Conflict Theory of Deviance: Definition, Examples, Criticisms

conflict theory of deviance definition and explanation

The conflict theory of deviance claims that deviance is the result of inequality in society.

It also argues that deviance is punished more strictly for those with less power. At the same time, the elite in society is much more likely to get away with crime.

Conflict Theory of Deviance: Key Terms

Before explaining the conflict theory of deviance in further detail, let’s look at the key terms of the approach.

Conflict theorySociety is a struggle for power between groups competing for limited resources. It stresses power dynamics such as class, gender, or racial conflict to explore large-scale phenomena. It is, thus, a strand of macrosociology. The 19th-century German philosopher Karl Marx is considered the “father” of conflict theory—one of the three key sociological paradigms.
DevianceThe violation of social rules and prevalent norms dictating how humans should behave.For example, committing a crime or breaking the law are examples of deviant behaviors.

Key Assumptions

The conflict theory of deviance makes two key assumptions about the causes and impact of deviant/criminal behavior:

1. Criminal behavior is caused by social inequality

Deviant behavior in a capitalist society results from social inequality and a scarcity of resources on Earth.

The poor and oppressed in society recognize the importance of equitable resource distribution.

This claim for equality might lead them to deviant acts and opposes the interests of the rich and powerful.

The latter strive to maintain and expand their wealth and privilege, including by passing laws intended to help them stay in power and exploit the poor.

2. Deviance is punished much more strictly for those with less power in society

People might even be stigmatized as “deviants” due to their lower social status or lack of power.

For example, the poor, homeless and people of color have been historically regarded as more likely to commit crimes or break the law (Franzese, 2009).

On the other hand, the social and economic elites (e.g., politicians, business people) are less likely to be regarded as deviant because of their position of power in society.

As we’ll see through the following examples, the conflict theory of deviance is not unified. It comprises many different contributors and theories—several of which build on the work of Karl Marx.

Examples of the Conflict theory of deviance

1. Karl Marx – social conflict as the root of crime

Marx’s ideas laid the groundwork for the conflict theory of deviance, although he never wrote explicitly on this topic.

Marx divided the general population into two classes:

  • the working class (the proletariat)
  • the more powerful and wealthy elite class (the bourgeoisie)

it is the ongoing conflict between these two social classes that leads to crime. Marx claimed that economic exploitation is the propelling factor behind the proletariat’s anger and social justice demands.

For example, street criminals are primarily poor people. They resort to criminal activity because of their social marginalization and inability to find a job. Therefore, street crime merely reflects existing economic inequalities.

Marx saw laws as oppressive mechanisms for the proletariat, produced and enforced to further the interests of the bourgeoisie (the ruling class).

In this view, sending street criminals to jail mainly helps the wealthy maintain their economic power. It doesn’t solve the root of the problem, that is, social injustice.

2. Richard Quinney – the social reality of crime

Inspired by Marx’s writings, the famous American sociologist Richard Quinney argued that criminal behavior favors the powerful over the weak (and the wealthy over the poor).

This is because of what he described as “the social reality of crime” (Quinney, 1977). This refers to the social construction of crime as a societal function helping those in power to protect and further their interests.

For example, crime control in capitalist societies is accomplished through a range of institutions (e.g., government bodies, police forces).

These have been established by a political elite who wants to maintain the status quo. This explains why political reforms often reduce taxes on the rich while taxes from their income should be used to support those in need.

3. Wright Mills – the power elite

Sociologist Wright Mills was another thinker to expand on Marx’s conflict theory of deviance.

In his book The Power Elite (1956), he described the existence of a few rich and powerful people at the top of society who hold the most financial power and control resources. This group was dubbed the “power elite“.

It includes wealthy managers and businesspeople, politicians, superstars, and military chiefs. These people create and can change the law and social rules in their favor.

They decide what is deviant and what is acceptable. It is the powerless that pay the cost of this.

Mill’s arguments justify why the wealthy and famous get away with crime (or suffer very little legal retribution). For example,

  • Elon Musk—one of the world’s richest people—managed to not pay federal income taxes in 2018.
  • The Canadian singer Justin Bieber was only fined $600 when found guilty of assault and careless driving in 2014, while the assault charge was completely dropped.

4. Edwin Sutherland – white-collar crime

The sociologist Edwin Sutherland invented the term “white-collar crime” to describe “crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation.” (1940, p. 10).

Sutherland juxtaposed upper- and lower-class crime:

  • White-collar crime is perpetrated by “composed of respectable or at least respected business and professional men” (p.1). Examples of white-collar crime are tax avoidance or embezzlement of company funds.
  • Blue-collar crime is “composed of persons of low socioeconomic status” (p. 1). Examples of lower-class crime are assault, burglary, murder, robbery etc.

Sutherland’s conflict theory is important because it reframed traditional sociological interpretations of crime.

These were previously focused on “obvious” forms of crime (e.g., murder) that were often attributed to poverty and criminalized the less powerful.

5. Deviance and power through the prism of race

According to conflict theorist Alexander Liazos (1972), the people we often brand as “deviant” or “guilty” are also powerless (e.g., poor or socially marginalized).

For example, a homeless person, a person with mental health issues, or a person of color are more likely to be considered deviant than a millionaire who stashes their wealth in tax havens.

This social prejudice has manifested itself historically in the form of false accusations and police brutality against people of color.

Even today, the criminal justice system in America perpetuates disparities in the treatment of black people.

Research shows that while dr*g use rates are similar across racial groups, black people get arrested and punished on dr*g charges much more often than white people (Hinton, 2018).

6. Feminist theory of deviance 

The feminist theory of crime was popularized in the 1970s. It is a subset of feminist theory but will be discussed here as a conflict theory expanding on Marxism.

Women have been experiencing deviance and punishment differently than men because of their subjugated position in society (Balfour, 2006).

For example, in the past, many women fell victims of household violence by their partners or husbands.

These crimes were often described as crime of passion and the perpetrators would get away with a very lenient sentence.

Criticisms of the Conflict theory of deviance

The conflict theory of deviance has received multiple criticisms. Some of them coincide with the criticisms of the Marxist school of thought.

  • Marx argued that the proletariat’s resentment and anger would eventually lead them to rebel and overturn capitalism in favor of communism. He believed that a communist society would be fairer: “In a communist society, we counterpose social peace to social war [and] we put the ace to the root of crime” (Marx & Engels, 1976, p. 248). However, the historical examples of communist regimes (e.g., Soviet Union, Eastern Europe) were by no means equitable societies and crime rates were not lower.
  • Conflict theories of deviance look down on efforts and recent policy measures to create a fair criminal justice that works for all. (For example, by having a more inclusive and representative jury).
  • Conflict theory of deviance (especially its earlier forms) assumes that all (or most) social problems and crimes can be pinned to social class. Even when the angle of race and gender are introduced, these theories have adopted a binary analytical lens (guilty/innocent, poor/wealthy, men/women – see also: dualistic thinking). Scholars of intersectional criminology argue that we need to reflect on the impact of multiple identities related to power dynamics, class, gender, race etc., to articulate a robust theory of deviance (Potter, 2013).


Deviant behaviors, according to conflict theory, are actions that do not conform to the social institutions established by and to serve the interests of the ruling class.

According to conflict theory, social and economic factors are the root causes of crime. Conflict theorists also attribute deviance to the systemic inequalities related to gender and race.

There is no single conflict theory that applies to deviance and crime. Most of them descend from Karl Marx’s writings. What brings them together is that they trace the origins of social problems and deviance in the capitalist economic mode of production (and the inequalities it creates). Their weaknesses include their association with Marxism and their pessimistic take on society.  


Balfour, G. (2006). Re-imagining a Feminist Criminology. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 48(5), pp. 735-752.

Franzese, R. (2009). The sociology of deviance: Differences, tradition, and stigma. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Ltd.

Hinton, E. (2018).  An Unjust Burden: The Disparate Treatment of Black Americans in the Criminal Justice System. Vera Institute for Justice. Available at:

Liazos, A. (1972). The Poverty of the Sociology of Deviance: Nuts, Sluts, and Preverts. S Society for the Study of Social Problems (Berkeley, Calif.), 20(1), pp. 103-120.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. ([1867-1894]1976). Capital: A critique of political economy. 3 Volumes. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Mills, C. (1956). The power elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Potter, H. (2013). Intersectional Criminology: Interrogating Identity and Power in Criminological Research and Theory. Critical Criminology, 21(3), pp. 305-318.

Quinney, R. (1977). Class, state and crime: On the theory and practice of criminal justice. New York; London: Longman.

Sutherland, E. H. (1940). White-Collar Criminality. American Sociological Review, 5(1), pp. 1–12.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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