Durkheim: Crime serves a Social Function

Food for Thought:
Durkheim’s sociology of law proposes that crime is a normal part of society, and that it is necessary and indispensable. What does this mean? Is Durkheim correct? Discuss, with reference to contemporary examples.

Emile Durkheim’s theory that crime is a normal aspect of society is based on his belief that crime itself serves a social function.  That social function is to support or reassure the social norms of a society by the fact that crime is considered going against the norm.  Put simply, crime is simply deviant behaviour that goes against social norms.  It is with that model that law is created, from the adverse reactions of criminal behaviour by society.  As Pavlich (2011) states, “law is conceived of as the product of a given society” (p. 73).  Durkheim’s main focus was the idea of ‘social solidarity’, or how society works together as a whole and how society is organized.  He rejected the idea of individualism in the sense that society is the sum of its individual members; rather that it should be studied collectively.  Another principle of Durkheim’s that keeps society stable is ‘social facts’, that is, “ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, external to the individual,” (Pavlich, 2011, p. 74).  It is these social facts that hold control and authority over individuals to keep society stable.

One of the main arguments for Durkheim’s theory is that since crime is found in all societies, it must be performing necessary functions otherwise it would disappear in an advanced society. (Hamlin, 2009).   One of these necessary functions is social change.  Crime is one of the most effective sources of social change in any society.  When crime goes against social norms, eventually a society’s collective belief will transform thus bringing about social change.  A prime example is the Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States that promoted racial segregation.  As society progressed many people began violating the laws at the time until society reached a point where it was considered a norm for inter-racial relationships in society.  Eventually racial segregation was abolished and in today’s society would violate social norms.

In my opinion, I would agree to some extent, with Durkheim’s theory and say that he is correct in saying that crime is inevitable.  Moreover, it is largely inevitable in societies with higher inequality such as socio-economic statuses which Durkheim mentions as being a factor of crime.  However, crime will always occur in every society regardless of its socio-economic state because most social norms are based on a moral code.  That moral code can only be defined by previous criminal behaviour for that specific society.  Therefore, crime has to be present for social norms and laws to be created.

One point of Durkheim’s that I agree with in theory but disagree with in a practical sense is his notion that crime reinforces social norms because that contradicts how crime can bring about social change.  If social norms against crime collectively become stronger when it is committed, then how can those norms be reversed?

References:

Pavlich, G. (2011). Law & Society Redefined. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.

Hamlin, J. (2009) The Normality of Crime. Durkheim and Erikson, Department of Sociology and Anthropology. UMD

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1 Comment

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One response to “Durkheim: Crime serves a Social Function

  1. I have not encountered Hamlin (2009) before. Do you have a copy that you could bring for me to check out?

    You note that “crime will always occur in every society regardless of its socio-economic state because most social norms are based on a moral code.  That moral code can only be defined by previous criminal behaviour for that specific society.  Therefore, crime has to be present for social norms and laws to be created.”

    This is an interesting observation. It certainly fits with the links that Durkheim recognizes between crime, law, and morality. Do you think that your last statement – that crime has to be present for social norms and laws to be created – is applicable to the current context, though? Is crime a necessary precursor to law? Some criminologists argue the opposite – that it is the enactment of laws and the criminalization of social problems that, in effect, ‘creates crime’. Christie (2004) has noted that this makes crime an ‘unlimited natural resource’. What do you think?

    Regarding your last paragraph, note that crime – and the response to crime – creates opportunities for norm clarification. In most instances, this means reinforcement and the reaffirmation of dominant ideas of normalcy and deviance. In some instances, though, this will mean that crimes act as catalysts for processes that change a normative framework.

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