Conflict Theory of Deviance Explained


How society attempts to exist is the foundation of varying sociological theories that attempt to describe its framework. One method is the conflict theory of deviance. In this theory, societies are based on a struggle between different groups who are all seeking some sort of power over the limited access to resources that is available.

This conflict isn’t a war between nations. It is a war between the various socioeconomic groups that happen to form a complete society. One common conflict that would occur would be what happens between the wealthy and capitalist classes of a society and the middle, poor, and working classes.

What Occurs During the Conflicts Between Classes

Conflict may not be the most accurate term to use because it conjures images of warfare and physical combat. The conflict theory of deviance is about control. Whatever group is able to control the wealth in the society is going to have the power to control manufacturing, production, wages, benefits, and resource access.

In the usual relationship between these two groups, the working class will sell their labor and talents to the wealthy class so that both groups can achieve a compromise of sorts. The capitalists have the power to stay in control and manipulate resources, while the working class gains enough to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.

The only problem with this relationship is that it benefits the wealthy class to keep the working class at a disadvantage. If the working class no longer feels the need to sell their labor to the capitalists, then changes to how resources are allocated must take place. The elite must therefore walk a balancing act between maintaining the status quo of their power while giving enough to the working class to appease them so they’ll continue selling their labor.

When either class feels like their position is too much of a disadvantage, then the chances of a conflict starting will rise.

How Class Conflict Leads to Crime

In the conflict theory of deviance, laws are simply a way for one class to control another class so that resources do not need to be shared. A law that benefits one class, but not the other, creates a conflict between the two. This is what leads to acts of deviance.

What separates the two classes is how that deviance is described.

Within each socioeconomic class are pockets of people who have varying levels of influence. For the middle class, one might have a high middle class and a low middle class group that differs from the standard definition.

The same is true for the wealthy class. At the very top of the spectrum is a powerful elite clique that hold all the power and resources. How they define crime can vary, based on the class that it affects.

Here’s an example: in 2009, the total losses reported to the FBI through criminal acts, including burglary, robbery, and theft, was just over $15 billion for the entire year. At the same time, Bernie Madoff was arrested in 2008 for creating losses that totaled $50 billion.

By being in a more influential class, it becomes possible to manipulate the law in your favor.

An example of this from a criminal standpoint can be found in the sentencing mandates for crack and cocaine. Crack was a cheap drug in the 1980s that the poor and middle classes could access relatively easily. Cocaine, on the other hand, was considered an elite drug.

A 10-year prison sentence was the standard for a 50-gram crack possession. To have the same prison sentence for cocaine, 5,000 grams would need to be found. That 100-to-1 desparity can be seen throughout the various socioeconomic conflicts that occur.

Sometimes that disparity is even greater.

CEO salaries are often discussed when looking at wage disparity, but take a look at the wages of doctors in the United States and you’ll see a greater disparity. 1 in 5 doctors have incomes that place them in the top 1% of US income, but more than half of doctors feel like they are not compensated fairly for their services.

This makes accessing proper health care more difficult for the poor and the middle classes. This lack of access, according to the conflict theory of deviance, would be another way for the elitist classes to control the other classes for resources within a society.

Conflict will always occur. In a capitalist society, everyone has the chance to change their socioeconomic class. Those in the upper classes, however, will do what they can to stop that transformation.