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Durkheim on Deviance

AS, A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas

Last updated 15 Sept 2022

Durkheim is often seen as the founding father of functionalist sociology, and his ideas about deviance must be understood in the context of his views about society as a whole. He had an organic analogy of society; he perceived it as akin to a human body: the various organs (institutions) had to function correctly for the whole to be in good health. Although excessive deviance could be symptomatic of an unhealthy or dysfunctional society, perhaps surprisingly, Durkheim argued that deviance itself was functional, normal and inevitable.

Durkheim suggested that deviance had the following functions:

  • Boundary maintenance
  • Social change

Durkheim argued that in a functioning society there is a value consensus (a shared set of norms and values) into which, thanks to various social institutions, the vast majority in a society have been socialised. One of the ways in which this consensus is reinforced is through the policing of the margins: the formal and informal sanctions used to either reward those who conform or punish those who deviate. Indeed, our shared disapproval of deviant behaviour strengthens our social solidarity. Durkheim argues that even in a "society of saints" there would still be deviance. In other words, as deviance describes any behaviour that goes against the norms, values and expectations of a society, all societies have deviance, even though the sorts of behaviour considered deviant might vary from society to society.

Deviance also facilitates social change. If people never deviated from a society's norms and values then society would never change; and change can be a very good thing (although functionalists would promote incremental, organic change rather than radical change). An organic process of social change is started by society responding positively to deviant behaviour. Slowly, the deviant behaviour becomes normal and, among other changes, this can lead to alterations in the law, e.g. changing attitudes to homosexuality in the 20th century.

A further function of deviance was suggested by Kingsley Davies (1967): deviance acted as a safety valve for society. He gives the example of prostitution, suggesting that it has the positive function of releasing men's sexual tension. (Clearly this is a very controversial argument!)

Durkheim argued that too much or too little deviance was bad for society, suggesting there was either too much or too little social order and control. For example, he argued that there was less deviance in pre-industrial society because of the mechanical solidarity of the society (the nature of the economy and the society meant that social bonds were very tight). The increased isolation and privatised nature of modern industrialised societies increased the likelihood of deviance. Durkheim also argued that when societies underwent rapid change (as during industrialisation, for example) there would be increased deviance because of something he called anomie: normlessness or an absence of social control and cohesion.

Evaluating Durkheim

  • Realists (of both left and right) criticise the idea that crime is both normal and functional. They point out that crime is a very real problem for victims and for society and that the sociology of crime and deviance should inform policy-makers in terms of how to prevent crime
  • Marxists argue that Durkheim fails to consider where the consensus comes from and in whose interests it exists. They point out that the laws are made by the state, usually working in the interests of the ruling class. Instead of there being a value consensus in the interests of society, there is ideology or hegemony in the interests of capitalism.
  • Other functionalists note that while Durkheim goes some way to explain why some societies might have more crime and deviance than others, he does not consider why some individuals or groups in a society commit crime and others do not. While the existence of some crime in society is normal, most people most of the time do not to commit crime. These points, Durkheim addresses.

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