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Sociologists investigate the effects of society on criminal and deviant behaviour and seek to understand individuals and their situations. They do this by gathering and utilizing information on age, gender, social class, race and ethnicity.
Crime is specifically associated with behaviors that break the formal written laws of any given society; for example, British law states that seatbelts must be worn whilst driving a car. Deviance describes behaviors which infringe cultural norms and values but do not violate any written law; for instance, lying is considered by most individuals as wrong but is not against the law, unless while under oath in a court of law. As individuals - even if we disagree with them - we are required to abide by societies' norms, values and laws. It is useful to think of deviance as a wide category of which crime is smaller part (sociology in perspective, p583)
Individuals construct and learn how to fit into society through 'socialization' within our cultures. 'Correct' behavior, or norms and values, are learned through interaction with our family, peers and institutions, such as the education system. Norms are socially acceptable ways of behaving in any given situation, such as knowing we should be quiet in libraries. Values are the fundamental beliefs which underpin a community or society and provide the general principles for human behavior, such as the belief that stealing is wrong; as in the case of stealing, values often become laws.
These norms and values - and therefore behaviours considered deviant - vary widely throughout history, societies, communities and cultures. For example, while one family may overlook belching at the dinner table another may be disgusted by such behavior. Moreover in Chinese culture belching during dinner is considered good manners and a sign of appreciation of the meal, Kwintessential [online]. Therefore, how behavior is regarded depends on the perspective of the people concerned. According to Becker from the perspective of Labelling Theory, no actions are by nature criminal or deviant but instead depends on the 'norms' created by any given society. Therefore, deviance is only deviance if labelled as such through the process of interaction in which meaning is established (Sociology in perspective, pg 604). An example of this idea of labeling is public nudity; overall it is not wrong to be nude but society imposes strict rules on nudity in public places. If brave enough to go nude in public you can be certain that the reactions of others would support this theory. In contrast some tribal communities such as those found in South America and Africa still dress in very little and would react little to public nudity.
The idea that killing is wrong, as a fundamental human value, is a good example of how relative our belief systems are. Throughout history cultures such as the Aztecs carried out human sacrifice for their religious beliefs mnsu.edu [on line] and the religious sacrifice of animals still happens in some tribal communities today.
Norms and values can become distorted and individuals may resort to stealing or even killing if there is a breakdown of norms, values or regulations. This breakdown of values shows in such cases as mercy killings and assisted suicides; individuals experience feelings of turmoil over their fundamental values and beliefs. There is much debate on the subject of assisted suicide being made legal in Britain, as is the case in countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, ask.com [online].
Also stealing is considered wrong by most individuals but again these values are easily distorted, as in the case of hurricane Katrina, Wikipedia [online]. Individuals, who had never stolen, were doing so because they were not able to attain essentials such as food and water, and it was not clear if the 'normal rules' applied. Emile Durkheim, the Emile Durkheim Archive [online] investigated this breakdown and lack of social and moral norms and defined the term anomie.
Individuals can deviate involuntarily as well as deliberately; for instance, those suffering from disorders such as Tourettes syndrome have little control over what might be considered deviant language. Whereas someone that steals a car attains their label of deviant through their own deliberate actions
Subcultures are often regarded as deviant, for example, Mormon communities live relatively peacefully within wider society yet are often assigned as deviants. In contrast, subcultures such as criminal gangs are less compatible with wider society and cause social disharmony, therefore they attain their deviant label through deliberate actions. These subcultures have their own sets of norms and values to which they abide, these may not conform to the views of wider society but they are perfectly acceptable within their own cultures.
Furthermore, individuals may be considered deviant because of their beliefs or sexuality. It could be argued than most religions consider their own beliefs as right and others as wrong. Homosexuality is considered to be deviant by some religions, cultures and individuals but not by others. Until the early 20th century the Siwans of North America expected all 'normal' males to engage in homosexual intercourse, moreover they considered those that refused to be peculiar. In contrast the Rwalar Bedouins considered homosexuality as so 'abnormal' that they put the participants to death.
Functionalists argue that we need deviance to bring about social change; for example, suffragettes of the late 19th Century went to prison for their beliefs and helped to bring about woman's right to vote. In some societies today such as Saudi Arabia women still do not have voting rights, wiki answers [online]. The plight of the suffragettes could also be used to emphasize a fundamental issue raised by Marxists which is, crime is the product of inadequate social conditions (Sociology in Perspective pg 608)
The study of crime and sociology together seeks to understand why some individuals turn to crime and how society as a whole can prevent it. There are many types of crime which fall under three broad categories. The more physical crimes such as mugging and assault fall under Blue-collar crimes. Evidence shows that these types of crimes are most likely to be carried out by the lower or working classes; whereas white-collar crimes such as fraud and embezzlement are most likely to be carried out by the more affluent. Lastly, victimless crimes are crimes that are against the law, but no victim is seen to exist, such as Prostitution.
Sociologist use statistics to obtain evidence that enables them to determine social trends such as those discussed above. Statistics can help to identify high crime areas which in turn may be used to help authorities such as the police service to reduce such crime. Lastly statistics are used to compile information for the public, such as advice on taking precautions against crime.
However it is generally agreed that crime statistics are seriously flawed and it has been argued that they reveal more about the process and recording of crime than the extent of crime itself; the way police record incidents sometimes changes and so distorts information. The main difficulty is that statistics are derived from only reported crimes, British Crime Surveys show that only around 30% of crime is reported to the police (Sociology pg 181) - therefore most crime goes unreported giving a unrealistic view of crime rates. There are many reasons that these crimes may go unreported, for example, people may not report crimes that they deem private or shameful such as domestic abuse. Sometimes a lack of faith in the police may prevent individuals from reporting crime. Also, some crimes go unnoticed, such as stealing from the workplace or drug dealing. Some crimes are more likely to be reported than others, which further distorts crime figures. Lastly, it has been argued that the police's own discretion on where to police, who to arrest and which category a crime fits can distort crime statistics.
Consequently, statistics are difficult to interpret and questions should always be asked as to what they tell us and what other information should be considered when trying to extract valid information. Subsequently sociologists use other information to analyse the amount of crime in society. Self report studies involve confidential questionnaires that invite a sample of respondents to voluntarily record whether or not they have committed any of a list of offences in a particular time period. Those in favor of self-report studies would argue that they are a good method of determining the social characteristics of criminals but critics suggest they may be unreliable due to the participants exaggerating their answers or not admitting to committing criminal acts. Also the data may be biased as criminals may be less likely to answer questionnaires which may distort the information.
It is argued that Crime Surveys or Victim Surveys provide a more accurate measurement of the level of crime in society, because they include hidden crime such as crimes that have not been reported to, or recorded by the police. Also their method of gathering data is consistent and is unaffected by changes in reporting or recording practices that can often hinder police statistics. Critics argue that Crime surveys still underestimate crime levels do to arbitrarily capping the number of crimes one can be victimized by in a given year; this capping can produce an unrealistic measurement in such cases as repeated domestic abuse. Crime surveys are also criticized for excluding under sixteen's and those that live in communal establishments, such as nursing homes and university halls of residence. Lastly crime surveys fail to record crimes against 'victimless' crimes such as drug trafficking, crimes against commercial premises or vehicles and because they are victim surveys murder and manslaughter.
Understanding crime and deviance is important as lower crime rates have positive effects on society; for example property values improve and money saved in the police or prison services could be made available for other social projects such as the education system.