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January 16, 2009 / C H Thompson

Functionalist perspective of crime

Durkheim was the main architect of the functionalist perspective of crime. However before you examine this perspective you will need to familiarise yourself with functionalist social theory. However before you look at that, it might be useful to refresh Durkheimyourself with the AS level principles of functionalism here before moving into most complex areas of the theory.

Durkheim reasoned that crime was endemic to all societies in the same way suicide was. (It is important to note here that Durkheim’s study of suicide effectively gave sociology its academic status, because he found suicide was the result of societal conditions rather than individual pathology. Follow this link to understand Durkheim’s study on suicide). As you’ll have discovered the apparently individualistic decision to take one’s own life was dependent on wider social and economic conditions. Durkheim found rates of suicide rose not only in times of severe economic hardship but also in periods of rapid prosperity. This is because such turbulent times produce anomie as people’s normal expectations become deregulated.

From Durkheim’s position crime is a social fact (social facts are the values, cultural norms, and social structures existing outside the individual and are capable of exercising social constraints). Therefore a social fact is a feature of society rather than individuals. 

Durkheim argued as crime was evident to all societies it must be seen as a normal endemic feature. Therefore crime is not abnormal, it is simply a part of normal industrial societies where people live in complex social organisations. (His research into suicide also pioneered sociological research methods into measuring crime. Please examine this here if you missed it in the earlier lessons or if you don’t feel you have yet understood the connection between suicide and crime statistics!)

Most importantly Durkheim reasoned, crime and the subsequent punishment provides a positive social function as it establishes and maintains a social consensus about what is and isn’t deviant behaviour. Therefore crime is a normal aspect of a healthy society; as a society without any crime must be extremely repressive and dysfunctional.

Durkheim argued that a society without deviance is impossible as people wil naturally deviate from any social norms or ideals. But this deviance becomes a positive function as it helps society establish a social consensus about what is right and wrong.

He also noted that society should be just as concerned when crime rates fell below that society’s average. As what might been seen as social progress is in fact the sign that there’s some social disorder afoot. So we can see that crime is also an expression of individual freedom (as too little crime indicates an oppressive society) and a sign of social change. So the rate at which individuals start deviating from the norm is relative to the cohesiveness of that society.

For example the credit crunch caused a massive economic crisis and any increase in the number of suicides can be explained by the lack of regulation in that society. This is because society encourages individualism and unlimited aspirations, the credit crunch means these aspirations can no longer be achieved and a state of anomie (normlessness) causes personal crises for the individual. The cure for this state of anomie comes from society imposing new regulations on aspirations. Any failure to regulate behaviour will increase the tendency for suicide. To listen to a more detailed explanation of anomie and ‘regulation’ please listen to this BBC Thinking Aloud clip

Merton extended Durkheim’s ideas on anomie even further. Although a functionalist like Durkheim, Merton questioned dominant functionalist ideas that all institutions produced positive functions. Merton took Durkheim’s concept of anomie and said it wasn’t useful in explaining suicide but anomie could be used to explain all deviance in society! Merton came up with his idea of society creating a ‘strain to anomie’ which you can learn about here

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