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Crime existed since the dawn of humanity. Despite being as ancient as the first human civilization, it remained a largely understudied subject for a very long time. As the societies progressed and evolved culturally and technologically, police forces were becoming more and more efficient in catching criminals. However, they did not address the root of the problem. They did not address its causes. Only at the beginning of the 20th century the sociologists began making efforts in order to identify the reasons behind deviant behavior. Cultural Deviance theory was the end product of this effort. It combined two dominant ideas present at the time – the Social Disorganization theory and the Strain theory. For a long time, this theory was considered prevalent in criminology. Other criminologists and researchers, such as Cohen, Cloward, Matza, and Miller, constantly improved on it (Cook, 2012). However, despite offering abundant and comprehensive explanations to the origins of crime in the society, it missed a very important aspect, which greatly contributes to facilitation of deviant behavior. Stigmatizing and bias towards formerly criminal elements and other people associated with crime only deepens their deviant behavior.
Cultural Deviance Theory
Cultural Deviance theory is based upon two other theories, which are:
– Social Disorganization Theory
– Strain Theory
Social disorganization theory focuses on the environment and places it as the main reason for crime. Deteriorating neighborhoods, inadequate social services and social control, law-violating gangs and groups, and conflicting social values are considered to be the factors that contribute to the appearance and spread of criminal activity (Social disorganization theory, 2016). Strain theory focuses more on the conflict between personal goals and means of achieving them – it states that unequal distribution of wealth and power, frustration, and inability to reach the desired goals through legal means creates tensions, which might push certain individuals towards crime (Strain theory, 2016).
Cultural Deviance theory is built upon these two and states that the factors mentioned in both theories are the reasons for the development of criminal subcultures, which are born out of disorganization and stress. These subcultures do not share values of the society and oppose it. Thus, a lower-class culture, based on poverty and desire for wealth and good life, is responsible for generating crime in urban areas (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2012).
Although considered a predominant theory by many criminologists, it received plenty of criticism, namely from labeling theorists, for disregarding the impact of how the society views criminals and certain groups of people associated with crime.
The etiological Cultural Deviance theory was not the only line of thought that tried to explain the nature of crime. Labeling theorists state that merely examining criminals, their environment, and their characteristics is not enough. The society’s reaction to rule-breaking and crime is a very important factor that contributes to the overall deviance. The roots of this theory could be found in symbolic interactionism (Labeling theory, 2016). It states that a person or a group labeled as criminals and deviants will come to terms with themselves being such. Essentially, they become what the society expects them to be. People viewed as criminals would behave like criminals in order to fit label given to them (Labeling theory, 2016). This statement is what Labeling theory is built upon.
Numerous sociologists throughout the 20th century aided in development of this theory. Among them are Tannenbaum, Lemert, Kitsuse, Cohen, and Becker. Their opposition to Cultural Deviance theory lies in the fact that it almost completely disregards the impact of social reaction on deviant behavior.
While the theory brings up some important aspects of crime generation process, it should not be viewed as a separate entity. Instead, it should be considered an addition to Cultural deviance theory, to address the issues not covered by it. Certain theorists, such as Cohen, had a hand in developing both theories at the same time.
Gangs through the Viewpoint of Different Theories
According to Cultural Deviance theory, gangs are the product of urban lower-class culture. They are comprised mostly out of young people who are constantly exposed to the hazards and malevolent influences of the lower-class society. A gang is a form of a union, which is created for reasons of finding common ground, and for personal gain and satisfaction. Organized crime is much more effective than individual crime. In addition, being in a gang offers a modicum of power and protection. In some cases, participation in a gang could be viewed as a symbol of status. However, the three dominant versions within Cultural Deviance theory do not completely explain why groups of young people are more prone to crime. Instead, the theory assumes they are, and finds evidence to support that assumption. In so doing, it commits the same mistake the society does, which only promotes already existing labels and stereotypes.
According to the latest reports, the number of youths joining gangs in the inner cities doubled. At the same time, the number of gang leaders serving time in prison and being released after good conduct has increased. The crime rate for gang violence has risen 20% from last year. Both of these facts could be explained through the prism of Labeling theory. There is a growing stereotype that young people living in a lower-class environment are prone to crime, which makes the rest of the society treat them as potential criminals. This is especially true for young African-Americans – they are much more likely to be stopped and searched by the police for no apparent reason (Gabbidon & Greene, 2015). This kind of hostile behavior breeds hatred in return, forcing the youth to side with the gangs rather than the society that views them with prejudice and bias. Same could be said for the gang leaders who served their time in prison. The subject of rehabilitating criminals is a well-known one. Former convicts are not seen as trustworthy. They have trouble finding jobs. This hampers their ability to facilitate a normal life and find a place in the society. Hate, suspicion, and prejudice paves their way towards crime. Many are forced to return to the old ways, and form criminal gangs once more. These are the reasons why gang-related criminal activity increased so much during the last year. However, the factors covered by Cultural Deviance theory should not be overlooked. The economic crisis and societal tensions have a strong influence on crime rates related to youth.
Strategy to avoid Stereotyping in the Criminal Justice System
In order to avoid stereotyping, prejudice, and bias in our current Criminal Justice System, it must be realized that the fact that Cultural Deviance theory is not a panacea. While it covers a substantial part of the nature of criminal behavior, it overlooks several substantial factors, which are covered by Labeling theory. It is a legitimate crime causation theory, and should not be overlooked either. It should be taught along with Cultural Deviance theory in order to provide a more accurate picture of crime. In fact, both theories should not be viewed as separate entities.
The society and the police should be made aware of their own prejudice and stereotypes, and on what effect it has on crime (Marsh, 2015). Each member of the society contributes to the overall climate, bit by bit. This climate forces the outcasts of the society into accepting the roles and labels bestowed upon them, thus generating crime out of nothing. The mechanisms of symbolic interactionism are well-studied by sociology and criminology alike. In order to stop stereotyping and prejudice, the people must be conscious of them. This is possible only through spreading the knowledge and raising awareness about how detrimental labels are to our society (Marsh, 2015).
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Humanity has gone a long way from mindlessly fighting the consequences of criminal activity, without bothering to deal with the causes, to putting effort into researching and identifying the root of the problem. However, this effort must not be stopped halfway. The current models and theories we have in place are flawed – Cultural Deviance Theory does not offer a conclusive answer, and Labeling theory cannot be viewed outside of Cultural Deviance theory since the factors mentioned there are too important to be ignored. The society must be made aware of the consequences of stigmatizing the lower classes, and that it only empowers the outcasts to promote crime and violence.
Cook, Sam. (2012). Subcultural Theories. Web.
Gabbidon, S.L., & Greene, H.T. (2015). Race and crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Labeling theory and symbolic interaction theory. (2016). Web.
Lilly, J.R., Cullen, F.T., & Ball, R.A. (2012). Criminological theory. Context and consequences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Marsh, J. (2015). Can we reduce bias in criminal justice? Web.
Social disorganization theory. (2016). Web.
Strain theory: How social values produce deviance. (2016). Web.