Distinguish Between Crime as a Social and a Sociological Problem

In this essay we shall look at what crime is, what social problems are, and what sociological problems are , how they overlap and we will also look into what sociologists do and look into Robert Merton’s strain theory, and also other sociologists views like William Chambliss’s ‘roughnecks and saints’ - Distinguish Between Crime as a Social and a Sociological Problem introduction. A crime is the breaking of certain rules laid out by a society i. e. the Government. Crime is said to be ‘activities that break the law and are subject to official punishment (Holborn and Haralambos, 2000, pg. 330) All social norms are accompanied by sanctions that promote conformity and protect against non-conformity.

A sanction is any reaction from others to the behaviour of an individual or group that is meant to ensure compliance to a given norm. Sanctions may be positive (the offering of reward for conformity) or negative (punishment for behaviour that does not conform. (Haralambos and Holborn 2000 pg. 205). Deviance is not all that different to crime. In fact sometimes crime and deviance are the same thing, but not in every case. Deviance may be defined as non-conformity to a given set of norms that are accepted by a significant number of people in a community or society (Giddens, 2001 pg. 03). We can split deviance into two groups’ folkways and mores. Folkways are minor norms while mores are more serious norms. There are different sanctions for a violation of them. An example of the violation of folkways would be burping in a library, and a violation of mores would be killing someone for a biscuit. Mores can also be laws. Laws are formal sanctions. Durkheim who was probably one of the founding fathers of sociology saw crime and deviance as social facts. (Giddens 2001 pg. 207). They are essential and necessary to a society’s progression.

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The problem with this is that traditional norms become undermined and if you don’t replace them, Anomie exists. Durkheim believed Anomie exists when there are no clear standards to guide behaviour, social values and norms become weakened. If they are not replaced with new ones, standards of behaviour become unclear; this may lead to criminal behaviour. (Giddens 2001 pg. 207). Robert K Merton another highly influential sociologist built on Durkheim’s ideas of anomie, He modified the concept of anomie to the strain put on individual’s behaviour hen accepted norms conflict with social reality. In American society- and to some degree in other industrial societies- generally held values emphasize material success, and the means of achieving success are supposed to be self-discipline and hard work (Giddens 2001, pg. 208). Robert K Merton built onto Durkheim’s idea of anomie; it was called ‘the strain theory’. ‘The strain theory’ also pointed out that there are five different adaptive responses to social strain, there are conformists, innovators (crime), ritualists, retreatists, and rebels.

Conformity is a person’s willingness to adhere or stick to a certain set of values or norms most of the population falls into this group; Innovators on the other hand can be seen a bit different. A person would accept the values or goals from a society but would not accept the traditional ways of receiving the goals, (criminals), ritualists are people that would abandon (or lose sight of) the traditional larger goals, but would be quite happy with the means of trying to attain those goals, retreatists are people who fail to attain the goals and the means of a society, retreatists include some alcoholics, drug users, homeless.

The deviance of retreatists lies in unconventional living, Rebels are similar to retreatists. Rebels as the word describes, a complete rejection of values and means of a society, rebels go one step further though, and they come up with radical alternatives to the existing social order, for example politicians (John J Macionis and Ken Plummer, 2005 pg. 606). According to Merton, deviance is a by-product of economic inequalities and the lack of equal opportunities. Howard Becker another sociologist whose theories are slightly different to Merton and Durkheim.

He is seen closely associated with the ‘Labelling theory’. He wanted to show how deviant identities are produced through labelling rather through deviant motivations and behaviours (Giddens, 2001, pg. 210). Becker saw deviance as a process and that an act of deviance can only be deviant when someone breaks the law and is held accountable for such an act. Once you are convicted and labelled as a delinquent or deviant, that person is stigmatised and is probably considered as untrustworthy by people and prospective employers (Becker citied in Giddens, 2009). ue to having this label, the deviant adopts the label and this can lead to further deviant acts, Another theorist William Chambliss, whose study on ‘saints and sinners’ showed the difference between crime and class. ‘The saints’ who are people that are very high up in society like judges, politicians, or doctors and ‘the roughnecks’ who are people that are of working class and lower. Road sweepers, shop assistant, or van driver. If someone from both classes commits the same crime, the person who is from ‘the saints’ would not get the same punishment or stigma as the person in ‘the roughnecks’.

This would be because ‘the roughnecks’ would have very little power in society due to labelling. Labelling helps towards the segregation (or separation) of the classes. The offence would be seen as a lot worse than that of ‘the saint’. ‘The saints’ would be the people who implicate the laws and they have the power to label the deviants. We have read all different points of view from sociologists, and how they think crime and deviance occur. Although the information helps us to understand what crime is?

The fact is that sociologist can help us understand and maybe prevent crime, but the government are the only ones who have the power the implicate the laws that we live by. They say who the deviants are, and they are the ones who have the power to impose the sanctions for not conforming to society’s rules. So is crime a social problem or a sociological problem? Well social problems are problems that effect members of society. Some examples would be drug problems, domestic violence, lack of education, asbo’s, vandalism, unemployment, obesity, drinking, and racism.

Sociological problems would be questions or problems that interest sociologists or the study of society. “We define social problems as the activities of individuals or groups making assertions of grievances and claims with respect to some putative conditions. The emergence of a social problem is contingent upon the organisation of activities asserting the need for eradicating, ameliorating, or otherwise changing some condition” (Spector and Kituse citied Hester and Eglin, 1992. p. 1) So this states that social problems are problems that are currently not wanted, and are in need of eradicating.

Sociologists job would be to find out why the social problem occurs, how to understand and fix it, what the cause might be, and whether it affects society. Sociology can teach valuable insights into crime and how the study of crime can provide an interesting vehicle for learning about sociology (Hester and Eglin, 1992). Hester and Eglin would define a sociological problem as: “Sociological problems are those which are derived from the concerns which motivate sociological inquiry. These concerns reflect the different theoretical perspectives which are used by sociologists.

Perhaps the most fundamental concerns of all are the problem of social order: how society is possible? ” (Hester and Eglin 1992, p. 2) According to Durkheim society is not bounded by time or space (place) and that “society is a moral phenomenon” that sociology was the study of social facts (Giddens, 2001 pg. 9) Durkheim was mainly interested in the changes in society throughout his own lifetime. He was very interested in moral and social solidarity, (what holds society together). (Giddens, 2001 pg. 9) So what is a solidarity society?

A solidarity society is when someone is integrated into a group which has shared beliefs and customs. Emile Durkheim introduced two types of solidarity due to the emergence of the industrial era. Mechanical and organic solidarity, “According to Durkheim, traditional cultures with a low division of labour are characterized by mechanical solidarity. Because most members of the society are involved in similar occupations, they are bound together by common experience and shared beliefs. The strength of these shared beliefs is repressive-the community swiftly punishes anyone who challenges conventional ways of life. n this way there is little chance for individual dissent. Mechanical solidarity is therefore, is grounded in consensus and similarity of belief” (Giddens, 2001 pg. 9) Mechanical solidarity would be a pre-modern or pre-industrial society; they would be highly religious and would be in small groups, an example today would be the Amish community in America. An organic solidarity society would consist of people who are economically interdependent and there would be a recognition of the importance of others, but as industrialisation expands, peoples dependencies on one another increase.

This can disrupt everyday patterns of life; these can lead to as we have looked at before anomie. (Giddens, 2001 pg. 9) Organic solidarity is the industrialisation (or modernisation) of society, and it replaces mechanical solidarity. This has a profound effect on crime and suicide rates, according to the central statistics office (cso) there’s been a 28 % increase in robberies between 2009-2010 and suicide rates were at 486 in the year ending 2011(www. cso. ie). This shows that the change in the economy has made a lot more people turn to deviant behaviour as means to their ends

Sociologically speaking crime is interesting only in so far as it provides a pretext for asking sociological questions. Criminology in its narrow sense is concerned with the study of the phenomenon of crime and of the factors or circumstances (Hester and Eglin, 1992 p. 2, 3). Crime also has to be seen as a social problem before it can be adopted into society, an example of this is domestic violence. Domestic violence was originally not seen as a criminal law, it was originally seen as a family problem, a private situation, not between the law and you.

It was seen as totally private. These social problems where mostly changed by the women’s rights movement in the early twentieth century. Firstly it was seen as a social problem, then it was seen as a state problem, then it was adopted as a crime. Homosexuality did the opposite. It was seen as a law first as a law until 1969 when the law changed, then it was a state problem, and now it’s seen as a social problem, a private thing between two people To conclude the essay we have seen many sociologists’ theories to answer the question.

Although social and sociological problems do sometimes overlap. Society tends to try and find a cure to the problems while sociologists tend to want to understand the cause of the problems. If we get to the main point of the question how can sociologist combat crime? Well they can’t really, sociologists can study the causes and their findings can help the law makers make an educated decision before making changes to the law.


Haralambos, M, and Holborn, M. 2000), Sociology: themes and perspectives, 5th ed, London: Harper Collins. pp. 330, 205 Gidden, A (2001), Sociology, 4th ed, Cambridge: BlackWell. pp. 203, 207, 208, 210, 9. Macionis, John. J, and Plummer, K. (2005), sociology: a global introduction, 3rd ed, Essex: Pearson. P. 606 Hester, S and Eglin, E (1992), sociology of crime, London: Routledge, pp. 1, 2, 3. Central Statistics Office (2011), women and men’s crime and suicide rates, [online], Available: http://www. cso. ie/en/search/index. html [accessed], 10 December 2011.

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