Essay on Sociological Theoretical Perspectives regarding Crime

Sociological Theoretical Perspectives regarding Crime


Sociology experts have attempted to employ several theories in the study and elaboration of issues facing society. This essay will attempt to use three sociological theories to explain the issue of crime. Functionalism theory explains how crime is useful to society. Conflict theory elaborates on the structural causes of crime. Finally, the symbolic interaction theory explains how crime is a learned behavior. Despite their usefulness in expounding specific aspects of crime, these theories form a stronger unified theory when taken together.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism concentrates on the relationships between people within a society. According to this perspective, people interact and exchange meaning by communicating, where communicating involves using language and symbols to make sense of the social world. Symbolic interactionism is based on three propositions (Turner, 2003). First, people interrelate with objects in accordance with the meanings they possess. Such objects can be physical or abstract like actions and perceptions. Therefore, an individual’s behavior is determined by their understanding of reality. Second, interactions with society provide meaning to these objects. Consequently, people will respond to the meanings attached to objects and not to the objects themselves. Third, specific circumstances determine how people interpret the meanings of objects.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory postulates that society is in constant conflict as people are competing for limited resources. Dominance and power ensure there is social order, not the ability of people to come into an agreement (consensus) or to conform. People with wealth have power and suppress the powerless poor. Conflict theory is characterized by three aspects. First, competition is a constant feature of human relationships. This theory assumes it is the default state. Cooperation is unlikely in the face of scarce material and intangible resources like money and social status respectively. Secondly, proponents of this theory assume the existence of inequality across all social structures and human relationships. Therefore, those in society that find this power imbalance beneficial to them aim to maintain that control. Third, war is viewed as possessing the ability to unify or cleanse societies.

Functionalism theory

Functionalism theory is founded on the assumption that every facet of society is useful and crucial to the survival of that society (Parsons, 1961). Therefore, conditions that fail to benefit the system in terms of development or maintenance is considered to be dysfunctional. Socially and culturally, an individual is not inherently significant. One is only significant in relation to their role or function to the existing social structures. This structural-functional approach is mainly concerned with the stability of society, the integration required to survive for long periods, and the efficiency of such systems. Functionalism, however, ignores the negative consequences of social order.

Conflict theory on crime

According to conflict theory, structural inequality is one of the issues facing society. There exists an elite that exercises power over the underprivileged. These elites determine what qualifies as deviant and criminal behavior. Elite dominance is dependent on the continued exploitation of the poor and is maintained by ensuring social structures oppress and discriminate against the poor. In conflict theory, crime is the result of such social and economic inequality. For example, high social status people commit white-collar crime while low social status people commit blue-collar crime. Because of this inequality, the punishment doled out on the two types of criminals is uneven. For example, a CEO guilty of fraud will receive a minimal or no jail sentence while a factory worker guilty of vandalism will serve a few months in prison in addition to fines.

Functionalism on crime

Functionalism theory views crime as a beneficial phenomenon in society. However, the amount of crime must not be excessive as this could lead to the collapse of society. Crime is necessary for a few reasons. First, not all individuals in a society will conform to the communal beliefs and values of society. Second, even in a perfect society, deviance would exist because the standards of morality would be too high that even the slightest instance of non-conformity would invite great disapproval from society. Crime serves to promote social regulation in that arresting criminals discourages other members of society from being dysfunctional. It also promotes social integration in that people come together and collectively condemn criminal activity when certain heinous crimes are committed. Lastly, crime helps promote social change. In the case where existing law does not serve the purposes of society, it can be changed. Criminals help bring such issues into light by testing the boundaries of permissible behavior.

Symbolic interaction theory on crime

Symbolic interaction theory posits that individuals interact with objects and derive their meaning through their interactions with society (Herman & Reynolds, 1994). Therefore, people learn what is normal behavior and what is deviant behavior from society. A consequence of this line of thought is that criminal activity is a learned behavior. Because normal people can associate with deviant people, they can adopt deviant behavior. This approach attempts to explain why people who come from areas riddled with crime are more likely to engage in criminal activity.


Crime and other social issues do not always have simple explanations for how they occur. The three theories considered here fail to comprehensively explain the societal issue of crime on their own. The macro and micro-level perspectives of these theories are instrumental in understanding how society as a whole and individuals work. The weaknesses of these theories are compensated for in the strengths of the others.


Herman, Nancy J., Reynolds, Larry T. (1994). Symbolic Interaction: An Introduction to Social       Psychology. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

Parsons, T. (1961). Theories of Society: Foundations of Modern Sociological Theory. New             York: Free Press.

Turner, J. (2003). The Structure of Sociological Theory. 7th ed. Belmont, CA:          Thompson/Wadsworth.

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