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Criminal Behavior

Introduction to Criminal Behavior


By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Discuss     the study of criminal behavior and the nature of crime and delinquency.
  • Explain     the mutual relevance of criminology and sociology.
  • Identify,    explain and apply the basic concepts in the study of criminal behavior.
  • Assess     different approaches to criminological research.


This lesson introduces students to the study of criminal behavior.  The lesson begins with discussion of what criminal behavior is, how criminology and sociology tie together and the main theoretical paradigms that are used in the study of criminal behavior.  The following section of the lesson provides definitions and examples of basic concepts used in the study of criminal behavior.  The final part of the lesson introduces students to the study of crime and the different methodologies that are used. 

Introduction to Criminal Behavior, Sociology and Criminology

This course presents a sociological understanding of criminal behavior.  Sociology is the scientific study of society and human behavior.  Most importantly,  sociology focuses on people as social beings whose behavior is profoundly affected by social structures, social organization and social interactions.
The study of any social phenomena from a sociological standpoint, such as criminal behavior, always makes use of the sociological perspective.  This is an approach to understanding human behavior by placing it in a broader social context.  This perspective considers how people are influenced by society, which can be defined by a group of people who share the same culture and territory.  The sociological perspective also includes study of people’s social location, such as group memberships people have because of where they are in society and history.  An example of a person’s social location might be living in today’s post-industrial technology age and belonging to the local law enforcement club.

C.  Wright Mills wrote, “the sociological perspective enables us to grasp the connection between history and biography.”   By history, Mills meant the characteristics of society; by biography,  Mills meant people’s experiences in society.

One good example of how social location influences us is the economic well-being of communities.  Typically speaking, poorer communities have higher crime rates.   Depending on the economic affluence of the community one lives in,  social experiences of crime and criminal behavior are vastly different.

The study of crime and criminal behavior is referred to as criminology.  Criminology is a branch of sociology, and thus, many of the terms found in criminology have their origins in sociology;  however, many modern advances in sociology have come from the field of criminology.  The two disciplines are very closely related.

Two main sociological paradigms are applied to criminology.  These are social conflict and functionalist theories.   Social conflict theorists explain deviance by focusing on the groups in society that label behavior as deviant.   They argue that the purpose of social control is to maintain power for an elite group over the working class and the marginal working class (those people with few skills and a group characterized by unemployment and poverty who commit street crimes).  In the U.S., social conflict theorists would argue that this group consists mainly of wealthy,  white men who work behind the scenes to control government.  Social conflict theorists argue that this group even controls official deviance, or society’s official statistics on crime.

Functionalists focus on groups and institutions in society that work together to form a whole.  Emile Durkheim was the first sociologist to propose that crime is a completely normal part of society because it helps society function.  Although crime is often a dysfunction, it also has some positive functions. These functions are: 

  1. Sets moral boundaries and norms by providing examples for the people; if a person behaves in a deviant way and breaks the law, that person will be punished.    
  2. Promotes social unity as punishment brings out a feeling of “we, as a society will not tolerate this behavior.”
  3. Promotes social change by allowing groups to decide what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

One of the most influential groups of functionalist theories in the crime and deviance arena is the group of strain theories, or theories of anomie.  Strain theories view crime and deviance as a normal response to abnormal conditions in society.  Abnormal conditions may be caused by a rare event in society or even a natural disaster, such as a hurricane.  In abnormal conditions, not all members of the society can achieve the universal goals that a society sets for its members.  Another example of abnormal conditions may be economic recession and associated increases in rates of burglary and robbery, as people become desperate for money and goods.

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