Functionalist Perspective On Crime Essay Topics

Posted on by Kall

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 yourself 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. 

Back to ‘perspectives’ listing

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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 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Crime and Deviance Revision Notes  – 31 pages of revision notes covering the following topics:

  1. Consensus based theories part 1 – Functionalism; Social control’ theory; Strain theory
  2. Consensus based theories part 2 – Sub cultural theories
  3. The Traditional Marxist and Neo-Marxist perspective on crime
  4. Labeling Theory
  5. Left- Realist and Right-Realist Criminology (including situational, environmental and community crime prevention)
  6. Post-Modernism, Late-Modernism and Crime (Social change and crime)
  7. Sociological Perspectives on  controlling crime – the role of the community and policing in preventing crime
  8. Sociological Perspectives on Surveillance
  9. Sociological Perspectives on Punishment
  10. Social Class and Crime
  11. Ethnicity and Crime
  12. Gender and crime  (including Girl gangs and Rape and domestic violence)
  13. Victimology – Why are some people more likely to be criminals than others
  14. Global crime, State crime and Environmental crime (Green crime)
  15. The Media and Crime, including moral panics

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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