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Deviance Main Page


  1. Introduction - Durkheim on crime

  2. Recording Crime & the Dark Figure

  3. Self-Report & Victimization Surveys

  4. Delinquent psychology & delinquent career

  5. Parents & poverty

  6. Schooling & crime

  7. Community & Crime

  8. Crime & development of policing

  9. Age, Class & Gender

  10. Gangster & Gang

  11. Killers & Popular Culture

Other writings on crime & deviance :

Comments or questions to tmason@timothyjpmason.com


Deviance and Delinquency

Timothy Mason (cv)

Université de Paris 8

Lecture 1

A : Introduction : Crime as a social reality

When E. Evans Pritchard was studying the Nuer*, a people who lived in the Southern Sudan, and whose habits he recorded during the 1930s, the various tribes who composed the Nuer lived in open enmity with another people, the Dinka. The Nuer had a myth which explained this enmity :

in the beginning of time, God had two sons - the one representing the Nuer, the other the Dinka. God promised to the Dinka son that he would give him his old cow, and to the Nuer son, he promised his young calf. During the night, the Dinka son tricked God into believing that he was the Nuer son, by imitating his voice, and went off with the young calf. When God discovered the treachery, he gave to the Nuer son the order to avenge him, by raiding the Dinka's cattle until the end of time.

And this is what the Nuer did - whenever they felt the need for more cattle, they would go and raid the Dinka, beat them, and take their cattle away. They were proud of this, and every young man looked forward to the day when he would be able to join a band of warriors to go and raid the Dinka.

A French cattle farmer who behaved in the same way to his neighbours would be considered a criminal.

Amongst the Yanomamo*, an American Indian tribe living in Amazonia, the males regularly ingest large quantities of hallucinogenic drugs. They are highly aggressive. Much of their aggression is unleashed upon their women; 'All Yanomamo men physically abuse their wives,' writes anthropologist Marvin Harris. 'Kind husbands merely bruise and mutilate them; the fierce ones wound and kill.' Yanomamo women do not see this as reprehensible ; on the contrary, they are apparently proud of the bruises that they bear. Dr. Judith Shapiro, one of the anthropologists to study this people, found that the women felt concern for her, because her unscarred appearance indicated that no man cared for her very deeply.

In France, hallucinogenic drugs are considered illegal, and people who use them regularly are looked upon with pity or contempt. Men who beat, maim or kill their wives may be arrested by the police, tried and sentenced to imprisonment.

The Nayar*, of the Malabar Coast, had, up until the end of the nineteenth century, marriage customs which were a fertile source of travellers' tales. The males were mostly soldiers who, for much of the time, would be absent from their villages, which were left to the women and children. Once every few years, a grand ceremony would be held at which all the girls of marriageable age - that is to say, between the ages of 7 and 12 - would be ritually married to husbands chosen for them by the village astrologer. After the ceremony, each couple would live together in private for three days, during which sexual relations were supposed to take place.

Once the seclusion was over, and after various purification ceremonies, the husband would leave, and need have nothing more to do with his bride. The girl now became socially a woman, which meant that she was allowed to have lovers. With some of these she might establish regular relationships. With others, who might simply be passing through the village, the affair might last but a few nights. The lovers were expected to leave the woman a gift - if a mere passing guest, he would give her money. So long as she chose her lovers from those whose caste gave them the requisite status, the woman's behaviour was looked upon as being completely normal.

A French woman who behaved in such a way would be regarded as a prostitute, and the family who inducted her into such a life-pattern as perverse.

The criminologist is often vexed by the question whether there are or are not human behaviours which would everywhere be regarded as morally wrong. Many people who study crime believe that there are, and that there is a basic universal human ethical system which applies everywhere. They also believe that the people whom we label as criminals are, by and large, people who have offended against the rules of this system. Criminals are people who maliciously, and for their own ends, cause physical harm to others, or who deprive others of their property rights. Murderers, rapists and thieves are looked upon as reprehensible by all societies. Crime is an objective reality. It is also a social and behavioural problem. Criminologists have a laudable aim, which is to discover as much as possible about criminal behaviour, in order to be able to prevent it.

However, others do not hold to this set of beliefs. To begin with, they remark that it is very difficult to define, say, murder, in such a way that it covers all forms of killing which are regarded as morally wrong by some societies, and yet exclude all those forms which are not.

  • As we have seen, amongst the Yanomamo, a man may kill his wife without arousing any great degree of disapproval on the part of his social partners. Ted Bundy (see my article on serial killers)would have felt at home in the Amazon basin.

  • Amongst the Nuer, killing a Dinka during a cattle raid was to be regarded as an exploit, rather than as something to be ashamed of. The young Nuer warrior finds that his father, his uncles, and the other older men of the village will encourage him in behaviour which is rather more violent than that of the English football hooligan, whose Saturday evening rampages arouse the anger of newspaper editors magistrates and policemen.

Pointing this out does not exonerate the serial murderer, or the football hooligan. Nor does it indicate a lack of sympathy with their victims. It does, however, pour cold water on the idea that there is a common core to all moral systems which can be relied upon by the criminologist in defining what may be a 'true crime'.

Secondly, those who disagree with the realist school point out that there is no necessary fit between the population of all those who behave in ways which might be universally abhorrent and those who are punished by those whose business it is to deal with offenders. It is generally agreed that there is a large number of crimes which go unpunished. There is also a certain number of people who are punished for crimes that they have not committed. In both cases, the numbers are difficult to establish, and this difficulty in turn leads to further questions of a theoretical order, as we shall see.

Throughout the weeks that we shall be together, we will hear echoes of this basic disagreement between those who believe that crime and delinquency exist out there, in the real world, and that the primary object of criminology is the person who commits those crimes - the criminal or the delinquent - and those who believe that crime is a social construct, a product of social institutions, and in particular of those institutions whose declared objective it is to fight the war against crime. On the one hand, then, are those who see themselves as auxiliaries of the war against crime, and on the other, those who on the contrary, see themselves as either as purely theoretical sociologists, or as critics of the status quo.

During the next thirteen weeks, I will be talking about the concept of deviance, with particular reference to juvenile delinquency. The concept is, as we shall discover, a slippery one - it is not simple to define or easy to apply.

  • We shall begin by looking at the work of Emile Durkheim, whom many recognize as the originator of the idea. We shall try to derive a definition from his work, and we shall note the questions raised by this definition. These questions will then be activated through a series of investigations of crime and delinquency.

  • First we shall examine how far the official statistics on crime and delinquency reflect social reality.

  • This will lead us to consider how it is that certain activities are identified as criminal; that is to say that we will need to see how it is that certain activities come to be the object of legal repression.

  • From there, we will move on to consider the processes by which certain individuals are identified as having committed criminal or delinquent acts; this will involve asking whether the people who are found guilty of crimes possess any specific characteristics which mark them out prior to their conviction, and, if such characteristics do exist, how far they can be seen as 'explaining' the acts of the criminal, and how far they can be seen as explaining the reactive behaviour of the social system.

  • Finally, in the light of these investigations, we will return to Durkheim's concept of deviance, and we will ask whether it deserves to remain one of the key concepts of a modern sociology.

B : Durkheim and deviance.

There are two basic texts to which I shall refer in my reading of Durkheim. These are 'Les règles de la méthode sociologique' and 'Le suicide'. Let us first look at Durkheim's definition of crime :

... nous constatons l'existence d'un certain nombre d'actes qui présentent tous ce caractère extérieur que, une fois accomplis, ils déterminent de la part de la société cette réaction particulière qu'on nomme la peine. Nous en faisons un groupe sui generis, auquel nous imposons une rubrique commune ; nous appelons crime tout acte puni et nous faisons du crime ainsi défini l'objet d'une science spéciale, la criminologie. (Règles de la méthode sociologique, 35)

He continues :

... certes, ce n'est pas la peine qui fait le crime, mais c'est par elle qu'il se révèle extérieurement à nous et c'est d'elle, par conséquent, qu'il faut partir si nous voulons arriver à le comprendre.

We shall see that later glosses on Durkheim's concept will go so far as to affirm that it is, in fact, the punishment that makes the crime. For the moment, we may note the central importance which punishment is accorded in Durkheim's criminology, and, remembering that Durkheim has been seen as one of the founders of the functionalist school in sociology, go on to look at the ways in which he considers that crime is actually useful to society.

In 'Les règles ...', Durkheim puts forward an idea which, to many, seemed revolutionary. Crime, he said, was not only inevitable in any workable society, but necessary. Why should this be?

Durkheim suggests that the social system needs the criminal for three kinds of reason. In the first place, factors such as biological heredity, or the physical milieu in which the individual lives, or the relative strength of different social influences make it inevitable that there should be individual differences in the strength of moral consciousness from one person to another - it is therefore also inevitable that some of these differences should be of a criminal type.

Secondly, any society in which the norms were rigorously followed, without exception, would be doomed in the long run, for the social organism must be capable of change, in order to meet changes in the environment - either internal or external. Space must be left for individuals and groups to innovate.

... il n'est plus possible aujourd'hui de contester que non seulement le droit et la morale varient d'un type social à l'autre, mais encore qu'ils changent pour un même type si les conditions de l'existence collective se modifient. Mais, pour que ces transformations soient possibles, il faut que les sentiments collectifs qui sont à la base de la morale ne soient pas réfractaires au changement, par conséquent n'aient qu'une énergie modérée ... Or, s'il n'y avait pas de crimes, cette condition ne serait pas remplie ; car une telle hypothèse suppose que les sentiments collectifs seraient parvenus à un degré d'intensité sans exemple dans l'histoire. Rien n'est bon indéfiniment est sans mesure. Il faut que l'autorité dont jouit la conscience morale ne soit pas excessive ; autrement, nul n'oserait y porter la main et elle se figerait trop facilement sous une forme immuable. Pour qu'elle puisse évoluer, il faut que l'originalité individuelle puisse se faire jour ; or, pour que celle de l'idéaliste qui rêve de dépasser son siècle puisse se manifester, il faut que celle du criminel, qui est au-dessous de son temps, soit possible. L'un ne va pas sans l'autre.

This has several consequences :

a) some people will use the innovative space in ways which do not lead to a repressive reaction on the part of the system. Their innovations are neither useful nor damaging, but can be seen simply as expressions of individual freedom. Thus a group of friends may modify the official rules of the game of football so as to adapt it to a confined space which is at their disposition.
b) some people will use the innovative space in ways which are regarded by the system or by its agents as positive. Such people may be rewarded. Poets, for example, are expected to stretch the rules governing the structuration and usage of the language.
c) some people will use the innovative space in ways which, in the long run, are positive, but in the short run lead to a repressive reaction on the part of the system. Durkheim cites the case of Socrates, whose radical philosophy was seen as so dangerous by the Athenian state that he was condemned to commit suicide.
d) others will use the innovative space in ways which are negative, and which lead to a repressive reaction on the part of the system. These people constitute the mass of ordinary every-day criminals.

Crime is the price that the system pays in order to have the benefits of innovation. But if deviance is so useful to the system, why repress it at all? Durkheim replies that crime is something of a social equivalent to the biological phenomena of pain; it is necessary, but it is also detestable :

... une chose qui répugne (peut) avoir quelque raison d'être utile ... N'y a-t-il pas dans l'organisme des fonctions répugnantes dont le jeu régulier est nécessaire à la santé individuelle? Est-ce que nous ne détestons pas la souffrance? et cependant un être qui ne la connaîtrait pas serait un monstre. Le caractère normal d'une chose et les sentiments d'éloignement qu'elle inspire peuvent même être solidaires. Si la douleur est un fait normal, c'est à condition de n'être pas aimée ; si le crime est normal, c'est à condition d'être haï.

This brings us to the second useful function that crime fulfils. As individuals, we are very little affected by the norms and values of our society. Compare, says Durkheim, the feelings that the sight of a murderer, or even of a murder, awaken in us if we see them individually, with the feelings that seize a crowd under the same circumstances. Social indignation is so strong that only the death of the murderer will satisfy it. But as individuals, so long as the victim is unknown to us, and the perpetrator does not constitute an immediate danger to ourselves, we feel little concern. We would not, he suggests, raise a finger to discover the identity of the guilty person, and in fact, we would not even take the trouble to hand him over to the police.

Now a society in which the norms are of so little consequence is in danger. The criminal offers the social system the opportunity of reactivating the norms, of reinforcing them through the public staging of the ignominy of those who refuse to obey them. Although Durkheim does not actually state this in so many words, it has been identified as an important implicit corollary of his position that the ceremonies of trial and punishment possess in themselves important binding qualities. Our individual reactions to crime - attenuated as they are - are reinforced by the public nature of the activities of the agents of repression. The trial and the sentence are occasions for newspapers and other media to concentrate and express the collective revulsion that is necessary to strengthen feelings of social solidarity and deepen our allegiance to the normative system.

The criminal, then, is not simply a by-product of the need for any society to leave open an area in which individuals can experiment with the norms and innovate. He plays an important role in the continuing renewal of social solidarity ; it is as if the process of public degradation of the guilty were in some way sacramental. This explains popular resistance to any approach to deviance which in appears to dedramatize crime and to demystify the criminal. The assassin, the thief, the juvenile thug are quite literally demons, and the trial, sentencing and punishment of the law-breaker is truly an exorcism through which the demons are cast out of the social body and thrust into hell. In the United States today, it is quite possible to sentence a criminal to one thousand years in prison.

Crime and punishment are necessary, then, in all social systems. They allow both the social flexibility which is necessary to the survival of the social organism, and the ceremonial affirmation of the social norms upon which any society is founded. What, then, of the content of these norms?

For Durkheim, the criminal law constitutes a social fact. It exists outside the consciousness of individuals and embodies the collective consciousness of the social system. Each society has its own moral code, and so the criminal law will differ from one social system to another. The French criminal law differs from the English, as both differ from the Japanese or the American. Does this mean to say that the law is, in some way, arbitrary? Sometimes it may appear that this is what Durkheim is suggesting, and that the content of the law matters very little, so long as there is one, and so long as it is sufficiently applied. For example, he recognizes that 'primitive societies' may interdict certain activities which are regarded as permissible in modern societies. Thus, he writes

Le crime ne s'observe pas seulement dans la plupart des sociétés de telle ou telle espèce, mais dans toutes les sociétés de tous les types. Il n'en est pas où il n'existe une criminalité. Elle change de forme, les actes qui sont ainsi qualifiés ne sont pas partout les mêmes ; mais, partout et toujours, il y a eu des hommes qui se conduisaient de manière à attirer sur eux la répression pénale. (Règles, 65)

However, a closer look will show that, in fact, Durkheim believed that although laws do vary from one society to another, they do so along a certain number of recognizable axes and according to a certain number of universal principles. In fact, he held that many of the acts considered criminal by primitive societies were, in some way or another, less central to moral life than others, and he believed that the laws of our modern social systems came far closer to embodying the universal values that rule all societies.

Societies may differ in the extent to which they uphold one or other of these values. He points to the decline in violence that, in his opinion, characterizes modern social systems, and notes that this decline is due a strengthening of respect for individual dignity :

Autrefois, les violences contre les personnes étaient plus fréquentes qu'aujourd'hui parce que le respect pour la dignité individuelle était plus faible. Comme il s'est accru, ces crimes sont devenus plus rares ; mais aussi, bien des actes qui lésaient ce sentiment sont entrés dans le droit pénal dont ils ne relevaient primitivement pas. (Règles, 68/9)

He gives the examples of slander and libel. In the same way, theft is a crime because it strongly offends our sense of respect for the property of others. On the other hand, a dishonest contract, or a contract badly executed are seen as civil offences rather than crimes. If, says Durkheim, the collective sentiments surrounding private property were strengthened, then these latter activities would become crimes.

In this way, Durkheim seeks to analyse any system of law in terms of a number of abstract categories of universal application. However, he does not believe that all laws can be so analysed. Discussing the work of the Italian criminologist, Rafaelle Garofolo, he takes issue with the latter's belief that certain acts, held criminal in primitive societies, but no longer legally condemned in modern societies, and thus founded upon moral sentiments which have disappeared, are not essentially criminal. He argues that they are properly to be seen as crimes, but as crimes of a particular kind :

... les actes taxés crimes par les sociétés primitives, et qui ont perdu cette qualification, sont réellement criminels par rapport à ces sociétés, tout comme ceux que nous continuons à réprimer aujourd'hui. Les premiers correspondent aux conditions changeantes de la vie sociale, les seconds aux conditions constantes ...

There are, then, two kinds of crimes : one kind which is variable from one society to another, and from one period to another, and a second kind which is constant, and is to be found in all societies. Durkheim, who shared the ethnocentricity of the early anthropologists, and who shared also their social Darwinism, believed that the legal systems of modern societies encoded a higher, and therefore more universal, set of moral sentiments than those of primitive social forms. We may differ over from him in these respects, but nevertheless feel that there is something to be said for this double conception of the law, which, indeed, accords with common sense - we do believe that there are some laws which are more fundamental than others, and that some crimes are less reprehensible than others. And we certainly believe that the 'real criminal' has overstepped some fundamental frontier, which all decent persons would recognize.

As we shall see, not all commentators would agree. It leaves open the question of the sources of the legal system. Durkheim's view of the social fact was that it embodied the collective consciousness : the criminal law is the expression of this consciousness as regards the those deviations from the norms which are felt to be the most reprehensible. This is one of those points where Durkheim's use of the biological metaphor has been highly criticized : he appears to leave to one side any analysis of the construction of a system of law as a social process, involving the differing interests of social groups within society which are in conflict with one another. In his view, the need for periodic collective reaffirmation of social solidarity through the social theatre of crime and punishment derives from the feeble way in which collective norms are inscribed in the individual conscience : we all assent to the law, but, in our daily selfish practices, this assent is of a distant and theoretical kind which is of but little consequence for our real behaviour.The spectacle of crime and punishment recalls the norms and strengthens them, rather as the spectacle of a road accident reminds drivers to obey the speed limit - at least for a kilometre or two.

If, however, the law, far from being the expression of a collective sentiment, is an instrument of domination, deployed by a particular group or class within society in order to protect its own interests as against those of other groups or classes, then the meaning of the criminal spectacle changes. In most modern societies, levels of interpersonal violence are comparatively low. Far more physical and social harm is caused by reckless driving or by disregard for industrial safety* than by deliberate and malicious physical assaults. The media, however, concentrate far more time and energy on the depiction and condemnation of the violent criminal than on the careless drivers of heavy goods vehicles, and the businessmen that reward their disregard for speed limits, or upon flouting of safety regulations in the workplace, and the profit-seeking executives that encourage it. The demonization of the killer, thug or petty thief, and the encouragement of the idea that it is the primary function of the legal system - police, courts and prisons - to hold back the threatening tide of lawlessness, legitimized a system of law and of its enforcement which, in reality, favours some groups at the expense of others.

C : Conclusion

Durkheim's approach to crime and deviance, starting from the apparent paradox that crime is both normal and necessary, leaves us with the following considerations which we can take as our starting point for the investigation of crime and delinquency.

1. Durkheim holds that the criminal law is a social fact, existing outside the individual members of society. It expresses the collective consciousness of the group. The sociologist who is interested in crime needs to investigate the processes by which law is constructed. In particular, she wants to know why certain actions are considered criminal while others, equally unpleasant in their consequences, are not. The sociology of crime leads us to a sociology of the law.
2. Durkheim holds that the crime rate is also a social fact, existing outside the individual members of society. We need to look at how the crime rate is constructed, and at the agents who assist in its construction. This will lead us to investigate public opinion, and the organs which contribute to its construction - television, parliament, political parties - and also the agencies whose business it is to identify and record crime - the police and the judiciary. The sociology of crime leads us to a sociology of the media, and of the institutions of repression.
3. Durkheim holds that crime is necessary and useful for the society as a whole. This functionalist approach leaves aside the major question that is posed by conflict theories of society - useful for whom? The sociology of crime, as we shall see, leads to a consideration of the distribution of wealth and power in society.
4. Durkheim holds that crime is the necessary concomitant of a free society. Attempts to repress all crime will have negative consequences for social diversity. A question which we will need to ask is whether our societies have not, over the last few decades, in encouraging a vision of social life as anarchic and crime ridden, and stressing the need for security and high levels of policing, denied the expression of individual liberties at the very moment when the individualisation of social life has reached unprecedented levels.

You will have gathered that my vision of the sociology of crime and delinquency is one which questions the functioning of society as a whole. Essentially, my approach will be that of the school of radical criminology, which sees its task as being the construction of a full critique of the social system, rather than as simply an attempt to understand the criminal himself.


See E.E.Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer : a description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people, O.U.P., 1978, pp. 125-8

See Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches : the riddles of culture, Fonatan/Collins, 1977, pp. 66-70

See E. Kathleen Gough, The Nayars and the definition of marriage, in Peter B. Hammond (ed.), Cultural and Social Anthropology ; selected readings, Macmillan, 1964, pp. 167-80.

Durkheim, Le suicide, pp 357/8.

for Garofolo, see Taylor, Walton & Young, The New Criminology, pp 16-18.

This is not to say that Durkheim believed that the law was always an accurate expression of the collective consciousness. The fact that this is not always so is one of the reasons why deviance is necessary - see his citation of the case of Socrates. However, he implies that where there is dissonance between the law and collective consciousness, this arises because social evolution has left the law behind, rather than because there is any conflict of interest between law-makers and other social groups.

See Steven Box, Power, Crime, and Mystification, Routledge, 1983, 1989.

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