Durkheim’s Functionalist theory of crime

Functionalist’s see society as a stable system based on value consensus- shared norms and values, beliefs and goals. This produces social solidarity, binding individuals together into a harmonious unit. To achieve this, society has two key mechanisms:

Socialisation: instils the shared culture into its members (norms and values)

Social control: mechanisms include rewards (positive sanctions) for conformity, and punishments (negative sanctions) for deviance.

Crime is inevitable and universal

While crime disrupts social stability, functionalists see is as inevitable and universal. Durkheim sees crime as a normal part of all healthy societies:

  • In every society, some individuals are inadequately socialised and prone to deviate
  • In modern societies, there is a highly specialised division of labour and a diversity of subcultures. Individuals and groups become increasingly different from one another and the shared rules of behaviour become less clear. Durkheim calls this anomie.

The functions of crime

Boundary Maintenance

  • Crime produces a reaction from society, uniting its members against the wrongdoer and reinforcing their commitment to the value consensus.
  • This is the function of punishment: to reaffirm shared rules and reinforce solidarity. For example, court rooms are public meaning people can be reminded of the boundaries between right and wrong and come together in solidarity.

Adaptations and change – all change starts as deviance.

For change to occur, individuals with new ideas must challenge existing normal. At first, it will appear as deviant. However, if it is suppressed, society will be unable to make any necessary adaptive changes and will stagnate.

Safety Valve

Davis argues that prostitution acts as a safety valve to release men’s sexual frustrations without threatening the nuclear family.


Warning light

Cohen argues that deviance indicates that an institution is malfunctioning. For example, a high truancy rate might indicate problems within the education system.

Criticisms of Durkheim

  • Durkheim claims society requires a certain amount of deviance to function but offers no way of knowing how much the right amount is.
  • Durkheim and other functionalist explain crime in the terms of its functions e.g. to strengthen solidarity. But just because crime does these things doesn’t necessarily mean this is why it exists in the first place.