How do Functionalists explain crime?

How do Functionalists explain crime?


For Durkheim, crime and deviance were central to any understanding of how society functions.  He identified two different sides of crime and deviance for the functioning of society:

+ Help’s society change and remain dynamic

– Too much crime leads to social disruption.

Positive aspects of crime

According to him, crime – or at least a certain limited amount of crime – was necessary for any society. Durkheim argued that at the basis of society was a set of shared values which guide our actions, which he called the collective conscience.  It provides a framework with boundaries, which distinguishes between actions which are acceptable and those which are not. Durkheim discussed four elements of the positive aspect to crime.

1          Re-affirming the boundaries

Every time that a person breaks a law and is taken to court, the resulting court ceremony and the publicity in the newspapers, publicly re-affirms the existing values.

2          Changing values

Every so often when a person is taken to court and charged with a crime a degree of sympathy occurs for the person prosecuted.  The resulting public outcry signals a change in values and, in time this can lead to a change in law to reflect the changing values. 

3          Social cohesion

A third function of crime, according to Durkheim, is to strengthen social cohesion.  He points out that when particularly horrific crimes have been committed, the entire community draws in together in shared outrage, and the sense of belonging to a community is thereby strengthened. 

4          Safety Valve

Deviant acts may be functional as a form of pressure release.

The negative aspects of crime

However, Durkheim stressed that it was a certain, limited amount of crime which performed positive functions for society.  Too much crime, on the other hand, had negative consequences. 


We saw before that, according to Durkheim, society is based on people sharing common values (the collective conscience), which form the basis for actions. However, in periods of great social change or stress, the collective conscience may be weakened. In this situation, people may be freed from the social control imposed by the collective conscience and may start to look after their own selfish interests rather than adhering to social values. Durkheim called this situation anomie.  Where a collapse of the collective conscience has occurred and anomie exists, crime rates rocket.  Only by re-imposing collective values can the situation be brought back under control.


Hirschi: bonds of attachment

Durkheim’s concept of anomie suggests that if people are not ‘controlled’ by shared social values, then they look after their own short-term interests without concern for others. This led Hirschi to turn around the normal question of why do people commit crime to another, equally intriguing one – why don’t people commit crime?

Hirschi focuses sociologists’ attention on what forces hold people’s behaviour in check, rather than what propels them into crime. Hirschi argued that criminal activity occurs when people’s attachment to society is weakened in some way. This attachment depends upon the strength of the social bonds which hold people to society.

According to Hirsci, there are four crucial bonds which bind us together:

1             Attachment :  to what extent do we care about other people’s opinions and wishes.

2             Commitment: refers to the personal investments that each of us makes in our lives. What have we got to lose if we commit a crime?

3             Involvement: how busy are we?  Is there time and space for law breaking and deviant behaviour?

4             Belief:  how strong is a person’s sense that they should obey the rules of society?

Therefore, greater the attachment to society, the lower the level of crime.

Merton: strain theory

In the 1930s, Merton tried to locate deviance within a functionalist framework. For Merton crime and deviance were evidence of a poor fit or a strain between the socially accepted goals of society and the socially approved means of obtaining those desired goals.  The resulting strain led to deviance.

Merton argued that all societies set their members certain goals, at the same time they also provide socially approved ways of achieving these goals.  Merton was aware that not everyone shared the same goals, and he pointed out that in a stratified society, the goals were linked to a person’s position in the social structure. Those lower down had restricted goals.  The system worked well as long as there was a reasonable chance that a majority of people were able to achieve their goals.  However, if the majority of the population were unable to achieve the socially set goals then they became disenchanted with society and sought out alternative (often deviant) ways of behaving. 

Merton believed that the goal of society was economic and material wealth above all else and that the means provided to achieve these goals were hard work and educational achievement.

Different forms of behaviour then could be understood as a strain between goals and means.

  • Conformity – here the individual continues to adhere to both goals and means, despite the limited likelihood of success. 
  • Innovation – the person accepts the goals of society by uses different ways to achieve those goals. Criminal behaviour is included in this response.
  • Ritualism – here the means are used by the individual, but sight of the actual goal is lost.  For example, the bureaucrat or the police officer blindly enforcing the letter of the law without looking at the nature of justice.
  • Retreatism:  here the individual rejects both goals and means.  For example, the person dependent upon drugs or alcohol is included.
  • Rebellion:  Both the socially sanctioned goals and means are rejected and different ones substituted.  For example, this is the political activist or the religious fundamentalist.


Criticism of Merton

Merton has been criticised by Valier (2001) amongst others for his stress on the existence of a common goal in society. Valier argues that there are in fact a variety of goals which people strive to attain at any one time.

Merton is also criticised by functionalist subcultural theorists for focussing on crime as an individual act, rather than a collective/group response.

Remember some of the key criticisms of Functionalist theories of crime


  • Functionalism assumes that there is a common value system to deviate from
  • Functionalists do not recognise sub cultures
  • Functionalists are very accepting of official statistics as valid
  • Functionalists do not explore the motivations and meanings given to deviant acts
Published in: on May 7, 2010 at 6:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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Durkheim- the father of functionalism

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was the first sociologist to study crime and significantly influenced the functionalist theory that would follow.

Durkheim saw crime as a particular problem of modernity (the transformation into an industrialised society) He felt an understanding of crime and deviance was essential in order to understand how society functioned.

Emile Durkheim developed the term anomie to explain why some people became dysfunctional and turned to crime. Anomie means being insufficiently integrated into society’s norms and values. Anomie causes society to become less integrated and more individualistic. Anomie causes individuals to look out for themselves rather than the community.

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 8:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Travis Hirschi

Another key sociologist to be influenced by Emile Durkheim and the concept of anomie is Travis Hirschi .

He asks the question: why don’t more people commit crime than they do? To answer this, he argues, we need to understand what forces maintain conformity for most people in society. Rather than the factors that drive a minority into deviant behaviour. 

He identified four bonds of attachment that help bind society together:

Attachment : the extent to which we care about other people’s opinions and desires.

Commitment: the personal investment we put into our lives; in other words, what we have to lose if we turn to crime and get caught.

Involvement: how integrated are we so that we neither have the time nor inclination to behave in a deviant/criminal way.

Belief: how committed are individuals to upholding society’s rules and laws?

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 8:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Merton and the American Dream.

Robert Merton (1910-2003) regarded the concept of ‘anomie’ as used by Durkheim as too vague, so he developed its meaning. He altered anomie to mean a society where there is a disjunction between goals and the means of achieving them.

As a functionalist, he recognised the importance of shared goals and values of society – in the USA particularly the ‘American Dream’. But he recognised that not everyone has the same opportunity to share these goals and values. 

Merton’s theory is ‘structural‘: he locates the cause of crime in American society – support for the “American Dream”.  Being blocked from success leads to deviance, people adopt illegitimate means to achieve the goals they cannot achieve legitimately. E.g. steal cars to fund the ‘perfect house’

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 8:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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More Crime and location information

Official crime statistics point to most crime being committed in urban areas rather than rural areas although crime in rural areas is increasing due to the unemployment of people in rural areas. People who live in the inner-city are also more likely to be victims of crime.

Durkheim (1895) – A Functionalist Perspective

When explaining crime and locality Durkheim referred back to the concept of anomie, Durkheim also claimed that urbanisation came about due to the breakdown of community relationships. Due to the community relationship breaking down anomie is formed because people are no longer  sharing the social norms, values and beliefs anymore, the concept of consensus has gone. Durkheim went onto explain that deviance could have come about due to the lack of understanding that members in society has about what is seen to be right and wrong.

The Chicago schoolsResearches focused their research on the transition zone; this zone was seen to have lots of deviant behaviour due to the cheap slum-style housing and the lack of community which came from immigration and migrationLack of community = increased crimeCriticism

The idea of the zone transition doesn’t provide explanation for the existence of ‘white-collar’ crime.

Shaw and McKay (1942)

Shaw and McKay studied social disorganisation and claimed that Chicago and other large cities could be divided into five zones; the centre zone is the central business district.  Through use of official statistics Shaw and McKay saw home the second zone, which is ‘the zone of transition’ had the highest amounts of crime, they also saw how the crime rate declines the further one moves away from the centre.

All these factors lead to high levels of crime which stems from social disorganisation (anomie).

The Zone of Transition

–  Highly populated   

–  Large turnover in immigrant population

–  Immigrants become successful and move onto wealthier places and a new wave of immigrants arrive (Expanding on the above point)

–  Unsettled

–  Social deprivation – poor run down housing, these conditions are maintained and this leads to stress upon families. = Anomic pressure à CRIME 

Sutherland – Cultural Transmission Theory

Sutherland expands on Shaw and McKay’s points further that areas that consist of social disorganisation allows deviant norms and values to be passed onto through generations and criminals becoming role models. All this leads to deviant ways of life becoming acceptable and youths are socialised into these alternative values.

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 5:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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