Sociological Aspects of Crime

"Sociological aspects of crime can be divided   into   broad categories in relation to social determinants. Crime and criminal behavior can be analyzed through functionalist, conflict, feminist and postmodern perspectives. Sociological aspects view crime and criminal behavior as socially acquired and hence focus on the ways in which cultural and/or social structural factors are crime producing."
by Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge


(March 24, Ontario, Sri Lanka Guardian) This paper discusses sociological aspects of crime and its impact on the society. The definition of crime is presented and conversed in depth. Several sociological theories on crime and criminal behavior are highlighted with numerous case examples. The perspectives of crime are discussed in functional, conflict, interactionism, feminism and postmodern models.

What is a Crime?

A crime is an offence against the public law. It is an act committed or omitted in violation of a law forbidding or commanding it and for which punishment is imposed upon conviction. Crimes violate the law and order of a society and it negatively affects the social structure and the society’s fundamental values, morale and belief system.

The concept of Crime can vary from society to Society

The crimes are events and actions that are proscribed by the criminal law of a particular country (Wilkins 1968) In general, the society and its existing laws define crime. Sometimes crime in one society may not be seen as an offence in another society. Sometimes acts of crime depend on the socio-cultural values, religious belief systems and political ideology.

At times crimes vary to society-to-society. Therefore, crime in one society may not be regarded as a crime in another society. For instance, homosexuality is a punishable offence in Iran and gay people are viewed as criminals. Under the Iranian law, if they found guilty they can be sent to jail. In the western society, gay people have rights and any action that discriminate them can be challenged in the court of law.

Bigamy is an offence in the Western world and those who violate marital law can be prosecuted. However, in some countries bigamy or polygamy is not an offence and on most occasions treated as a social norm. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen etc under the Islamic law polygamy is permitted but under specific conditions.

Pedophilia is rejected by most of the contemporary societies and it is considered as a crime. But In the ancient Sparta sexual acts with children were considered as norm and it was widely practiced.

When the prohibition laws were in action in the USA (from 1919 to 1933) the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol were banned nationally. Any people involved in such action were prosecuted.

During the Soviet era any person tried to defect to the West were treated as criminals, those who tried to defect were prosecuted under the Soviet law. For instance, Mikhail Baryshnikov the famous Soviet ballet dancer defected to Canada in 1974 requesting political asylum. Soon after his defection, the Soviet authorities pronounced him as a criminal. Similarly, any Soviet citizen who had American Dollars in their possession without an official document were arrested and prosecuted under the Soviet criminal law. But after the Perestroika these laws became ineffective.

Although crime can vary from society to society and time to time some crimes such as murder rape, theft etc often remain constant and in many societies and these acts are condemned by the people.

Crime defined by various scholars

The Greek Philosopher Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) postulated that poverty is the parent of revolution and crime. The English Philosopher and the Statesman Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) stated that “Opportunity makes a thief” Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that Man is naturally good and crime is created by social injustice. The great writer Leo Tolstoy believed that roots of crime closely connected with private ownership of property. Vladimir Lenin was on the view that crime is a product of social excess. The Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud highlighted the innate instincts of criminality hidden in the human psyche. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim defined crime as a legal construct resulting from the social obloquy directed at certain forms of behavior (Durkheim 1958).

Sociological Aspects of Crime

Sociological aspects of crime can be divided into broad categories in relation to social determinants. Crime and criminal behavior can be analyzed through functionalist, conflict, feminist and postmodern perspectives. Sociological aspects view crime and criminal behavior as socially acquired and hence focus on the ways in which cultural and/or social structural factors are crime producing.

Crime under Functionalist Perspective

Functionalists focus on the individual, usually with the intent to show how broader social forces mold individual behavior. They underline social cohesion as the key factor of social order. Functionalists like Talcott Parsons attempted to integrate all the social sciences into a science of human action. He believed that social system is made up of the actions of individuals. According to Talcott Parsons equilibrium model society consists of network of connected parts. He viewed crime as a disintegrative factor that could affect the homeostasis of the society.

Based on Talcott model an individual committing homicide has domino affect and his action reverberates within the society. For instance the murder of Tori” Stafford in 2009 brought horror to her family and created a nation wide anxiety.

Durkheim viewed crime (deviancy) as being just another function of society. He noted that it forms part of every society, and was therefore a natural occurrence. In fact, he viewed it as fulfilling various important social needs; it acted to unify law-abiding citizens against the criminal, thus “crime brings together honest men and concentrates them.” Recognition of crime was a validation of the existence of laws, which were in turn a reinforcement of our central values – after all, “we do not condemn [an act] because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we condemn it.” (Durkheim and the philosophy of causation -M.Travis )

The Functionalist Robert Merton observed the colossal social changes during the Great Depression. The crime rate plummeted and Merton focused his attention on the imbalance of power, disproportional distribution of wealth in an era of economic debacle. Merton in his famous essay, Social Structure and Anomie (1938) largely discusses crime and criminality. Robert Merton described so called manifest and latent functions. Like any other social phenomenon, crime has its manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions are open and conscious; where as latent functions remain unconscious.

The Functionalists agree that the society is connected to each other within various systems and thus maintaining an optimal stability. Crime shakes the stability and making the society dysfunctional.

When the crime rate goes up societies become dysfunctional. The 19th century Sicily was shaken by the series of criminal acts that was launched by the Cosa Nostra or the Sicilian mafia. The ill effects of crime affected almost all the social layers of the Sicilian society. People lived in fear and tension maintaining a conspiracy of silence.

The phenomenon of organized crime in Sicily has survived throughout all political changes and economic transformations that have taken place in Italy in the post war period. In search of an explanation, some scholars have blamed the absence of the State; some others have stressed the historically predatory relation between the State and the Southern regions; recently it has been argued that what makes Sicilian organized crime successful is the fact that it sells protection in a market characterized by an endemic lack of trust. (Cottino 2006)

Crime and Conflict Perspective

Karl Marx believed that ruling class keeps the other classes in a disadvantaged position and Proletariat were always being exploited by the Bourgeoisie. According to Marxist view, Social injustice and uneven distribution of wealth give rise to crime and criminogenic conditions. Karl Marx s article on Capital Punishment published in the New York Daily Tribune in 1853 comments on the genesis of crime in the society following economic causes.

Although the basic Marxist premise is that crime is a socio-economic phenomenon, the Soviet Union experienced deadly waves of crime from the 1917 Socialist Revolution. Some of the violent acts were committed by various political fractions like Stephen Bandera group. The Soviet authorities believed that the elimination of private property in the means of production, the eradication of the exploitation of one person by another and the resolution of social antagonisms led to the disappearance of basic social roots of crime in the USSR. Despite their belief, the crimes were prevailing in the Soviet Union and like in the Western societies serial murders emerged under the Socialist system. (the serial murder Andriy Chykatylo or the Red Ripper of Rostov had killed over 50 children and women) The strict censorship limited the publishing of comprehensive crime statistics in the Soviet Union.

Interactionism and Crime

The sociological theoretical perspective of interactionism explains that crime emerge as a result of human interaction. Crime is a form of social interaction consisting of actions and reactions. The interactionism elucidates crime and how criminals to act within society

According to the interactionism, everyone has different attitudes, values, culture and beliefs so as criminals. The Interactionist Herbert Blumer in his 1933 publication Movies, Delinquency, and Crime explains the media influence on criminal behavior. The criminals as Herbert Blumer views unable to establish empathy. He further says that in phenomenology (one of the subdivisions of symbolic interactionism) empathy plays a greater role. Empathy refers to the experience of another human body as another. While people often identify others with their physical bodies, this type of phenomenology requires that we focus on the subjectivity of the other, as well as our intersubjective engagement with them.

The non-empathic factor was apparent in many crimes. For example, people who committed crimes against humanity (Hitler, Pol Pot etc) lacked empathy. The psychological profile of the serial murder Charles Sobhraj alias Bikini Killer indicates that he had no violent impulses. Sobhraj had excellent communication skills and his social interaction was tightly connected with a process of communication. Charles Sobhraj allegedly committed at least 12 murders including a Canadian tourist. The psychological profile also indicate is lack of empathy.

Feminist Perspectives and Crime

According to the feminist perspective, male domination in society (patriarchy) and gender inequality have an enormous disadvantage to the women. The feminists argue that often women become the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators. The women are subjected to crimes like rape, abuse, exploitation etc around the globe. As they point out on most occasions, the women perpetrators of crime had no control over their situation and they were forced to commit these anti social acts following the social injustices created by the male dominated society.

The Indian Feminists give a solid example of Phoolan Devi or the Bandit Queen of India and how she became a criminal. Phoolan was forced to marry an elderly man at the age of 11 and she underwent mistreatments by her husband and his relatives. Following unbearable domestic abuse, she ran away from her husband. When she came back to her village, the son of the village headman tried to molest her. Although she was the victim Phoolan was publicly humiliated by high cast villagers and she was banished from her native village. When she returned to her village after a few months, the police unjustly arrested her and a group of policemen raped Phoolan. These mental and physical traumas led her to form a bandit group and she unleashed a deadly violence committing murder and robberies in rural India.

The American society was shocked by the crimes committed by a female named Aileen Wuornos. Aileen was born in 1956 in Michigan. Her father was a habitual child molester and felon and was imprisoned for rape and attempted murder and committed suicide while in prison. Soon after his death, Aileen’s mother left her. She was raised by her grandparents who had no constant income. Aileen Wuornos had a tormented childhood and she entered the society as a misfit. At the age of 15, Aileen ran away and became a petty criminal and a prostitute. While working as a sex worker many times she was brutally raped and she sustained physical injuries. In later years, Aileen Wuornos killed seven men by shooting her victims multiple times and dumping their bodies in remote locations. Aileen Wuornos was arrested for murder and faced a trial. She was executed in Florida in 2002 by a lethal injection.

The stories of Phoolan Devi of the Indian society and Aileen Wuornos of the North American society evidently show the validity of the arguments presented by feminists on crime.

The Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith in her Standpoint theory suggests that the predominant culture in which all groups exist is not experienced in the same way by all persons or groups. The marginalized groups live in the predominant culture must learn to be bicultural or to pass in the dominant culture to survive, even though that perspective is not there own. (DeFrancisco 2007)

Post Modern Perspective on Crime

According to the Post Modern perspective, social changes give rise to crime and there is no single theory to explain the genesis of crime. Postmodernists view that all truth is relative. Under these circumstances, individuals have lost faith in universal belief systems or ‘grand narratives. The contemporary culture is characterized by the problematization of objective truth.

The modern society is exemplify by consumerism and influence by the media. To explain the crime and criminal behavior Postmodernists use critical theory, which is a social theory, oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole.

According to Hannah Arendt, men are not capable of forgiving what they cannot punish, nor of punishing the unforgivable. On the other hand, Jacques Derrida states that we can maintain a legal accusation even when we forgive, or inversely, we are able not to judge but we can forgive. (Forgiveness and crimes against humanity: a dialogue between Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida – Cláudia Perrone-Moisés)

Michel Foucault in his alluring book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison examines the social and theoretical mechanisms behind the massive changes that occurred in western penal systems during the modern age. Several centuries ago, criminals were punished in public to discourage committing crimes. According to Michel Foucault, the public spectacle of torture was a theatrical forum that served several intended and unintended purposes for society. Based on Foucault’s argument reflecting the violence of the original crime onto the convict’s body for all to see remained as the main purpose.

In the modernist approach, Crime is a multifactoral phenomenon and some postmodernists try to explain the crime and criminal behavior via Chaos theory. Based on the common notion murders and the rapes as the manifestations of crime, but in reality they are the consequences of other social occurrences. Chaos Theory holds that it is virtually impossible to predict the outcome of any social phenomenon because social events are susceptible to change. In the postmodern condition, life is in fragments and people experience everyday life as an open space of moral, political and personal dilemmas.


The concept of Crime can vary from society to Society. Sociological aspects of crime can be divided into broad categories in relation to social determinants. In the sociological perspective, crime and criminal behavior is viewed in defiant standpoints. According to the functionalist perspective, the society is interlinked with various systems and crimes make the society dysfunctional. The conflict theorists believe that social exploitation and unequal distribution of wealth trigger criminality in the society. The sociological theoretical perspective of interactionism explains that crime emerge as a result of human interaction. The feminists argue that often women become the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators. The Post Modern perspective explains that social changes give rise to crime and there is no single theory to explain the genesis of crime.


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DeFrancisco & Victoria P. (2007) Communicating Gender Diversity: A Critical Approach. Sage Publications

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Foucault. M. (1995) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage

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Merton, Robert K. (1957). Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press

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