Evaluate the functionalist approach to understanding crime in society

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Functionalism, a sociological theory, aims to elucidate the functioning and stability of society. It examines the roles played by various individuals within society, encompassing both children and criminals, in upholding this stability. Essentially, it operates as a control theory that sets forth guidelines for people to adhere to.

The cultural norms of each society dictate when a crime is committed or a boundary is crossed. These boundaries will vary between different countries due to cultural differences. In order for a functionalist society to function effectively, certain key elements must be present. These include a structural consensus theory, where society as a whole agrees on the organization and order of the society.

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Functionalism is a macro theory that aims to comprehend society as a whole through the use of large systems. Functionalists perceive society in a manner similar to the human body, which can be referred to as a body of society or organic analogy.

For society to function properly, all social structures or internal organs must operate effectively and efficiently. These structures include law and order, parliament and government, religion, the economy and employment, family, mass media, and education. According to the functionalist perspective, humans have inherent selfishness with their own desires and impulses that often harm others. This selfishness is most evident in childhood. Durkheim identifies two stages in childhood: the first stage primarily occurs within the family or nursery school as a substitute for the family; the second stage takes place in elementary school when children start expanding their social environment beyond just their immediate family circle.

‘ (Durkheim. 1961. p. 17).

Furthermore, human nature also craves order, cooperation, stability, routine, and familiarity. To fulfill these desires, a complex interconnected network of institutions functions as checks and balances to counteract selfish actions and promote discipline, order, and stability. The family serves as the initial institution to instill discipline, followed by the education system. Through discipline, children learn that certain boundaries cannot be crossed during their early development stages. This checking system helps them conform to society’s values. These values, together with discipline and behavioral rules, are determined by the institutions striving to maintain the existing state of affairs, such as the mass media.

Functionalists argue that the absence of strict enforcement of rules, morals, and routines would result in societal chaos. They emphasize the importance of preserving traditions such as marriage to ensure stability and unity. The emergence of functionalism is largely credited to Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), a French sociologist and criminologist, who introduced the concept of “Homo Duplex” to describe the division within the human psyche.

The text suggests that there are two sides: selfishness and cooperation. Crime can occur when there is a breakdown in cooperative forces within society or when regulatory forces fail to control the egoistic side of human nature. The author challenges the traditional belief that crime is dysfunctional and argues that it serves a positive function since it is present in all societies. The presence of criminal acts, which people themselves enforce, brings society closer together.

Responding to crime with unity helps maintain the morals and values of social solidarity in society. In the past, public punishment was used to condemn crime, and this practice continues with the advancement of technology through mass media. The widespread coverage of heinous crimes unites society in expressing outrage towards both the crime and its perpetrators. The case of Myra Hindley serves as a recent example of this.

The mass media continuously displays archival footage to remind society of Myra Hindley’s perceived evilness. Additionally, a specific photograph of her is repeatedly shown with the intention of generating anger against her. The public’s strong condemnation of Hindley placed immense pressure on the Home Secretary, which led to multiple parole attempts being denied. In accordance with Durkheim’s beliefs, a crime-free society would be unattainable as it would result in a repressive society that hinders societal progress and transformation.

While not condoning crime, the author acknowledges that it serves certain positive purposes, although acknowledging that certain crimes can be detrimental and disrupt society. Travis Hirschi presented a different theory from Durkheim, proposing his social control theory to explain why people refrain from committing crimes. He asserts that crime is a typical phenomenon and our focus should be on understanding behavior that is devoid of criminal activities.

He doesn’t claim that criminal behavior is a manifestation of free will; rather, he acknowledges its existence as a normal behavior. The notion that leading a fulfilling and satisfying life would deter individuals from engaging in criminal activities is emphasized. In order to foster such a lifestyle, it becomes essential to establish strong social connections within the community. These bonds can be cultivated between parents and children or between teachers and students.

Commitment to societal roles, morals, and values can be achieved through the teachings of religion and education. Active engagement in social activities, whether through work or recreation, can help individuals avoid getting involved in criminal behavior. Robert Merton built upon Durkheim’s concept of anomie and developed the Strain Theory, which states that anomie arises as a result of the growing materialistic culture.

Like Durkheim, Merton agrees that the maintenance of moral values and norms is necessary to prevent an anomic situation. However, Merton diverges from Durkheim by stating that establishing boundaries would effectively control individuals’ inclination to resort to unacceptable methods in pursuit of their desires. Merton contends that as long as society’s members exclusively use legitimate means to improve their lifestyles, anomic conditions will not prevail. Consequently, Merton underscores the significance of the connection between desires and the strategies employed to attain them. Merton conducted his research in the United States.

According to Merton, strain is more common in the lower classes than in the middle to upper classes. This strain occurs when individuals, in their pursuit of the ‘American Dream’, find it harder to succeed through legitimate means compared to others. As a result, some people resort to crime as the only way to achieve their goals. The likely main cause of this strain leading to criminal behavior is frustration with societal systems or economic need.

Merton categorized social activity into five types. The initial type is conformity, in which individuals embrace both the societal goals and the legitimate means to accomplish them, even if they acknowledge that they may not be capable of achieving those goals. This classification includes the majority of people, and Merton asserted that it has a vital role in upholding social stability. The other four types, as per Merton’s viewpoint, are regarded as deviant but with different levels of deviance.

The concept of innovation includes individuals who adhere to society’s social goals but resort to criminal activity in order to attain them. This group encompasses petty thieves, “con men,” as well as the unemployed and individuals with low skills. Merton defines the second type of deviant behavior as Ritualism, where people mechanically go through the motions of daily life while gradually losing sight of their original objectives.

According to Merton, the loss of individual passion is a result of society dictating goals. Failing to have desire to achieve these goals is considered deviant. Retreatism is when individuals reject both society’s goals and the means to achieve them. Merton associates this category with people who have disengaged from society, such as tramps, drug addicts, and alcoholics.

They might also exist as small communities, resembling religious cults and new-age travelers. The ultimate and most deviant response is rebellion, leading to a state of anomie. Groups or individuals would revolt against the established values and objectives of the prevailing society, actively opposing it. Contemporary instances of this include political radicals and anti-capitalists.

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