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Limitations of theories of sociology of deviance

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Theories of Deviance are limited in their ability to explain deviant acts if one adopts the view that these theories are universal. There is no universal, right or wrong theory, rather each theory provides a different perspective which only “fully makes sense when set within an appropriate societal context and values framework” .

The functionalist theories share a common structural explanation of causes of deviance . They assume that conformity in society is achieved through the existence of norms and values shared by the general consensus and that a high level of social integration is required for society to function successfully .

Merton’s Anomie of Strain theory hypothesises that deviant behaviour is the result of a “disjunction between culturally defined goals to which most members of society aspire, and…..legitimate means for achieving the goals” . Thus socially induced strain causes deviant behaviour.

Merton argues that many people in the USA strive to achieve the “American dream” which recognises that all members of society have equal opportunities to achieve success and that deviance occurs when the goals take precedence over the means to achieve them as people resort to deviant behaviour as a result .

The theories main premise is that because lower-class people are under greater strain than people of upper classes, they are more likely to engage in deviant behaviour . However one cannot reduce deviance into a simple equation of poverty and alienation . Strain theory is limited in providing explanations for why every person living in poverty does not engage in deviant acts, and why individuals from upper classes of society do engage in crimes .

The anomie of strain theory is also limited in that it adopts the assumption that everyone in society shares the same goals of achieving wealth . Most studies of individual’s priorities in life indicate marriage, friendships and health are of greater importance than material concerns such as success, which is at odds with the theories identification of material success as peoples main motivation. Another example of this is groups such as “hippies” who make a conscious decision to reject goals of financial success as opposed to the failure to achieve those same goals .

This highlights the need for a further explanation of why people engage in deviant acts, as clearly the failure to achieve goals of financial success is the only goal in society people strive to achieve.

The strain theory could also be viewed as being limited in explaining deviance in a universal and equal manner, in so far as that it relies exclusively on official crime statistics, which generally tend to be both unreliable and invalid as they fail to take the “dark figure” of crime into account and structural inequalities .

It is argued that the disproportionate number of lower-class members of society are imprisoned because they lack the money, power and connections of the upper-class individual , the result is the lower-class become a criminal justice statistic while the upper-class have the influence and power to avoid prosecution and subsequent conviction . Indeed it is discriminate to assume that because a person is poor that they are inadequate plus unable to cope within their social environment and cannot help but resort to deviant behaviour.

Feminist theories argue that the strain theory neglects the study of women and is limited in explanations of deviance due to its assumptions of gender specific theories of deviance . Gender specific theories also raise the issue of dualistic theories: one to explain male deviance, and one to explain female deviance . How can one theory contend to be universal when it has separate sets of theories for each sex?

Sutherlands differential association theory posits that deviant behaviour is contagious much like a disease . In other words people who are exposed to or associate with those who engage in criminal patterns of behaviour are more likely to become criminal themselves. Sutherland contends that the likelihood of engaging in deviant behaviour is affected by the favourable processes of frequency, duration, priority and intensity of associations or exposures .

The limitation of the differential association theory lay in the question: if deviant behaviour is learned and is indeed “contagious”, then why do so many in high crime areas, including criminals own siblings not become criminals? . Sociological conceptions, which regard an individual as a hapless victim of pernicious influences, are limited in providing a critical explanation of deviance, as they ignore the role of personal choice .

When so many limitations of the functionalist theory are put forward it is difficult for one to submit to this theory as one of universal application. The conception of consensual norms and values presents one of the major limitations of the functionalist theory. By accepting the status quo in terms of core values, functionalist theories fail to explain how structural inequality contributes to deviance .

Defining deviance as behaviour, which violates consensual social norms, also raises the questions of whose norms? Why are some norms more important than others? And why do some norms appear to serve the interests of capitalist governments and the powerful? .

The interactionist theory regards deviance as an outcome of the labelling interaction process occurring between people . Thus “deviance…… is a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender” . Becker argues that there is no such thing as an intrinsically deviant act until so perceived by others and labelled as such .

The strength of the interactionist perspective is that deviance is not a static phenomenon but rather a consequence of dynamic social interaction, which is continually constructed and modernized . This is in accordance with the proposal that conceptions of deviance change over time and through society .

Becker also theorises that to be labelled deviant through social interactional processes moulds a person into a “master status” . That is the deviant’s public identity is destroyed and reinstated with one of a lower status, which is associated with disapproving and negative characteristic traits . This then affects the respect people held for that individual previously, and also the manner in which they interact with them through social processes of stigmatisation and eventually, ostracism . Essentially the label when applied creates a stigma , which denies the labelled legitimate opportunities of employment and interaction with more conventional social relationships, thus is subsequently pushed further into deviant culture, whereby the labelled is provided with justification for their continuing deviance . The labelled embraces their new deviant identity then gradually changes their self-identity to correspond to the deviant public identity that has been given to them through social process.

Lemert argues that a distinction must be made between primary deviation and secondary deviation. Primary deviance is the initial act of deviance, which goes unlabelled and thus has little impact on the individual’s social status or self-perception . Secondary deviance occurs when the act is identified as deviant and is consequently publicly labelled , it is here that they undergo a symbolic reorientation of their own self-identity.

A theoretical limitation of interactionism is its inability to explain why people commit deviant acts . The emphasis on the identity of the deviant also fails to account for the oppressors . That is, interactionism is limited in explaining deviant acts fully as it only partially explains the process using the less powerful members of society as a paradigm. Theorists fail to account for those who break norms and whose power and influence enable them to avoid being negatively labelled . To overcome this limitation it is suggested that interactionist theorists shift attention from processes of interaction to documenting how political and economic structure and power play a role in defining deviance .

The principle of secondary deviance in particular, highlights the essentially deterministic view that the interactionist theory proposes. It suggests humans are conceived into this world like a lump of clay to be solely to be shaped by external forces which raises the question, why are we not all victims to some oppressive social condition? Interactionist theory again limits itself becoming a theory of universal application and significance as it disregards a critical consideration of the individual themselves and the free choices they make . Interactionism assumes that once a person is labelled they have no choice but to continue engaging in deviant activities , but it fails to explain what and why some have the capacity to reject a label and other lack such a capacity .

Interactionism is also less useful in explaining more serious crimes such as murder and rape . Crimes such as these cannot accord with the labelling perspective that no act is intrinsically deviant as it is difficult to accept that these acts result purely from secondary deviance. Focusing exclusively on social reaction in regard to such crimes both limits a universal explanation and distorts the reality of deviant behaviour .

As a theory cannot propose to be universal if it cannot successfully apply its theory without hindrance to all forms of deviance.

The interactionist perspective through all its limitations and criticisms did raise the issue of power and conflicting interests between groups in society, which may result in the less powerful groups being labelled deviant . This issue is addressed by the Marxist theory.

The Marxist or conflict theory views deviance as a manifestation of social conflict, structural inequality and differential treatment . Theorists propose that the values and interests of the powerful classes of society directly influence and shape the laws, policies and practices of the criminal justice system . This then results in view that working-class crime is more harmful and indeed more deviant than crimes of the powerful, which are primarily seen as victimless crimes aimed at increasing ones own wealth plus power in society . This view protects and labels the activities of the powerful as legitimate exploitations, which are unworthy of criminalisation or sanction. Denying the reality of deviance of the powerful will perpetually preclude any remedy for change .

The government and the ruling capitalist class manipulate the criminal justice system as a means to counter threats to prevailing social and economic order . Marxist theorists contend that because crime is the result of unequal class relations, crime cannot be abolished until the social structure and its inequalities are remedied . However the narrow observation of this Marxist argument is responded to rhetorically by the absurdity of a 1939 US report cited by Clinard declaring unequal housing and social programs as the cause of all crime, and their elimination resulting in a crimeless world .

Economic adversity affects a great number of people but it must be argued that Marxist theories are limited in achieving an absolute explanation of why people commit deviant acts. Social and power inequalities may sponsor structural adversities and create a favourable environment for crime, but the responsible individual responds to such adversity through hard work and sacrifice, ultimately the choice to commit a deviant act comes down to how each person deals with adversity in life . The promulgated view of Marxists that adversity is the be all and end all cause of crime is extremely narrow and limited. If adversity, in particular an economic kind (which is created through social inequality) is the sole cause of crime, then how does a person subscribing to the Marxist theory explain the 1981-1984 drop in juvenile crime during the middle of the recession? And how do they explain the drop in all categories of crime in the US during the 1981-1983 , also coinciding with the early 1980’s recession in which millions of working class people became unemployed? Surely an economic recession of such magnitude would cause a sharp rise in crime rates? This highlights the limitation of explaining why people commit deviant acts in terms of pure adversity in capitalist societies.

The underlying limitation of all sociological theories is that they ignore the role of personal choice to engage in deviant acts and they view the environment as the single factor in determining whether one engages in deviant acts.

It could be also argued that sociological theories of deviance are counterproductive because they continually provide excuses . Environmental factors do have an effect on people, but everyone perceives and reacts to adverse conditions in very different ways . Some continue believing that if environmental conditions are improved, that there will be less crime, however the 1967 US presidential commission which noticeably improved social conditions through housing, employment, education and civil rights legislation failed to make any positive impact on crime levels in areas which were improved, in fact crime levels worsened .

Feminist theory also attacks conventional knowledge within the real of sociological deviance theories. “Theory after theory…… breaks down when women are put into the explanatory equation” .

It could also be argued that limitations, which have been critiqued in each theory, have made a positive impact. For it is only with such criticisms that a greater degree of attention is paid to rectifying shortcomings, primarily through the research of other theories in an aim to bring each theory closer to individual adequacy rather than collective adequacy. Despite the criticisms and limitations of the sociology of deviance, the theories still remain as an extremely useful tool in analysing the criminal justice system.

With so many conflicting sociological views, it is impossible to contemplate a theory, which is truly universal.

If one adopts the view that a theory is discrete and universal in authority then all sociological theories are limited in their individual explanation of deviant acts. However if one adopts the view that each theory provides a different perspective of the overall criminal justice system that is able to explain the negative consequences of the criminal justice system then sociological theories of deviance collectively as opposed to discretely, can be perceived to be adequate in explaining deviant acts. No one theory can be completely right or completely wrong. All have made important contributions in part, and when collectively combined all perceived limitations give way to the mass of knowledge to be gained through a multitude of perspectives.


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