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What are the functionalist, strain(anomie) and labeling theories of deviance. Which best accounts for crime and deviance in the U.S.?


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Strain theory is the idea that one uses crime to cope with strains or stresses in one's life, particularly if the strain is seen as unjust (see the source by Agnew, below). Anomie is the idea developed by Durkheim that when the society does not do enough to regulate its members' norms, a state in which there is a lack of norms results. In this state, people are more likely to engage in deviance.

The functionalist theory of crime emphasizes the way in which deviance serves a function to remind people of the norms of society and to reinforce those norms, as deviance is punished. Labeling is the idea that the groups with more power in the society label or call acts carried out by less powerful groups deviant. For example, an act carried out by a white child may be seen as innocent, while the same act may be regarded as deviant if carried out by a child who is a person of color.

All of these theories have credibility in explaining deviance and crime. Labeling theory seems particularly compelling, as it explains how race plays a role in who is labeled deviant. Evidence shows that people of color are treated more harshly in the judicial system (see the article from the American Bar Association, below), and this is in part because their actions are labeled differently by a judicial system that is largely controlled by whites. You may have a different idea of which theory best explains crime.


Agnew, R. "Building on the General Foundation of Strain Theory: Specifying the Types of Strain Most Likely to Lead to Crime and Delinquency. JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN CRIME AND DELINQUENCY, Vol. 38 No. 4, November 2001 319-361.

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