A short set of Notes covering a range of Functionalist explanations for crime and deviance, largely based around the concepts of anomie (both the Durkheimian and Mertonian interpretations) and Strain (Merton again plus Agnew’s General Strain Theory). There’s also a little bit of subcultural stuff thrown-in for good measure.
Functionalist approaches are based around an understanding of how societies solve what Durkheim (1938) called two problems of existence: how to create order and maintain social stability in a situation where millions of unique individuals, each with their own particular (self) interests, must be persuaded to behave collectively.
The simple answer involves the notion of collective sentiments – shared beliefs about society and the development of behavioural rules designed to reinforce this collective consciousness. However, the existence of behavioural rules, in the shape of formal and informal norms, presupposes that some will break the rules, because if they didn’t, rules would be unnecessary.
For Durkheim, therefore, deviance was normal, by which he meant functional (as opposed to beneficial). Deviance contributed to social stability because when people act ‘as a group or society’ against deviants it becomes a mechanism through which the collective conscience is both recognised and affirmed.
In complex societies, for example, the fact some people ‘break rules’ tells everyone where the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour lie. The public condemnation of deviants, through media, for example, establishes and reinforces consensual boundaries. In this respect, crime promotes social integrationand social solidarity through its ‘public naming and shaming’ function. Popular alarm and outrage at criminal acts serve to draw people closer together ‘against a common enemy’.
Deviance is also a mechanism for social change because it tests the boundaries of public tolerance and morality. It is a social dynamicthat forces people to assess and reassess the nature of social statics(such as written laws). Laws criminalising homosexuality in our society, for example, have gradually been abandoned in line with changing social attitudes.
Matza’s (1964) study of juvenile delinquency provides empirical support for Durkheim’s basic argument when he suggests young people have little commitment to deviant (or ‘subterranean’) values that threaten the moral consensus. Matza found that, when caught, people employ techniques of neutralisation in an attempt to explain or justify their deviance. They deny, for example, personal responsibility (‘I was drunk…’), injury (‘no one was hurt’) or victimisation (‘they hit me first’) and by so doing show a commitment to conventional moral values. If they did not respect those values there would be little point trying to justify their guilt.
Merton’s concept of anomie
While Durkheim saw a certain level of deviance as functional, he also argued that ‘too much crime’ damaged the collective conscience by creating ‘normative confusion’ or anomie – and while we have no objective way of measuring when ‘too much crime’ becomes dysfunctional, Merton (1938) developed the concept of anomie to explore how deviance was an individual response to problems at the structural level of society.
Merton’s strain theory was based on the idea that ‘success’ was an important cultural goal in modern societies – as Akers and Sellers (2004) argue, ‘Everyone is socialised to aspire toward high achievement and success… Worth is judged by material and monetary success’ – and deviance occurred when the cultural goals of individual behaviour could not be achieved using the structural means (such as paid work) for their realisation provided by the social system.
In other words, if individuals were prevented from achieving ‘success’ legitimately – because they failed in the education system, experienced institutional forms of discrimination that blocked their chances of advancement, or whatever – they experienced anomie: normative confusion brought about by society demanding they be successful while simultaneously denying them the means to achieve that desired state. How people reacted to this structural pressure (or strain) is summarised in the following table:
Responses to structural strains
|Denies legitimacy of means and goals
|Terrorist / Freedom Fighter
|√ = accepts, x = rejects
Although strain theory suggests that people are either conformists or deviants, Clarke (1980) argues the reality is less clear-cut; even those heavily involved in criminal behaviour actually spend a large proportion of their time conforming to conventional (non-criminal) social norms and values, a criticism addressed by Agnew’s (1992) contemporary updating of strain theory.
General Strain Theory
A conventional criticism of strain theory is that while it explains utilitarian crimes – those committed for economic gain – it is more difficult to apply to non-utilitarian crimes, such as vandalism or violent assault. Agnew, however, argues that while the general principle of strain causing specific reactions in individual behaviour holds true, its scope should be broadened.
General strain theory identified three ways this could be achieved:
1. In terms of the ‘failure to achieve positively valued goals’:
These goals might involve economic success, status/respect or autonomy (a sense of freedom and control). Strains occur in terms of ‘disunities’ – an idea that mirrors Merton’s ‘ends and means’ argument -across three main dimensions:
- aspirations and expectations — disparities between what we want and our ability to legitimately achieve it
- expectations and achievements — when we fail to achieve the things we expect to achieve
- outcomes and expectations — when we think we deserve something but are then ‘unfairly’ denied it.
2. In terms of the ‘the removal of positively valued stimuli’:
People may, for example, be tipped into deviance by a sense of loss — a sudden and unjustifiable removal of something important or desired from their life (such as bereavement, unemployment or educational failure). The individual may use deviant means to regain what they feel they have lost or to take revenge on those they believe responsible (which may, if they blame themselves, include suicide).
This extends to larger social groups in the sense that if the belief arises that other groups (class, gender, age or ethnic) are treated more favourably than one’s own by the judicial system, positive stimuli towards conformity is loosened. The perception that there is ‘one rule for them and one rule for us’ provides powerful stimulation for deviance.
3. In terms of ‘the presentation of negatively valued stimuli’:
Where people are hit with negative stimuli (collectively, such as sexual or racial discrimination, or individually through things like parental divorce, sexual abuse, school bullying and so forth) their response may be a deviant one.
Finally, to explain why people react differently to strain Agnew argues that individuals develop coping strategies that minimise, avoid or deflect strains:
- cognitive involves things like accentuating the positives or accepting the negatives
- behavioural involvesmodifying or changing expectations about certain situations, such as what they want out of school or work
- emotional involvesneutralising tensions through things like physical exercise or relaxation techniques
Conventional criticisms of functionalist explanations focus on their over-reliance on official statistics as ‘social facts’ that capture the broad reality of crime in our society, rather than as social constructions that may tell us as much about the priorities and activities of control agencies such as the police, media and politicians as they do about offenders. The focus on consensus as the basis for legal norms is also a problematic area since it fails to explain why some forms of behaviour and some forms of offender are more likely than others to be criminalised.
Conflicts over who and what becomes seen as deviant are generally ignored or marginalised, as is the idea that some groups take for themselves the power to make and shape laws that reflect their own particular interests. The activities of large, powerful, corporations, for example, are less likely to be defined as criminal (and even where they are, are less likely to be rigorously and forcefully policed — unlike the behaviour of the poor and powerless).
While Functionalism can be criticised for over-determining crime and deviance as a simple response to ‘structural stimulation’, general strain theory goes some way to avoiding this problem. While deviance must be explained by how people respond to structural strains, there is room for individual moral choices explained in terms of how people experience different types of strain in different ways.
More generally, conventional criticisms of functionalist explanations focus on their over-reliance on official statistics as ‘social facts’ that capture the broad reality of crime in our society, rather than as social constructions that may tell us as much about the priorities and activities of control agencies such as the police, media and politicians as they do about offenders. The focus on consensus as the basis for legal norms is also a problematic area since it fails to explain why some forms of behaviour and some forms of offender are more likely than others to be criminalised.
Conflicts over who and what becomes seen as deviant are generally ignored or marginalised by Functionalist perspectives, as is the idea that some groups take for themselves the power to make and shape laws that reflect their own particular interests. The activities of large, powerful, corporations, for example, are less likely to be defined as criminal (and even where they are, are less likely to be rigorously and forcefully policed – unlike the behaviour of the poor and powerless).
Finally, while Functionalism can be criticised for over-determining crime and deviance as a simple response to ‘structural stimulation’, general strain theory goes some way to avoiding this problem. While deviance must be explained by how people respond to structural strains, there is room for individual moral choices explained in terms of how people experience different types of strain in different ways.
A further dimension to Functionalist explanations involves the notion of subcultures that take two basic forms:
Reactive (or oppositional) subcultures involve group members developing norms and values as a response to, and opposition against, the prevailing norms and values of a wider culture. Cohen (1955), for example, argued that young male delinquent subcultures developed out of status frustration/deprivation and Hargreaves (1967) showed how young working-class males react to being denied status in schools by forming groups that give them the status they desire through subcultures that consciously opposed school rules.
In a contemporary application of this idea Gardner (1993) suggested that the search for ‘respect’ (from one’s peers in particular) was a salient feature of gang membership for young working-class males, such that ‘any insult to even the trappings of gang identity is ground for battle’.
Taking a wider view, Cloward and Ohlin (1960) argued a different form of reactive subculture developed in terms of opportunity structures. Following Merton, they noted the significance of legitimate opportunity structures (such as work) as a way of achieving success. However, these were paralleled by three types of ‘illegitimate opportunity structure’ that provided an ‘alternative career structure’ for deviants:
- Criminal subcultures developed in stable working-class communities with successful criminal role models(demonstrating that ‘crime pays’) and a career structurefor aspiring criminals.
- Conflict subcultures — without community support mechanisms, self-contained gang culturesdeveloped by providing ‘services’, such as prostitution and drug dealing.
- Retreatist subcultures developed among those unable to join criminal or conflict subcultures (they failed in both legitimate and illegitimate job markets). Members retreated into ‘individualistic’ subcultures based around drug abuse, alcoholism, vagrancy, and so forth.
Independent subcultures involve individuals holding norms and values that develop out of their experiences within a particular cultural setting. Subcultural development is an ‘independent’ product of and solution to the problems faced by young working-class males in their everyday lives. A classic example is provided by Miller (1958) in his analysis of gang development in the USA, when he argues that the focal concerns of working-class subcultures (acting tough, being prepared for ‘trouble’, a desire for fun and excitement) bring such groups into conflict with the values of wider society, leading to their perception and labelling as deviant. In a British context, Parker (1974) observed a similar process in his study of Liverpool gang behaviour.
Costello (1997) suggests two crucial problems are left unanswered by Functionalist subcultural theories.
First, there is the assumption that similar behaviour patterns are indicative of an organised group. Cohen (1972), for example, argues that ‘subcultural groups’ reflect a labelling processby outside groups (especially the media), which impose a sense of organisation on behaviour that has little or no collective meaning for those involved.
Second, the labelling process argument is reinforced by a second problem, that of cultural transmission. The vast majority of ‘subcultural groups’ lack mechanisms for socialising new and potential members, which suggests it’s mistaken to see them as particularly coherent social groups.
Bennett (1999), for example, argues that ‘subculture’ has become a ‘catch-all’ category applied indiscriminately to a wide range of behaviours that are not subcultures in the sociological sense. He suggests the concept of neo-tribes – loose gatherings of like-minded individuals – has more relevance and meaning for the analysis of such behaviour, since it reflects a postmodern emphasis on the way cultural identities are ‘constructed rather than given’ and ‘fluid rather than fixed’.
While these criticisms can be applied generally to a lot of behaviour traditionally assumed to be subcultural in origin, some groups – such as highly structured youth gangs in America – do seem to exhibit strong subcultural features.