Security Response & Electronic Security

How environmental conditions influence crime and deviance

Sun, February 06, 2022 by Clifford Connors.

How environmental conditions influence crime and deviance

First, to understand how sociological criminology can improve the understanding of crime, it is important to consider the findings of the French sociologist, Émile Durkheim. The scientific approach to criminal studies can be traced back to the 1800s. During that time, the French astronomer and mathematician Adolphe Quetelet analysed French crime data to determine what groups of people commit the most crimes. Later that century, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim found that human attitudes and behaviours are influenced by social forces (Barkan, 2017); hence, to develop an understanding of crime and deviance, we need to understand the outside influences that induce them. To understand this point, it is important to realise that distinct cultures and religions teach novel ideas and perspectives, resulting in different attitudes and behaviours. For example, Durkheim discovered higher suicide rates in Protestants compared to Catholics and attributed these differences to Catholics experiencing contrasting structural differences in their societies, such as stronger social bonds and social integration (Barkan, 2017). Furthermore, Durkheim explained that rapid social change could also be a factor in elevated suicide rates because of the onset of anomie, a state of normlessness in society that shows the loss of control of future achievements (Barkan, 2017). The above evidence suggests that society's influences can determine humans' responses to responses to adverse life experiences. Another example of sociological impact is the study of crime within immigrant groups by the University of Chicago study. The study revealed that the same neighbourhoods experienced similar levels of crime even when certain immigrant groups were replaced with new ones, concluding that the neighbourhoods were criminogenic because of residential instability and poverty (Barkan, 2017). This evidence suggests that a breakdown in social conditions caused higher crime rates. Durkheim's suicide research found only casual relationships between suicide and social differences, that did not account for individuals' circumstances; however, the overall differences in the social conditions showed verifiable differences in suicide rates. Furthermore, the University of Chicago research implies that social conditions are likely to affect overall crime rates in specific neighbourhoods. For a more focused view of groups and individuals, it is essential to understand the subsequent theories that have developed.


In the context of Durkheim's research, labelling theory was developed as one way for sociological criminology to contribute to society's understanding of crime. Building on these ideas, labelling theory is one sociological approach considered by criminologists (Barkan, 2017). Labelling theory takes the relativist view that deviance is not the behaviour itself; instead, it is what society regards as deviant behaviour (Barkan, 2017). To explain this point, labelling theory can be separated into three specific problems: 1) it attempts to define deviance and crime, 2) labelling risks discrimination, and 3) it attempts to understand the effect of labelling on the likelihood of continued criminal behaviour. The disproportionate use of labelling is problematic since labelling theory does not seem to target white people in numbers with legal sanctions compared to other categories of people (Barkan, 2017). For example, a discussion by William Chambliss compared the behaviours of two groups of teenagers and how their community reacted to delinquent behaviours. The first group, the Saints, engaged in vandalism and theft and committed truancy. However, because of their middle-class upbringing, the community considered their actions as pranks and viewed them as good kids. In contrast, the Roughnecks, who were from low-income families, caused less monetary damage but engaged in more violent acts than the Saints; they were more often in trouble with the police and were considered troublemakers by the community (Quisenberry, 2014). This example shows that at the community level, there was clear discrimination against the low-income group, who were labelled troublemakers. However, research has found that labelling, from a criminal justice standpoint, is only applied to individuals when evidence and seriousness of crimes have been determined (Barkan, 2017). Theorists have claimed that publicly labelling someone as a criminal can enhance that individual's likelihood to become a career criminal (Barkan, 2017). Another example of labelling to consider is that domestic violence escalates when an individual is labelled a domestic abuser. This research was conducted on the effects of arresting in all instances of individuals being suspected of intimate partner violence (IPV). The study concluded that mandatory arrests could deter recidivism in the short term but could increase violent episodes in the long-term (Schmidt & Sherman, 1993) Nevertheless, arresting IPV suspects has also been observed to reduce the number of victims reporting IPV. This evidence further suggests that labelling, through arrest, can have diverse effects depending on when labelling is applied, and on the type of crime committed. Such insights indicate that labelling could increase crime because of the discrimination it results in. However, labelling theory can also be a useful tool for crime reduction, as it could inform the community that an individual pursued a career in crime because he engaged in the deviant behaviours implied by the labelling. In contrast, whereas labelling theory considers individuals' actions based on cultural norms, strain theory focuses on individuals who are unable to reach society's goals.


Strain theory seeks to explain the causes behind criminal and deviant behaviour. Anomie, also known as strain theory, was described by Durkheim as the result of a person's aspirations not being fulfilled (Barkan, 2017). Furthermore, Robert Merton (1938) rejected the view that criminality was due to biological causes and explained that Americans are socialised to the concept of the American dream (Barkan, 2017). In that context, underachievers can feel strain when society implies that anyone can achieve economic success. This unrealistic expectation can lead people to commit a crime to achieve financial success that society expects of them. Subsequently, a focus on illicit gains takes the emphasis away from typical social environments, such as family, thereby generating more criminal behaviour (Barkan, 2017). On the foundation of those generalised strain theories, researchers have developed specific approaches, such as General Strain Theory (GST), which includes non-economic success (Wright, 2015). For example, life events – such as the death of a friend or family member, physical and sexual abuse or a modification of home or school – can induce strain and also have a broader effect on the community (Agnew, 2015, as cited in Barkan, 2017). Micro-level strain-induced anger can cause frustration and anger at the macro level within a community (Eitle and Eitle, 2016). In the study of sociological criminology, it is crucial to understand the difference between micro and macro factors to achieve sociological explanations. Micro describes the individual internally (i.e., from a biological and psychological perspective); macro describes all external forces motivating crime and deviance (Barkan, 2017). GST argues that the absence of positive incentives and the presence of adverse sociological conditions can prompt crime and deviance. Another example is a study performed in Sweden investigating the reasons for crime. The context of this study was that Young Middle Eastern and North African immigrants engaged in rioting in 2013. It was assumed that these individuals would appreciate living in a relatively peaceful society (in contrast to the places their parents were raised). However, this study found that these individuals were experiencing high levels of unemployment and felt excluded from Swedish society (Barkan, 2017). These studies suggest that strain can occur regardless of one's relatively favourable sociological circumstances. Further evidence suggests that educational or occupational status is not as crucial as economic goals (Barkan, 2017), which can have a significant influence on levels of crime. This influence may occur due to capitalist societies promoting the idea that anyone can succeed. However, studies have found that not all types of strain cause anger; furthermore, it has been found that when females experience more strain, they are less likely to react negatively compared males (Barkan, 2017). Additionally, Group labelling appears to offer an unreliable generalist approach that cannot reflect the core issues within any given group. 


Despite the contributions of labelling theory and strain theory, feminist theories of criminology offer a unique perspective on the causes of deviant criminal behaviour. The 18th-century French criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, claimed that low female crime rates were attributed to the female's natural passivity because of immobility of the ovule, compared with the zoosperm (Barkan, 2017). Sigmund Freud reasoned that women who commit crime experience penis envy, jealous of not having a penis (Barkan, 2017). These past thinkers did not take female criminality seriously because of low female crime rates; as a result, their explanations of female crime are outmoded and sexist. Contemporary studies by women scholars have investigated female crime to understand why female crime rates are lower than the rates of male crime. One possible explanation is that males are typically raised to be dominant, whereas females have been raised to be nurturing and less assertive (Barkan, 2017). Scholars on this topic have focused on a few key ideas. The first consideration is how males and females are raised and socialised. For example, males are sometimes raised to be tough and to stand up for themselves. This type of upbringing can lead to a more assertive attitude in life, leading to more potential for violence. In contrast, females are often monitored by their parents more than males. Such monitoring reduces the opportunity for females to engage in delinquent behaviour. Finally, females tend to have a closer connection to their parents, thus causing parents' values to be deeply instilled in the child. These examples suggest that females have a significant advantage over males concerning following the social norms of society. Additionally, ethnographic studies have explained the apparent invisibility of females in youth male-dominated subcultures. To understand this point, it is necessary to realise that subcultures exist within a culture; such groups can be defined as groups of people such as youth (Hall, 2006). One explanation is that the media can opportunistically portray youth subcultures as engaging in violent activity and that such violent behaviour is typically shown to be a male phenomenon, thus excluding females from violent subcultures (Hall, 2006). However, it was determined that females create subcultures that are not inclusive of others, such as adults, males, teachers, and researchers (Hall, 2006). This evidence further suggests that measuring females and males (from a sociological perspective) as a single group can be problematic. Furthermore, it was determined that males are dependent on a masculine group dynamic; in contrast, females prefer congregating in pairs over groups and thus do not need groups during adolescence. Furthermore, females tend to not participate in large group activities, again, preferring to congregate in pairs. Moreover, females are at a disadvantage to males as they can experience more strain and labelling in the form of racism and prejudice, suggesting that sociological influences affect females differently from males. These ideas also suggest that a more balanced upbringing of males and females could have a positive effect on reducing male crime., More research is needed to offer a balanced analysis of gender-based crime. Furthermore, ethnographic studies could be problematic because females could react differently than males when interacting with male researchers. This will be problematic for researchers seeking to compare the genders, as it could bias their results towards the researchers' gender. 


To conclude, sociological criminology has developed into an influential field that helps detect the causes of crime and deviance. Its ongoing development since the 1800s has provided insight into the causes and subsequent remedies for crime reduction. Durkheim's discovery that social forces influence human behaviour enabled the development of targeted theories, such as labelling theory. Moreover, approaches targeting individuals enable the researcher to study the core problems of individuals, thus avoiding potential prejudices and ethical traps. Interestingly, labelling theory can coexist with strain theory. An unintended result of labelling is that it can impede an individual's social and domestic life, leading to difficulties in pursuing a normal career. These difficulties can lead to strain, further complicating an individual's personal circumstances and subsequently leading to deviant and criminal behaviour. Conversely, individuals’ strain-induced behaviour can be considered normal by society, subsequently labelling them is deviant. Both theories cannot be deemed to be mutually exclusive; nevertheless, they can be studied and described separately to increase understanding of crime and deviance across all societies effectively. However, strain theory and labelling theory do not explain why females are mostly unaffected by these theories. Perhaps females should experience more strain and labelling; however, females do not seem to display the same criminal or deviant behaviours as men in response to these forces. Sociological criminology theories and research ideas are not a universal solution to understand crime and deviance. Indeed, improper application of strain theory and labelling theory could create a circular conversation that goes back and forth between strain and labelling with no resolution indicating why individuals or groups are engaging in deviant and criminal behaviour.


Clifford Connors 2021



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Hall, S. (2006) Resistance Through Rituals. Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain. London: Routledge. Available at: Accessed: [14 December 2020].

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