Evaluate the functionalist approach to understanding crime in society Essay

Functionalism is the sociological theory of how or why society functions and how it remains in a state of stability. Theoretically it tries to explain the role all people within society have, from children to criminals, in order to maintain stability. It is a control theory where boundaries are set for people to adhere.

The point at which a crime is commited or a boundery is crossed would be determined by the culture of each individual society.In different countries there would have to be variations of these bounderies, this would be inevitable because of the different culture within each society. For a functionalist society to work several key aspects have to be in place. Society as a whole must agree to the way society is structured and ordered, this is known as a ‘structural consensus’ theory.

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Functionalism is a ‘macro’ theory. In general it attempts to understand society as whole using large systems. Functionalists view society like the human body.This could be called a ‘body of society’ or ‘organic analogy’.

For the ‘body of society’ to function all of the internal organs or social structures must work effectively and efficiently. These social structures are law and order, parliament and government, religion, the economy and employment, family, mass media, and education. Functionalist believe that humans are born naturally selfish, with their own desires and impulses to be fulfilled at the expense of everyone else, this can be seen in its raw state during childhood.According to Durkheim there are ‘two stages in childhood: the first, taking place almost entirely within the family or the nursery school-a substitute for the family, as its name suggests; the second, in elementary school, when the child, beginning to leave the family circle, is initiated into a larger environment.

‘ (Durkheim. 1961. p. 17).

Furthermore, human nature also desires order, co-operation, stability, routine and familiarity, and for this reason a complex inter-linked network of institutions work as checking systems and denature the selfish acts and promote discipline, order and stability.The family is the first institution to provide discipline, followed by the education system. The child learns through discipline that barriers cannot be crossed at an early stage of its development, this checking system enables the child to conform to the values of its society. These values, along with discipline and rules of behaviour, are dictated to society by the institutions that try to keep the status quo, for example the mass media.

Functionalists argue that if the rules of behaviour, morals and routines aren’t rigorously enforced a state of egoism and anomie would develop rendering society into chaos. They think that traditions, such as marriage, should be upheld in order for society to remain stable and intact. Functionalism developed significantly through the early works of the French sociologist and criminologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). He argued that the human psyche is split in two, this forms the ‘Homo Duplex’.

One side is selfishness and the other side co-operation.Crimes would be commited either because there is a weakness of the integrative forces of society, so there is a collapse in the co-operative side; or there is failure of the regulatory forces in society, which would not be able to keep a check on the egoistic side of human nature. He rebelled against the traditional view that crime was dysfunctional and since crime was a feature of all societies it must in some way have a positive function. He believed that society was closer together because the people could see for themselves criminal acts taking place across boundaries, which they themselves enforce.

By responding to crime with unity it helps society to maintain the morals and values of social solidarity. Traditionally, the public punishment of the guilty party was used in the condemning of crime, this continues with the advance of technology – the mass media. Horrendous crimes are widely publicised uniting society in expressing outrage both at the crime itself and those committing them. A recent example of this is the case of Myra Hindley.

The mass media kept showing archive footage, thus reminding society how evil she is or was.There is also one significant photograph of Myra Hindley, which is shown time and time again, this is used to promote anger against her. The public outrage towards her put an enormous amount of pressure on the Home Secretary; this resulted in several parole attempts being refused. Durkheim felt that a crime free society could not be achieved for it would create a repressive society, this would constrict society from changes.

Although he did not agree with crime he noted its positive functions whilst acknowledging that some crimes in particular could be dysfunctional and break up society. Travis Hirschi had an alternative theory to Durkheim.In his social control theory he tries to explain why people ‘do not’ commit crime. He argues that crime is normal and we need to explain behaviour free from crime.

He is not arguing that criminality is an expression of free will, only that it occurs and it is normal behaviour. The idea that someone has a full and rewarding lifestyle would prevent him or her from committing crime. There would be a need for attachment, creating social bonds amongst the community. This could be between parents and children, or teachers and pupils.

Commitment to the roles, morals and values of society would be needed, religion and education would teach these.Being involved socially either through work or recreation would keep people too preoccupied to get involved in crime. Durkheim’s concept of anomie was adapted through the works of Robert Merton. According to Merton, anomie is created through the increase of a materialistic culture; this is called the ‘Strain Theory’.

Like Durkheim, Merton believed that to prevent an anomic situation arising moral values and norms must be maintained. However, unlike Durkheim, Merton says that the boundaries set would regulate and control the individual’s willingness to use unacceptable ways to achieve his or her desires.Merton argues that society will not become anomic if its members use only legitimate means to enhance their lifestyles, it is the relationship between desires and the how these desires are gained which is fundamental. Merton’s research was compiled in America.

He noted that whilst chasing the ‘American Dream’, some people were less likely to succeed using legitimate means than others, which would result in strain being placed upon them. For these individuals crime would be the only way of achieving the ‘American Dream’. Strain in the lower classes happens more frequently than in middle to upper classes according to Merton.Frustration with the systems of society, or possibly economic need, is the probable main cause of strain driving these people to criminality in order to achieve their goals.

Merton used his assessments to describe five types of social activity. Conformity, in which people accept the goals of society and the legitimate ways of achieving these goals, even though they clearly will not be able to achieve them. Most people fall under this category and Merton believed that for this reason society remains stable. The other four types of behaviour are categorised by Merton as deviant, although each has a different level.

Innovation comprises of people who accept the social goals of society but commit crime in order to achieve them. Petty thieves and ‘con men’ are put into this category along with the unemployed and low skilled workers. The second type of deviant behaviour, according to Merton, is Ritualism. In this category people go through the motions of everyday life having become distant of their initial goals.

Passion within the individual would be lost, and Merton argues that because society sets the goals, lack of desire to fulfil these goals is deviant in itself. Retreatism is the next category in which people fall into deviant acts.People reject society’s goals and the means in which they are achieved. Merton thought that these are people who have dropped out of society, like tramps, drug addicts and alcoholics.

They could also be small groups who live together similar to religious cults and new-age travellers. The last and most deviant reaction is rebellion, which would result in anomie. Groups or individuals would rebel against all values and goals set by the dominant part of society and actively fight against it. Political radicals and anti-capitalists are current examples of this.

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