Functionalism and associated names (Crime and Deviance)

Studies and theories relating to crime and deviance from a functionalist/subculturalist perspective

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  • Created by: Maria
  • Created on: 14-05-10 15:17


Hobbes stated that without the social order of society, life would be 'nasty, brutish and short'. Althought not a sociologist (rather, a philosopher), Hobbes provided the initial idea of a social order from which Durkheim developed his ideas.

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Durkheim (1895) argued in his book Rules of the Sociological Method that crime and deviance were functional for society. He stated that:

  • Crime was inevitable in any society, as not everyone is committed to the collective sentiments of society.
    - In a 'society of saints' deviance would still exist, as any drop in standards, however slight, would be frowned upon
    - Various social pressures upon the individual and differing socialisation lead to crime
  • Crime is functional for society, as it promotes social change
    - Today's deviance is merely an anticipation of the morality of the future
    - If there was no crime, society would stagnate
    - Laws are social statics which do not change on their own. Crime tests the relevance of the law
  • Laws are functional, as they prevent anomie
    - Too much crime leads to anomie. Laws promote social boundaries and strengthen the collective sentiments
    - Public displays of the law reinforce these social boundaries
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Merton developed Durkheim's ideas of anomie. He stated that anomie is individual, rather than collective, and arises due to exclusion/marginalisation. People aspire to one 'American Dream' of success. These are expressed as means and ends - means being the way in which the end goal is achieved. There are a number of responses to the means and ends:

  • Conformity; where both means and ends are present. This is the most common response and not deviant
  • Innovation; where means are not present, but ends are. The individual will find new ways to the ends. This group is rarely deviant
  • Ritualism; where the means are present, but there are no ends. The individual will continue with the means for no ends. This group is not deviant
  • Retreatism; where there are no means or ends, and the indivudual retreats from society. This group is deviant
  • Rebellion; where means and ends are rejected. This group is always deviant
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Cohen (1966) agreed with Durkheim that crime was functional for society. He stated that:

  • Crime acted as a safety valve which allowed the individual to release discontent in a relatively harmless way.
  • Crime also acted as a warning device, which informed society which of its areas were malfunctioning so that improvements to that area could be made.
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Evaluation of Functionalism in General

  • Functionalists (Durkheim, Merton, Cohen) often ignore the issue of power in society. For example, who makes the law and for what purpose?
    - Marxists would argue that the ruling class make laws for their own benefit
    - Althusser would argue that the law acts as an Ideological State Apparatus in conjunction with the police and justice system (a Repressive State Apparatus)
    - There are no laws which protect the environment, even though this would benefit society. There are laws banning trade unions, which would benefit workers. These laws protect the powerful.
    - Erikson developed Durkheim's ideas and stated that the powerful develop the collective sentiments (ideology) of society, and thus set the laws
  • The notion of a social order is never actually defined. Functionalists take for granted that the social order exists and everyone is committed to the collective sentiments of society. This may not necessarily be the case.
  • Feminists would argue that Functionalism is a 'malestream' area of sociology, and that Functionalist theories ignored female deviance.
  • Postmodernists would argue that society is now far more fragmented since functionalist writers comprised their theories. The social order may not be present in society.
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Evaluation of Merton

  • Merton exaggerates working class crime. Why do middle classes not engage in the means and ends of the working class?
  • Strain theory cannot explain politically motivated crimes which are not terrorism (According to Taylor, Walton and Young, 1973)
  • Merton overemphasises a general value consensus in society. Not everyone may be committed to the same goals
    - However, Reiner (1984) argues that the general value consensus is widespread enough in society for Merton's theory to remain credible
  • Taylor (1971) argues that Merton still ignores the issue of power. Who decides that the 'American Dream' is the best way forwards?
  • Cohen (1955) argues that Merton ignored non-utilitarian crimes (such as joyriding or vandalism) which do not have any financial gains
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