The Functionalist analysis of crime starts with society as a whole. It seeks to explain crime by looking at the nature of society, rather than at individuals. There are two main thinkers usually associated with the Functionalist Perspective on Crime: Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton.
This post provides a summary of Durkheim’s Functionalist Theory of why crime is inevitable and functional for society. Another related Functionalist who theorised about crime was Robert Merton who developed the Strain Theory of Crime.
Durkheim: Three Key Ideas About Crime
There are three main aspects to Durkheim’s theory of crime:
- A limited amount of crime is inevitable and even necessary
- Crime has positive functions -A certain amount of crime contributes to the well-being of a society.
- On the other hand, too much crime is bad for society and can help bring about its collapse, hence institutions of social control are necessary to keep the amount of crime in check. Refer here to Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide.
Durkheim developed his theory of crime and deviance in The Rules of Sociological Method, first published in 1895.
Crime is Inevitable
Durkheim argued that crime is an inevitable and normal aspect of social life. He pointed out that crime is inevitable in all societies, and that the crime rate was in fact higher in more advanced, industrial societies.
Durkheim theorised crime was inevitable because not every member of society can be equally committed to the collective sentiments (the shared values and moral beliefs of society). Since individuals are exposed to different influences and circumstances, it was ‘impossible for them to be all alike’ and hence some people would inevitably break the law.
Durkheim also theorised that deviance would still exist even in a ‘society of saints’ populated by ‘perfect’ individuals. The general standards of behaviour would be so high that the slightest slip would be regarded as a serious offence. Thus the individual who simply showed bad taste, or was merely impolite, would attract strong disapproval.
Durkheim also argued deviance was necessary for social change to occur because all social change began with some form of deviance. In order for changes to occur, yesterday’s deviance becomes today’s norm.
Crime Performs Positive Functions
Durkheim went a step further and argued that a certain amount of crime was functional for society. He argued that crime performed THREE positive functions for societies…
- Social regulation
- Social integration
- Social change
Crime performs the function of social regulation by reaffirming the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
When a crime occurs and and individuals are punished it becomes clear to the rest of society that the particular action concerned is unacceptable.
In contemporary society newspapers also help to perform the publicity function, with their often-lurid accounts of criminal acts.
In effect, the courts and the media are ‘broadcasting’ the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, warning others not to breach the walls of the law (and therefore society)
A second function of crime is to strengthen social cohesion. For example, when particularly horrific crimes have been committed the whole community joins together in outrage and the sense of belonging to a community is therefore strengthened.
A further action performed by the criminals is to provide a constant test of the boundaries of permitted action. When the law is clearly out of step with the feelings and values of the majority, legal reform is necessary. Criminals therefore, perform a crucial service in helping the law to reflect the wishes of the population and legitimising social change.
Too much Crime is Dysfunctional
Durkheim argued that crime only became dysfunctional when there was too much or too little of it – too much and social order would break down, too little and there would not be sufficient capacity for positive social change.
One of the main problems with this aspect of Durkheim’s theory is that he did not specify precisely how much crime a society needed, or what types of crime!
Durkheim’s view of punishment
Durkheim suggested that the function of punishment was not to remove crime from society altogether, because society ‘needed’ crime. The point of punishment was to control crime and to maintain the collective sentiments. In Durkheim’s own words punishment ‘serves to heal the wounds done to the collective sentiments’.
According to Durkheim a healthy society requires BOTH crime and punishment to be in balance and to be able to change.
Evaluation of Durkheim’s Functionalist View of Crime
- Durkheim talks about crime in very general terms. He theorises that ‘crime’ is necessary and even functional but fails to distinguish between different types of crime. It could be that some crimes may be so harmful that they will always be dysfunctional rather than functional.
- Secondly, Durkheim is suggesting that the criminal justice system benefits everyone in society by punishing criminals and reinforcing the acceptable boundaries of behaviour. However, Marxist and Feminist analysis of crime demonstrates that not all criminals are punished equally and thus crime and punishment benefit the powerful for than the powerless
- Interactionists would suggest that whether or not a crime is functional cannot be determined objectively; surely it depends on an individual’s relationship to the crime.
- Functionalists assume that society has universal norms and values that are reinforced by certain crimes being punished in public. Postmodernists argue society is so diverse, there is no such thing as ‘normal’.
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Written specifically for the AQA sociology A-level specification.
- Durkheim’s Functionalist Theory is taught as part of consensus theory within the A-level sociology Crime and Deviance syllabus. Other consensus theories include:
- Merton’s Strain Theory of Crime
- The ‘Social Control’ Theory of Crime
- Subcultural Theories of Deviance
Sources used to write this post:
Haralambos and Holborn: sociology themes and perspectives, edition 8.
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