Nature of Crime CCJ 5015

                                 Dr. Robert E. Ford

                A Functionalist Perspective on Crime

Emile Durkheim and the Normality of Crime

Durkheim and the Functions of Crime

w    Durkheim (1858-1917) was interested in the industrial revolution and the changes it wrought on the social fabric.  One of the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution was increasing crime particularly in urban areas.

w    Emile Durkheim was a functionalist.  He believed if something exists in society it must have a purpose for existing.  It must serve a function.

w    Since crime existed it is necessary to explain the functions it performed.

Durkheim’s Social Order

w    Durkheims Social Order was based on:

    1. The functional dependence of institutions in society.

    2. Shared norms and values (the "social glue" that binds people together, such that their relationships become functionally dependent).

w    Social Control based on:

    1. Functional dependence at both the institutional and individual level (people need to co-operate in order for society to function

    Social Integration (The extent to which people are "bonded" into the rules, norms, beliefs and so forth of the society in which they live).

Social Control Continued

   2. Individual social relationships:

   (Behaviour is controlled by relatively informal norms and values that develop out of the mutual need to create and maintain dependent social relationships.)


Legal Systems

  In large-scale societies the legal system develops as a functional necessity to regulate relationships that cannot be adequately maintained by the operation of informal norms (mainly because instrumental nature of most relationships mean that moral ties are much weaker).




w    Functionalist theory generally argues that social behavior is a consequence of the way in which society (as a social structure) pressurizes people. In effect, people are born into an existing society and are taught the rules and relationships governing social behaviour. Social behavior, therefore, is explained by changes in the social structures that produce consequent changes in human behavior.


Non Conformity

w    Non-conformity to social norms occurs when  social structure is under pressure (or strain). 

w    Rapid technological change (Industrial Revolution) changes the way institutions relate to one another. Change produces new norms, new values.  Those socialised to the "old" norms take time to adapt - there is a "time lag" people have to be re-socialised in order to develop new norms / values that fit with structural changes. Normative confusion" anomie is likely to occur. 


Non Conformity

w   Thus, strain at the institutional (structural) level of society leads to a weakening of the Collective Conscience and, as a consequence, increased levels of crime / deviance.


Social Organization

w    In small-scale societies (rural, pre-industrial, societies), social organisation was seen to be based upon close, personal, norms and values.

w    Durkheim argued that since norms and values tend to be the social glue that binds people together in groups, the combination of informal social controls, restricted geographic mobility and the like, served as the basis for social order. 


w    As societies develop and grow, the moral ties which bind people are weakened. They cannot be continually reinforced by close, personal, contact.

w    As societies become more-complex in the multitude of social relationships, a mechanism to regulate relationships has to be developed - a legal system.

w    Legal systems develop to codify moral behaviour and this process lays the groundwork for our understanding of the functions of both law and crime.


w    Law and crime function to: 

w    Mark the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in any large-scale society. That is, they represent broad social guide-lines for people's behavior. 

w    Laws are a public form of boundary marking. They are written-down and applicable to everyone.  The codification of morals into laws requires public displays that such boundaries exist.


w   Boundary marking displays are made by:

w   The mass media crime is publicised.

w   The Courts -the rituals of the legal system serve to set it apart from everyday behaviour.

Durkheim and the Law

w    Criminal behaviour was seen to be the way in which legal boundaries were tested. Because laws were necessarily slow to change once adopted, changes in people's behavior over time would fail to be reflected in changes in the law,unless a mechanism existed to accommodate change.

w    Criminal behaviour, in effect, represents the dynamic force whereby people are made to reassess the applicability of various laws. Where laws are out-of-step with general behaviour, they need to be changed.

Social Solidarity

   Finally, crime has an integrating function, t public alarm and outrage at criminal acts serves to draw the law-abiding closer together. This increase social solidarity (the communal feelings that people have for one another)  The bonds between people were seen to be continually reinforced by criminal behaviour.

w    Although Durkheim was clear about the functional significance of crime, he was also aware of the fact that too much crime in a society would create problems.

Functional Up to a Point

w    A too high a level of crime could create problems, given the distinction that can be made between acceptable / unacceptable forms of behaviour and the idea of values consensus produced through socialization?

w    In this respect, Durkheim saw that too a high a level of criminal behaviour would be potentially disruptive (or dysfunctional) because it would seriously weaken the moral order in society:

Boundary Maintenance

w    In effect, people would no-longer know what was morally right or morally wrong and so would be unsure as to where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lay. 

w    Durkheim argued that the basis of social order in complex, industrial, societies was to be organic solidarity. Organic solidarity would produce a collective conscience which would be the underpinning of social order.

The Collective Conscience

    The collective conscience represents the will of society as a whole. 

w    Legal rules represent a form of objective expression of the collective conscience. In effect, laws develop out of (and are underpinned by) the collective conscience of a society.

    Durkheim argues that people are shaped by their social experiences (they experience society as a moral force bearing down upon them) if the collective conscience is weakened, the moral ties that bind people together are also weakened.


w    When (or perhaps "if" ) this happens, the concept used by Durkheim to express this weakening of moral ties was that of anomie:

w    This concept can be taken to mean a state of normlessness - a situation in which no norms of behavior are operating. 

    Anomie occurs when traditional norms of behaviour were undermined without being replaced by new norms. In the absence, people experience feelings of anxiety, aimlessness, purposelessness and, disorientation.


Durkheim and Anomie

w    Anomie was a very dangerous phenomenon, when people no-longer believe in their obligations, they revert to self-interest.  

w    Thus, high levels of criminal behaviour weaken the collective conscience and produce anomie. Since human beings cannot live in a state of true anomie for long, social collapse occurs and then the establishment of some new form of moral order...


Normal Crime

w   Normal crime was to Durkheim, crime that was not excessive. 

w   Durkheim argued that every society had crime therefore it must serve some functions.

w   Durkheim saw “normal” crime as serving the following functions:

w   Boundary maintenance

Normal Crime Functions

w   Social experimentation

w   Pressure release

w   Adaptive mechanisms.


w    One of the major criticisms of Durkheim's general work in relation to crime has been the idea that he ignores the way in which power is a significant variable in relation to the way in laws are created and maintained in any society. Thus, whilst Durkheim argued that the collective conscience was the objective expression of the values held by everyone in society, Erikson ("Wayward Puritans", 1966) attempted to develop Durkheim's basic ideas about such things as the boundary setting function of law.

Wayward Puritans

w    He did this by arguing that powerful groups within any society were able to impose their views upon the majority by a process of ideological manipulation. Erikson used the example of 17th century Puritanism to illustrate this idea.

w    Eriksons analysis also showed how the act of punishing could lead to greater solidarity and maintenance of social boundaries. 





w   Emile Durkheim- Suicide: A Study In Sociology, 1897; The Rules of Sociological Method, 1895

w   Kai Erikson Wayward Puritans,1966 

w   Robert Merton- Social Structure and Anomie, 1938.