Social Deviance/What Is Crime And Deviance

Before we can understand what crime and deviance are, it is necessary to know that crime and deviance are changeable in nature. John Hagan in his book Crime And Disrepute states two theories of describing crime before presenting the most commonly used approach.

Thorsten SellinEdit

Thorstein Sellin proposes a cross-cultural approach which defines crime on the deviation from two types of rules which are "conduct norms" and "universal categories." Conduct norms are norms (rules enforced by the society) that change from group to group. Therefore, different societies enforce different conduct norms. There are also universal categories, which transcend the differences among societies and apply to everyone based on the inherent values that come with the construction of a society. However, Sellin's argument about universal categories is weak because it cannot clearly define what a universal category might be. Murder is an obvious example, but murder is defined differently across cultures. For example, soldiers killing an enemy during wartime is legal and allowed by the state, so this cannot be considered murder from the point of view of law.

Leslie WilkinsEdit

Leslie Wilkins rejected Sellin's theory and came up with a new way to explain activities. The theory argues that for any given society, there is a bell-shaped curve that explains the frequency and type of activity. In the center, where the frequency is highest are the normal acts. Going horizontally to the right (where the activities become more and more "good"), the frequency decreases and these "saintly acts" rarely occur, becoming outliers. Conversely, going horizontally to the left (where the activities get "worse"), the frequency of the specific activity decreases and the activities start to pass the boundaries of "sinful acts," "illegal acts," "illegal acts worth notifying the police," and "serious crimes." The worst crimes, just as the most saintly of acts, are both outliers and occur infrequently.

The Crime ContinuumEdit

In modern theories, both Sellin and Wilkins have inadequate descriptions of crime. Whereas Sellin cannot clearly describe the universal categories, Wilkins relies too heavily on a one-dimensional factor (which is that of morality). Deviance and crime are affected by three variables, which are agreement about the norm, the severity of social response, and the evaluation of social harm.

Variables In The Definition Of Crime And DevianceEdit

  • Social Agreement: This factor contributes to how the public views the crime, whether or not they believe that the norm is beneficial for society. If different people cannot agree on the rules of the norm or how strongly it should be enforced, then a law with weak social agreement will be weak. Abortion is an example of a right that is hotly contested today, and would be considered having low social agreement.
  • Social Response: This factor determines how serious the crime is by the seriousness of the punishments meted out. This is an indication of how serious an offense the society views a specific deviance or crime. In the early 20th century, the use of cocaine was very popular with upper-class women for pain relief. Therefore, it was viewed as an acceptable activity. However, in recent times, the trafficking and use of cocaine has become very stigmatized, with these activities bringing severe penalties. This is an example of an act that used to have a low social response but has changed to arousing severe social responses.
  • Social Harm: This evaluation indicates the level of harm that a particular crime puts on the society. Some crimes are "victimless" since they harm only the criminal, but some crimes hurt others or social institutions themselves. Drug usage would be considered low in social harm, while an act such as serial murder would be considered high in social harm.

These three factors generally tend to converge when a crime becomes more and more severe, but they are not necessarily linked. For example many corporate crimes cause more monetary damage than small-time theft, but the social response is minimal.

Crime CategoriesEdit

A few different categories of crimes can be described using these four factors:

  • Consensus Crimes: These crimes are generally agreed to be serious by most members of a society. They are characterized by high social agreement, response, and/or harm.
  • Conflict Crimes: These are crimes that have low social agreement, varied social response, and varied social harm. Some individuals believe that particular conflict crimes are very serious while others may believe that these crimes are not serious at all. The social agreement on conflict crimes tend to be split by social groups. In other words, specific groups in society have particular biases towards the social agreement of seriousness of these conflict crimes.
  • Social Deviations: Social deviation generally has low social agreement on seriousness and the social response to deviation is often varied, with either formal or informal institutions enforcing the adherence to norms. People with more resources generally tend to be able to avoid social response better than those without these resources.
  • Social Diversions: Acts that fall under the category of diversions are those that are considered by the society to be acceptable variations in lifestyle. Social deviations can become social diversions when many people take part in the deviation and make it fashionable. Note that other societies may regard these social diversions as unacceptable within their collection of norms.


  • Hagan, John. Crime And Disrepute. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press, 1994.