Crime is inevitable – Durkheim, a functionalist, said that crime is inevitable in society. This is because not everyone will buy into the collective sentiments of society, and will deviate from these norms and beliefs.
Durkheim said a certain amount of crime and deviance as normal and an integral part of all healthy societies. This is because it acts as a ‘safety valve’, providing a relatively harmless way for someone to express their discontent. For example, Cohen said that “prostitution performs such a safety valve function without threatening the institution of the family”, this is because he believed this crime of prostitution could relieve the stress in a discrete way without damaging the rest of the clients life.
Clinard said crime also served the function of acting as a warning device. This is because the crime indicates that there is an aspect of society that is malfunctioning. So the crime draws attention to the problem within society, which can then be fixed.
Durkheim said that crime in society isn’t genetically produced, but is natural in society. However, he did say that too much crime was dangerous in a society, and this is an idea Merton developed.
Merton and Anomie
Merton observed American culture. He said that this society bought into the ‘American dream’ of having a successful career with lots of money, material possessions and a nice family.
Merton said that in a balanced society everyone will be happy, however, he said American society isn’t balanced, so when people struggle to live up to societies norms and values they try and find other ways of achieving this success, and act normlessly. Merton called this a strain to anomie, and it is this normless behaviour which he said caused crime in society. Consider it like someone losing in a card game, and the expectation for them to win is so high that they break the rules in order to do so.
Merton said there are five ways in which members of American society could respond to this strain to anomie:
- Conformity – Members of society conform to the norms of the rest of society (in this case the need for material goods) and try to achieve success through the normal means (work hard at school etc.)
- Innovation – People who feel that they cannot possibly achieve through the normal route try new ways of making money, in most cases this is a life of crime
- Ritualism – People who feel they can’t achieve because they have few job prospects, but also can’t turn to innovation might lower their goals and aspirations. This is considered deviant because they have rejected society’s norms and values by creating their own lower goals.
- Retreatism – People who cannot possibly earn success and feel there is no way to do so might retreat from society, or ‘drop out’. They resign to failure and often turn to alcohol or drugs abuse.
- Rebellion – People who cannot succeed but do not want to just admit defeat might rebel and try to create their own society with new goals and means.
To summarise, Merton believed the pressure exerted on people to succeed, a strain to anomie, meant that if they didn’t they would act normlessly to cope, and this could manifest itself in any of the 5 ways shown above.
Evaluation of Merton
– Some critics argue that actually society might not have a value consensus, so how can people feel pressured by it if the value consensus doesn’t exist.
– Also people say that Merton exaggerates working class crime and ignores white-collar crime committed by the wealthy in society.
– The biggest criticism of Merton’s work is that it doesn’t explain why people commit crimes that can’t be explained by a strain to anomie. For example freedom fighters who act criminally because of commitment rather than the effects of anomie.
+ However, evidence shows that after communist countries moved to free market economies (which stress the importance of individual material success) crime rates have rocketed. Similarly, as the UK moved to Thatcherism (which again places more value on material success and hard work) crime rates increased. This suggests that the strain to achieve what society considers ‘success’ can lead to crime, so it supports Merton’s view.