Functionalist theorists hold the view that each part of society has its own function to perform in order to maintain social order. Laws and other forms of policing prevent the occurrence of crimes and deviant behaviors. In case of violations, lawbreakers are interrogated, incarcerated and/or punished . Emile Durkheim (1857-1917) claimed that deviant behavior (e.g., crime) and subsequent punishment offer a useful social function. In cases of deviance, it is considered as having a complementary positive function because it helps to establish consensus as to what is right or wrong in a society. Functionalism, however, has its adversaries such as Marxist and Feminist sociological schools. So, what is exactly functionalist perspective on crime?
Functionalist perspective on crime
Functionalism maintains that social order is a “commitment to a shared cultural system of normative beliefs, values, and sentiments” and thus benefits people. Law and order, under the functionalist theory of crime, put limit, curtail and/or prevent the occurrence of social maladies . Although, there are some instances where a crime is viewed positively in the sense that it can be a warning or safety device for social solidarity. Changing laws avoid the clashes of concerns regarding individual rights or social cohesion .
Durkheim, for one, believed in consensus for an orderly society by means of a conscience collective (or common conscience). In conscience collective, people have an agreement as to what is acceptable or not acceptable in their society. Peoples’ set of shared values serves to guide their individual actions; thus, prevents the lack of social control, standards and regulations in society (known as anomie). Further, through collective conscience, people reaffirm changing values or social boundaries (such as concerning court and police actions).
For Robert Merton (1910-2003), crimes and deviance are caused by conflicts arising between discrepancies in the attainment of cultural goals and the means (e.g., norms, institutions and values) of obtaining them . In ideal settings, individuals can have access to societal means in the delivery of goals; but in reality, it is not often the case. Some, if not most, people do not have access to the means because not everyone has the same social background. Hence, there is the existence of social strain or tension. In order to respond to diverse individual and social strains, people resort to conformity (acceptance of both goals and means), innovation (acceptance of goals but not means), ritualism (rejection of the goals but not the means), retreatism (rejection of both goals and means), and rebellion (replacement of both goals and means).
Before presenting Marxist and Feminist critiques of Functionalism, it is important to note that one of the major criticisms hurled against functionalist perspective is that minor deviant behavior (e.g., drug abuse) are common among most, if not all, classes of individuals.
Critique by Marxist school
Marxist school believes that the propertied ruling class benefits far more than the property laborers; how much more over the deviants. Marxists claim that the ruling class makes law to keep the lower class under submission and control considering that they are powerless. Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed that the working class is not even aware that they are being exploited.
Marxists criticism of functionalist perspective is because of its emphasis on the shared features of youth culture, which ignore the clear differences between youth subcultures such as youth gangs found in many large urban centers in North America, with lower class and ethnic minority neighborhoods . For Marxists, the differences are important in social class differences within society. Hence, Marxists are of the view that functionalists are more interested in the concept of youth culture rather than subculture.
There are also gender crime and socialization where marked violence is present even in one’s home. There are family members who are drug abusers/users, incestuous adults, etc. Marxists attribute social ills to the existing inequalities in societies. Even in police surveillance and court litigations, there is a big difference between treatments among people in the lower strata of society as compared to those in the upper class status.
Critique by Feminist school
Feminist school is the only theory that evaluates gender differences when explaining deviance or crime. It has criticized functionalist school for not considering gendered perspective in law concerning crimes and deviant behaviors. Feminists argued that functionalist research is based much on male dominated society rather than gender equality. In cases such as divorce, aboriginal women’s rights, domestic violence, sexual assaults, and pornography , male power dominates. Thus, feminists advocate equality in treatment before the law considering that the official symbol of law is a blindfolded maiden, untouched , and blind to differences of race, social status , gender and other sources of prejudices.
Functionalism looks into the whole of society as the source of deviance and crime rather than to the individual. Durkheim believes that crimes are expected to occur in all societies. However, to prevent or control the occurrence of crimes and deviance, police and courts put in place to maintain social control and order. For functionalists, deviance and crimes have positive effects for society not to stagnate because people consequently establish social cohesion and solidarity. Functionalism remains as the only theory that views crime as having a positive function – it has not without critics.
Concerning Marxist and Feminist schools’ critiques against functionalist perspective, they say that the latter failed to consider that human actions and institutions are economically determined and are not to be considered gender blind, respectively. Despite the criticisms hurled against functionalist perspective, not all three theories can explain why one individual will turn to crime and other forms of deviant behavior – whereas others will not.
Hale, S. M. (2011). Contested Sociology: Rethinking Canadian Experience. Pearson Education Canada.