Just Sociology

Understanding Ethnic Differences and Functions of Crime: Criminological Theories Explored

The question of why certain ethnic groups are overrepresented in the criminal justice system has long been a topic of inquiry for criminologists. Research has shown that African-Caribbeans are more likely to end up in jail, and Asians are overrepresented due to Islamophobia.

Additionally, some theories posit that crime serves a function within society, contributing to integration, regulation, and social change. This article will explore these complex theories, using grammatically sophisticated language to present key principles, while also maintaining readability.

Ethnic Differences in Offending

African-Caribbeans more likely to end up in jail

Studies have consistently shown that individuals of African-Caribbean descent are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Research has demonstrated that African-Caribbeans are more likely to be convicted for serious nature offenses, such as knife and gun convictions, in comparison to other ethnic groups, and are subsequently sentenced more harshly (Heaton & Genn, 2002).

While there is much debate surrounding the reasons for this disparity, one theory is that it may be due to historical inequalities and experiences of racism within the criminal justice system (Garland, 2001).

Asians overrepresented due to Islamophobia

Similarly, Asian individuals are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, particularly in comparison to their population size. Research suggests that this may be due to Islamophobia, with individuals from Muslim backgrounds facing disproportionate labelling, media scrutiny, and public suspicion (Bhui et al., 2015).

Additionally, the police and the criminal justice system may have a bias towards certain ethnic groups when it comes to conviction rates, contributing to disparities in the rates of convictions of different groups.

Functions of Crime

Durkheims three functions of crime

Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, argued that crime serves a function within society. Durkheim posited that crime has three main functions: integration, regulation, and social change (Durkheim, 1895/1982).

The first function, integration, suggests that crime acts as a way of bringing society together by creating a shared sense of morality and strengthening social bonds. For example, the solidarity that results from a community response to a crime intervention, such as a neighborhood watch program, can build a sense of shared identity and mutual responsibility.

Regulation refers to crimes function in enforcing societal rules and norms. Crime acts as a way of communicating to individuals that certain behaviors are not acceptable and will be punished.

The threat of punishment, and the policing that accompanies it, is therefore argued to be an important mechanism for regulating social behavior and ensuring compliance to societal expectations. Finally, Durkheim argued that crime can have a function for social change.

Deviant behaviors, often considered crimes, may challenge established social norms and encourage change. For example, civil disobedience or protests can bring about societal changes by exposing injustices in the current system.


In conclusion, understanding ethnic differences in offending and the functions of crime requires a sophisticated understanding of complex theories. The evidence points towards historical inequalities and experiences of racism within the criminal justice system, as well as Islamophobia, as key factors contributing to ethnic disparities in conviction rates.

Durkheims theory of the functions of crime offers a unique perspective on how crime can serve a purpose within society, leading to integration, regulation, and even social progress. By presenting these theories with clear headings, logical paragraph structure, and practical examples, readers can gain a deeper understanding of this important issue.


Deviant Subcultures

Albert Cohens status frustration and rebellious subcultures

Albert Cohens theory of status frustration explains how underachievement at school and the deprivation or instability of ones neighborhood can lead to the formation of a rebellious subculture (Cohen, 1955). Cohen argues that the lower class teenagers experience status frustration when they cannot achieve success in mainstream society, leading them to turn to a subculture that values delinquent behavior instead.

The formation of these subcultures provides a sense of status and belonging for those who feel marginalized by societal norms and expectations.

Cloward and Ohlins criminal or retreatist subcultures

Another theory of deviant subcultures was put forth by Cloward and Ohlin (1960). Their theory supposes that deviant subcultures are formed in response to strain caused by a lack of opportunities for social mobility, which leads to the formation of criminal or retreatist subcultures.

Criminal subcultures emphasize the importance of achieving status through criminal means while retreatist subcultures withdraw from society completely, turning to substance abuse or other maladaptive behaviors. In contrast to Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin argue that not all individuals experiencing social strain turn to delinquent subcultures.

Rather, they posit that the difference between those who do and those who do not has to do with the availability of opportunities for mobility within a given social context.

Realism and Surveillance

Right realist policies and evaluations

Right realists argue that crime is primarily caused by the individual choices of criminals and that punitive measures and stronger law enforcement are the best means of crime prevention (Lea and Young, 1993). They argue for policies such as more police officers on the streets and tougher sentencing laws to deter criminal activity.

Effectiveness of such policies in reducing crime incidences have been mixed. While it may deter some individuals from committing crimes out of fear of getting caught, it may also lead to over-policing and an exacerbated sense of mistrust between communities and law enforcement agencies.

Left realist strategies and evaluations

Left realists take a more holistic approach to crime prevention, arguing that it is important to tackle the root causes of crime, such as poverty and social inequality. They emphasize the importance of community policing and reducing the social and economic marginalization of certain groups.

This can be achieved through education and employment opportunities, social welfare programs, and initiatives to reduce social inequality. While these policies have been successful in addressing some of the underlying causes of crime, it is not clear how effective they are in reducing the actual incidence of crime in the short-term.

Foucault and Surveillance

Foucaults concept of the surveillance society highlights the ways in which disciplinary power is perpetuated through constant observation and monitoring (Foucault, 1977). This form of power extends beyond the criminal justice system to encompass everyday life, whereby individuals may be subjected to monitoring and regulation in the workplace, schools, and other settings.

The impact of surveillance is complex, however. While it may contribute to a sense of safety and order, it can also lead to a sense of mistrust and paranoia, or even contribute to the formation of deviant subcultures as a way of resisting or subverting surveillance measures.

Synoptic Surveillance

Synoptic surveillance relies on the use of technological advancements to gather and analyze data on individuals and populations to anticipate and prevent crime before it occurs. Predictive policing, for example, relies on data analysis to identify areas where crime is most likely to occur and deploys police officers preemptively to those areas.

While this approach may seem an innovative means of crime prevention, it raises concerns about the impacts of adopting a pre-emptive approach to law enforcement, particularly regarding potential biases in data analysis and targeting of specific communities, exacerbating the trust and expectation gaps between law enforcement agencies and communities.

Actuarial Justice and risk management

Finally, actuarial justice involves the use of statistical modeling and probability estimates to guide decisions within the criminal justice system. This approach is said to be an objective means of making decisions that are data-driven and unbiased.

However, critics have argued that this approach may lead to stigmatization and further marginalization of already-disadvantaged groups, particularly in cases where individuals are targeted due to their perceived levels of risk, rather than their actual involvement in criminal activity.


In conclusion, deviant subcultures and advanced surveillance techniques continue to be areas of inquiry for criminologists. The theories surrounding deviant subcultures suggest that delinquent behavior may be a response to social inequalities and lack of opportunities, leading individuals to turn to alternative means of status achievement.

Surveillance measures have similarly evolved, with technologies increasingly deployed to prevent and catch criminal activity. While the efficacy of these measures as effective crime prevention is subject to debate, caution should be exercised to uphold ethics and avoid exacerbating the gap between marginalized communities and the authorities.


Observation Methods

Advantages of overt observation

Overt observation involves the researcher making their presence known to the individuals or groups they are observing. An advantage of overt observation is that it can increase the validity of the research since there is less likelihood that the individuals being observed will alter their behavior simply because they know they are being watched.

Additionally, an overt approach can lead to greater transparency and openness between the participants and researchers.

Advantages of covert observation

Covert observation, in contrast, involves the researcher not disclosing their presence to the individuals or groups they are observing, allowing them to act as they would without being influenced by the researchers presence. The advantage of covert observation is that it can lead to a greater depth of information since the researcher can observe peoples natural behavior without interference.

However, using covert observation raises ethical concerns, particularly regarding informed consent. Conflict vs.

Consensus Approaches

Evaluating Functionalism

Functionalism, as a consensus theory, views society as a system of interconnected parts that work together to maintain social order and stability. Functionalists argue that social inequality is functional for society as it maintains social order; however, this approach has been criticized for neglecting power struggles, assuming that all members of society benefit equally from the status quo, and failing to account for the agency of individuals.

Additionally, contemporary evidence challenges the functionalist approach, with the rise in social media usage and increased level of visibility afforded by the digital landscape suggesting that the cohesion of society is becoming increasingly fragile and that traditional forms of power and structure are becoming outdated.

Evaluating Marxism

Marxism, a conflict theory, argues that society is divided between the ruling class and the working class, with the former exploiting the latter. Marxist theory posits that social inequality is inherent, and that it is the result of the ownership of the means of production, with the ruling class controlling the capitalist system.

Critics of Marxism argue that the theory underplays the agency of the working class, ignoring the potential for individuals to gain power through collective action, and that it underestimates the ability of capitalism to adapt and evolve to changing social conditions. Despite these criticisms, Marxian ideas continue to influence contemporary debates, particularly in the socio-political sphere.

Evaluating Social Action Theory

Social action theory emphasizes the importance of individual agency and interaction, suggesting that individuals are active agents in shaping their social reality through their interactions with others. Social action theory is grounded in the belief that we are all capable of analyzing and interpreting our own experiences, allowing us to create individual approaches to meaning-making.

While social action theory has been praised for centering the perspectives of individuals and communities themselves, some critiques have suggested that its emphasis on individual agency may lead to neglecting the wider structural factors that shape social realities. The theory also struggles with the question of how to understand power dynamics that exist in social interactions, and how to avoid falling into the trap of assuming that all individuals have equal access to opportunities and resources.


The study of deviant subcultures, the role of surveillance and observation methods, as well as theories like functionalism, Marxism, and social action theory, require sophisticated theorizing to provide insight into the complexities of social reality. In exploring the benefits and limitations of overt and covert observation, researchers gain insight into the challenges surrounding maintaining validity and ethicality.

Analyzing the limitations and benefits of different sociological frameworks, from those that emphasize the status quofor instance, functionalism, to those that focus on social inequities like Marxism, to those that center on the individual like social action theory, is instrumental in facilitating critical dialogue and informed decision-making that can help identify the root causes of social inequality and develop effective interventions. Concluding Paragraph:

This article has explored several complex theories and topics within the field of criminology, from ethnic disparities in offending to deviant subcultures, realism and surveillance, observation methods, and conflict vs.

consensus approaches. By presenting these concepts with sophisticated language and providing informative examples and evidence, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the intricacies of these issues, as well as the potential implications for individuals and society as a whole.


1. Why are African-Caribbeans more likely to end up in jail?

– Research suggests this may be due to historical inequalities, experiences of racism in the criminal justice system, and exposure to deprived or unstable neighborhoods. 2.

Why are Asians overrepresented in the criminal justice system? – Individuals from Muslim backgrounds can face disproportionate labelling, media scrutiny, public suspicion, and targeting by police, leading to skewed conviction rates.

3. What is Durkheim’s theory of the functions of crime?

– Durkheim posits that crime can serve three main functions: integration, regulation, and social change, by promoting solidarity, enforcing societal rules and norms, and challenging established social norms. 4.

What are the advantages of overt observation? – Overt observation can increase the validity of research and lead to greater transparency and openness between participants and researchers.

5. What are the advantages of covert observation?

– Covert observation can lead to a greater depth of information since the researcher can observe natural behavior, but it raises ethical concerns around informed consent. 6.

What are some critiques of functionalism? – Functionalism has been criticized for neglecting power struggles, assuming that all members of society benefit equally from the status quo, and failing to account for individual agency.

7. What are some critiques of Marxism?

– Critics argue that Marxism underplays the agency of the working class, neglects the potential for individuals to gain power through collective action, and underestimates capitalism’s ability to adapt. 8.

What is social action theory? – Social action theory emphasizes individual agency and interaction, suggesting that individuals shape their social reality through their interactions with others.

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