Criminology : Functionalist perspective on crime and deviance
The functionalist approach to analysing deviance and the causes of crime looks at society as a whole. It explains crime and deviance by saying that the source of deviance lies in the nature of society itself rather than in psychology or biology. It should be noted that functionalists see deviance as an inevitable and necessary part of society. Some also consider deviance to have positive aspects for society.
Durkheim argued in The Rules of Sociological Method that a certain level of crime was inevitable within any society. In fact it is normal and 'an integral part of all healthy societies’. The reason that deviance is inevitable is that not everyone is equally committed to the collective values and moral beliefs of society. There will always be disagreement and dissent. In addition, deviance can act in a positive way in that it helps to reinforce ideas of right and wrong in society. It reinforces ‘collective sentiments’ in society.
Problems with deviance arise when the level of crime becomes too great as this can threaten social stability. Durkheim considered that deviance acts as a catalyst for social change in society. Change occurs because what was thought deviant previously is now considered acceptable. In this way society evolves and makes progress, which is healthy. The alternative would be stagnation and atrophy with no development. Indeed, Durkheim viewed societies where crime levels were extremely low as unhealthy because such societies remain static with social attitudes and injustices unchallenged.
Durkheim also established the concept of anomie, which was developed further by Merton. His concept of anomie explains how societies undergoing social change will also experience confusion over what is to be considered right and wrong behaviour. In other words social change brings with it a loss of generally accepted, shared ideas of what is right and wrong. The resultant confusion should not always be viewed negatively, as new ideas are the life-blood of societies. If the collective sentiments of society were too strong, they would crush originality of thought.
Other sociologists have also seen positive aspects to deviance. Albert K Cohen believed that deviance could act as a safety valve for society. He also suggested that deviant acts provide a useful warning mechanism to alert society to the fact that certain aspects of it are not working.
Functionalism, therefore suggests that crime and deviance serves a purpose and that function can have positive elements.
1. Would you agree with Durkheim that crime and deviance are an inevitable and necessary part of society?
2. Can you think of any societies with a particularly low level of crime? How would you describe these kinds of societies? Are there any problems you could foresee in living in a 'society of saints'?
3. Can you think of examples where individuals and movements, which were considered criminal, have later contributed to social change in society?
4. Right-wing thinkers have also used the concept of anomie and breakdown in society. What examples do you think they would they give?
5. Does all crime serve a purpose? Using Durkheim’s theory what purpose could you argue was served by Dunblane tragedy resulting in the deaths of innocent children?
6. If crime is inevitable according Durkheim, what is the function of punishment?
7. Cohen suggests that deviance can sometimes act as a safety valve and a warning mechanism for society. Can you think of how it do this?