04/11/17
​​​​​​​​​​​​​This piece is aimed at furthering the understanding of Sociology A-level students studying either the AQA or OCR units on Crime and Deviance. The focus of this blog are the ideas of Emile Durkheim who is seen by many as one of the founding fathers of both Functionalism and sociological positivism. I am particularly interested in Durkheim's ideas about crime, deviance and law. I am going to suggest that A-level students need to understand two key ideas in Durkheim's work. Firstly, he claims that crime increases and law & order becomes weaker when societies undergo serious economic and social change. In order to explore this idea we need to understand that Durkheim identified two types of society – those based on mechanical solidarity – and those based on organic solidarity.
Societies based on mechanical solidarity have low rates of crime because agencies of socialization and social control such as the family and religion are extremely powerful and stress that all members of society should conform to an influential value consensus. In societies like this, the individual is expected to be secondary to the community or society. Consequently, individualism and difference are seen as deviant and criminal and are severely punished – sometimes by death or exile. However, crime rates are low because fear of punishment results in general conformity to the rules.
Durkheim claims that pre-industrial Europe, including the UK, was characterised by mechanical solidarity. This may be a reason why so many women (approximately 600,000) were put to death between 1200 and 1600 after being accused of witchcraft. These women may have been regarded as deviant because they did not conform to dominant patriarchal norms, i.e. they may have been unmarried, they may have been regarded by men as threatening because of their knowledge of alternative medicine, they probably did not attend church etc. These women were different and therefore defined as deviant and deserving of punishment.
It can be argued that societies based on mechanical solidarity continue to exist in 2017. For example, many developing societies that have not yet fully industrialised or urbanised are characterised by strong consensus which is often the product of the extended family and local religion. Some Islamic societies, notably Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia can be seen to be based on mechanical solidarity because the individual is expected to subordinate him or herself to the wider Islamic community. When females deviate from the consensus (e.g. Malala Yousafzai) they may be severely punished.
The communist societies of Eastern Europe which collapsed in the 1990s and present-day China and North Korea can also be seen to be examples of societies underpinned by mechanical solidarity. Crime was low in the communist USSR and is low today in China because the Communist party in these states have socialised the population into a powerful value consensus that actually encourages family members and neighbours to inform on one another if they act in a deviant or criminal way. The Soviet Union would often put people who protested about communism (dissenters) into mental hospitals whilst contemporary China practises the death penalty for a range of criminal offences including white collar crime, drug possession etc.

Durkheim claimed that modern industrial-capitalist societies are characterised by organic solidarity. In these societies, family life, religion and community have all gone into decline because industrialisation has led to large-scale urbanisation – modern society has seen the rapid growth of impersonal cities and towns in which people are generally strangers to one another. Furthermore no one set of ideas is able to dominate. Rather people in modern societies are exposed to many competing ideas which also weakens their commitment to traditional institutions such as family and religion. These ideas sometimes blur the distinction between right and wrong. Consequently, value consensus becomes weaker which has resulted in anomie or moral confusion. Anomie means people have become more individualistic or egoistic and often put their own interests before those of their community or society. To summarise then, Durkheim is arguing that crime is caused by anomie or the moral ambiguity brought about by rapid social change. There are empirical studies that support this view. For example, social attitude surveys suggest that tax evasion is not regarded as 'crime' by a large section of the population who claim they too would avoid their tax obligation if given the opportunity. Research by Goldstraw-White found that those convicted of white-collar crime rarely saw or labelled themselves as criminals. Rather they regarded their 'criminal' activity as 'morally ambiguous'. The USSR is a good example of a society that has undergone dramatic social change and evolved from a mechanical to an organic mode of solidarity. Before communism collapsed, crime levels were very low. Since the late 1990s, violent crime committed by mafia-type organised crime has steeply increased in Russia and other ex-communist states so that gangsterism now characterises all levels of Russian society.

Durkheim’s second big idea is quite controversial because he claims that crime and deviance such as suicide will always exist and are unlikely to be eradicted. Durkheim observed that crime and deviance exist in all known societies and consequently we should accept a certain level of crime and deviance as ‘normal’ and even see it as functional or good for society in a number of ways. Firstly, he suggests that crime and deviance can function for the good of society by identifying potential social problems that might undermine social order. In this sense, it acts as a social barometer – a guide to whether society is working well or not.

For example, if we examine suicide, we can see that in the UK between 3000 and 4000 people kill themselves annually. It rarely falls below 3000 and rarely rises above 4000. Durkheim therefore controversially suggested that there is a ‘normal’ suicide rate. For example, if the UK suicide rate remains between 3000-4000, this is ‘healthy’ but if it rises substantially above 4000, this indicates a social problem that may threaten social order and therefore is in need of fixing. Durkheim argued that crime rates perform a similar function, e.g. if crime suddenly spikes upwards as it did in 2011 because of the London riots and looting, this may indicate a breakdown in one of the social institutions, for example, the family that makes up the social system. If crime should fall dramatically this may indicate an overly repressive political system such as a dictatorship with a poor human rights record. As far as Durkheim is concerned, both situations are unhealthy for society and need fixing.

Durkheim also notes that an increase in crime or deviance may function to indicate an urgent need for social change especially a change in the law. A good example of this was the mass kiss-in by gay and lesbian people that took place in Piccadilly Circus in 1990 which helped to persuade the London Metropolitan Police to stop prosecuting LGBT couples for public displays of affection. Some groups- functional rebels - therefore might deliberately break the law in order to get an unfair law or police practice changed. For example, the Suffragettes deliberately set out to break laws in the early 1900s in order to force Parliament to give women the vote.

Durkheim also argued that the social system (which is made up of agencies of socialisation and social control such as the family, education, the mass media and religion) is responsible for setting the boundaries between what constitutes socially acceptable behaviour and what constitutes deviant or criminal behaviour. The function of the criminal justice system - the law, the police, the courts and prisons - is to reinforce those boundaries and to reflect the consensensus as to what is acceptable or unacceptable.

Durkheim claimed that the role of social institutions such as religion and the mass media is to create shared outrage, horror, anger, fear or grief especially with regard to extreme forms of deviance such as child-murder and terrorism. This community solidarity brings together ‘upright consciences’. This was particularly noticeable,for example, in the UK following the July 2005 London Underground bombings and in France following the terrorist attacks in Paris in
November 2015 and Nice in July 2016 as well in the USA following the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017. These crimes therefore reinforce community solidarity as society unites in outrage against those who stand outside the value consensus in their belief about what constitutes 'civilised' behaviour.
Sometimes too the criminal justice system is used to set an example – to remind people that certain types of behaviour will not be tolerated. Some functionalists such as Davis and Polsky argue that some types of crimes are actually useful because they prevent more serious crimes taking place. For example, they rather controversially argue that prostitution and pornography may function to prevent rape.

Durkheim's ideas on anomie and individualism have been highly influential especially over other functionalist thinkers such as Merton and Albert Cohen. I would also argue that Right Realism's emphasis on 'loss of community' as a cause of crime has also been shaped by Durkheim's ideas. Left Realists too stress that the causes of crime that they highlight - feelings of relative deprivation and marginalisation - are fueled by the fact that individualism as a belief system has largely replaced the belief system of respect for tradition and duty/obligation to traditional institutions such as the extended family and religion. The late-modernity ideas of Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck also stress that in late-modern society traditional ties and duties have largely been replaced by a greater degree of individual choice which have blurred the boundaries between selflessness and selfishness.