Durkheim: Crime in Society

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.

Durkheim asserts that crime is a necessary and indispensable part of society; what he means by this is that in any society, at any time there will  be crime because not everyone conforms to society’s collective consciousness (Pavlich, 2011, p.74). Collective consciousness refers to the overall beliefs that individuals in a society hold (Pavlich, 2011, p. 74).  Durkheim insists that crime is functional in the sense that it helps members of a society determine what is right and what is wrong (Pavlich, 2011, p. 80). In a sense, crime helps guide individuals in determining what is moral and what is not. For example, assisted suicide or euthanasia may be of moral contention to members of a society. However, based on Durkheim’s theory the laws criminalize it and thus help guide individuals in coming to the conclusion that euthanasia is wrong.
In contrast, I think Durkheim was only partly correct. Crime is a part of society and will always be because not everyone will conform to society’s standards. However, I do not think crime is necessary in a society; individuals may be guided morally without crime. Further, Durkheim does not explain how society’s collective consciousness may change to include acts that were once crimes and therefore considered immoral. One could look at same-sex marriage as an example. In the past, most members of a society would see it as a crime and therefore immoral, however this ‘crime’ is more readily accepted now. Does this mean morality has changed?
The sociological theory presented by Durkheim revolutionized the mentality society had by shifting the focus from “them” to “us”, or from the “individual” to “society” as a whole. A contemparary view which I think Durkheim would not agree with is the view of restorative justice. Since restorative justice is based on rehabilitating individuals back into society, Durkheim would argue that they, in fact cannot do so, since crime will always be present and punishment is the only answer.

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

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1 Comment

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One response to “Durkheim: Crime in Society

  1. You argue that: “I do not think crime is necessary in a society; individuals may be guided morally without crime”, and you reference the restorative justice movement.

    This is an interesting and important argument, and I would like to hear more about your position!

    For critical criminologists, the concept of crime is highly problematic. Louk Hulsman, in his famous 1986 article “Critical Criminology and the Concept of Crime”, persuasively argues that “Crime has no ontological reality. Crime is not the object but the product of criminal policy. Criminalisation is one of the many ways to construct social reality” (p. 71).

    As Hulsman would note, where Durkheim goes wrong is with the suggestion that ‘crime’ is a universally applicable social fact. In fact, criminalization is one way to deal with the transgression of social norms or harmful behaviors.