Functionalism and Crime

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For functionalists, society is based on value consensus, which deviance threatens, but it also
performs positive functions such as reinforcing solidarity and adapting to change. Strain theories
argue that deviance occurs when people cannot achieve society's goals by legitimate means.
Merton argues that this produces a `strain to anomie' that may result in innovation, ritualism,
retreatism or rebellion. Subcultural theories see much deviance as a collective rather than an
individual response. A.K Cohen argues that a non utilitarian form. Cloward and Ohlin see three
different deviant subcultures (criminal, conflict and retreatist) arising from differences in access to
illegitimate opportunity structures. Recent strain theories argue that capitalist economies
generate greater strain to crime.
Boundary maintenance
Crime produces a reaction from society, uniting its members in condemnation to the shared
norms and values. For Durkheim, this explains the function of punishment. This is not to make the
wrongdoer suffer or mend his ways, nor is it to remove crime from society. In Durkheim's view,
the purpose of punishment is to reaffirm society's rules and reaffirm social solidarity.
This may be done through the rituals of the courtroom, which dramatise wrongdoing and publicly
stigmatise the offender. This reaffirms the values of rule breaking. Similarly, Stanley Cohen (1972)
has examined the important role played by the media in this `dramatisation of evil'. In his view,
media coverage of crime and deviance often creates `folk devils'.
Adaptation and change
For Durkheim, all change starts with an act of deviance. Individuals with new ideas, values and
ways of living must not be completely stifled by the weight of social control. There must be some
scope for them to challenge existing norms and values, and in the first instance this will inevitably
appear as deviance. For example, the authorities often persecute religious visionaries who
espouse the new `message' or value system. However, in the long run their values may give rise to
a new culture and morality. if those with new ideas are suppressed, society will stagnate and be
unable to make necessary adaptive changes.
Thus, for Durkheim, neither a very high nor a very low level of crime is desirable. Each of these
signals some malfunctioning of the social system.
Too much crime threatens to tear the bonds of society apart.
Too little crime means that society is repressing and controlling its members to much,
stifling individual freedom and preventing change.


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