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Sociologists use several theories to study society and societal issues, such as crime and deviance. This lesson examines the symbolic interactionism and structural functionalism perspectives and gives examples of each.

Theories of Crime and Deviance

This is Bart.

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Bart doesn’t like to bathe. He sometimes goes weeks without taking a bath or shower. Bart’s family, friends and co-workers have all complained to Bart.Bart’s behavior is deviant.

Deviance is any behavior that’s contrary to social norms and is condemned by the majority of society. This is a difficult concept because social norms vary by culture, setting and time period. For example, I’m from the South, where it’s not unusual to see someone slip a handful of peanuts into a bottle of Coke. It makes a sweet and salty drinkable snack, but it might be considered strange behavior in other areas of the country!Many deviant behaviors are slight, such as chewing your food with your mouth open. But deviant behavior can also be severe, such as killing or harming another person. The more severe forms of deviant behavior are usually criminal behavior. Keep in mind that a crime is simply any act that is against a legal code or law.

When society perceives a deviant behavior to be severe, then society typically enacts a law to make that behavior a crime.Sociological researchers use a variety of perspectives to study society and explain deviance and crime. Sociologists use different approaches to define deviant behavior and to explain how we view the roles of crime and deviance within our society. Let’s take a look at a few of the more common approaches.

Symbolic Interactionism

Let’s first examine symbolic interactionism. This perspective views society as a product of everyday social interactions between individuals. The theory says that people assign symbols and create meaning based on their interactions with one another.

For example, we know that a green light symbolizes that we have permission to go. We attach the meaning ‘go’ because others in our society told us and showed us that’s what the green light means. We learned the behavior from our interactions with others in our society.What’s important to realize, however, is that our meanings are often subjective. We behave based on what we believe to be true rather than what is objectively true. Sociologists often use cigarettes as an example. Objectively, research shows that smoking is dangerous and unhealthy.

However, some young people subjectively attach a symbol that smoking is ‘cool’ and presents a positive image to their peers. They choose to smoke based on the subjective belief that smoking is a desirable behavior rather than on the objective evidence that smoking is harmful.

Interactionism and Deviance

Now let’s apply the approach to crime and deviance.

We learn what is accepted behavior and what is deviant behavior from our interactions with others in our society. Deviant behavior is also learned. If Bart grew up in a family that rarely bathed, then Bart learned to skip bathing. Using this theory, we would say that Bart learned his deviant behavior from his interactions with other deviants.This approach might explain why those who grow up in crime-ridden areas are more likely to commit crimes.

Under this theory, people commit crimes and deviant acts because they associate and interact with criminals and deviant people. The deviants learn values that are different from the rest of society. For example, they might learn that stealing, using drugs and carrying weapons are desirable behaviors. This is known as a deviant subculture because it’s a shared way of living that differs from the dominant culture.

Structural Functionalism

Now let’s take a look at structural functionalism.

This perspective views society as an intricate structure whose parts work together. Some sociologists compare this approach to the human body. Each part is complicated and fascinating on its own, but the parts must work together to produce a balanced result. The ‘parts’ of society include social structure and social functions.Social structure is a relatively stable pattern of social behavior. You can think of social structures as the skeleton, or framework, of our everyday lives. We use social structures in our families, our communities and our workplaces.

Social structures are rituals, or widely-accepted traditions. For example, it’s customary to shake hands when meeting or greeting someone. It’s also customary to attend school through at least 12th grade, and we typically eat lunch around noon. Social structures are things we expect in our society.

Social structures help keep order and balance in our society.Social function, on the other hand, describes the purpose of a social structure. Each social structure has a function in society, just like each body part has a particular purpose. For example, we customarily attend school because our education system provides learning, training and socialization. These functions of our education system, in turn, impact the functions of our job market.

Our job market provides personal income and social status. Using a functionalist approach, sociologists note that society likely wouldn’t experience the varying levels of income and social status without the education system. The function of one structure is dependent on the function of the other.

Functionalism and Deviance

Now let’s apply the approach to crime and deviance.

Using the structural functionalism perspective, even crime and deviance play important functions in society. Without crime and deviance, other structures couldn’t function. For example, crime and deviance help acknowledge and verify our cultural norms and values. When our criminal justice system punishes a thief for stealing, it affirms our belief that stealing is wrong. It helps us distinguish what is considered acceptable, or unacceptable, behavior in our society.

Deviance also functions to unite members of society against further crime and deviance. This is seen when someone experiences a burglary, and their neighbors join forces to form neighborhood watch groups or take other security measures. Notice that the neighborhood sense of solidarity is dependent on the neighbors’ sense that a neighbor was wronged.Lastly, note that deviance can function to promote social change. A social change is any significant alteration in behavior patterns, cultural values and social norms. True social changes create impactful and long-term effects. This was seen in the American civil rights era.

Social structures dictated that blacks weren’t permitted to sit at a lunch counter, or to sit at the front of a bus. Deviant behavior by protestors and others who refused to follow the standards eventually led to sweeping changes in our laws.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Sociologists use a variety of approaches to study society and societal issues, such as crime and deviance. Deviance refers to any behavior that’s contrary to social norms and is condemned by the majority of society.

Crime refers to any act that is against a legal code or law.The symbolic interactionism perspective views society as a product of everyday social interactions between individuals. This theory says that people assign symbols and create meaning based on their interactions with one another.

But those symbols and meanings are often based on subjective beliefs rather than objective truths. For this reason, it sometimes produces deviant subcultures, which are a shared way of living that differs from the dominant culture.The structural functionalism perspective views society as an intricate structure whose parts work together. The first part includes social structures, which are relatively stable patterns of social behavior. The second part includes social functions, which describes the purpose of social structures.

Under this theory, even crime and deviance serve important functions. For example, deviance can lead to social change, which is any significant alteration in behavior patterns, cultural values and social norms.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’re through watching the video, it should be easier for you to:

  • Differentiate between deviance and crime
  • Describe what sociologists mean by symbolic interactionism
  • Tell how interactionism impacts deviance
  • Explain the perspective of structural functionalism
  • Consider how functionalism can impact crime and deviance

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