The Functionalist Perspective on Crime and Deviance

Functionalists argue crime is beneficial for society. For example it can improve social integration and social regulation and is necessary for social change.

Last Updated on November 9, 2023 by Karl Thompson

The Functionalist perspective on crime and deviance starts with society as a whole. It seeks to explain crime by looking at the nature of society, rather than at individuals. Most functionalist thinkers argue that crime contributes to social order, even though it seems to undermine it.

This post provides a summary of Durkheim’s Functionalist Theory of why crime is inevitable and functional for society. It then looks at some other Functionalist theories of crime and finally evaluates.

mind map of Durkheim's functionalist perspective on crime and deviance.

Durkheim: Three Key Ideas About Crime 

There are three main aspects to Durkheim’s theory of crime:

  1. A limited amount of crime is inevitable and even necessary
  2. Crime has positive functions -A certain amount of crime contributes to the well-being of a society.
  3. 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.

A good example of this are the laws surrounding grass cutting in many towns in America. These laws stipulate a maximum grass height, typically of eight inches. If the grass grows above this, the local council may fine them, and they can even go to jail. Some people have been fined thousands of dollars for letting their lawns grow too long.

image of tidy lawns USA
Society of Saints: In some towns in America you can go to jail if your grass gets too long.

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…

  1. Social regulation
  2. Social integration
  3. Social change

Social Regulation

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)

Social Integration

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.

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.

Image of suffragette holding a banner.
The suffragettes: anticipating the morality of the future?

Durkheim further 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.

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.

More Functionalist Perspectives on Crime and Deviance

Robert Merton’s Strain Theory of Crime builds on Functionalism. In Merton’s theory, crime and deviance are the ways in which some people reconcile themselves to accepting anomie and disadvantage. I’ve dealt with this in a separate post (follow the link!) because it’s a core theory in A-level sociology!)

Some other functionalist sociologists have developed Durkheim’s theory of crime, applying it to specific crimes.:

Kingsley Davis (1937) argued that prostitution bolstered monogamous relationships by providing an unemotional, impersonal and unthreatening release for the sexual energy of married promiscuous males.(Feminists criticise this because it ignores women’s pent up sexual frustrations!)

Ned Polksy (1967) made the same claim as Davis but for pornography. 

Daniel Bell showed that racketeering provided ‘queer ladders for success’ and political and social stability for workers labouring in the New York docks (1960);

A More complex application is provided by Mary Douglas (1966). Douglas argued that deviance offered social systems an educational tool for the clarification and management of threats, ambiguities, and anomalies in classification systems. 

Talcott Parsons (1951) is an exception to all the other theorists. He admitted that crime could be dysfunctional and undermined the social order. 

Evaluation of the Functionalist View of Crime

  1. 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.
  2. Functionalists suggest 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
  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’. 
  5. The Functionalist theory of crime is teleological. It operates a reverse logic by turning effects into causes. I.e. in reality the cause of crime is the dysfunctional system. However in functionalist theory crime becomes the necessary cause which makes a system functional. This really makes no sense! 

In defence of Functionalism….

Functionalism has many critics. HOWEVER, there are a lot of contemporary theories and thinking which have implicit Functionalist ideas in them. For example:

  • Merton’s Anomie theory builds on Functionalism -this is still a very popular theory today.
  • There is something of the Functionalist and neo-Marxism. The Function of crime, scapegoated via the media, is to distract attention away fro more complex and larger political problems. 
  • Anything that argues we should look at unintended consequences or we should mistrust people’s own accounts of their actions is basically a functionalist argument!

Revision Bundle for Sale 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Crime and Deviance Revision Bundle.

Crime Deviance A-Level Revision.png

It contains

  • 12 exam practice questions including short answer, 10 mark and essay question exemplars.
  • 32 pages of revision notes covering the entire A-level sociology crime and deviance specification
  • Seven colour mind maps covering sociological perspective on crime and deviance

Written specifically for the AQA sociology A-level specification.

Related Posts

Sources used to write this post

Liebling, Maruna  and McAra (2023) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology

Haralambos and Holborn: sociology themes and perspectives, edition 8.

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