Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency
Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.1 Crime and deviance

Social scientists study many forms of criminal and deviant behaviour: criminal behaviour is behaviour that breaks the criminal laws of the country; deviant behaviour may include crimes, but refers more widely to those behaviours that break established social expectations or norms.

Activity 2

Can you think of any criminal behaviours that are not deviant? Can you think of any deviant behaviours that are not crimes? Write your thoughts in the box below.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


We can think of a number of criminal behaviours that are not seen as deviant. For example, much white-collar crime (in businesses and offices) has long been viewed as normal, and rarely results in prosecution. Such crimes may range from stealing office stationery (often viewed as a ‘“perk” of the job’) or ‘fiddling expenses’ through financial fraud to acts of organisational neglect, omission and carelessness that result in deaths or injuries to workers and/or customers (for examples, see Slapper, 2009; Tombs and Whyte, 2010).

There are also many forms of deviant behaviour that are not crimes (that is, offences that can be prosecuted under the current criminal law). For example, a variety of behaviours that are called ‘disorders’ (eating disorders, psychological disorders such as hyperactivity) are deviant without being criminal. But it is important to remember that this is not a clear-cut distinction. Laws change over time and vary between countries, so that what may be a crime in one place or at one time may not be so at another. But it is also the case that whether some behaviour gets treated as a crime or even viewed as deviant may depend on more contextual factors: Who did it? Where did they do it? We will come back to these problems later in the course.

For social scientists, both crime and deviance can be viewed as forms of social disorder. However, there is a very strong focus of attention on juvenile or youthful misbehaviour: often referred to as juvenile delinquency. At the core of this is criminal behaviour (behaviour that breaks the current laws of the country), but juvenile delinquency also includes what might be called status offences (behaviour that is illegal only for this particular age group such as under-age smoking or drinking, or truanting from school). However, juvenile delinquency may involve behaviour that is judged to be deviant (breaking social norms or expectations) such as young people ‘hanging about’ on street corners, or congregating in loud or aggressive groups. In these ways, ‘juvenile delinquency’ is far from being a clear or simple concept, and it is important to keep this in mind as you read further.

In this course, we are going to follow this focus on disorderly behaviour by young people. We will trace two main lines of approach within the study of youthful misbehaviour:

  • The first of these focuses on the search for the causes of delinquency: what makes young people (or some young people) behave badly? This is probably where you would expect most of the effort of social scientists to be expended – isn’t explaining why things happen or why people behave as they do the business of the social sciences?
  • The second part of the course takes a different – and perhaps less expected – approach to studying delinquency. Here, the focus is on the processes and agencies of control, starting from rather different questions: not, why did this person do X, but why is this behaviour viewed as delinquent? Why do these people get arrested for it? Why is that group of people or that behaviour ignored or treated as normal?

Both approaches are centrally concerned with disorder, but take very different routes to understanding it. We hope that by the end of this course you will have a good appreciation of what each approach has to offer and why the differences between them are significant.