The Three Main Theories of Deviance and Their Strengths and Weaknesses
A functionalist analysis of deviance looks for the source of deviance
in the nature of society rather than in the biological or
psychological nature of the individual. Although functionalists agree
that social control mechanisms such as the police and the courts are
necessary to keep deviance in check, many argue that a certain amount
of deviance can contribute to the well-being of society.
Durkhiem (1895) believed that:
* Crime is an 'integral part of all healthy societies'. This is
because individuals are exposed to different influences and will
not be committed to the shared values and beliefs of society.
* Crime can be functional. All societies need to progress and all
social change begins with some form of deviance. In order for
change to occur, yesterday's deviance must become tomorrow's
normality. Nelson Mandela, once imprisoned as a 'terrorist',
eventually became president of South Africa.
* Societies need both crime and punishment. Without punishment the
crime rate would reach a point where it became dysfunctional.
Durkheim's views have been developed by A. Cohen (1966) who discussed
two possible functions of deviance:
1. Deviance can be a 'safety valve', providing a relatively harmless
expression of discontent. For example, prostitution enables men to
escape from family life without undermining family stability.
2. Deviant acts can warn society that an aspect is not working
properly, for example widespread truanting from school.
Merton (1938) explains how deviance can result from the culture and
structure of society. He begins from the functionalist position of
value consensus - that is, all members of society share similar
values. In the USA, members of society strive for the goal of success,
largely measured in terms of wealth and material possessions. The
means of reaching this goal are through talent, ambition and effort.
Unfortunately, Merton argues, little importance is given to the means
of achieving success. The result is an unbalanced society where
winning is all and the 'rules' are not very important. This situation
of 'normlessness' is known as anomie. Individuals may respond in
The most common response is conformity. Conformists strive for success
through the accepted channels.
People from lower classes may have few qualifications and turn to
crime to achieve material success.
Some people, particularly from the lower middle classes, may abandon
the ultimate goal of wealth but continue to conform to the standards
of the middle-class respectability.
Retreatists are 'drop-outs' who have rejected both the shared value of
success and the...