Race, Class and Gender Differences in Deviant Behavior


Deviant behavior is characterized by departing from social norms and values. Each culture has a unique set of ethnics, and the thoughts and actions beyond this set of beliefs are considered deviant. Like the differences amongst these collections of values, so too does difference exist with respects to the individual and type of behavior. Social scientists have worked hard to understand these diversities, and through this hard work, patterns begin to develop. Some examples of these trends follow the differences in race, class and gender. By applying sociological theory to these three characteristics, this paper will attempt to expand on the commonalties and differences that are at play within these groups and how each one interacts with deviant behavior.



Most societies and cultures, if not all, have developed some form of social doctrine. Within this doctrine is a set of socially constructed rules. These rules, social in context, are dependent upon which culture they operate in and because of this, can vary quite dramatically between other external cultures and even internal subgroups. These rules help to maintain a relatively smooth way of life, without them, the social fabric begins to break down. The complete absence of a social doctrine is anarchy and chaos, but occasional inklings of rule breaking is what social scientists have deemed deviant behavior. Through observation and research, scientists have been able to identify patterns and trends that correlate to deviant behavior, such as race, class and gender. Within these specified categories, the research can show us who is committing deviant behavior and why.


Deviant Behavior

Before one can look at how deviance correlates with social characteristics like race, class and gender, they first must develop an understanding of the behavior itself. In general, deviance describes an action or behavior that violates social norms (Macionis and Gerber 2010). Deviance or deviant behavior (used interchangeably), can be a violation of a formally enacted rule or law. Crime is a perfect example and the one most notably researched. Deviance can also be a violation of a social norm.

There are two types of social norms, folkways and mores. Folkways are customs of daily life. They are mildly enforced social expectations such as saying hello and goodbye.  Failing to say goodbye might be socially awkward but it is not met with punishment. This is where a distinction exists from a more. Social mores come from the Latin word for “manner” or “custom”. Despite similar beginnings, it is different from a folkway in that it is a societal norm that is considered to have greater moral significance (Macionis and Gerber 2010). Mores are strictly held cultural beliefs and behaviors, so strict in fact, that some sort of punishment is often a result of rejecting social mores. In most cultures, committing murder is considered a more that strays far from social norms and is punishable by prison time, and sometimes death.

Between folkways and mores, societies are able to outline commonly held beliefs that act as an agent of social control. A deviant person is one who leaves societal rules behind and performs deviant behavior. The doctrine that the individual is breaking is important, but perhaps more interesting are the characteristics of the deviant person themselves. The first characteristic in conjunction with deviance and crime we will examine is race.


Racial Differences in Deviant Behavior

When looking at racial disparities in deviance and criminal behavior, the statistics can be quite shocking. There are obvious differences in the experiences of a Black individual compared to that of a Hispanic individual, and so on across the racial spectrum; because of these differences, scientists have begun to take a closer look.

In 2013, a Black individual was six times more likely than a non-Black person to commit murder, and 12 times more likely to murder someone of another race than to be murdered by someone in another race (Rubenstein 2016). In general, Asian populations have the lowest criminal rates, followed by Caucasians, and then Hispanics. The Black population has the highest criminal rates and occurrences of deviant behavior. This pattern holds true for almost all crime categories and age groups (Rubenstein 2016; Ulmer, Harris and Steffensmeier 2012).  These differences are so stark, that they cannot be ignored. So why do some scholars think they exist?

One way in which to examine racial differences in deviant behavior is to apply the Structural Disadvantage Framework. This framework assumes there to be embedded institutional factors that permeate into social life, providing privileged experiences for some and disadvantaged experiences for others. Unfortunately, this divide between privilege falls along racial boundaries. The Structural Disadvantage Framework seeks to explain these disparities by examining structural forces within a society as sources of disadvantage and consequently of deviant behavior. In their studies of gaps in disadvantage and crime between racial groups, Ulmer, Harris and Steffensmeier found significant heterogeneity in the White-Black, White-Hispanic, and Black-Hispanic gaps (2012). In other words, they found suggestive variety in the experience of underprivileged individuals and deviance amongst racial groupings. With higher amounts of advantage came lower levels of crime, while higher amounts of disadvantage translated into increased levels of crime. Along the same vein, they found that Black individuals have the highest homicide and violent crime rates, followed by Hispanics and then Caucasians (Ulmer, Harris, Steffenmeier 2012). These differences in crime rates correlated directly to key structural disparities between the groups.

The structural functions that the Structural Disadvantage theory looks at are the circumstances in which individuals and groups of people live. These circumstances can be chosen, however, most structural characteristics are worked into the architecture of an organized society. In their studies, Ulmer, Harris and Steffensmeier found Black and Hispanic poverty levels to be twice that of Caucasians (2012).  This strong presence of poverty often forces or encourages risky decision making, often resulting in increased deviant behavior and crime. For example, one individual might consider a criminal career to make money when they cannot secure a job. More research on the topic has found other sources of disadvantage that correlate with criminal behavior such as unemployment, educational inequality, residential segregation, social disorganization, and subcultural adaptations to disadvantage. These circumstances are often found in non-White racial neighborhoods and help to exacerbate the amount of deviance found within them. It is argued that the long legacy of racism and discrimination, stretching back to times of slavery and indentured servitude, is responsible for putting these people and places at a disadvantage from the start (Steffensmeier et al. 2010; Kubrin and Weitzer 2003).


Class Differences in Deviant Behavior

Very closely related to the ideas of structural disadvantage and race are criminological theories of class differences. Like race, scholars have spent quite a bit of time attempting to explain the relationship between social class and deviant behavior.

One classic explanation comes from American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) which he coined Strain Theory. Merton argues that the desire to achieve success is a cultural goal that is present across all social levels. However, the means to achieve such success are allocated in such a way that some groups are privileged while others are deprived. The discrepancy that deprived classes experience, between desire for success and attainment of success, leads to an increase in deviant behavior and crime (Merton 1957). In other words, lower socioeconomic classes experience a strain that more privileged classes do not experience, hindering them from the same opportunities and quality of life. It is at this point where Strain Theory and the Structural Disadvantage framework intersect— both acknowledging the macro level phenomena that control groups of people, pushing some into success while others into lives of deviance.

To the contrary, it is important to understand that crime and deviant behavior also exist within higher socioeconomic classes, however, the crime that exists within these realms can be much different.

The term ‘white-collar crime’ was popularized by another American sociologist by the name Edwin H. Sutherland (1906-1957). To get a better understanding, the FBI includes the following offenses among the white-collar definition: public corruption, money laundering, health care fraud, embezzlement, price-fixing, anti-trust violations etc. Sutherland argued that important sociological differences existed between these types of crime and more conventional crimes such as burglary or murder. In general, Sutherland ascertained that these differences lay across a class difference­­—conventional crimes being committed by lower socioeconomic class and white-collar crime by those in higher socioeconomic social classes (1940). Knowing what we know now about racial differences in deviance and poverty, it is safe to argue that conventional crimes of violence mainly pertain to non-White populations operating within disadvantaged social classes while examples of white-collar crime tend to be found within White communities not experiencing the same strain. Of course there are exceptions to the case, but it is important to understand the generalizable patterns that permeate into societies.


Gender Differences in Deviant Behavior

Another lens social scientists have used to examine the full scope of deviant behavior is with gender. In 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 73% of all people arrested in 2002 for serious crimes were male.  Although this statistic is somewhat recent, it is a trend that has been observed for decades. So the question became, why is deviant behavior primarily a male phenomenon? One way in which to attempt to answer this question arises from Conflict Theory. In general, conflict theorists call to attention the unequal power within groups and societies. They are interested in focusing on processes of tension, inequality and conflict and how these items generate social phenomena, which in this case is deviant behavior.

Historically, women have been excluded from essential social processes and restricted to the home. In some cultures, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, their presence in public is unwelcome, resulting in less access to opportunities for criminal behavior (Carrabine et al. 2009; Rossi 1985). In addition, it his hypothesized that cultural norms attached to women, such as their subordinate position in some societies and submissive behavior, also eliminate occasions for deviant acts (Rossi 1985). Overall, these scholars argue it is the regulation of women—often by their over powered male counterparts—and the conflict that exists between them, that results in higher amounts of deviance for men than women. It is with this thinking that one scholar posited, “most crimes would remain unimaginable without men” (Collier 1998).

A second way to examine the relationship between deviant behavior and gender is to apply Gender Theory ways of thinking. In this mode of thought, researchers and scholars attempt to find out what it means to be a ‘man’. Gender theorists look at issues of power, dominance, aggressiveness, achievement, competition and status attainment. Through this, they argue that masculinities are always contested and never fixed. In other words, it is through avenues such as dominance and competition that men, more so than women, assert themselves. “Doing gender” in this way results in committing criminal activities—both conventional and white-collar— such as violence, rape and corporate crime (Carrabine et al. 2009).

Furthermore, gender theorists look at issues of self-control to deepen their understandings of the differences between genders, and their applications of deviant behavior. It has been argued that theorists of deviance overestimate the effect of opportunity on crime, or lack thereof, and do not shed enough light on the “substantial self-control differences between the sexes” (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990: 147).  On both sides of the gender binary, low self-control is significantly related to deviant behavior. For men, crime is ubiquitous amongst the population where self-control emerges as the catalyst for deviance. For women on the other hand, the act of deviant behavior is dependent on individuals with low self-control gaining access to illegal opportunities (Burton et al. 1998). Here we see a connection to the earlier ideas of gender and crime. Males have more agency to commit acts of deviance especially when compounded with low self-control, whereas females, despite levels of self-control, also need the access to opportunity in order to become deviants.  Conflict theorists and gender theorists intersect at this point, creating a more robust explanation for the correlation that exists between gender and deviant behavior.



Every culture has deviance and the deviant individuals that perform it This is inherent in the construction of social norms and a values. By doing so, a society creates the ‘other’—whether that be a person, thought or action— that operates outside the normal realm of society. Out there, there is a rejection of folkways and mores, and instead, an acceptance of the deviant way of doing things.

Race, class and gender are attached to this way of life and have been used to better understand deviant phenomena. There are distinct differences in the amount of crime throughout the racial spectrum. It is from institutional disadvantages—such as unemployment, educational inequality and social disorganization—coupled with long histories of racism and prejudice that this crime pervades and persuades its way into society (Kubrin and Weitzer 2003; Carrabine et al. 2009; Rossi 1985; Steffensmeier et al 2010). Similarly, these differences can be found amongst the social classes. Much like disadvantage, it is the strain in which lower socioeconomic classes live in that pushes them into lives of crime. In search of some form of success, individuals perform deviant behavior in order to survive (Merton 1957). On the other hand, individuals from higher social classes will commit white collar crimes, perhaps not for survival, but instead in pursuit of some warped conceptualization of success (Sutherland 1940). Nonetheless, deviance exists on all levels of social strata and will continue to do so.

Lastly, scholars of deviance pull in gender to draw connections to deviant behavior. Criminal behavior is largely a male phenomenon. Some posit that it is the sexist regulating of women, and the antithesis for men, that create gendered differences in crime levels (Carrabine et al. 2009; Rossi 1985). Other scholars point to actions of ‘doing gender’ and the cultural stereotypes attached to genders that separate males from females, such as men being aggressive and dominant while women remain submissive and passive (Carrabine et al. 2009). Combining the two sexes, some scholars point to low levels of self-control found in both females and males that contribute to criminal behavior (Burton et al. 1998). Perhaps the most helpful way to see the correlation between gender and deviant behavior is so combine all these perspectives, and to acknowledge the intersectionality of all of them.

Regardless of the lens that one applies to study deviant behavior, it is the curiosity that matters. By being interested and satisfying our curiosities, we work to more fully understand the cultures human beings exist within. This is good work, and needs to be accomplished. With it comes more robust outlooks and data that can one day hopefully help to correct some of the inequalities human societies experience.


Burton, V., Cullen, F., Evans, T., Alarid, L., and Gregory Dunaway. 1998. “Gender, Self-Control, and Crime. Journal of Crime Delinquency. 35(2):123-147.

Carrabine, E., Cox, P., South, N., Lee, M., Turton, J., and Ken Plummer. 2009. Criminology: A Sociological Introduction. London: Routledge.

Gottfredson, Michael R. and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A General Theory of Crime. CA: Stanford University Press.

Kubrin, Charles E., and Ronald Weitzer. 2003. “New Directions in Social Disorganization Theory”. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 40(4):374-402.

Macionis John J., Gerber, Linda M. 2010. Sociology, Seventh Canadian Edition. Toronto: Pearson.

Merton, Robert K. 1957. Social Theory and Social Structure. Ill: Free Press

Richard, Collier. 1998. Masculinities, Crime and Criminology. UK: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Rossi, Alice S. 1985. Gender and the Life Course. New York. Aldine Publishing Company.

Rubbenstein, Edwin S. 2016. “The Color of Crime, 2016 Revised Edition”. American Renaissance. MA: New Century Foundation. (http://www.amren.com/archives/reports/the-color-of-crime-2016-revised-edition/)

Steffensmeier, Darrell, Jeffery T. Ulmer, Ben Feldmeyer, and Casey Harris. 2010. “Testing the Race-Crime Invariance Thesis: Black, White, and Hispanic Comparisons.” Criminology 48(4):1133–69.

Sutherland, Edwin H. 1949. White Collar Crime. NY: The Dryden Press.

Ulmer, J., Casey, Harris and Darren Steffensmeier. 2012. “Racial and Ethnic Structural Disadvantage and Crime: White, Black, and Hispanic Comparisons”. Social Science Quarterly. 93(3): 799-819.

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