Explanatory Theories of Deviance Essay

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Sociologists define deviance as the violation of a norm that would, if discovered, result in the punishment or condemnation of the violator. A crime is a norm whose violation is punished by the state. This definition opens two radically different missions or lines of inquiry: positivism, or the attempt to explain the cause of the normative violations, and constructionism, or the exploration of the dynamics of the creation, maintenance, and enforcement of the norms.

Positivist or explanatory theories of deviance and crime are made up of the following postulates: objectivism (phenomena possess a pre-given reality, independent of human definition of construction); empiricism (we can know the world through our five senses); and determinism (the phenomena of the material world, including the social world, are linked in a cause-and-effect fashion).

The most influential explanatory sociological theories of deviant behavior and crime include: social disorganization theory; anomie theory; learning theory and the theory of differential association; social control theory; self-control theory; and routine activities theory.

Social disorganization theory argues that people who live in communities where residents are socially and geographically mobile and have low emotional investments in the community are more likely to engage in illegal and non-normative behaviors than persons residing in more stable communities. Members of such communities tend not to monitor or sanction the behavior of wrongdoers in their midst. Thus, residents can commit infractions of the law and the social norms without consequence, and so they tend to do so with greater frequency than in communities in which co-residents monitor and sanction one another’s behavior.

Anomie theory explains the cause of deviance by the malintegration between a society’s culture — what members learn to value, what they are motivated to want and seek, mainly material success — and its social and economic structure, which places limits on some of its members’ ability to succeed. This disjunction subjects the members of the society who fail to achieve to strain, which in turn, results in deviant ”modes of adaptation,” or behavioral consequences of this failure to achieve.

Differential association theory argues that definitions favorable to committing criminal and deviant behavior is learned in face-to-face interaction between and among people who are close or intimate with one another. This theory argues that people who engage in criminal acts differentially associate with persons who endorse violations of the law. A person becomes criminal or delinquent as a result of an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of the law over definitions unfavorable to the violation of the law.

Social control theory turns the traditional question, ”Why do they do it?” around and asks, ”Why don’t they do it?” If left to our own devices, most of us would deviate from society’s rules, and cheat, lie, and steal. It is the absence of social control that causes deviant behavior. To the extent that persons have a stake in conformity — jobs, an education, a house, a relationship, a family — they will conform to the norms of the society and not risk losing that stake. To the extent that persons lack that stake in conformity, they are more willing to violate the law.

Self-control theory argues that crime (”force or fraud in pursuit of self-interest”) does not need to be motivated or learned. A lack of self-control causes crime, as well as getting drunk or high, and engaging in all manner of risky, predatory sexual behavior. And what causes a lack of self-control is inconsistent and ineffective parenting. Parents who fail to monitor or sanction wrongdoing in their children produce offspring who lack self-control and engage in criminal, deviant, delinquent, and high-risk behavior. All such behaviors have one thing in common: They are impulsive and intended to seize short-term gratification without concern for long-run risk to the actor or harm to the victim.

Routine activity theory argues that crime takes place when there is a conjunction of a motivated offender, a suitable target (something of value worth seizing), and the lack of a capable guardian, or a protector of the ”target.” The theory is not an explanation of the propensity to commit crime, but a theory of crime, the likelihood of the commission of criminal acts.


  • Akers, R. A. & Sellers, C. S. (2008) Criminological Theories, 5th edn. Oxford University Press, New York.

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