Study Notes

Evaluating Functionalist Explanations of Crime

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

Last updated 12 Nov 2017

Let's look at how we might evaluate the various functionalist explanations of crime.


Marxists in particular argue that functionalists fail to consider where the rules or the laws come from.  Although Durkheim and others argue in favour of (organic) social change, they appear to view the law as merely a legal reflection of the value consensus of society: a set of rules that almost everyone agrees with.  Those who disagree are deviants, or delinquents in subcultures.  However, in reality, laws do not just, or even, reflect the collective conscience of a society, but are created by the powerful: the state. Marxists argue between themselves about the extent to which the state works in the interests of the ruling class, but they all agree that it usually does. Therefore, laws reflect the interests of a powerful minority rather than the collective conscience of the whole of society.


Feminists question the fact that functionalist theories of crime and deviance appear to ignore gender altogether. There is a gender blindness in the theories: most refer to "lower class boys" but pay no attention to the presence or absence of girls in these subcultures. It is as if females do not exist. New Right thinkers, like Charles Murray, raise the issue of gender (but not in a way that would satisfy feminists) by suggesting male criminality is mostly women's fault.  Matrifocal, single-parent families do not provide boys with positive male role models and thus contribute to the creation of an underclass. But most of the classic functionalist theories do not even blame women: they just ignore them.

Post Modernists

Some post-modernists focus on the way in which crime is quite pointless, rather than functional. It is something that occurs because of boredom, for some excitement, rather than because of shared subcultural values or in order to facilitate social change. These ideas are developed by Lyng in his work on "edgework": the idea that people like taking risks, including involvement in criminal behaviour. And by Katz who explores how crime can seem thrilling and alluring. However, it is possible to develop some of these ideas in terms of functionalist theory. Not everyone is attracted to a life of crime; many people few if any risks. Those who do might be socialised into doing so by belonging to a deviant subculture. Risk-taking might be a "focal concern".  Furthermore, if people commit crime out of boredom, this may relate to the functionalist position that deviance provides a safety valve in society, as described by Kingsley Davis (1976). Minor crime can release some of the tensions in society that, if not relieved, could lead to more significant problems.


Realist sociologists (of left and right) are concerned with functionalist sociology of crime and deviance which explores deviance as an interesting phenomenon, but does not help solve crime as a really existing problem. Certainly, the concept that crime is functional and normal is of little comfort to the victims of crime. Even ideas like strain theory are of limited usefulness to policy-makers; however, left realists would argue that it supports their argument that relative deprivation causes crime; that policies should promote equality.  Meanwhile, right realists would argue that Hirschi's ideas on social bonds and social control offer some support for their theories. 

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