B.A. North American Studies

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Sociological Perspectives on Crime and Punishment

There is no doubt that criminal justice is a very important social and political issue. Stories about crime and punishment are ever-present, not only in newspapers, on TV and in movies about also in everyday conversations. The legal and criminal justice system accounts for a considerable portion of the national budget. Questions of crime and punishment are often hot-button political issues, and may even decide elections. This is true for all nations, but criminal justice plays a particularly important role in U.S. society. Just think of all the U.S. movies and TV dramas you have seen – crime and punishment probably figured prominently in a lot of them. Or, think of the fact that the United States still has the world's largest prison population. Yet, if we want to understand the role of criminal justice in and its impact on U.S. society we have to go beyond mere facts, statistics and media stories. This is where sociological perpectives on criminal justice come in: they look at the bigger picture of crime and punishment. Sociological explanations of crime and punishment are, moreover, underpinned by broader social theories. 


Below you will find very brief summaries of three different theoretical approaches to crime and punishment. Read them carefully. Try to find the theoretical approach that you think best fits each statement by dragging it into the appropriate box.

Broadly speaking, theoretical approaches to criminal justice can be divided into two camps:

Consensus theory focusses on the role of law and criminal justice in maintaining social order and stability. According to consensus theory, law and criminal justice are products of a collective conscience and based on widely shared social values.

According to conflict theory, law and criminal justice do not serve society as whole but merely the interests of dominant groups. Conflict theory stresses the repressive aspects of law and criminal justice.

However, nowadays there is more of a focus on so-called mid-range theories that do not really fit into the neat divide between consensus and conflict. In contrast with the more structural concerns of consensus and conflict theories, labelling theory emphasizes human creativity and agency. Labelling theory seeks to explain how law and criminal justicy apply the label 'criminal' or 'deviant' to people, how they criminalize certain actions and people but not others.

See Smith, P. and Natalier, K. (2005) Understanding Criminal Justice: Sociological Perspectives, London: Sage Publications

Criminal justice serves to maintain the unequal distribution of power in society.


According to conflict theory, criminal justice tends to serve as a instrument of powerful groups to maintain their position of power.

Punishing acts of crime can reaffirm collective morality.


According to conflict theory, law and criminal justice are always based on a collective sense of morality. Punishment is thus viewed as a means for reaffirming this sense of morality.

Criminality is a consequence of the processes through which certain acts are defined as criminal.


Labelling theory views criminality not as an intrinsic quality of particular acts, but as something that is produced through social processes by means of which the label 'criminal' is applied to certain acts and people.


Consensus Theory


Labelling Theory


Conflict Theory

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