Several theories have been developed to explain the concept of deviance and crime in the society. They include conflict theory, functional theory, the feminist theory, the labeling theory, control theory, and learning and socialization theory (Clinard & Meier, 2010, p. 74). Conflict theory explains that crime is related to the pluralistic nature of society whereby those in power make rules to protect their interests, the violation of which amounts to crime. Functional theory explains that deviance is part of the social structure and functions as a means of adapting to strains in societal structures. Labeling theory holds that deviance arises from the reaction of the society to a certain behavior. Further, the control theory, on the other hand, views deviance as originating from lack of social restraint or control. Although each of the theories of deviance and crime is quite comprehensive, the conflict theory is the most accurate.
There are several reasons to believe that conflict theory is the best approach to understanding crime and deviance in today’s society. First, the definition of crime, and consequently the rules of human conduct come from legal systems created by members of the ruling class in a politically structured society. Hence, representatives of those in power including legislators, judges, prosecutors and police formulate and enforce laws of conduct that criminalize certain behavior. Therefore, crime is not merely the behavior or act but how the dominant class judges such behavior. Second, the process of determining which behavior qualifies as deviant or criminal is determined by how it conflicts with the interests of those in power. This is because those in power are more capable of translating their demands into public policy and such policies cannot be successful without laws. In the same way, the laws change every now and then in form of amendments to an existing statute or passing of new laws to reflect the changing interests of the ruling class. Not only do the rules change but also programs for handling criminals.
Third, apart from defining deviance and crime, the dominant class shapes the administration and enforcements of laws. This is because to protect the class interests, criminal laws must be implemented strictly using a deliberate force, the police. In this case, the police are merely representatives of the powerful arm of the ruling class. Therefore, the controlled or those who have little influence on public policy making are at risk of being criminalized if they engage in behavior that conflicts with the interests served by the law.
Fourth, the definitions of crime and interpretation of such definitions lead to development of behavior patterns that have varying potentials of being termed as criminal. Despite the fact that behaviors vary from one society to the other, they represent certain patterns within each society. Most societies are divided into the wealthy few and the poor majority who have different norms shaped by cultural and social settings. Since the judgment passed against behavior rather than behavior itself gives rise to the definition of crime, the norms and values of the dominant class are more likely to be reflected in the definition and application of criminal law hence the behaviors of non-ruling class are more likely to conflict with the law and thus be termed as criminal. Therefore, people are forced to adjust their behavior to reduce such conflicts and those who cannot adjust properly eventually get into trouble with the law. This explains why most people who are criminalized in many countries are the poor or working class.
The main argument of the conflict theory is that those in power exert a greater influence on policymaking and law making and hence determine what behavior becomes criminal or deviant. As such, a behavior is termed as deviant or a crime if it conflicts with the interests of the ruling class. Individuals who fail to conform to these laws of behavior become labeled as deviants and are considered a threat to those in power hence must be dealt with systematically.
Clinard, M. B., & Meier, R. F. (2011). Sociology of Deviant Behavior. Australia: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.