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Crime & Deviance – the Difference

12 June 2020

Crime can be defined as the form of deviance that involves an infraction of the criminal law and is subject to official punishment. Not all laws are criminal – civil law and constitutional law are 2 other key areas of the law. Not all illegal acts are necessarily deviant – eg: in the UK it is illegal to use your mobile phone (without it being handsfree) while driving but the sheer number of people who do so suggests that they do not see that behaviour as deviant.

Sociologists have suggested 2 distinct definitions of deviance: normative and relativistic.

Deviance: the Normative Definition
This definition can be summed up as ‘the violation of social norms’. Thus, deviance is culturally determined.

Deviance is often thought of in terms of deviation from accepted social standards – eg: certain kinds of sexual behaviour or drug use. However, people who are mentally ill are often treated as deviants. (See What is Mental Illness? ) Even harmless eccentrics may be considered deviant – or, according to Erich Goode (2008), people who have been heavily tattooed or pierced. In some cultures, deviation from a strict political and/or religious orthodoxy is considered deviant and may invoke penalties under criminal law.

In terms of Integrated SocioPsychology, deviation can be seen as the RED vMEME driving a break away from the conformity-oriented vMEME harmonic of PURPLE and BLUE. (In Freudian terms, this would be the Id escaping the combined controls of the Ego and the Superego.)

The normative definition, of course, assumes that there are shared clearly-understood values and norms and labels as ‘deviant’ someone who breaks away from these shared values and does not think and/or behave in accordance with the shared norms. (In the Western world various surveys – such as the annual British Attitude Survey in the UK – attempt to document current values and changes in values.)

Underpinning the normative definition is the assumption that society is essentially consensual – ie: that the vast majority of people in society share a core set of values – a value consensus – which Émile Durkheim (1893) referred to as the collective conscience. The more behaviour differed from the norms coming from these values, the more those behaviours were likely to be labelled as ‘deviant’.

According to Edwin Lemert (1972), it is the degree of social reaction to an expression of deviance which determines whether it is primary deviance or secondary deviance.

Primary deviance is behaviour which is deviant to the common social norms but which is tolerated or indulged to some degree as a permissible departure from what is normally expected. The behaviour may be treated as marginal to the identity of the deviator. Justifications for the partial tolerance of the behaviour may be made – eg:-

  • a man who behaves aggressively is “under stress at work”
  • a woman who is moody and snaps at others does so because it is “that time of the month”
  •  a child who is naughty is actually “overtired”

Secondary deviance is behaviour which brings consequences in an overt and punitive way. Such behaviour is stigmatised and often criminalised, with the deviant attracting deviant identity labels such as ‘thief’, ‘welfare cheat’, ‘junkie’, etc. Edwin Schur (1971) notes that, this stigmatisation may involve, rejection, degradation, exclusion, incarceration or coercion of the deviant who will need to be treated, punished or converted.

The PURPLE vMEME can be viewed as the prime driver in the vMEME harmonic with respect to the way primary deviance works – the group or community still want the deviant to belong to them in spite of the difficulties being caused by the deviation. Justifications which marginalise the deviant behaviour help reduce the cognitive dissonance it creates. However, BLUE is firmly dominating in secondary deviation where the deviant must be punished and/or changed, regardless of the human cost of such change – eg: execution, families split up by a leading member being imprisoned.

Marshall B Clinard (1974) argues that the term ‘deviance’ should be reserved for behaviour so disapproved of that the community finds it impossible to tolerate. However, most commentators prefer Lemert’s delineation of 2 different levels of deviance.

Durkheim’s assumption of the collective conscience predicates an approach to studying deviance and crime in terms of what factors lead people to deviate from the core values. So the aims of such research are to discover the differences – eg: social class, type of family, peer group influences – between people who deviate from the core values and those who don’t.

A key problem with the normative approach is that values clearly change over time as well as with culture. What was primary deviance may become secondary deviance – and vice versa. And what was not at all considered deviant can become deviant – and vice versa. Moreover, the pace of change in values has accelerated dramatically since the end of World War II.

Anthony Browne (2008) writes: “It has been said that a Victorian who fell asleep in 1848…who woke up in early 21st Century Britain would not only find their country unrecognisable, but would be profoundly shocked by it. They would be astonished obviously by the technical wizardry, but shocked by the change in values – the demise of marriage between heterosexual couples and the existence of marriage between homosexual and mixed race couples; the quarter of children living with just one parent; the millions of able-bodied people paid by the state to be idle; the disappearance of deference, even to the monarch; the empty pews on Sundays (and the full mosques on Fridays)…. Things that caused outrage a generation ago are now celebrated. Until 1967 British men were imprisoned for having sex with other men; forty years later, gay marriage is enthusiastically covered in recently homophobic tabloid newspapers. Attitudes to sexuality, lone parenthood, marriage, race, welfare benefits, alcohol, drugs and violent crime have all been transformed.”

Deviance: the Relativistic Definitions
This approach sees society as too complex for there to be a common set of shared values. Rather, the basis of society is a diversity of values. High levels of consensus are not that common and there are multiple definitions of ‘normality’ and ‘deviance’. Sociologists supporting this perspective point out the differing memes and competing interests which characterise modern societies. These memes jockey for position and mutate as they compete to be the more ‘socially valued’ values in a society.

In the relativistic approach the values of society are understood not so much as a set of fundamental values and beliefs but are viewed much more as the outcome of some form of dynamic process through which some values dominate in society at the expense of other values.

This process can be explained from 2 perspectives:-

  • The Interactionist or Labelling approach, according to which the values that emerge as the most highly-rated are the result of complex interactions between different groups and individuals in society.
  • Conflict approaches, most notably Marxism, argue that the values dominating a society reflect the interests of the ruling class and, beneath that, the dynamics of the Marxist dialectic.

The relativistic definition’s view that dominant values are merely the outcome of a struggle to get one group’s values accepted over another makes the normative researchers’ attempts to understand deviance purely through comparison of conforming people with ‘deviant’ people seem overly simplistic. Relativistic researchers focus, not so much on the differences in values and behaviours, but on the processes by which some values dominate over others. Effectively such researchers are engaging in Memetics.

The Normative Approach to Crime
Durkheim’s work is often taken as the starting point for the development of Functionalism. Perhaps not too surprisingly then, Durkheim (1895) perceived deviance and crime both as being inevitable and as having a role to play in the effective functioning of society.

Crime and Social Cohension
Durkheim believed a certain, limited amount of crime helped society change and remain dynamic. He even argued that too little crime was detrimental to the process of society.

The boundaries between what is and what is not acceptable are often blurred and the boundaries can change. With this in mind, Durkheim saw 3 positive benefits of a limited amount of crime:-

  1. The boundaries of acceptability are reaffirmed when a person who breaks the law is prosecuted in court. The prosecution and the publicity it is given affirms the existing values. This is particularly so in societies where punishment takes place in public – eg: a murderer taken out to be hung or an adulterer stoned to death.
  2. When the prosecution of someone is seen as somehow unjust, the resulting public outcry may signal a change in values which, over time, can lead to a change in the law to more closely reflect the change in attitude of the population.
  3. When a particularly horrific crime takes place, there is often a drawing together of the community in a shared revulsion and outrage of the crime. This strengthens social cohesion – the sense of belonging to a community. Many Britons – and Londoners in particular – felt a renewed sense of community in the wake of the tube and bus bombings of 7 July 2005. There was even talk of people finding the ’Blitz Spirit’ again! (See Dave Lowe’s comments on the Blog: Inside the Mind of a Suicide Bomber.)

Crime and Anomie
Durkheim also saw that too much crime had negative consequences.

He referred to the breakdown of the collective conscience as anomie, with people being freed from the social control imposed by the collective conscience. As a result, people start to look after their own selfish interests, rather than adhering to social values, and crime rates soar. Only by reimposing collective values can the situation be brought back under control.

Robert K Merton (1938) thought Durkheim was too vague and thus redefined anomie as the situation where the socially-approved goals of society are not available to a significant proportion of the population if they follow socially-approved means of obtaining such goals. Ie: they are socialised into wanting these goals but their position in the social structure severely limits their opportunities to achieve them. In this situation, Merton proposes that people commit crime and become deviant to get those goals. Eg: a child in a poverty-stricken family wants the latest PlayStation promoted relentlessly on TV so his father engages in burglary to afford that and other luxury goods.

While there are hints of 2nd Tier thinking in Durkeim’s views, primarily they are rooted in BLUE order. Merton, in recognising the inherent contradictions between what society promotes as desirable and what it actually enables people to do, seems to be more coming more strongly from the 2nd Tier in his analysis.

Relativist Approaches to Crime
The law is perceived as enshrining certain sets of values over other sets of values, to the advantage of some groups and the disadvantage of others. Whether the thinking or behaviour of an individual is deviant depends on whose values form the basis for what determining what is normal or conformist behaviour.

The Interactionist View (Labelling Theory)
The notion that the design and implementation of the law is merely certain sets of values dominating over sets of values is at the core of arguments put forward by Interactionist/Labelling theorists such as Howard Becker (1963). According to Becker, there is always competition for whose values will be enshrined in law and winning values may or may not reflect the values of the bulk of the population. This concept of the competition for dominance between values is perfectly reflected in Susan Blackmore’s (1999) studies into how memes propagate and prosper while other memes might even fail to survive – fading away as they fail to replicate.

Anthony Giddens (1993, p128) argues that the winners in this competition reflect the power structures in society: “By and large, the rules in terms of which deviance is defined, and the contexts in which they are applied, are framed by the wealthy for the poor, by men for women, by older people for younger people and by ethnic majorities for minority groups.”

Government politicians, as the legislators, play an important role in the winning of the competition – with opposition politicians also playing a role. However, Becker argues it is the media who play the most important role as, fed by the ‘moral entrepreneurs’ championing particular sets of values, they can whip up moral panics, with the public then pressurising the politicians to introduce new laws or insist on the more strict enforcement of existing laws.

In their understanding of the relativistic aspects of what is and isn’t considered deviance, the Interactionists/Labelling theorists are rooted in at least GREEN and possible 2nd Tier thinking.

The Marxist View
Marxists too take the view that the law reflects vested interests. However, they do not view it as a pluralistic competition but quite simply as the ruling class using the law to impose their values on the proletariat…in the interests of the ruling class.

Marxists argue that the ruling class can do this because they have control of the institutions which diffuse values through society – eg: education and the media – and they control the political process. Portraying certain values as deviant and declaring certain values both deviant and illegal reflects the power of the ruling class.

Eg: concern with the laws of property mostly benefit those with large amounts of property. The poor have few possessions worth stealing. Eg: personal violence is dangerous so the ruling class control the right to use violence in society through their agents, the police and the military.

William Chambliss (1975) provides, in his study of British vagrancy laws, a good illustration of the way laws are constructed primarily in the interests of the ruling class. The first English vagrancy laws appeared in 1349, one year after the outbreak of the Black Death plague that was to kill more than 1/3 of the country’s entire population. One consequence of the plague was that the country’s labour force was decimated. This enabled the survivors to demand higher wages…which many of them did, moving from village to village in search of high pay. To stop this, the vagrancy laws were introduced, requiring every able-bodied man on the road to accept work at a low, fixed wage. The law was strictly applied and did ensure a supply of low-paid labour to help the workforce shortage. For nearly 200 years, the law remained unchanged; but, in 1530, changes were introduced which altered the emphasis of the laws to respond to the concerns of the increasingly-powerful merchant class about the many highway robbers who were preying on the traffic of goods along major highways. The amended vagrancy laws could punish anyone on the road without a job as they were assumed to be highwaymen.

Ian Taylor, Paul Walton & Jock Young (1973) point out that old laws have been reactivated and new laws created in order to control and contain a growing range of behaviours seen as problematic for the interests of the powerful groups in society.

Marxists also note that much of the ‘crime problem’ is associated with working class crime which is often of a fairly trivial nature, at least financially. However, comparatively little effort is put into pursuing white-collar crime such as corporate tax evasion. Such crime seems to be almost expected and, therefore, not far off being tolerated in the sense of it being a primary deviation. Eg: in the UK’s Coalition Government of 2010, Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable vowed to bring in the estimated £34B owed to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs by the transnational corporations and mega-wealthy individuals. Tory Prime Minister David Cameron supported Cable’s assertions in public but the Treasury, under Tory Chancellor George Osborne, showed little interest in Cable’s campaign – in spite of the severe austerity measures being implemented across the public sector to bring down government debt.  According to HM Revenue & Customs in 2019, the figure owed was £35B, demonstrating a complete failure by the Government to pursue tax evasion by the rich and the powerful.

As usual, the rigid BLUE underpinning the Marxist approach limits it a simplistic us vs them analysis. However, again as usual, the Marxists excel at pointing out how ruling classes use power to uphold and entrench their positions at the expense of other groupings.


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2 Responses

  1. Keith E Rice says

    Thanks for these thought-provoking comments, Eileen.

    Your remarks about family systems and processes are especially interesting. I would argue that they illustrate the PURPLE vMEME working in the manner of Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory (1947). According to Sutherland, youngsters learn deviant and criminal behaviours from those they are closest to and belong to. That children will model negative behaviour from those they identify with was demonstrated unequivocally by Albert Bandura in the Bo-Bo Doll experiments – see: SocioPyschological Factors in Crime (

    It can be argued that this perpetuates what Charles Murray (1989) has labelled the Underclass – see: Underclass: the Excreta of Capitalism ( So we have multi-generation families, where there has never been anyone in gainful employment, living on the edges of society via a mixture of benefit fraud, prostitution, drug dealing and petty crime.

    Though I can’t say I’ve followed the Stephen Lawrence case particularly closely, I would imagine this is the kind family you were thinking his killers might have come from…?

    vMEMETICALLY, I think we’re talking a different degree when you mention the old 60s and 70s family-centred gangs like the Krays and theRichardsons. This is more like the RED warlord or bandit leader Don Beck likes to construct to hypothesise RED gone wrong. PURPLE is still there in the form of loyalty to the family but there is a power hierarchy headed by one or two absolute rulers.

    Organised crime, by its very name, indicates there is a strong element of BLUE in there, at the centre of the organising. Once we turn to the drugs cartels in Central and South America, I can envisage considerable ORANGE leading them, on top of a sound BLUE structure underpinned with PURPLE loyalty. These guys try to manipulate entire countries, not so much for the sake of power but to pursue their business ambitions.

    Perhaps relevant…in the days of HemsMESH (see:, I talked with representatives of the West Yorkshire Police about running a campaign something along the lines of “If you are earning £50,000 a year from dealing drugs, we’d like to talk to you about becoming a businessman…” The idea was that, if you could earn that much from dealing drugs, then clearly you ARE a business person (almost certainly with ORANGE strong in your selfplex) – you’re just doing criminal business and, if we could only persuade you with training and maybe a start-up grant to start a legit business, you would bring that business acumen to the local economy…. Some of the cops really liked the idea but, for most of them, it was just too radical!



  2. Eileen Con says

    Hi Keith

    A useful analysis and commentary as usual. Thank you!

    One thing that went through my mind when reading your piece is to ponder on the subcultures in our UK society which have strong family processes.

    Two in particular I often think about are
    •criminal subcultures like the Krays, Richardsons, the modern one – Adams ( where it is said the head is in prison but still controlling the empire from inside. The values of these subcultures are very deviant from the main – acceptance of violence, torture and murder, for example, as well as all the actions involved in taking material and finance which doesn’t belong to them, in any way feasible. It may be that the boys that murdered Stephen Lawrence came from the same kind of subculture though not so extreme – but outside the norm, bullying, violence and organised crime mix.
    •religious subcultures like some Muslim ones when the value set deviates from the main one in cultural behaviour, eg: attitude to women, gay people, violence and punishment even to murder (‘honour’ killings) to enforce their values.
    •In some cases there is a convergence of these two, where immigrant populations have both a minority religious adherence (not just Muslim but also some reported as Hindu and Sikh) and also get engaged in organised crime in the drugs and protection business.

    The ‘travellers’ subcultures whether Irish, Romanian, Gypsy or … all share characteristics with some of these other phenomena.

    Anyway, I do quite often puzzle about these groupings sparked off by behaviour I observe or news reports I read, and ponder on what is going on, and your new piece got me going again. The thing they all have in common is strong family systems and children growing up with them and perpetuating the subculture.

    I will be interested in any thoughts you have, sparked off by what I am saying.