Introduction to Sociology SOC101
EXPLANATIONS OF CRIME
Since norms are essential for society, then why do people violate norms? Why people commit crime? There
are biological, psychological, and sociological explanations for such behavior.
Psychologists and socio-biologists explain deviance by looking for answers within individuals. They assume
that something in the makeup of the people leads them to become deviant. They focus on genetic
predisposition of individuals toward deviance and crime.
In contrast, sociologists look for answers in factors outside the individual. They assume that something in
the environment influences people to become deviant.
Biological explanations focus on genetic predisposition toward deviance. Biological explanations include
the following three theories:
Body type: People with squarish, muscular bodies are more likely to commit street crime
(mugging, rape, burglary).
`XYY' theory. Extra Y chromosome in males leads to crime.
Intelligence: low intelligence leads to crime.
In 1876, Ceasare Lombroso, an Italian physician, compared 400 prisoners with 400 army soldiers. He
proposed that criminals had distinctive physical features -- low foreheads, prominent jaws and cheekbones,
protruding ears, excessive hairiness, and unusually long arms. All these features taken together the criminals
resemble apelike ancestors of humans. They are genetically abnormal.
This theory has flaws. For example Lombroso's study sample is not representative of the general
population. His focus was on comparing the declared criminals with the army soldiers. How about those
criminals who committed crime but have never been caught? Also, criminals may have abnormality because
of poverty and malnutrition. These are class based characteristics and not criminal characteristics.
Sheldon (1949) suggested that body type may predict criminality. He crosschecked hundreds of young men
for body type and criminal history, and concluded that criminality was most likely among boys with
muscular, athletic build. There appears to be no conclusive evidence.
Despite such researches genetic researchers are still seeking links between biology and crime.
Regarding the chromosome theory, it has been found that most criminals have the normal "XY"
chromosome combination. So they are not different from those who do not commit crime. Therefore this
could not be the reason. Similarly, most men with "XYY" combination do not commit crime. Hence
having an extra "Y" does not necessarily lead to a person to criminal activity. Furthermore, no women have
this combination of genes, so there should be no women criminals. But that is not true. Such an
explanation based on "XYY" chromosome combination is not acceptable.
The intelligence theory has its own flaws because some criminals are highly intelligent. Also their intelligent
acts may have been declared as crime. How about breaking a computer code for national purposes? Will
we call it a crime or a patriotic service to the nation? Furthermore, most people with low intelligence do
not commit crime.
The biological explanations may present some limited but not conclusive explanation for criminal behavior.
Biological factors may have to interact with other factors.
Psychological explanations of deviance focus on abnormalities within the individual, focusing on what are
called personality disorders. The supposition is that deviating individuals have deviating personalities, that
various unconscious devices drive people to deviance. The emphasis is that personality disturbance of some
sort causes individual to violate social norms.
Introduction to Sociology SOC101
Psychologists have shown that personality patterns have some connection to deviance. Recent research
shows that some serious criminals qualify for psychopaths, that is, they do not feel guilt or shame, they have
no fear of punishment, and they have little sympathy for the people they harm. Even so, the fact is that the
most serious crimes are committed by people who do not have personality disorders, but by such
individuals whose psychological profiles are normal.
Sociologists are trying to find the explanatory factors for crime outside the individual deviant.
According to sociologists the act of deviance is relative; what is deviance in one group may not be so in
another group; what is deviancy today may not be considered as deviancy at another time. With the change
in circumstances and needs of time, the definitions of crime may change. There is nothing constant within
the society to account for behavior that is conforming in one society and deviant in another.
There is variation in social influences and there is the resultant variation in behavior. The behavior of an
individual, whether it is conformist or it is deviant, is the product of external influences, which may come
from the variations in socialization patterns, subculture of the people, and the differences in social class.
As part of the sociological explanations, sociologists have proposed number of theories. We shall try to
cover some of the important ones here.
Theory of Differential Association by E. Sutherland
Sutherland stressed that people learn deviance. He coined the term differential association to indicate that
learning to deviate or to conform to society's norms is influenced most by the people with whom they
associate. Learning deviance is like learning any thing else, and this approach goes directly against the
thinking that deviance is biological or due to deep personality needs.
The main idea is that the different groups to which we belong (our differential association) give us messages
about conformity or deviance. We may receive mixed messages, but we end up with more of one than the
other (an excess of definitions that are favorable/unfavorable). Consequently our attitudes favor conformity
or deviance, and our behavior follows. Families, friends, neighborhoods, sub-cultures, and mafia groups all
provide its members the learning situations and socialize them in accordance with their cultural norms. In
this way the groups we join are crucial for making our behavior as deviant or conformist.
Discussion of sociological explanations shall continue in the next lecture.
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