Cultural Deviance Theory: Definition & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Gaines Arnold

Gaines has a Master of Science in Education with a focus in counseling.

Cultural deviance theory seeks to explain criminal activity by focusing on the community in which crime occurs rather than the individual lawbreaker. Meet the proponents of this theory and learn about its strengths and weaknesses. Updated: 01/05/2022

A Background Example

Charlene moved her family to the city in response to the death of her husband. She had been the one who took care of the home, and he had worked for other's in their farming community. When he died, the only way she could afford to live was for her to take a job as a maid in the city and move to a low-income area.

The neighborhood she moved to had once been predominantly filled with working class white families; however, over the years the neighborhood demographic shifted, and by the time Charlene moved in, most of the families and residents were African American, and the housing costs in the area declined dramatically. Unfortunately, the neighborhood and surrounding area had always had a high crime rate and still did.

Charlene wondered, as she walked to work one day, if the crime was because of the people who lived there or the neighborhood itself.

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  • 0:03 A Background Example
  • 0:44 Cultural Deviance Theory
  • 1:51 Social Issues
  • 2:49 Problems with the Theory
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Cultural Deviance Theory

Charlene is experiencing what sociologists Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay called cultural deviance theory. The theory states that the individual is not responsible for their deviance as much as the community within which they reside. People are influenced by the place, people, and social structure of the community in which they reside.

In the 1930s, Shaw and McKay were tasked by the Illinois Institute on Juvenile Research to determine causes of crime in Chicago neighborhoods. Starting with a circle in the city's center, they drew concentric circles surrounding that which extended to the most distant suburbs.

Then they drew in the areas of highest crime in the Chicago area. They determined that the first circle out from the center contained the highest incidence of crime and that crime statistics in this region were relatively stable over time. They determined from this data that the area, and the disorganization of the neighborhoods within the area, were more responsible for the incidence of crime than any deviant individuals.

Social Issues

Since Shaw and McKay, sociologists have named the areas within the concentric circles. From the center out they are the:

  • Business district
  • Transitional zone
  • Working-class zone
  • Residential zone
  • Commuter zone

The area with the highest rate of crime, generally, is the transitional zone. This is the zone just outside the city, far away from the wealthier neighborhoods outside the city.

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