terms of wider society is the main differentiating factor between those who engage in criminal behavior and those who do not.

Failure of the lower class boys makes them open alternative doors to meeting their needs, and these new avenues have been referred to as illegitimate opportunity structures (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960). They go for robbery, burglary, drug dealing, prostitution, and other remunerative crimes. They develop their own subcultures.

White-Collar Crime             

The other social classes are not crime-free, but they find a different type of opportunity structure. For them other forms of crime are functional. The more privileged classes avail opportunities for income tax cheating, bribery of public officials, embezzlement, and false advertising. Sutherland coined the term white-collar crime to refer to crimes that people of respectable and high social status commit in the course of their occupations.

Although the general public seems to think that the lower classes are more prone to crime, studies show that white-collar workers also commit many crimes. This difference in perception is largely based on visibility. While the crimes committed by the poor are given much publicity, the crimes of the more

privileged classes seldom make the news and go largely unnoticed.

Conflict Theory

According to Marxist thinkers, deviance is deliberately chosen and is political in nature. They rejected the idea that deviance is ‘determined’ by factors such as biology, personality, anomie, or labels. They argued, individuals actively choose to engage in deviant behavior in response to the inequalities of the capitalist system. Thus, members of the ‘counter-cultural’ groups regarded as ‘deviants’ engage in distinctly political acts, which challenge the social order. Such acts may take the form of kidnapping, mugging, and terrorism.

Conflict theorists considered crimes as a disguised form of protest against inequality, injustice, power, and political system.


Despite the fact that crime is only one subcategory of deviant behavior as a whole, it covers such a variety of forms of activity – from shoplifting a bar of chocolate to mass murder – which it is unlikely that we could produce a single theory that would account for all forms of criminal conduct.

Source: Introduction to Sociology – Virtual University of Pakistan