Assess the functionalist theory of crime and deviance

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Assess the functionalist view of crime and deviance. [21 marks] This essay will detail the functionalist perspective of crime and deviance. Functionalist theories began to emerge after the industrial revolution in the 18th century. This period was called the enlightenment, and brought about scientific belief as opposed to the feudalist beliefs of religion. Religion no longer had such a powerful impact on peoples’ lives. The aim of sociological theories such as functionalism is to cure social ills, such as poverty and disease, and possibly even create the perfect society. Emile Durkheim, the ‘father’ of functionalism believed that crime played an important role in society. He described the organic analogy of society which describes that all parts of society are interdependent on each other. In order for any society to function properly, all parts of society must come together in a value consensus. This means that all individuals in society share the same norms and values. Durkheim also believed that crime is inevitable and a big part of any functioning society. He outlined two functions that crime performs in everyday society; these are boundary maintenance, and adaptation and social change.

Boundary maintenance refers to crime being functional as it allows members of society to know what is acceptable. It also reaffirms norms and values within society, for example after the 9/11 terrorist attacks united society in the sheer horror of what had happened. The media plays an important role in dramatizing such events, and creating moral panics, to deter other individuals from potentially straying. Durkheim fails to answer the question ‘functional for whom?’ Crime isn’t functional for victims and their families. Granted, it may be functional for reaffirming norms and values, but it isn’t functional for all. Boundary maintenance is one function of crime; another is adaptation and social change. Adaptation and social change, for Durkheim, refers to all change starting with an act of deviance. Those with new ideas and values should not be completely stifled by social control. One must be able to challenge existing norms and values, otherwise revolutionary change would not be able to happen, and society would stagnate. An example of revolutionary change is the African-American civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King Jnr. His ideas and beliefs of African-Americans being able to socialise with, and be equal to white Americans was seen as deviant, but had he been stifled, either by imprisonment or death, contemporary society would not be what it is today.

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Durkheim argues that too much crime can tear the bonds of society apart, but a lack of crime and deviance means that society is oppressing its members. He states that social control should not prevent positive social change .Durkheim offers no explanation as to how much deviance is the correct amount for a society. Durkheim also describes crime as strengthening social solidarity. One could argue that this isn’t always true of crime as it could lead to further isolation, and eventually result in anomie. Anomie means a state of normlessness. As Durkheim only outlines two functions, other sociologists have offered more functions of crime. Other theorists have expanded on Durkheim’s idea of deviance having a positive function. Davis argues that prostitution acts as a safety valve, allowing male members of society to express their sexual frustration without threatening the nuclear family. Similar to Davis’ argument, Polsky states that pornography safely channels males’ sexual desires away from adultery, which also poses a great threat to the nuclear family. However, there are different theories, such as Merton’s strain theory. Merton argues that people engage in deviant or criminal behaviour when they are unable to legitimately achieve socially approved goals. He adapted Durkheim’s concept of anomie to explain deviance.

Merton’s explanation combines two elements; structural and cultural factors. Structural factors refer to society’s unequal opportunity structure, whereas cultural factors refer to the strong emphasis on achieving success goals, and the weaker emphasis on using legitimate means to achieve them. Merton uses the example of the ‘American dream’ to illustrate this point. Society is socialised to believe that their society is a meritocratic one, and that one will be rewarded after working hard, with material items (white picket fence) Individuals are expected to pursue this dream through legitimate means; hard work, education and self-discipline. Merton also outlines that there are five adaptations to strain. One adaptation to strain is conformity. This refers to individuals who accept the success goals, and set about achieving them through legitimate means. This is most likely of middle-class individuals, but Merton argues it is the typical response of most Americans. Innovation refers to individuals who accept the culturally approved goals, but strive to achieve them through illegitimate means, such as crime. For example a student cannot afford his course books; he then sets about stealing money from his parents/friends to pay for them. Individuals of the working class are under the greatest pressure to innovate.

Ritualism means that individuals give up on achieving the goals of society, but have internalised the legitimate means, and therefore follow the rules for the sake of it. Retreatism is where individuals reject both the cultural goals, and the legitimate means, and become ‘dropouts.’ The final adaptation to strain is rebellion. Individuals reject society’s goals and means, but replace them with new ones in order to bring about revolutionary change. An example of this is the Fregan movement, who eat food that supermarkets can no longer sell, but is still edible. Society would see this as deviant, as it is not regarded as ‘normal’, but as they have adapted society’s norms to fit their goals, it could, in theory, bring about revolutionary change. Merton’s strain theory shows how both normal and deviant behaviour can arise from the same mainstream goals; however, it is deterministic in the fact that he assumes all classes/genders/ages share the same cultural goals. Marxists argue that strain theory ignores the power of the ruling class to make and enforce laws in ways that criminalise the poor but not the rich. Marxists would also say that as the ruling class own the means of production, laws are created in order to protect their property and victimise the working class. Also, he doesn’t account for middle class crime. During the 2011 riots in London, Laura Johnson, the daughter of a billionaire, stole £5000 worth of goods.

Merton doesn’t explain why she would do this. As an opposition to Merton’s strain theory, Hirschi and Box outline why an individual doesn’t commit crime, rather than why one does. Hirschi focuses on why one doesn’t commit crime. He argues that criminal activity occurs when ones attachment to society is weakened, that people have ‘bonds’ tying them to society. He believes that there are four bonds that tie one to a society. Attachment refers to how much an individual cares about other people’s opinions and wishes. Commitment is how much someone has invested in society, for example, whether they have a job, or are married, have a mortgage. Hirschi argues that the higher ones level of commitment, the less likely they are to commit crime as they have too much to lose should they receive a conviction. Involvement means a person’s level of activity and business interests within society. If a person has a busy time schedule, they are less likely to commit crime, according to Hirschi, as they do not have the time to pursue criminal activities. The final bond that he argues ties one to society, is belief. This refers to one’s conviction that they must obey society. A person with higher belief is less likely to commit crime as they have respect for authority, and society’s boundaries. Hirschi, however fails to explain those with a lot to lose that still commit crime.

He offers no explanation as to why white collar and corporate crime exist, as those are predominantly committed by those in the middle classes. Also, Hirschi blames the breakdown of the nuclear family for the weakening of social bonds, and thus could be faulted for scapegoating single mothers. However, Hirschi’s theory can be empirically investigated. Hirschi fails to explain middle class crime, but, Box believes that the majority of crime is committed by the middle class, but as the laws are composed by the middle classes, their crimes are hidden from society. Box believes that working classes do not commit crime as they are too tightly controlled under capitalism, and that the majority of crime is committed by those in the middle-upper classes. He also outlines five factors that weaken social bonds. Secrecy refers to the chances a person has to hide deviant acts that they have committed. Box argues that the middle class have more of a chance to hide their deviance as the laws are created and maintained by the middle class. Box also believes that skill is an important factor to consider when looking at why one is less likely to commit crime. Skills refer to the amount of specialist knowledge a criminal has whilst committing an offence. He argues that as the middle classes receive better education, they have more specialist knowledge and, therefore, can commit crime a lot easier than the lower classes, which do not have much in the way of specialist knowledge.

Supply refers to the availability of equipment and accomplices when committing a crime. If an individual has more access to accomplices and equipment, for example crowbars, and hammers for a burglary, then the likelihood of them committing crime increases. Social support refers to how much one’s peers support their criminal activities. Symbolic support means if there is a powerful tacit or symbolic support for rule breaking (for example if one sees that someone else has got away with a crime) then criminality is likely to occur. Box’s control theory is a direct derivative of Durkheim’s anomie concept as mentioned previously. Also Box believes that the bourgeoisie are not controlled under law, as they are the law-makers, and they create the laws specifically to victimise the proletariat. Similarly to Durkheim, control theorists are deterministic. They assume that everyone thinks the same, and fail to account for those who do not think the same. Etzioni however believes that individuals are powerless, and that communities need to maintain social control, and be empowered, as decisions are no longer in the hands of the community. Therefore, the functionalist view of crime and deviance is that too much is a threat to society, but too little means that society is stifling individuals, which should not occur as society is based on a value consensus. They also believe that the likelihood of an individual committing crime is based on certain factors due to the lack of social solidarity within any given society. A final issue with this particular theory is that they over generalise. They assume that all societies function in the same way.

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