Research unit I – Aetiology of Deviance

Heads of research unit:
Dr. Jan-Philip Steinmann and Prof. Dr. Thomas Bliesener


The research unit Aetiology of Deviance explores behaviour that deviates from social norms (deviance), with a particular emphasis on violations of institutionalized legal norms (criminality). The study focuses on understanding the diverse causes contributing to deviant and criminal behaviour within the group of offenders. Theory-based empirical research is employed, incorporating both microscopic and macroscopic perspectives to examine individual and social factors influencing deviance and criminality. While the aetiological perspective remains central to the research unit’s approach, it also acknowledges and incorporates a constructivist viewpoint.



Research focus

The research unit’s thematic focus includes studying crime from a life-course theoretical perspective (research focus 1: Criminality over the life course), examining deviant behaviour in the context of social change (research focus 2: Social change and deviance), and analysing responses to norm violations (research focus 3: Reactions to violations of norms).

The main research areas are addressed from interdisciplinary perspectives (e.g. psychology, sociology, political science) using a variety of empirical methods. In particular, quantitative (cross-sectional and longitudinal surveys and experiments), but also qualitative approaches and their combination are employed.


Criminality over the life course

The first research focus aims to investigate criminality across various life stages (from childhood to adolescence and adulthood). Given the higher prevalence of delinquent behaviour during adolescence, this stage receives particular attention. In addition to describing the (group-specific) development of criminality over the life-course (e.g., with regard to onset, peak, discontinuation and continuity), the focus is particularly on the conditions under which criminality arises. The complex development and change processes of crime are considered by striving for cross-level explanations that integrate the individual, group and societal level. While the primary emphasis lies on uncovering the causes of crime development, the consequences of this for various life domains (e.g., school and labour market) are also examined.

Social change and deviance

The second research focus examines deviance in light of ongoing social change processes. Based on the assumption that (rapid) social change can lead to anomic conditions that challenge traditional principles of order, it is investigated whether a disrupted social order can have consequences for individual deviant behaviour. The processes of social change that guide the research focus are diverse in nature and can be adapted depending on current social events (e.g. economic upswing or downturn, armed conflicts, pandemic, immigration). These changes can be both processes that are currently taking place as well as those that lie in the past but have the potential to continue to influence current (deviant) behaviour.

Reactions to violations of norms

The third research focus adds a constructivist component to the first two. It views deviance and criminality primarily as social constructs, placing emphasis on the perception of deviant behaviour and criminal acts. The focus is particularly on individual (not institutional) reactions to norm violations and the associated criminalisation and social exclusion processes.


Current research projects

The three main areas of research are complementary to each other and yet do not completely overlap. They form a thematic framework for the research unit Aetiology of Deviance. Research projects may fall within a specific focus area or explore the intersections between different areas.