Functionalist views of crime

  • Created by: Tara Mack
  • Created on: 08-10-17 11:52

Why is crime useful to society?

Functionalists believe everything in society has a purpose (function)

  • creates jobs - police and CJS
  • keeps society stable - reinforces values of society, right and wrong
  • outlet for stress relief and anger
  • removes 'bad' people who might undermine society
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  • views crime and deviance as functional
  • "an integral part of all healthy societies", "even in a society of saints, there will still be crime"
  • too much crime is a threat, too little means overregulation, stifles innovation and creativity
  • crime is inevitable, relative, universal and functional
  • punishments = conformity

Benefits of crime

  • strengthens collective values - punishments reinforce values, prevents atrophy
  • enables social change (Clinard)
  • acts as a safety valve (Davis)
  • acts as a warning device (Clinard)
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Clinard - 1974

  • a certain amount of crime serves as a warning system that society needs to change
  • may lead to beneficial changes


  • suffragettes
  • marches and protests for abortion, civil rights, etc.
  • rebellions
  • changes in views on sexuality (transgender rights, same-sex marriage)
  • Nelson Mandela - was seen as a terrorist and imprisoned
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  • said prostitution is functional for society
  • acts as a safety valve for men
  • men need to satisfy their sexual urges but society needs monogamous mariage - conflict
  • prostitution provides the answer - doesn't threaten marriage

Evaluate with feminism

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Key values and goals within society

  • earning money
  • owning material possessions
  • to contribute to society
  • respect from peers and society
  • security (jobs, economoy, house)
  • family
  • freedom (both from + to)

Not everyone has the same opportunities to achieve these goals. Social class, upbringing, nationality, etc. disadvantage people. These people respond by:

  • becoming demotivated
  • turn to crime (achieve goals by the wrong means)
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Merton's Strain Theory (overview)

Unlike Durkheim, Merton looks at causes of crime

  • culture and norms - success is valued, esp. wealth
  • American Dream - anyone can achieve if they try hard enough
  • pressure to succeed leads to deviation
  • "strain to anomie" - people use any means to get to the top

American Dream

  • a myth/ideology
  • America is not a meritocracy
  • strain to anomie felt by those at bottom of class structure
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Merton's Strain Theory (5 responses to the America

Mode of adaptation      Accept means?    Accept goals?       Example

Conformity                      Yes                       Yes                 Non-deviant, non-criminal

Innovation                       No                        No                   Poor education & qualifications mean that some people

can't achieve goals by approved means so turn to crime

Ritualism                         Yes                       No                  Give up on achieving goals but stick to means. E.g. teachers

who have given up on student success or worker not looking for promotion

Retreatism                       No                         No                 Dropouts, addicts and tramps

Rebellion                        No (Yes)                No (Yes)         Reject existing social goals & means but substitute new ones

to create a deviant society

Examples: successful banker - conformist, drug dealer - innovator, alcoholic - retreatism, indifferent jobcentre clerk - ritualism, revolutionnary - rebellion

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Merton's Strain Theory (Evaluation)


  • early attempt to explain crime and deviance (culture and structure)
  • explains profitable crime
  • examines success values and why people turn to illegitimate means
  • explains high crime in USA vs. low crime in Japan (higher emphasis on civic duty)
  • still considered relevant for explaining many crimes


  • over deterministic - not all WC turn to crime
  • what about people who conform but don't achieve
  • focus on individuals - ignores subcultures
  • ignores non-utilitarian crime
  • not everyone wants American Dream
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Examples of subcultures

Yakuza (Japan) 17th Century-present - 3 main families. To apologise to bosses they cut off their own little fingers. Tattoos. Control sex trade, very violent, adhere to rituals. Quasi-legal organised crime.

Medellin Cartel (Colombia) 1976–1993 - armed with military-grade weapons and paid for police co-operation. Smuggled cocaine, about 15 tonnes ($60million) a day. Ran by Pablo Escobar and Joe Ochoa who eliminated anyone who tried to stop them. Corruption.

Peaky Blinders (England) turn of the 20th Century - sewed razor blades to peaked razor caps, wore bell-bottomed trousers and brass buttoned jackets. Attacked drunks and left them. If they couldn't knock them down, they used knives. Would blind rival gangs by head butting them with their caps on.

MS-13 (Los Angeles) 1980s-present - colours are blue and white typically with full-body tattooos. Identified each other with hand signals, violent to migrants. Attention from FBI, widespread raids and lots of minors arrested.

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Subcultures - Cohen - Status frustration

  • delinquent gangs in low income inner city areas
  • agrees with Merton about success values
  • creates problems for WC males - fail in educational system - experience status frustration
  • find subculture solution - own norms and values inverted from wider society
  • value anti-social and criminal behaviour
  • succeed in deviant behaviour = solves problem of status frustration


  • + explains collective deviance - gang culture
  • + explains reasons for non-utilitarian crime
  • + gain respect from peers and hit back at peers
  • - assumes WC males accept goals of society - but do they? (ritualism and retreatism)
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Subcultures - Cloward and Ohlin - Opportunity Stru

  • explain different types of subculutres
  • agrees with Merton, but responses to strain depend on social environment where the individual grew up
  • different social environments provide different opportunites for deviance

Three types of delinquent subcultures:

  • criminal - area with pre-existing pattern for crime - professional criminal hierarchy
  • conflict - high turnover of population and low social cohesion (often gang violence)
  • retreatist - double failures in both legitimate route and criminal route (drug users)


  • + develops Merton's Strain Theory & Cohen's status frustration theory
  • + shows non-utilitarian deviance
  • + identifies a range of subcultures
  • - tends to box off subcultures and ignores overlap
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Subcultures - Miller - independent subculture and

  • suggests crime + deviance are part of WC subculture which has existed for centuries
  • focal concerns - revolves around central characteristics (mainly males)
  • toughness, masculinity, intelligence, autonomy, violence, freedom
  • these values carry risk of lawbreaking
  • exaggerated in young people who want peer group status
  • not a rejection of values but overconformity to WC subculture
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Criticism of functionalist explanations of crime a

1. Generally assumes a value consensus. Taylor - not everyone is committed to mainstrem values. E.g. some religious sects reject struggle for material possessions

2. Subculture explanations only explain WC delinquency, ignore white-collar and corporate crime

3. Relies on pattern of crime shown in official statistics which are un-representative as not all crime is reported. Makes subcultural theory irrelevant

4. Idea of delinquent subculture implies that WC youths are socialised into + committed to delinquent values. This would require widespread and consistent deliquency which, as Matza points out, doesn't exist

5. Matza stresses similarities between deliquents and mainstream society. Show feelings of remorse and guilt, and generally show feelings of outrage at crime. Techniques of neutralisation - rooted in mainstream values to explain actions as temporary lapses in otherwise conformist behaviour. Shows commitment to mainstream values. Only commit occasional delinquent acts as a short 'drift' to achieve status and excitement before reaching fully independent adulthood.

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