Sociological Perspectives On One Substantive Area Criminology Essay


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Functionalists look at society as a whole, a functionalist would explain crime and deviance by saying that the nature of society itself is the cause of deviancy, rather than a psychological or biological perspective. Functionalists see crime and deviance as inevitable, and they feel that it is a necessary part of society. Some functionalist would also see crime and deviance as a positive aspect for society.

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. (Socialscience, 2013)

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 to change the perception, what we once thought was a deviant act is now acceptable. This is how a society evolves, 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, 2013)

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. 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. 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. (Socialscience, 2013)

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. (Socialscience, 2013)

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. (Socialscience, 2013)

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 the 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. (Socialscience, 2013)

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 being heavily policed in the expectation that they will be more criminal. (Marxism, 2013)

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, 2013)

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. 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. (Marxism, 2013)

Interactionism is the second major sociological perspective after functionalism. Interactionism 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 for you to imagine sitting at a set of traffic lights and a car drives straight through the red light. 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. (Sociology, 2013)

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." (Crimspace, 2013)

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 socially 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. (Criminology, 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 their family, friends and employers then reject the deviant, because the individual has been rejected they return to the deviant behaviour, this is the start of their criminal career. The individual then looks for social acceptance, this normally will be by a deviant group and then a deviant subculture develops. (Crimspace, 2013)

Becker's book Outsiders (1963) used two cases to illustrate his approach to the labelling theory. One of these was where 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 then 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. (Criminology, 2013)

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. (Criminology, 2013)

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. (Moodle, 2013)

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 where the mods and rockers were being singled out and being called folk devils, as a result society thought their behaviour was a threat to social order. (Criminology, 2013)

In conclusion, functionalist accept the official statistics without any question, therefore functionalist see crimes being 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.

In Marxism, does capitalism cause crime? Possibly, because crime is still present in communist societies but 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 all laws favour the bourgeoisie, as there are some laws that favour the proletariats e.g. welfare laws.

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


Criminology, (2013) Becker [online]. Available from: [Accessed 19th April 2013].

Criminology, (2013) social theory [online]. Available from: [Accessed 19th April 2013].

Crimspace, (2013) the labelling of young people [online]. Available from: [Accessed 19th April 2013].

Historylearningsite, (2013) Marx and crime [online]. Available from: [Accessed 19th April 2013].

Marxism, (2013) what is Marxism [online]. Available from: [Accessed 19th April 2013].

Socialscience, (2013) Functionalist perspective on crime and deviance [online]. Available from: [Accessed 19th April 2013].

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