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Functionalist Look At Society As A Whole Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3906 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Emile Durkheim, the founder of functionalism argued that a certain amount of crime in any society is inevitable. Durkheim thought that it was ‘an integral part of all healthy societies’. Durkheim thought this because not everyone has the same collective values and moral beliefs in society. Durkheim also believed that crime and deviance could be positive in society as this can help reinforce the ideas of right and wrong.

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The problem with deviance arises when the level of crime becomes too big, this then can threaten the stability of a society. Durkheim thought that deviance acted as a catalyst for social change, change can happen but you need change the perception, what we once thought was a deviant act is now acceptable. This is how a society can evolve, which Durkheim considered as healthy. Durkheim also thought that if crime was too low in a society it was unhealthy, this was because such societies remained static and their social attitudes remained unchallenged.

Anomie was a concept devised by Durkheim; Merton further developed this. Durkheim’s concept of anomie explained how societies undergoing social change also experience some confusion over what the society considered right or wrong behaviour. The confusion should not be viewed as negative, as new ideas are paramount for a society as they are considered the life-blood. (socialscience, 2012)

There are positive functions to crime as crime can reaffirm boundaries as when crimes are committed, they are normally publicised. This then confirms our shared values for society for example; we learn the appropriate behaviour by seeing the inappropriate behaviour punished.

Tragedy or loss can also help to bring societies together it can help mend social or cultural divisions, and help strengthen our sense of belonging in the community. Cohen a prominent American criminologist believed that deviance acted as a safety valve for society, Cohen believed that releasing small amounts of anger and tension prevented the build-up of greater frustrations. This then could cause major problems in society. Cohen also believed that deviant acts could help to alert society that certain aspects of it are not working properly.

Another positive aspect to crime is social progression, this happens when the people of today challenge the norms and values of society as they want to help build a better future, as a result todays deviants could be tomorrows innovators.

Here is an example of how crime can change society, March 2012, when gay 24-year-old man called Daniel Zamudio was beaten so severely, this was after having swastikas carved into his skin that he died in hospital three weeks later. The brutal murder shocked Chileans and spurred the Chilean government to fast-track LGBT antidiscrimination legislation. (advocate, 2013)

Crime and deviance can also create employment, if there was no deviant behaviour we would not have any police, courts or prisons, therefore Durkheim was correct is thinking that crime has a positive factor on society.

Some of Durkheim’s theories do have a negative function to crime and deviance, especially as functionalists believe that society is based on the value consensus. In certain situations e.g. major social upheaval, the social norms and values can become confused. This is when people are not sure on how to behave or what to believe, this happens when people are freed from social control, become selfish and only look after their own interests. When anomie occurs, the crime rates soar.

Downes & Rock (1998) thought functionalists who refer to Durkheim’s work failed to consider the impact that crime and deviance had on society, especially the victims of crime. They also thought that crime maybe functional but at what cost.

Robert K Merton was also inspired by Durkheim’s theory of anomie; Merton applied his theory to American society in the 1930’s. Merton tried to explain why young working class men were most prominent in the crime statistics. This is where Merton developed the strain theory (also known as Mertonian Anomie). Merton suggested that culture, especially the United States of America was saturated with dreams of opportunity, freedom and prosperity or as Merton described it the American Dream. Most people bought into this dream and it became a very powerful cultural and psychological motivation.

Merton identified five possible responses to his strain theory conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion. Therefore, as many people responded to strain through innovation or rebellion, the nature of American dream actually created crime and deviance. Although Merton’s explanation of the strain theory answers some questions to crime, it does not answer them all like crimes that are not for personal game e.g. vandalism.

Merton’s description on anomie was different to Durkheim’s. Merton thought that anomie meant dichotomy (a division) between what society expected of its citizens and what those citizens could achieve. If the social structure of opportunities is unequal, this will prevent the majority from realising the dream, this then means that some of them will turn to crime in order to realise it.

Travis Hirschi (1969) realised that most sociological theories tried to explain why people committed crime; Hirschi decided that he would look at why most of society do not commit crime. His theory was called the social bond theory, which later developed into the social control theory. This theory historically has been an interesting way in approaching social problems and how they are explained, the social bond theory emphasises on the fact that there is an absence of social attachments among juvenile delinquents. Hirschi thought that One of the most critical times in our lives is adolescence, during this critical time we need strong positive social ties. On the other hand, if the ties we share in our lives are negative and criminal-like it is most likely that negative results will occur.

Hirschi believed there were four basic elements to the social bond theory they are attachment, commitment, involvement and belief. Attachment is described as the level of values and or norms that an individual holds in society. Commitment the personal investments we have in our lives, involvement the amount of free time we have and belief our commitment to the rules and goals of our society, Hirschi thought the greater our bonds of attachment the lower the level of crime.

In conclusion, functionalist accept the official statistics without any question, therefore functionalist see crimes are committed by the working class, and they have ignored corporate or white collar crime. They also do not take into consideration the thoughts or feelings of deviants, they assume that all working class people respond to society in the same way and everyone shares exactly the same cultural goals. (criminology, 2012)

Karl Marx, the founder of Marxism saw crime and deviance as the ruling class (bourgeoisie) keeping social control over the working class (proletariat) if you did not conform you would be punished. Marx believed that Institutions such as the police, the justice system, prisons and schools are there to encourage you to conform. Marxists argue that white-collar crimes, which tend to be committed by the bourgeoisie are ignored, while crimes committed by the proletariat such as burglary and street crime are seen as more serious. Marxists also argued that different social classes are policed differently, with the working class heavily policed in the expectation that they will be more criminal.

Marxists such as Milton Mankoff, Frank Pearce and Laureen Snider see power as largely being held by the bourgeoisie who own the means of production. Marxists believe the laws reflect the interests of the bourgeoisie. They are then passed by a bourgeois parliament, then enforced by the Police and supported by right-wing sections of an increasingly powerful media. Marxists also argue that crime is widespread in all social strata, Snider (1993) said, “many of the most serious anti-social and predatory acts committed in modern industrial countries are corporate crimes”. Snider also said “corporate crime does more harm than the street crimes, such as burglary, robbery and murder” which are usually seen as the most serious types of crime. (historylearningsite, 2012)

The corporate crime Snider referred to included examples such as the Zeebruge ferry disaster and the Hatfield train crash, the enquiries found that the companies had put profit before safety. In the UK, the crime of ‘corporate manslaughter’ was introduced. This was to cover such events with boards of directors being put in the firing line if similar tragedies occurred again.

David Gordon (1976) stated that the values of capitalism encouraged crime in all of the social classes, the frustration of being on the bottom rung of the ladder encourages crimes like violence, sex and drugs and vandalism.

Does capitalism cause crime? Possibly not, because crime is still present in communist societies , and some capitalist countries like Switzerland have a very low crime rate. It is also very unlikely that working class crime can be the cause of resistance and rebellion, most of the victims of working class crime are in fact working class themselves.

Other aspects of this argument could be that some would say the working class criminals are making excuses for the behaviour, by showing a Robin Hood type of example. It is very unlikely that the law favours the bourgeoisie, as there are some laws that favour the proletariats for example welfare laws.

Pierce (1976) had views on corporate crime, he said, “Prosecutions for corporate crime are rare – otherwise, society would have to rethink its view that crime is a working class pursuit, which would create a crisis for the ruling classes”. In addition, are illegal and immoral practices normal under capitalism? Some of the lowest paid jobs with the most appalling working conditions are under communist regimes. (moodle, 2013)

Internationalism is the second major sociological perspective after functionalism. Internationalism considers three things Phenomenology, Symbolic Interaction and Ethnomethodology. Interactionists focus on the way that individuals act rather than react to social stimulation, and the way in which different social groups interpret the behaviour of others is significant, as this helps to understand the way the world is socially constructed. An example of social construction would be, imagine you are sitting at a set of traffic lights, a car drives straight through the red lights. You could interpret that behaviour as wrong and illegal. However under the same circumstances, if the car went through the red light with blue flashing lights and a siren you could consider that as understandable.

Howard Becker (1973) said, “Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders…the deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied.” Labelling is a social judgement and is based on social reaction, the labels that we give people can define their future, and this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately the people that we label can become social outsiders. Therefore, labelling can be considered as social constructed.

Becker developed his theory of labelling in 1963 in a book called the outsiders, Becker studied the theory during a period of social and political power at a college campus. Becker adjusted Lemert’s labelling theory and its symbolic interaction background during this liberal movement. (moodle, 2013)

Becker’s labelling theory had five stages, the first stage was where an individual was labelled as deviant, and the second stage is where the deviant is then rejected by their family, friends and employers. Next, because the individual has been rejected they return to the deviant behaviour, this is the start of their criminal career. Fourth the individual then looks for social acceptance, this normally will be by a deviant group, and fifth a deviant subculture develops.

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Becker’s book Outsiders (1963) used two cases to illustrate his approach to the labelling theory. Becker studied marijuana laws in the United States, and the recreational use of the drug. Becker had chosen to analyse marijuana because the progression of use could be observed. The first time user of marijuana finds the experience as somewhat unpleasant, but as the user imitates peers he/she learns to perceive the effects of marijuana as enjoyable.

Becker found that if someone breaks the rules not all of society would find the act deviant, someone needs to enforce or draw attention to the rules. Only when an individual has been successfully been labelled do certain consequences follow, and the individual may take the label as a master status.

Jock Young (1971) also did a study on marijuana, but this time the study was in Notting Hill, London. Young found that most marijuana users called it a ‘peripheral activity’. Young also found that once the stigma of the label had been made, the deviant behaviour and use of marijuana increased, the users then started to lose their jobs and social network. As this happened the users became more dependent on marijuana and some used it as a source of income, Young realised that labelling leads to the increase of deviant behaviour.

There are problems with labelling, as this assumes that deviants are normal people until they have been given a label. Liazos (1972) said, “that the labelling theory is a study of nuts, sluts and perverts”. The labelling theory does criticises the groups that come up with the labels, it also fails to look at the benefits groups get from being labelled, it also doesn’t explain where primary deviance (the initial act) comes from.

Stan Cohen (1964) studied the social reaction – especially in the mass media towards the clashes between the mods and rockers culture. Cohen actually witnessed the clashes on Brighton beach, he realised that the media were reporting things that actually had not happened. As a result this caused moral panic, the mods and rockers were being singled out and being called folk devils, as a result society thought their behaviour was a threat to the social order.

How everyone in society reacts to actions and behaviour and the judgements we make contribute to the social construction of crime, the media is an area in society that visually contributes to constructing crime and deviance, Internationalists might argue that police are another such group in society. Police statistics are the main way in which the police can socially construct crime, there are other ways in which crime can be socially constructed, and this could be by changing legislation, interpretation or moral values. (moodle, 2013)

Since the early 1980’s a number of sociologists have developed a perspective on crime and deviance this is usually referred to as Left Realism. The supporters of this perspective are Jock Young, John Lea, Roger Matthews and Richard Kinsey. Left realism originated in Britain, but has started to influence other criminologists in other countries. Left realists feel that longer sentences and more prisons are the answer to crime, but they also oppose the views from left idealists, people like Marxists, Neo-Marxists and radical Feminists.

Politically, left realists tend to see their approach as being close to the position of the British Labour Party, Lea and Young (1984) describe themselves as socialists and support the reform of society. One of the views of a left realist is that crimes other than white-collar crimes are a serious problem; Jock Young (1993) argues there has been a significant increase in street crime. Young thought criminology had undergone an aetiological crisis (crisis of explanation), resulting from the increase in officially recorded street crime.

Lea and Young (1984) pointed out that the chances of being the victim of street crime are minimal; however, some groups face a higher risk. It is not the rich who are the targets of muggers or thieves, but the poor. Left realists have carried out a considerable amount of victimization studies, examining such issues as the extent of crime and attitudes towards crime. Lea and Young began to develop an approach to explaining criminality. They saw crime as rooted in social conditions and argue that crime is closely connected to deprivation. However, they reject those views that suggest factors such as poverty and unemployment can be seen as directly responsible for crime, they did accept that the problem went beyond poverty. (historylearningsite, 2012)

The values of a criminal are not too different from capitalist values: they are aggressive, greedy and selfish. In addition, it is not poverty and deprivation that are important, or in the way that it is perceived, it is how people respond to it. Left realist developed the square of crime; they thought that to tackle crime four elements needed to be dealt with the state, the offender, society and the victim. Left realists believed that the only way you could reduce crime was to reduce inequality, improve community facilities and build the relationship between the police and the community. Although the left realists have the square theory, they tend to focus more on the victims of crime. It is very difficult to use the concept of relative deprivation to explain crimes like rape and assault, and they still do not explain corporate crime.

Two key features to left realism are they emphasise on the social causes of crime, and they are concerned with the effect of crime on individuals and communities. Left realists do have long-term goals; they would like changes in the social structure and promote social justice and remove the reduction of inequality.

Right realists assume and take a more realistic view on the causes of crime and deviance, right realists believe that crime and deviance are a real social problem that requires practical solutions. It is said that right realists devised moral panic as a way of swaying the public to agree with their views, e.g. the media claims elderly people are scared of being attacked when they leave the safety of their home, but in reality crimes against OAP’s are minimal. Right realists believe that official statistics often underreport crime. However, they believe they are able to paint a more realistic picture of crime and deviance in the UK. They also believe that crime is a growing social problem and is largely committed by lower working class males and juveniles, who are often black, and live in inner city areas.

Marsland (1988) stated that crime and deviancy is linked to the breakdown in the moral fabric of society. Schools and religion have become less effective in social control and the moral glue of society has gone. Marsland believes that this has led to a decline in morality and as a result, crime has increased. Right realists do not believe that poverty causes crime, in the 1960’s an affluent time in the UK the crime rate grew faster than any other time that century.

Murray’s (1994) theory stated that the welfare state was a factor in criminal behaviour, the problem was that it did encourage dependency and a lack of motivation that seemed to be handed down the generations. Murray said the welfare state “saps moral fibre, erodes Christian ethics and threatens family values”. Marsland (1992) agreed and said, “The nanny state removes individual choice and desire to work”. (historylearningsite, 2012)

Right realists have blamed a decline in respect for authority, and the rise of fatherless families where young males are denied an appropriate role model, along with a decline in family values with the lack of discipline both inside and outside the family home. Right realists also believe that you have a choice and you do not need to become deviant, Wilson and Kelling (1982) devised the broken window theory, they believed that if just one window is broken and is not repaired that soon other windows in the property will become broken. They also believed that a tolerance in crime is the downfall of the community. A solution to this would be to have a zero tolerance on any deviant behaviour or crime, with harsher sentences and a lot closer surveillance.

The right realist approach does have some flaws, it ignores white-collar crime, they place a lot of ownership on the victim, and they forget that crime can be a result of emotions, rather than calculations. Finally right realists believe in Situational Crime Prevention, a crime prevention strategy that looks at crimes and then by designing and manipulating the environment in a way that increases the risk to the offender, whilst reducing the offender’s reward for committing the crime, making the offender stop and think to see if the reward outweighs the risk. (moodle, 2012)

Left and right realists do share some common beliefs on crime, they accept the reality of situations and the problems in trying to promote solutions. Left realists think we are responsible for ourselves, where the right realists think everyone is responsible for each other. They also agree that the police can only do so much and that the community and individuals should work with the police to keep crime under control, Left realists and their social deprivation theory and right realists and the choice of the individual. If both sides worked together and everyone took an active part in trying to reduce crime and not just the police then it could work, the opportunities for an individual to commit a crime would drastically be reduced as a result, we would live in a safer and a more enriched society.


Advocate, (2013) twelve crimes that changed the LGBT world [online]. Available from: http://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/advocate-45/2012/05/07/12-crimes-changed-lgbt-world-0 [Accessed 16th January 2013].

Criminology, (2012) social theory [online]. Available from: http://www.criminology.fsu.edu/crimtheory/hirschi.htm [Accessed 17th January 2013].

Historylearningsite, (2012) Left Realism and Crime [online]. Available from: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/left_realism_crime.htm [Accessed 17th January 2013].

Historylearningsite, (2012) Marx and crime [online]. Available from: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/marxism_crime.htm [Accessed 17th January 2013].

Historylearningsite, (2012) Right Realism on Crime [online]. Available from: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/right_realism_crime.htm [Accessed 17th January 2013].

Socialscience, (2012) Functionalist perspective on crime and deviance [online]. Available from: http://socialscience.stow.ac.uk/criminology/criminology_notes/functionalism.htm [Accessed 16th January 2013].


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