Crime is Normal

“Durkheim’s sociology of law proposes that crime is a normal part of society, and that it is necessary and indispensable.”

This week’s discussion focuses on Emile Durkheim’s sociology of law that suggest that crime is “normal” and that it is vital and essential in society.  I agree that crime plays an important role and it is needed. For something to exist in society, it must serve a purpose. For example laws exist to regulate order and for the advancement of society. Imagine society without laws, and nothing to hold us back. People will be killing each other to get what they want, and a society without laws will be one that is unjust.

I believe that different crimes serve certain purposes and functions in society. For example, section 287 of the criminal code made abortion a criminal offence unless it was carried out in a certified hospital after being approved by a therapeutic abortion committee. This has to certify that the continuation of a pregnancy “would or would be likely to endanger the woman’s “life or health.” Dr Morgentaler was charged with conspiracy to “procure the miscarriage” of female persons contrary to the provision of section 287. The charges stemmed from his establishment of clinic in Toronto that performed abortions on women who had not obtained a certificate from a therapeutic abortion committee. The supreme court strike down section 287 of the criminal code on the grounds that it infringed section 7 of the Charter, which guarantees the “right to life, liberty and security of a person and the right not to be deprived thereof expect in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” Dr Morgentaler’s case was an example of how crime can serve as a purpose and sometimes as a necessity to the advancement of society.

Durkheim argue that crime is meaningful and required in society, rather than something we view as a disease (Pavlich 79). He does not however provide an indication of what “normal” crime rate might be or how we can measure it. Durkheim believed crime is a social fact, a feature of societies, not of individuals. Social facts are external limits which control the way people act, think, and feel. These constraints may be firm or unstable. Social facts can also be described as a way of behaving that is set throughout a society. He noted that crime is widespread in all societies and therefore saw crime as having positive social function. He sees crime as a normal and a regular social fact; and that is the reason for its persistence (79). Crime is a universal feature of all societies therefore, it plays an important role and crime strengthens society by defining, what is right or wrong and creates the needs for laws. Crime can be functional as it calls attention to social problems, therefore increased in crime rates suggest a need for social change and promotes programs designed to reduce human suffering. This he reasoned was because society needed positive deviation and therefore negative deviation was foreseeable. Crime is a positive aspect of society as it helps produce a moral consensus in society. Through the punishment of criminals, the moral boundaries of a community are drawn out and attachment to them is unbreakable.

“Crime is relative to, and functions within, a specific moral framework of a given society, adding that, it performs both direct and indirect social functions: indirect because crime could only cease to exist if the conscience collective dominated individual consciences with such an ineluctable authority that moral change would be rendered impossible. Direct in that occasionally, but only occasionally, the criminal has been harbinger of a morality to come” (Pavlich 80).

Durkheim notes that, crime is found worldwide, it is normal and we cannot escape from it, as it plays a vital part in facilitating social progress.  It is performing a necessary positive function; otherwise,  and crime is the way to change. Crime is necessary because it brings attention to a social system that has failed to adapt to change and it is central because it exists in every society and functional as it serves to reinforce social norms.


Pavlich, G. (2011). Law & Society Redefined. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press. The 1969


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One response to “Crime is Normal

  1. Interesting post!

    You say that “For something to exist in society, it must serve a purpose.”

    This statement reflects a functionalist approach to social phenomena. I wonder, though – are there exceptions to this rule? Do practices emerge alongside their purposes, or can the purpose of a social phenomenon change and evolve over time?

    This is another interesting statement: “Imagine society without laws, and nothing to hold us back. People will be killing each other to get what they want, and a society without laws will be one that is unjust.”

    As a social scientist, I am immediately curious about the evidence that supports this claim. What you have described here is Hobbes’ “war of all against all” – the brutal and chaotic consequence of a society without a social contract (and without laws enforced by a sovereign). Implicit within this idea is the notion of a society composed of individual rational hedonists – a society in which the threat of sanction is the only thing that prevents us from engaging in the relentless predation of our fellow persons. Does this reflect what we know about the forces that shape and constrain human behavior? Is law a necessary precondition for cooperation or – as Durkheim would argue – is our collective valuing of cooperation the source of our laws?

    Your use of the Morgentaller case as an illustration of Durkehim’s argument is effective – especially because it recognizes the dynamic (changing) nature of social norms.

    Do you think that Durkheim’s approach to criminal law is capable of making sense of the many uses of the criminal sanction? What would you say about contemporary uses of law to pre-empt crime or impose controls on persons based on the risks they are deemed to pose? Finally, what would you say about the ways in which crime control measures disproportionately impact members of particular classes?