Late Modernity, Social Exclusion and Crime

Jock Young (1999) argues we are now living in a late modern society characterised by instability, insecurity and exclusion, which make the problem of crime worse.

Structurally and economically there is much more insecurity and marginalisation than ever, but culturally there is more pressure to publicise how successful you are, even if you don’t have the means.

This is really an application of Merton’s anomie theory, but the nature of ‘strain’ between legitimate means and ends is different, more constant and more severe.

Mind Map summarising Jock Young's (1999) The Exclusive Society.

Increasing Insecurity and marginalisation

Young contrasts today’s society (since the 1970s) with the period preceding it, arguing that the 1950s and 60s represented a golden age of modern capitalist society. This was a period of stability, security and social inclusion, characterised by full employment and a well functioning welfare state. There was also low divorce, rate, strong communities and a general consensus about right and wrong, and crime rates were very much lower.

Since the 1970s, however, society has become a lot more unstable. De-industrialisation and the corresponding decline of unskilled manual jobs has led to increased unemployment, underemployment and poverty, especially for young people. These changes have also destabilised family and community life and contributed to rising divorce rates, as have New Right policies designed to hold back welfare spending. All of this has contributed to increased marginalisation and exclusion of those at the bottom.

A Media saturated society

However, just as more and more people are suffering from the economic exclusion described above, we now live in a media saturated society which stresses the importance of leisure, personal consumption and immediate gratification as the means whereby we should achieve the ‘good life’.

The media today generally informs us that the following are normal and desirable – in in order to belong to society we are required to do the following:

  • We need to have high levels of consumption – and buying now, paying later, and debt are seen as legitimate strategies for maintaining our consumption levels.
  • We need to have active leisure lives and publicise this – in effect we should turn ourselves into mini-celebrities – in short, we need to be somebody.
  • We should strive to achieve success ourselves rather than depending on others. Anyone can be successful if they try hard enough is the message.

Crime in Late Modernity

Young essentially applies Merton’s Strain Theory to explain crime in late modernity. He argues that today there are millions of people (just in the UK) who will never earn enough money to live a high-consumption, celebrity lifestyle, and this results in many people suffering relative deprivation, and frustration (basically anomie).

However, Young goes beyond Merton by arguing that deviant and criminal behaviour become a means whereby people can not only attempt to realise material goals, but crime can also the means whereby they can seek to achieve celebrity, or simply to seek a temporary emotional release from the anomic-frustrations of coping with the usual contradictions and pressures of living in late-modernity.

Two further consequence of the trend towards economic exclusion combined with the media message of ‘cultural inclusion through consumption and celebrity’ are firstly that crime is more widespread and found increasingly throughout the social structure, not just at the bottom, and secondly crime is nastier, with an increase in ‘hate-crimes’.

Examples of attempts to achieve celebrity through deviance include extreme-subcultures, or any form of extreme ‘one-upmanship’ videos on YouTube, while examples at escapism include binge-drinking and violence at the weekends. Young also argues that the anomie and frustration generated in late-modernity also explains the increase in more serious crimes such as hate-crimes against minority groups and asylum seekers.

Evaluating Jock Young’s theory of crime in Late Modernity

These ideas can add a new dimension to our understanding of the causes of crime and deviance – particularly with regard to the non-economic reasons why people commit crimes – those acts which seemingly have no monetary reward, by focusing on the emotions and feelings involved in offending.

Young argues against the idea that crime is committed when there are available opportunities (rational choice theory) or lack of controls against criminal behaviour. He says that crime here is depicted as quite a routine and logical act, and something which we, the victims, have to protect ourselves against.

Young argues that these approaches do not explain why why crime is such an attractive option for so many young people (particularly young men). He says that there are many crimes such as drug use and vandalism, joyriding and even rape and murder, which clearly involve much more than a simple rational choice. There is obviously something much more appealing for those involved in crimes such as street robbery than the promise of (very small) profits on offer.

Signposting and Sources

This material is mainly relevant to the Crime and Deviance Module. This is part of the A-level sociology (AQA) specification.

Jock Young (1999) The Exclusive Society.

You might also like… Jock Young (2007) The Vertigo of Late Modernity.


Functionalism – An Introduction

Functionalists believe society shapes the individual and that social order and value consensus are good.

Functionalism is a structural consensus theory. Functionalists believe there is a social structure made up of institutions which shape individual behaviour. Institutions such as the family and education socialise individuals and create value consensus.

This post covers the following:

  • Definitions of the key Functionalist concept: structural and consensus
  • A summary of the key ideas of Emile Durkheim: social facts, social solidarity, and anomie
  • A summary of the key ideas of Taloctt Parsons: the organic analogy, the importance of socialisation, value consensus and functional prerequisites.
  • Evaluations of Functionalism including criticisms and ways in which it may be relevant in contemporary society.

This post has primarily been written as an introduction to Functionalism for AS and A level sociology students.

Functionalism is a ‘structural-consensus theory’

The ‘structural bit’ means that Functionalists argue there is a social structure that shapes individual behaviour through the process of socialisation.

The ‘consensus bit’ means that Functionalists believe that a successful society is based on ‘value consensus’ – people agree around a set of shared norms and values.  This value consensus enables people to co-operate and to work together to achieve shared goals.

Functionalists also believe that a successful society has a stable social structure, in which different institutions perform unique functions that contribute to the maintenance of the whole – in the same way that the different organs of the body perform different functions to keep a human being healthy.

In a successful or ‘healthy’ society, for example, social life is organised so that the family socialises the young and meets emotional needs, school teaches us broader life skills, and the workplace is where we contribute to the economy.

Functionalists generally believe institutions perform positive functions (they do good things for the individual and society), and social institutions work together to provide social order and prevent too much crime and deviance.

Functionalism sociology social order

This post provides an introduction to some of the key ideas of Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons, two key functionalist thinkers and some overall evaluations of the Functionalist Perspective.

Durkheim’s Functionalism

Historical Context

Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was the first ever professor of Sociology.

Durkheim’s major works were published between 1893 and 1912 –and his writings are mainly concerned with how rapid and dramatic social changes such as industrialisation at that time would affect French society.
Below are just two of Durkheim’s key ideas

Society shapes the Individual

Durkheim argued that society has a reality of its own over and above the individuals who comprise it. Members of society are constrained by ‘social facts’, by ‘ways of acting, thinking and feeling which are external to the individual and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him’.

Social facts include such things as beliefs, moral codes, and basic norms and values which are passed from one generation to the next and shared by individuals who make up a society. It is not the consciousness of the individual that directs human behaviour but common beliefs and sentiments which shape his or her consciousness. In short, according to Durkheim, society shapes the individual.

Social solidarity, socialisation and anomie 

Durkheim believed that too much freedom was bad for the individual – when individuals have too freedom, or when there is no clear guidance about what is right and wrong, individuals suffer from a sense uncertainty and confusion about their place in world, not knowing what they should be doing, a condition Durkheim called ‘anomie’.

Durkheim argued that societies needed to create a sense of social solidarity – which is making individuals feel as if they part of something bigger and teaching them the standards of acceptable behaviour. At one level this is achieved through the family, but for Durkheim, feeling a sense of belonging to wider society was also important. Traditionally this was achieved through religion, but Durkheim was concerned that religion was fading in 20th century Europe, and that modern societies faced a ‘crisis of anomie’.

He theorised that new institutions such as schools, work places and voluntary organisations would eventually provide the ‘social glue’ which would make people feel like they belonged. Durkheim’s thinking is actually one of the fundamental things which convinced governments in Europe to create national education systems in order to socialise the young and create a sense of solidarity.

For Durkheim, and functionalists in general, socialisation (the teaching of shared norms and values) through institutions was one of the key ways in which social solidarity was to be achieved.

Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

Writing in the 1940s and 1950s Talcott Parsons built on Durkheim’s work

The Organic Analogy – we should see society as a system

Talcott Parsons saw society as working like a human body, arguing that institutions in society were like organs in the body – each performing specific functions which were necessary to the maintenance of the whole. Parsons argued that parts of society should be understood in terms of what they contribute to the maintenance of the whole.

Parsons identified various similarities between the human body and a society:

The bodyInstitutions
Each Organ has a unique functionInstitutions have a unique function
All the bits essentially work together harmoniouslyAll institutions work together harmoniously
Organs are interdependentOrgans are interdependent
Has an identifiable boundaryHas an identifiable boundary
The sum is greater than its partsThe sum is greater than its parts.
Normal: healthyNormal: low rates social problems.

Parsons believed that societies had certain ‘functional prerequisites‘ which need to be met in order for society to survive. Just like human beings need certain things to survive, so every society has to have certain things in order to function properly. For example, a society must produce and distribute resources such as food and shelter; there has to be some kind of organization that resolves conflicts, and others that socialize the young.

According to Parsons a social system has four needs which must be met for continued survival – These are adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latency.  In advanced industrial society, these needs are met through specialized sub systems:

Every society needs to Institutions in society which might perform these functions?
Produce goods and services the work place
Achieve ‘value consensus’ – by teaching people the difference between right and wrong schools
Resolve differences of opinion, deal with conflict, and punish ‘deviants’. courts
Reproduce and socialize the next generation so society can carry on the family

Value Consensus

Parsons believed that American society generally worked for most people, and thus preserving the social order (preventing conflict or revolution) was particularly important.

Parsons argued that social order was mainly achieved not through the rule of force, but through institutions promoting Value Consensus – which is agreement around shared values. Parsons argued that commitment to common values is the basis for order in society.


Two of the most important institutions which do this are the nuclear family and school

The Family is responsible for providing ‘primary socialisation’ – teaching the basic norms and values of our society. Parsons believed the nuclear family was the best type of family for providing a stable upbringing for children, and the best type of family to provide moral guidance (the difference between right and wrong.

Later on in life, education integrates individuals into wider society – providing individuals with a sense of belonging and identity to the wider society. Parsons argued, for example, that education does this through teaching us a shared history and language.

Two of the most important shared values in industrial societies include a belief in the work ethic and a belief in meritocracy (the idea that people are rewarded on the basis of their ability and effort), both of which are taught through education. Parsons argued these were both vital to modern society because a work ethic ensures people value working rather than lazing about and meritocracy means that those people who end up in lower paid jobs accept inequality in society because they believe they at least had a fair chance to do better in life.

This relates back to the previous point – individuals need to be integrated in shared values in order to be directed to meet the system’s needs. For Parsons the system has two mechanisms for ensuring that individuals conform to shared norms and meet the system’s needs: socialization and social control.

Evaluating Functionalism

When evaluating Functionalism we need to keep in mind that it is a historical perspective: Durkheim’s work is over a century old and Parsons was writing in the 1940s and 1950s, so it is quite likely that some of the key ideas aren’t that useful in helping us to understand modern society.

Criticisms of Functionalism

The easiest way to criticise Functionalism is to use some of the other sociological perspectives, and some of the points below do that.

  • It is difficult to argue today that there is value consensus in society – societies around the world seem much more divided. Brexit in Britain, for example, divided the nation in half, and America is split into anti- Trump and pro-Trump supporters, and divided by strong attitudes on abortion.
  • Marxists believe Functionalism is biased and ideological – Functionalists such as Parsons said that Value Consensus was necessary because they wanted to preserve the social order, whereas in reality society is based on inequality and exploitation and it is in the interests of the exploited to join together in revolution.
  • Interactionists and argue that individuals are less constrained by the social structure than functionalists suggest – individuals have more freedom to shape their own lives and are less predictable than Functionalists suggest.
  • Postmodernists argue that there is no such thing as a social structure or social norms, rather ‘society’ (if there is such a thing) is fluid and diverse.

Ways in which Functionalism may still be useful for understanding contemporary society

While some of the key ideas of Functionalism may not seem to ‘fit in’ with society today, some concepts do seem to be relevant…

Durkheim’s idea of ‘anomie’ for example may be more relevant than ever before – it seems fair to say that society is more disordered and chaotic than ever – and the amount of people suffering with mental health disorders is higher than ever – and maybe the level of uncertainty has got something to do with this…?

While it is fair to say that on an individual level people are unpredictable, when we look at things from a macro perspective, societies appear more predictable (if not entirely predictable) – there are clear statistical patterns which emerge by social class, gender and and ethnicity, a main theme of A-level sociology – for example, in general, children from poorer households as a whole do worse in education that children from richer households.

Functionalism: Discussion Questions

Think about the following questions – try to think of further contemporary evidence for and against each question which both supports and criticises these key ideas of functionalism

  1. To what extent does socialisation shape an individual’s identity?
  2. Is anomie (too much freedom) a problem in today’s society?
  3. Do institutions really perform positive functions? (do we all benefit the same amount or do some benefit more than others?)
  4. Do we have value consensus in today’s society?

Functionalism: Find out More

The Functionalist perspective is a recurring theme in the first and second years of A level sociology, and if you will find many of the above ideas expressed in more detail, and applied more specifically in the following posts:

The Functionalist Perspective on the Family

The Functionalist Perspective on Education

The Functionalist Perspective on Crime

The Functionalist Perspective on Society – more in depth material for the end of the second year!

It is usual to contrast Functionalism to Marxism and so I personally teach an Introduction to Marxism after this introduction.

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