Many people over the years have tried to explain why there is crime in our society. Functionalists focus on the source of deviance in the nature of society rather than biological and psychological explanations. Every functionalist agrees that social control mechanisms e. g. the police are necessary to keep deviance in check and therefore protecting social order. A main contributor to the functionalist theory of crime is Durkheim. He believed that society is based on a value consensus and that all members of society share a common culture that is a set of shared values, norms, beliefs and goals.
Durkheim suggested that by society sharing the same culture created social solidarity, thereby binding individuals together and telling them what to strive for and how to conduct themselves. According to Durkheim crime has 4 functions in society, the first being that crime and deviance is “inevitable and normal”. He suggested that crime is inevitable, normal and necessary for life. He said crime is inevitable because not everyone in society is going to be equally committed to the shared values and morals as we are all exposed to different influences.
Durkheim gave the example of “even in a ‘society of saints’ with no crime at all, such high standards of behaviour would make even the smallest deviant act e. g. burping stand out”, this backs up his suggestion of deviance is inevitable and it will always be present in society. The second function that Durkheim outlined is that crime helps society to evolve. He said “yesterday’s deviance must become today’s normality”, Durkheim believed the crime helps society to review the way it does things so we can learn from the deviance and mistakes.
Thirdly Durkheim outlined that crime is functional. He proposed that crime could be functional and only becomes dysfunctional when its level is unusually high or low. He said very low rates lead to stagnation, while high rates lead to social disorganisation and chaos. Durkheim believed that change was healthy and in order for society to change yesterday’s deviance must become today’s norm. Durkheim also stated that shared values and morals must be in moderate for their influence not to be strong on the population or deviance would occur as people would object.
We can see this with the actions of Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King who have all objected to the shared values and morals that have been too strong. The last function Durkheim believed crime gave to society is “crime can be positive”. He came up with two features, “boundary maintenance” and “adaptation and change”. Durkheim said crime produces a reaction for society, uniting its members in condemnation of the wrongdoers and reinforcing their commitment to the shared norms and values.
This is Durkheim’s way of describing punishment, which for him is to reaffirm society’s shared rules and reinforce social solidarity. Durkheim said this could be done though the courtroom which dramatises wrongdoing and publicly stigmatises the offender which reaffirms the values of the law-abiding majority and discourages others from rule breaking. The second feature is influenced by Durkheim’s belief that all change starts with an act of deviance. Durkheim believed there much be some wiggle room for individuals with new ideas, values and ways of living as way to challenge and change existing norms and values.
Durkheim was the main architect of the functionalist perspective of crime. However before you examine this perspective you will need to familiarise yourself with functionalist social theory. However before you look at that, it might be useful to refresh yourself with the AS level principles of functionalism here before moving into most complex areas of the theory.
Durkheim reasoned that crime was endemic to all societies in the same way suicide was. (It is important to note here that Durkheim’s study of suicide effectively gave sociology its academic status, because he found suicide was the result of societal conditions rather than individual pathology. Follow this link to understand Durkheim’s study on suicide). As you’ll have discovered the apparently individualistic decision to take one’s own life was dependent on wider social and economic conditions. Durkheim found rates of suicide rose not only in times of severe economic hardship but also in periods of rapid prosperity. This is because such turbulent times produce anomie as people’s normal expectations become deregulated.
From Durkheim’s position crime is a social fact (social facts are the values, cultural norms, and social structures existing outside the individual and are capable of exercising social constraints). Therefore a social fact is a feature of society rather than individuals.
Durkheim argued as crime was evident to all societies it must be seen as a normal endemic feature. Therefore crime is not abnormal, it is simply a part of normal industrial societies where people live in complex social organisations. (His research into suicide also pioneered sociological research methods into measuring crime. Please examine this here if you missed it in the earlier lessons or if you don’t feel you have yet understood the connection between suicide and crime statistics!)
Most importantly Durkheim reasoned, crime and the subsequent punishment provides a positive social function as it establishes and maintains a social consensus about what is and isn’t deviant behaviour. Therefore crime is a normal aspect of a healthy society; as a society without any crime must be extremely repressive and dysfunctional.
Durkheim argued that a society without deviance is impossible as people wil naturally deviate from any social norms or ideals. But this deviance becomes a positive function as it helps society establish a social consensus about what is right and wrong.
He also noted that society should be just as concerned when crime rates fell below that society’s average. As what might been seen as social progress is in fact the sign that there’s some social disorder afoot. So we can see that crime is also an expression of individual freedom (as too little crime indicates an oppressive society) and a sign of social change. So the rate at which individuals start deviating from the norm is relative to the cohesiveness of that society.
For example the credit crunch caused a massive economic crisis and any increase in the number of suicides can be explained by the lack of regulation in that society. This is because society encourages individualism and unlimited aspirations, the credit crunch means these aspirations can no longer be achieved and a state of anomie (normlessness) causes personal crises for the individual. The cure for this state of anomie comes from society imposing new regulations on aspirations. Any failure to regulate behaviour will increase the tendency for suicide. To listen to a more detailed explanation of anomie and ‘regulation’ please listen to this BBC Thinking Aloud clip
Merton extended Durkheim’s ideas on anomie even further. Although a functionalist like Durkheim, Merton questioned dominant functionalist ideas that all institutions produced positive functions. Merton took Durkheim’s concept of anomie and said it wasn’t useful in explaining suicide but anomie could be used to explain all deviance in society! Merton came up with his idea of society creating a ‘strain to anomie’ which you can learn about here.
Back to ‘perspectives’ listing