Sociology: Functionalist, strain and subcultural theories


Durkheim’s functionalist theory of crime

Functionalists see society as a stable system based on value consensus- shared norms, values, beliefs and goals. This produces social solidarity, binding individuals together into a harmonious unit. To achieve this, society has two key mechanisms:

  • Socialisation instils the shared culture into its members to ensure that they internalise the same norms and values, and that they feel it right to act in the ways that society requires 

  • Social control mechanisms include rewards for conformity, and punishments for deviance
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Crime is inevitable and universal

While crime disrupts social stability, functionalists see it as inevitable and universal. Durkheim sees crime as a normal part of all healthy societies:

  • In every society, some individuals are inadequately socialised and prone to deviate

  • In modern societies, there is highly specialised division of labour and a diversity of subcultures. Individuals and groups become increasingly different from one another, and the shared rules of behaviour become less clear. Durkheim calls this anomie (normlessness)

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The functions of crime

For Durkheim, crime fulfils two important positive functions:

  • Boundary maintenance 

  • Adaptation and change

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Boundary maintenance

  • Crime produces a reaction from society, uniting its members against the wrongdoer and reinforcing their commitment to the values consensus 

  • This is the function of punishment: to reaffirm shared rules and reinforce solidarity. E.g. courtroom rituals publicly stigmatise offenders, reminding everyone of the boundary between right and wrong

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Adaptation and change

  1. Adaptation and change 

For Durkheim, all change starts as deviance

  • For change to occur, individuals with new ideas must challenge existing norms, and at first this will appear as deviance. If the is suggested, society will be unable to make necessary adaptive changes and will stagnate 

Functionalists identity further positive functions of deviance:

  • Safety value Davis argues that prostitution acts to release men’s sexual frustrations without threatening the nuclear family 

  • Warning light A.K. Cohen argues that deviance indicates that an institution is malfunctioning; e.g. high truancy rates may indicate problems with the education system
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Functionalism assumes crime performs positive functions for society as a whole, e.g. promoting solidarity, but ignores how it might affect individuals within it- e.g. crime obviously isn't functional for its victims 

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Criticisms of Durkheim

  • Durkheim claims society requires a certain amount of deviance to function but offers no way of knowing how much is the right amount 

  • Durkheim and other functionalist explain crime in terms of its function, e.g. to strengthen solidarity. But just because crime does these things doesn’t necessarily mean this is why it exists in the first place 

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Merton’s of Durkheim

Merton argues that people engage in deviant behaviour when they cannot achieve socially approved goals by legitimate means. His explanation combines:

  • Structural factors: society’s unequal opportunity structure

  • Cultural factors: the strong emphasis on success goals and weaker emphasis on using legitimate means to achieve them

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The American Dream

For merton, deviance is the result of a strain between the goals a culture encourages individuals to aim for and what the structure of society actually allows them to achieve legitimately:

  • For example, the ‘American Dream’ emphasises ‘money success’. Americans are expected to pursue this goal by legitimate means e.g. education, hard work 

  • The ideology claims that the American society is meritocratic. But in reality, poverty and dicrimnination block opportunities for many to achieve legitimate means

  • The resulting strain between the cultural goal and the lack of legitimate opportunities produces frustration and a pressure to resort to illegitimate means

  • The pressure is increased by the fact that American culture puts more emphasis on achieving success at any price than upon doing so by legitimate means. Winning the game is more important than playing by the rules

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Strengths of Merton’s approach

Merton shows how both normal and deviant behaviour can arise from the same mainstream goals. Conformists and innovators both pursue the same goal, but by different means 

He explains the patterns shown in official statistics:

  • Most crime is property crime, because American society values material wealth so highly 

  • working-class crime rates are higher, because they have least opportunity to obtain wealth legitimately

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Merton’s theory has been criticised on several grounds. It takes official crime statistics at face value. It is too deterministic: not all working-class people deviate. It ignores the power of the ruling class to make and enforce the laws

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Subcultural strain theories

Subcultural strain theories both criticise Merton’s theory and build on it. They see deviance as the product of delinquent subcultures. These subcultures offer their lower-class members a solution to the problem of how to gain that status they cannot achieve by legitimate means

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A.K. Cohen: status frustration

Cohen agrees that much deviance results from the lower classes’ inability to achieve mainstream success goals by legitimate means such as education. however , he criticises Merton’s explanation:

  1. Merton sees deviance as an individual response to strain, ignoring the group deviance of delinquent subcultures 

  2. Merton focuses on utilitarian crime for material gain, e.g. theft. He ignores non-utilitarian crimes, which may have no economic motive 

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Alternative status hierarchy

For Cohen, the subculture offers an illegitimate opportunity structure for boys who have failed to achieve legitimately

  • The subculture provides an alternative status hierarchy where they can win status through delinquent actions 

  • Its values are spite, malice, hostility and contempt for those outside it. The subculture inverts mainstream values. What society praises, it condemns; e.g. society respects property, whereas the boys gain status from vandalising it

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Unlike Merton, Cohen offers an explanations of non-utilitarian deviance. But he assumes working-class boys start off sharing middle-class success goals, only to reject them when they fail. He ignores the possibility that they never shared these goals and so weren’t reacting to failure

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Cloward and Ohlin: three subcultures

Cloward and Ohlin agree with Merton that working-class youths are denied legitimate opportunities to achieve and that their deviance stems from their response to this

But they note that not everyone adapts to a lack of legitimate opportunities by turning to ‘innovation’. Some subcultures resort to violence; others turn to drug use 

  •  In their view, the key reason for these differences is not only unequal access to the legitimate opportunity structure, but unequal access to illegitimate opportunity structures. For example, not everyone who fails at school can become a successful

  • Different neighbourhoods provide different illegitimate opportunities to learn criminal skills and develop criminal careers. They identify three types of subcultures that result

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Criminal subcultures

These provide youths with an apprenticeship in utilitarian crimes. They arise in neighbourhoods where there is a longstanding, stable criminal culture and a hierarchy of professional adult crime 

  •  Adult criminals can select and train those youths with the right abilities and provide them with opportunities on the criminal career ladder 

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Conflict subcultures

These arise in areas of high population turnover that prevent a stable professional criminal network developing. The only illegitimate opportunities are within loosely organised gangs

  • Violence provides a release for frustration at blocked opportunities and an alternative source of status earned by winning ‘turf’ from rival gangs 

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Retreatist subcultures

The ‘double failures’ who fail in both the legitimate and the illegitimate opportunity structures often turn to a retreatist or ‘dropout’ subculture based on illegal drug use

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Evaluation of Cloward and Ohlin

  • Like Merton and Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin ignore crimes of the wealthy and the wider power structure, and over-predict the amount of working-class crime 

  • But, unlike Cohen, they try to explain different types of working-class deviance in terms of different subcultures 

  • They draw the boundaries too sharply between the different types. Actual subcultures often show characteristics of more than one ‘type’

  • Like Cohen’s theory, Cloward and Ohlin’s is a reactive one- they explain deviant subcultures as forming in reaction to the failure to achieve mainstream success goals. This wrongly assumes that everyone starts off sharing these same goals

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