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Essay: Critically evaluate functionalist perspective on crime & deviance and its impact on criminology

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This essay seeks to critically evaluate the functionalist perspective on crime and deviance with to its impact on criminology. Functionalists believe that a society is held together by its institutions working in harmony; social consensus, and through common and agreed upon values and beliefs, to produce stability and order. To begin, it is important to analyse the meaning and understanding of crime and deviance and to understand that not all criminals are deviant and not all deviant individuals are criminals which I will further explain during this essay. In other words, to comprehend where such terms as crime and deviance came from, it is essential to further evaluate the definition of criminology and what makes it so important. Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist that was most famous for his views on society and how modern and traditional societies functioned and evolved. I will explore Durkheim’s key ideas and theories of crime and deviance and compare his perspective of social facts and how they varied from other sociologists from his era. In addition, I will examine Durkheim’s three key ideas about crime which he states as; a limited amount of crime is necessary, crime has positive functions and finally, that too much crime can be bad for society. I will also explore Robert Merton’s work on strain theory and anomie. Finally, I will have successfully appraised the functionalist perspective on crime and deviance through a critical evaluation of criminology and various theorists.

According to the ‘Sage Dictionary of Criminology’, criminology is defined as “the study of crime, of attempts to control it, and attitudes to it. Crime is interpreted in its widest sense, so as to include minor as well as major law-breaking, and also conduct which, but for the special status or role of those involved, would be regarded as law breaking; e.g. excessive punishment of children by parents, antisocial practices of commercial undertakings.” (Mclaughlin & Muncie, 2013) In short, criminology studies crimes and criminals from a social perspective including causes of crimes and prevention methods, including many more factors. It is evident that the study of criminology dates back as far as the eighteenth century according to Mary Bosworth in ‘What Is Criminology’. (Bosworth, 2011) Jeremy Bentham was an eighteenth century social theorist and philosopher regarded as the founder of utilitarianism. Bentham also expressed his view on the classical school of criminology that the punishment should be so severe it would outweigh the pleasure of the criminal act. It is evident that many theorists that have contributed to criminology over the years have come from various academic backgrounds including sociology, psychology, philosophy and many more.

‘What is Criminology’ discussed the key issues and common debates in criminology to date. According to that debate, “scholars would prefer to view criminology as no more than a subject of interest to sociologists, lawyers, historians, psychologists etc. For such people, criminology is no more than a ‘rendezvous subject’ that pilfers knowledge and methodologies from the key disciplines that traditionally produced criminologists; namely sociology, psychology, and law.” (Bosworth, 2011) It is evident that it is an ongoing debate whether criminology is a subset of other fields and they also discussed the form of engagement criminology takes; “As a discipline concerned with issues of crime, justice and punishment, criminology by nature would seem to be related to criminal justice policies and state institutions. However, criminologists are by no means agreed on the appropriate form that any engagement with such issues should take.” (Bosworth, 2011)
Similarly, in relation to Durkheim’s approach to anti-social behaviour, there has been many criminologists and sociologists before and after him that have tried to find the cause of crime. Durkheim believed that a certain level of crime in society is necessary since without the presence of crime, laws would not evolve. “His crime, namely, the independence of his thought, rendered a service not only to humanity but to his country. Crime, therefore, must no longer be conceived as an evil that cannot be too much repressed. This however, does not lead Durkheim to condone crime or to present an apology for crime. When he stated that crime merely a normal element he viewed the whole of society as reality.” (Lunden, 1958) Durkheim’s contribution to criminology, including the social structure theories and functionalism have evolved our understanding which I will discuss further. “Criminology as a discipline has been described as a rather tenuous area of study. In other words, it is an area of study not defined by a particular unit of social reality, it is defined by its substantive concern: crime.” (Walklate, 1998) That is to say that through the work of Durkheim, it has allowed people to understand crime, perhaps by definition or to recognise that it is not to be constantly feared. In relation to crime, deviance can also be misinterpreted due to various understandings of it.

“Who is doing the disapproving? The functionalist approaches to deviance, for example, have built their work around the assumption of a consensus as the product of socialisation processes. Those outside the posited consensus are then viewed as either deviant themselves, or marginal groups whose opinions are perverse and therefore unimportant.” (Mclaughlin & Muncie, 2013)

To put it another way, a change in society can lead to deviance as new ideas or laws must challenge existing values and norms. This can often lead to protests which is viewed as deviant, however, it is not a criminal act. The ‘Sociology of Deviant behaviour described it as; “Deviance is behaviour that violates a norm beyond the tolerance of a particular group, in such a way that there is a probability that a sanction will be applied.” (Clinard, 1974) Another reference of deviance from ‘Sociology of Deviant Behaviour’ is; “Deviance constitutes norm violations; but the precise nature of the norms violated, who supports them, and the degree of societal reaction to their violation represent major concerns in the definition of deviance. Some people regard certain behaviour as deviant; other do not.” (Clinard, 1974) It is evident that the universal understanding of deviant varies depending on people’s norms and values. I will explain crime and deviance further through the theoretical perspective of functionalism.

Émile Durkheim and Robert Merton are crucial to the functionalist perspective. Functionalism expresses that society consists of inter-connected institutions such as, government, family and education and for society to operate effectively, all these institutions must work in harmony to maintain social equilibrium. “Durkheim argues that a human society is not just made up of social facts, but that it works, as a social system, just like a biological system of biological facts does: this theory is called functionalism.” (Bilton, 1996) “Functionalism explains the existence of any institutionalised aspect of a society in the same way as a biologist explains the presence of an organ in the body- in terms of the function it performs in keeping the system in a stable state.” (Bilton, 1996) For society to function, crime and deviance are also needed, according to Durkheim. For example, in society there needs to be a government that allows schools to run, therefore giving children an education. Over the years crime has altered the laws in society which depict social order and present consequences for ones’ actions. “Durkheim argued that crime (or, by extension, deviance is general) elicits from the group or community: it serves to ‘heighten collective sentiments’, sharpen perceptions of moral imperatives, more tightly integrate the community against the transgressor.” (Downes & Rock, 2016) This allows to reinforce values and norms. “A certain amount of crime is therefore functional, while too little or too much is pathological.” (Downes & Rock, 2016)

Furthermore, Durkheim expresses that even in a ‘society of saints’ deviance would occur and without crime the standards would be so high that if someone acted out of behaviour it would be seriously frowned upon and regarded as a serious offence. However, in a society with social regulation, where the police arrest someone for committing a criminal offence, it shows society that that action is not condoned. This can also be viewed as Durkheim’s theory of social fact, a control technique, that allows individuals in society to know what to do in the everyday life. Whether it be how we work or who we befriend, it is how we think, act and feel. Crime levels can rise and fall due to many different factors; “Varieties of crime rise: Jason Ditton 1979: crime rise can mean a number of things; As a result of new laws, acts that were previously non-criminal now become criminal. More criminal acts are discovered. There is more mass media coverage of crime. More criminal acts are committed.” (Tierney & O’Neill, 2013) Most importantly to Durkheim, he argued that a positive social function is provided by crime as it perpetuates social consensus and clarifies deviant behaviour.

“According to Durkheim, deviance actually contributes to the maintenance of order within society. It does this in several ways. First of all, deviance helps identify the moral boundaries between right and wrong in society. By doing this, it alerts people to what is expected of them. Second, deviance enhances social solidarity by bringing people together against common threat. Third, deviance has an important role to play in allowing for change within society. Finally, deviance has an important role to play in reducing societal tensions, since it allows anxieties to be produced onto those whose behaviours deviates from the norm. All in all, therefore, deviance is functional for society since its existence, by providing something for the majority to react against, enhances shared moral values, thus binding society more tightly together.” (Aggleton, 1982)

According to Durkheim’s functionalist perspective, deviance serves three positive functions which he states as, social regulation; identifies moral boundaries, social integration; a collective conscience of shared belief’s, and finally, social change; Durkheim analyses that once deviance and crime occurs, it allows laws to change and to reflect and benefit the wishes of the population.
On the contrary, it is important to assess Durkheim’s theory of anomie, and the result of society breaking down due to behaviours and expectations being unclear. Up until now I have analysed and evaluated how certain levels of crime and deviance can be beneficial to a society where all of its inter-connected parts are working together. Furthermore, this transition phase of anomie, where values and norms are no longer valid, and new ones still have not been formed to take their place. Individuals that have lived during phases of anomie typically feel disconnected from society as their values and norms no longer reflect in society. Robert Merton states that crime and deviance are a result of anomie. “Robert K. Merton’s strain theory, with its notion of the tension between societal means and social goals, and the resultant adaptions to this tension.” (Hayward, 2009) Merton argues that the strain that is places upon people is a result of a lack of jobs for people which consequents deviant behaviour and more people taking up careers in the criminal world to be able to pay bills and survive. “The common-sense assumption that the deviant act occurs because some characteristic of the person who commits it makes it necessary or inevitable that he should.” (Becker, 1928) That said, Merton’s theory only explains economic crimes, not violent crimes.

It must be acknowledged that the functionalist perspective on crime and deviance has impacted criminology in a variety of ways through Durkheim’s theories including anomie and Merton’s strain theory. As I have previously stated, crime is a natural and inevitable part of society. “There are important differences in how people conceive of crime.” (White, 2017) Boundary maintenance and adaptation and change are two functions of crime that Durkheim highlights within any society. Maintaining boundaries in society on shared rules and social solidarity is important. When crimes and the consequents of those actions are publicised, it creates deterrence as individuals are aware of the repercussions. Secondly, when society breaks down or challenge the norms of society they are viewed as deviant. However, Durkheim states that for society to evolve, it must be challenged. Therefore, it is functional in bringing about social change.
However, it cannot be denied that there are certain elements to Durkheim’s theory that have not been complete. Durkheim does not state the level of crime that is necessary for society. It is just repeated that too much or too little crime is dangerous for society. This theory also failed to look at an explanation of crime and criminals. Durkheim never focused in on understanding why certain people commit various crimes or what was wrong with deviants and criminals which can be viewed as a positive or a negative as it can be a chosen way of life. “Crime is necessary. It is linked to the basic conditions of social life but on this very account is useful, for the conditions to which it is bound are themselves indispensable to the normal evolution of morality and law.” (Anderson, 2014)

“Criminology is the body of knowledge regarding crime as a social phenomenon. It includes within its scope the processes of making laws, of breaking of laws… The objective of criminology is the development of a body of general and verified principles and of other types of knowledge regarding this process of law, crime, and treatment.” (Wolfgang, 1963)

Wolfgang illustrates the importance of criminology through crime and the impact it has on society. By analysing the work of Robert Merton and Émile Durkheim through the functionalist perspective of crime and deviance it is evident that it has influenced criminology in various ways. Most theories have their positives and negatives, but with regards to Durkheim’s theory of crime and deviance and Merton’s strain theory, they too have weaknesses but the key ideas that they developed have had a much greater impact on criminology and society throughout the years.

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