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10.3: Sociological Theories of Criminality

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    Cultural Deviance Theory

    In the early 20th century Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay investigated the migration of southern African Americans and eastern European Americans to Chicago and other cities. Most of these immigrants were poorly educated and many did not speak English. Then cities expanded to accommodate this influx of people and many of the more affluent citizens moved out to the suburbs. The poor citizens were left in the run-down cities. Shaw and McKay thought that social conditions in neighborhoods caused delinquency (Cultural Deviance Theory). They found that in Chicago crime was at its worst in the center of the city and the area immediately surrounding it. It decreased as they looked further away from the city center. Thirty years later, the same findings occurred even though most of the residents from 30 years ago had moved, but the poverty remained.

    Based on their findings, Shaw and McKay made four assumptions:

    1. Run down areas create social disorganization. The diversity of cultures and languages fosters frictions based on these differences;
    2. Social disorganization fosters cultural conflict. Rapid social change creates normative ambiguity (anomie);
    3. Cultural conflict allows delinquency to flourish; children observe both conventional and criminal values. Criminals who are successful pass their knowledge on to their children, who then pass it along to others;
    4. Allowed to flourish, delinquency becomes a career.

    When social disorganization manifests, communities deteriorate, and residents become frightened to leave their homes in fear of potential victimization. This trepidation advances the cycle of crime as the “eyes on the street” (Jacobs 1961:44), so central to the informal social control present in urban areas, disappear and residents become afraid to involve themselves in their communities for fear of victimization.306

    Differential Association Theory

    Differential Association Theory looks at the process of learning deviance from others with
    whom they have close relationships, who provide role models of and opportunities for deviance.
    Edwin Sutherland conducted his work during the 1930s to the 1970s. His assumptions are:

    1. Delinquent behavior is learned, and biology has no role in this behavior
    2. Delinquent behavior is learned through verbal and non-verbal communication (watching your dad steal a TV, your peers congratulating you on stealing a bicycle)
    3. Children learn these behaviors in small groups (primary social groups)
    4. Learning involves techniques to commit crime, as well as attitudes about crime
    5. Learning also involves attitudes about the targets of crime
    6. If definitions that favor criminal behavior outnumber definitions that favor conforming to laws, children will learn to be deviant
    7. The frequency, duration, and intensity of the learning experiences determines the learning. Children who are exposed frequently, at a young age, and by someone they respect, are more likely to learn delinquent behavior
    8. Learning criminal behavior occurs in the same way as learning other behaviors
    9. The goals of criminals and non-criminals are the same; the means to achieving those goals are what is different.307

    Feminist Theory

    Feminist theories maintain that gender is a central organizing component of social life, including criminal offending, victimization, and criminal justice processing. This theoretical framework holds that because of patriarchal sexism women and girls have been systematically excluded or marginalized in criminology, both as professionals and as subjects of study.

    Feminist theories, though, do not treat women or men as homogenous groups but rather recognize that gender privilege varies across different groups of women and men. Therefore, a fundamental principle of feminist theory is to examine criminal offending, victimization, and criminal justice processing in the context of multiple intersecting social factors, including gender, race, and ethnicity, social class, age, ability, and sexual orientation.

    Liberal feminists contend that women are discriminated against on the basis of their sex, so that they are denied access to the same political, financial, career and personal opportunities as men. This can be eliminated by removing all obstacles to women’s access to education, paid employment and political activity, by enabling women to participate equally with men in the public sphere and by enacting legal change. There is a strong relationship between women’s emancipation and the increase in female crime rates. As women become more liberated and gain more experiences outside of the home, they have more opportunities to engage in criminal behaviors. See? Give us the chance and we’ll always catch up!


    Figure \(10.3.1\): Graph of Women Arrested vs. Women in the labor force.308

    Marxist theory argues that a society’s economic structure is the primary determinant of other social relations, such as gender. Marxist feminism emerged in the late 1960’s in response to the masculine bias in the Marxist social theory. Marxist feminism aligns with liberal feminism in that women are prevented from full participation in all aspects of society with men remaining dominant. The gender division of labor is viewed as the product of the class division of labor. Because women are seen as being primarily dominated by capital and secondarily by men, the main strategy for change is the transformation from a capitalist to a democratic socialist society.

    Radical feminism has dominated feminist perspectives on gender violence and abuse. Radical feminist theory describes male power and privilege as the root cause of all social relations, inequality and crime. The main causes of gender inequality are

    1. the needs of men to control women’s sexuality and reproductive potential; and
    2. patriarchy.

    This theoretical lens often focuses on female victims/survivors of male violence. Radical feminist theory contends that the motive for men to physically, sexually, and/or psychologically victimize women is mainly due to their need or desire to control them.

    Socialist feminism views class and gender relations as equally important. To understand class, we must recognize how it is structured by gender, conversely to understand gender requires an examination of how it is structured by class. In sum, socialist feminists argue that we are influenced by both gender and class relations. Crime is mainly seen as the product of patriarchal capitalism.

    Sex Role Theory

    Sex role theory (this is an early sociological theory which attempts to explain gender differences in crime – it’s not a feminist theory) argues that because boys and girls are socialized differently boys are more likely to become criminal than girls. Sociologist Edwin Sutherland identifies how girls are socialized in a manner, which is far more supervisory and controlled; this limits the number of opportunities to be deviant. In contrast boys are socialized to be rougher, tougher and aggressive which makes deviance more likely. And if deviance is permitted to flourish, criminal behavior will be a likely result.309

    Sociologist Talcott Parsons and Robert Bales argued that because females carry out the “expressive role” in the family which involved them caring for their children and looking after the emotional needs of their husbands, that girls grew up to internalize such values as caring and empathy, both of which reduce the likelihood of someone committing crime simply because a caring and empathetic attitude towards others means you are less likely to harm others.310

    306 Wonser, R. and Boyns, D. (2016). The Caped Crusader What Batman Films Tell Us about Crime and Deviance. Cinematic Sociology: Social Life in Film, 214-27
    307 Sutherland, E. H., Cressey, D. R., & Luckenbill, D. F. (1992). Principles of criminology. Philadelphia: Lippincott
    308 Graph by the US Census Bureau is in the public domain
    309 Sutherland, E. H., & Cressey, D. R. (1960). Principles of criminology. Chicago: Lippincott.
    310 Bales, R.F., & Parsons, T. (1956). Family: Socialization and Interaction Process (1st ed.). Routledge.

    This page titled 10.3: Sociological Theories of Criminality is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Katie Coleman via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.