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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’. 

Revision Notes for Sale 

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

Merton’s Strain Theory is taught as part of consensus theory within the A-level sociology Crime and Deviance syllabus. Other consensus theories include:

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Sociological Theories of Crime and Deviance – A Very Brief Overview

A brief summary table covering structural and action, consensus and conflict, and modern and post-modern perspectives on crime and deviance. Not sure how well it will cut and paste mind!

Students will obviously need to know more than this, but it’s still important to review the basics from time to time to check your understanding and how all the bits fit together!

Theory

Key Name

Key concepts

Criticism

  1. Functionalism

Durkheim (1895)

  • Social Integration

  • Social Regulation

  • Social chance

C.

Assumes the laws are created through value consensus.

  1. Bonds of Attachment

Hirschi

  • Bonds of attachment

  • Commitment, attachment, involvement, belief

C.

Lack of attachment does not automatically lead to people becoming criminals. There are also ‘pull factors’ such as peer group pressure.

  1. Strain Theory

Merton (1938)

  • There is a strain between the success goals and the legitimate means to achieve those success goals

C.

Exaggerates working class crime – Ignored non-utilitarian crime.

  1. Subcultural Theory –

Albert Cohen (1955)

  • Lack of success leads to Status Frustration

  • Leads to a a Delinquent subculture

  • Deviance is collective not individual response

C.

Willis’ research criticises this – status frustration does not lead to a subculture – boys form a subculture because they think school is irrelevant to their future lives

  1. Subcultural Theory “Delinquency and opportunity”

Cloward & Ohlin (1962)

  • – Illegitimate opportunity structure Criminal, conflict and retreatist subcultures ……

C. TW + Y say this theory still assumes people are committed to achieving wealth. Some, e.g. hippies, aren’t.

  1. New Right / underclass theory

Charles Murray (1989)

  • Long term unemployed, live off benefits

  • High numbers of lone parents.

  • High rates of crime

C.

Marxists would argue that Long term unemployment is a structural failing of the Capitalist system

  1. Interactionism – Labelling Theory

Becker (1963)

  • Agents of Social Control stereotype and marginalise minority groups

C. Blaming authorities absolves criminals of responsibility

  1. Interactionist – Labelling Theory

Becker (1963)

Labelling can lead to crime –

  • Master Status

  • Self fulfilling prophecy

  • Deviant career

  • Deviant subculture

C.

  • Too deterministic

  • Why are some people more likely to be labelled than others?

  1. Trad Marxism

Gordon

  • Capitalism Competition Dog eat Dog society;

  • Prison for W/C neutralises opposition vs system

C.

Crime was still present in communist societies.

  1. Trad Marxism

Chambliss

  • All classes commit crime

  • Inequality in capitalist system is linked to crime

C.

Crime in the UK has been decreasing while inequality has been increasing

  1. Trad Marxism

Snider

Many of the most serious deviant acts are “corporate crime” (M/C)

C.

Left Realists argue that Marxist focus too much on corp. crime; burglaries cause more distress and victims = W/C

  1. Neo Marxism – The New Criminology

Taylor, Walton and Young (1973)

  • Fully Social Theory of Deviance.

  • Criminals are ‘political heroes’

C.

  • LR’s say W/C criminals are romanticised

  • LR’s say victims neglected

  • Fems say that focus is only male crime.

  1. Realism in general

Taylor Walton and Young (LR) and Wilson (RR)

  • We should abandon the grand narratives of previous theories and focus on practical solutions to crime

c.

Marxists argue these are ignoring the root cause of crime

  1. Left Realism

Lea + Young

  • 3 causes of crime – relative deprivation/ subculture and marginalisation

C. Marxists argue these are ignoring the root cause of crime

  1. Left Realism

Lea and Young

  • Solutions to crime include Reducing inequality and more community policing

C. Community policing is really about the state controlling people’s lives.

  1. Right Realism

James Q Wilson

  • Cost/benefit cause of crime

  • Broken windows/

C.

Jones (92) says that lack of investment is more important than Z.T. in preventing crime.

  1. Right Realism

James Q Wilson

  • Solutions to crime include target hardening and situational crime prevention

C.

Crime displacement

  1. Postmodernism

Robert Reiner

  • Increase in consumerism is a fundamental reason behind increasing crime

Can’t explain decrease in crime since the mid-1990s

  1. Late Modernism

Jock Young

  • The vertigo of Late Modernity- Crime today is linked to anomie/ crisis of masculinity

C. Is this any different to Strain Theory?

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Sensationalisation of Crime in the Media

The selection of dramas below is a good illustration of just how much the media sensationalises crime –

Media and Crime

Crime drama seems to make up huge percentage of the BBC’s output – and all of the recent dramas above focus on the most horrific crimes – kidnapping and murder seem to be the most popular. Many of these dramas also have multiple victims – Happy Valley had about five – in one quiet region of Northern England, in the space of the few weeks the series was set over.

Just a quick post as I wanted something in place to introduce media and crime when we do the topic early next Academic year.