Functionalism – Crime and Deviance

Lesson objectiveTo explore the functionalist approach the crime
Lesson outcomes• Assess its relevance in today’s society
• Analyse functionalism
• Explain the functionalist approach to crime

Durkheim (1982/5) argues that crime is an inevitable feature of social life because not everyone is committed tot he shared values and moral beliefs of society. Durkheim saw some crime performing four necessary and beneficial functions:

1) Strengthening collective values – punishing criminals reasserts the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

2) Enabling social change – deviance is necessary to allow new ideas to develop

3) Acting as a ‘safety valve’ – to ease stresses and frustrations in society.

4) Acting as a warning deviance that society is not working properly.

The Functionalist and subcultural theory approach can be broken down into two arguments: 1) Strain theory, 2) Subcultural theory.

The Functionalist approach (Strain Theory)

In 1968), Merton develops the Functionalist theory by attempting to explain why deviance arises in the first place. To do this, he created the Strain Model Theory (see image below). Simply, people fall into one of the boxes below.

In his discussion of deviance Merton proposed a typology of deviant behaviour that illustrated the possible discrepancies between culturally defined goals and the institutionalised means available to achieve these goals. A typology is a classification scheme designed to facilitate understanding. In this case, Merton was proposing a typology of deviance based upon two criteria: (1) a person’s motivations or his adherence to cultural goals; (2) a person’s belief in how to attain his goals. According to Merton, there are five types of deviance based upon these criteria.

  • Conformity involves the acceptance of the cultural goals and means of attaining those goals.
  • Innovation involves the acceptance of the goals of a culture but the rejection of the traditional and/or legitimate means of attaining those goals. For example, a member of the Mafia values wealth but employs alternative means of attaining his wealth; in this example, the Mafia member’s means would be deviant.
  • Ritualism involves the rejection of cultural goals but the routinised acceptance of the means for achieving the goals.
  • Retreatism involves the rejection of both the cultural goals and the traditional means of achieving those goals.
  • Rebellion is a special case wherein the individual rejects both the cultural goals and traditional means of achieving them but actively attempts to replace both elements of the society with different goals and meaEvaln

Evaluation of Merton’s strain theory

  • (Good) – All forms of deviance are considered.
  • (Bad) – It disregards social patterns and focuses too much on individual responses.
  • (Bad) – It doesn’t explain how some people don’t turn to crime, even though they face strain.
  • (Bad) – It emphasises that all crime must result in material reward – some don’t e.g. murder by passion.

Subcultural Theory

This develops the weakenesses of the main Functionalist argument by exploring how groups behaviour to social pressure, rather than individuals with a focus on the working class.

Status Frustration

Cohen discusses his research of working-class male youths and their acceptance of mainstream goals. They react by forming a subculture that creates delinquent values and opposites mainstream values. Read more on Cohen’s study here.

Evaluation of Cohen’s Theory

(Good) – This is the only Functionalist explanation that explores how groups behave and not just individuals.

(Bad) – It emphasises that individuals accept mainstream goals and then reject them. Some people don’t accept them at all and simply go straight to the rejection phase.

Cloward and Ohlin

This research highlights how different working class youth’s do not have the same access to illegitimate opportunities. Instead, three subcultures are formed:

  1. Criminal subcultures – Working class areas provide adult criminals the opportunity to train younger criminals to achieve material goals by illegitimate means.
  2. Conflict subcultures – Young people claim their identities through their status within violence gang cultures.
  3. Retreatist subcultures – These criminals fail in both systems above and end up retreating in to addiction e.g. alcoholism.

(Good) – Cloward and Ohlin are one of the first researchers who are able to explain that different people respond to different pressures in different ways.

(Bad) – Their research can be criticised for being too reductive in just creating three subcultures, and also, equally can be criticised for exaggerating differences.

Evaluation of the Functionalist based approach

(Good) – They offer suggestions on both how and why individuals and groups turn to crime.

(Bad) – They are over reliant on official statistics.

(Bad) – They disregard other forms of crime e.g. white collar crime and focus too much on working-class crime.

(Bad) – They assume that all people start by adopting mainstream values. There is no evidence of this.

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