Outline & Evaluate the Functionalist Approach to Crime & Deviance Essay

This question includes assessment of your understanding of the connections between crime and deviance and sociological theory.

Functionalist explanations of deviance begin with society as a whole looking for the origins of deviance in the nature of society, not the biological or psychological make up of an individual. Functionalists favour quantative methods to look at society, using statistics to see society as a whole, rather than looking at the individual’s effect on society.

The majority of Functionalist’s ideas on crime derive from the work of Durkheim.

Durkheim believes that crime in inevitable because not every member of society shares the same values and norms; every society has crime, particularly the most advanced industrial societies. Crime is seen as not only inevitable, but functional to society because it allows for change, which is vital for society to function. Durkheim argues that crime brings society together, as in the case of the Soham murders. From this point of view it can be questioned what the function of punishment is, Durkheim believes punishment is a form of social control and act as a signal to people.

A.K Cohen developed Durkheim’s ideas further, providing further possible functions of deviance. Firstly deviance can act as a safety valve providing an expression of discontent.

Cohen uses the example of prostitution, he believes this protects the institution of the family and provides a release from the stress of family life without undermining family stability because the relationship between prostitute and client has no emotional attachments. In other words it is fine for a man to use a prostitute, but not to have an affair because that would jeopardise the family! Cohen believes that deviance acts as a warning device too indicate that an aspect of society is malfunctioning, thus drawing attention to it and allowing the problem to be resolved. An example of this is the Los Angeles riots that drew attention to the mistreatment of blacks, likewise the Steven Lawrence case.

Durkheim and Cohen’s work is important because it moved ideas away from biological and psychological explanations for deviance, rather seeing it being society itself creating crime. However, other sociologists believe the functions are too narrow and class differences are not examined.

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