The Functionalist Perspective on Crime and Deviance

A Summary of Durkheim’s Functionalist Theory of why crime is necessary and functional for society.

Three of Durkheim’s Key Ideas About Crime 

  1. A limited amount of crime is necessary

  2. Crime has positive functions

  3. On the other hand, too much crime is bad for society and can help bring about its collapse. Refer here to Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide 

One – Durkheim’s Argument for why Crime is Necessary 

  1. 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.

  2. Durkheim says that even in a ‘society of saints’ populated by perfect individuals deviance would still exist. 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.

  3. Durkheim argues that all social change begins with some form of deviance. In order for changes to occur, yesterday’s deviance becomes today’s norm.

Two – Crime Performs Positive Functions 

Three positive functions of crime include:

  1. SOCIAL REGULATION (reaffirming the boundaries of acceptable behaviour) – Each time the Police arrest a person, they are making it 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)

  1. SOCIAL INTEGRATION (Social Cohesion) – A second function of crime is to actually 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

  1. Social Change – 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.

Evaluations of the Functionalist View

  1. Durkheim talks about crime in very general terms. He theorizes 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.

  2. Secondly, Durkheim is suggesting that the criminal justice system benefits everyone in society by punishing criminals and reinforcing the acceptable boundaries of behavior. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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’. 

Useful Sources for learning more about Functionalism (and Strain Theory)

The above post is meant as a summary, the posts below are useful if you want more depth…

An 11 minute vodcast/ lecture on Functionalist theories of crime

An 11 minute vodcast/ lecture on Merton’s Strain Theory (includes Institutional Anomie Theory)

Twynham’s Functionalism and crime post offers a useful summary!

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This entry was posted in Crime and Deviance, Social Theory (A2) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Functionalist Perspective on Crime and Deviance

  1. Pingback: Merton’s Strain Theory of Deviance | ReviseSociology

  2. Pingback: Subcultural Theories of Deviance | ReviseSociology

  3. Pingback: The Underclass Theory of Crime | ReviseSociology

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