Functionalist Explanations of Crime


Durkheim's Theory

Durkheim argued that Crime is:




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It is present in all societies

It is an integral part of healthy societies (see functionality)

Not everyone is equally committed to collective solidarity and some will overstep the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour

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Deviance and crime occur in all societies - Crime and punishment within a society are both necessary, normal, inevitable and healthy (Durkheim, 1895)

There is never complete and total consensus on societal norms and laws

However, for Durkheim, too much crime was a sign of a weak societal bond and instability within society – anomie (normlessness – where shared norms become weakened)

In modern society the ‘culture’ or ‘ideology’ of individualism leads to increasingly egoistic behaviour

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Allows society to clarify and re-enforce boundaries between acceptable (law abiding) and unacceptable (criminal) behaviour so enhancing social order and social cohesion.

Some crimes indicate the need for social change as public opinion moves ahead of the law (Social change function).

Some crimes act as a safety valve for society – example prostitution (social order function)

Act as a warning device that some aspect of society is mal-functioning – example truancy regulation

Crime only becomes dysfunctional when the rate is so high that it threatens the ‘order and stability’ of society

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Durkheim was the first to recognise that crime can have positive functions for society – e.g. reinforcing boundaries between right and wrong by uniting people against the wrongdoer
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Durkheim claims society requires a certain amount of deviance but offers no way of knowing how much is the right amount

While crime might be functional for some, it is not functional for victims

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Merton's Strain Theory

Merton believes that the root cause of crime lies in the inequal structure of society.

American society values economic success

Blocked opportunities for working class people are often blocked by inadequate schools and poverty.

This creates a ‘strain’ between the goal (‘The American Dream’ and the legitimate means to get to that goal.

Anomie= instability caused by a breakdown of standards

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Modes of Adaptation

1. Conformity: Accept the success goals of American society, and the prescribed means of attaining them

2. Ritualism: Rejects the cultural goals, but does not adapt in a criminal manner.

3. Innovation: Accepts the validity of cultural goals, but rejects the legitimate means of attaining them.

4. Retreatism rejects both the cultural goals, and the institutionalized means of attaining them; they are in society but not of it.

5. Rebellion reject both the goals and the means of capitalist American society, but unlike retreatists, rebels wish to substitute alternative legitimate goals and alternative legitimate means.

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Examples of Adaptation

1. Conformity = e.g. University Students

2. Ritualism = e.g. Telemarketer

3. Innovation =  e.g. Gangster

4. Retreatism = e.g. Drug addict, vagrant

5. Rebellion = e.g. Radical ‘terrorists 'and alternative cultures e.g. hippies

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Merton shows how both normal and deviant behaviour arise from the same goals. Conformists and innovators both pursue ‘money success’, but by different means.

He explains the patterns shown in official statistics: most crime is property crime, because society values wealth so highly; working class crime rates are higher, because they have less opportunity to obtain wealth legitimately.

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Merton ignores crimes of the wealthy and over-predicts the amount of working-class crime

He sees deviance solely as an individual response, ignoring the group deviance of delinquent subcultures

Merton focuses on utilitarian crime, e.g. theft, ignoring crimes with no economic motive e.g. vandalism.

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Agnew's Strain Theory

Agnew built on Merton's strain theory and said:

If you treat people badly (negative treatment or strain) they may become upset and respond with crime

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Strains That Increase the Chance of Crime

Failure to achieve core goals e.g. money in the short term or thrill and excitement

Parental rejection

Discipline very strict/excessive

Child abuse and neglect

Negative secondary school experiences

Employment – low pay


Abusive peer relations

Criminal victimisation

Experiences with prejudice and discrimination

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Factors Influencing Coping with Strain

Low tolerance for strain – e.g. easily upset

Poor coping skills e.g. poor social and problem solving skills

Little to lose in engaging in crime

Low self-control and negative emotionally (personal traits conducive to crime)

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