Functionalist Theories of Crime

Does crime have a function in society? Some people certainly think so. To that end, we’ll be diving into functionalist theories of crime or functionalist criminology. 

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Table of contents
    • We’ll begin by defining functionalism as a theory under the branch of structuralism.
    • We'll follow that by looking at the functionalist view on crime as both unpreventable and beneficial, as argued by Émile Durkheim.
    • We’ll also be exploring how Durkheim’s ideas have been extended by the likes of Merton, Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin, and Hirschi.
    • Lastly, we will also take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of functionalist theories of crime.

    Let us start with a refresher on functionalism generally.

    Functionalism as a theory

    In sociology, functionalism is a consensus structuralist theory. Structuralists, when examining human behaviour, tend not to acknowledge individual factors like biology or psychology. Instead, they see society as a system of interdependent structures which shape human behaviour.

    Structural functionalism’s premise is that society is made up of necessary interdependent parts which bring about social order and consensus within society.

    Now that we've reminded ourselves about functionalism, we will specifically look at the functionalist view on crime.

    The functionalist view on crime

    The functionalist view on crime explains the existence of crime as being the result of the structure of society (rather than as a result of individuals themselves). It also claims that deviance serves a beneficial function to society as a whole.

    Functionalist Theories of Crime, Close up photograph of a yellow crime scene tape, StudySmarterFig. 1 - For functionalists, crime is both inevitable and beneficial for social order.

    What is functionalist criminology?

    Functionalist criminology combines the study of crime and criminals (criminology) with the theory of functionalism. Functionalist criminology would likely analyse crime through a positive lens.

    Examples of the functionalist theory of crime

    In this section, you’ll find the main theories within the functionalist view on crime or functionalist criminology. We will be looking at Durkheim, Merton, Cohen, and Hirschi.

    Émile Durkheim's functionalist theory of crime

    Let's go through Durkheim's key points about the role of crime in society.

    Functionality theory of crime: crime is inevitable

    According to Émile Durkheim (1964), a limited amount of crime is inevitable. He pointed out that crime happens in even the most advanced communities and that this is normal. Not everyone will be equally devoted to conforming to society’s shared norms and values.

    It’s important to note, however, that deviance beyond a certain amount risks harming society and causing dysfunction, or anomie. Durkheim urged his readers to imagine a society without crime.

    He argued that, in this society, even the smallest level of deviance would elicit a major reaction because the deviant behaviour would seem all the more unacceptable.

    Anomie is a word that describes the state of lawlessness that comes with a breakdown of social order. People feel untethered to the collective consciousness, and enter a state of ‘normative confusion’. According to Durkheim, too much crime can cause anomie.

    Functionalist theory of crime: crime is necessary

    Besides highlighting its inevitability, Durkheim said that this limited amount of crime is also beneficial for the creation of a healthy society due to the positive functions that it serves for society as a whole. Let’s take a look at these functions.

    1. Social integration
    • Social integration refers to the cohesion that members of society experience when they share a collective expectation of the norms and values within their community.
    • People tend to come together in this way when, for example, someone has committed a terrible crime. There is a shared sense of anger towards the breach of morals that the criminal has committed.
    2. Social regulation
    • Social regulation is one of the functions that societal structures carry out in managing public interests like the environment, health, education, and more. A common example of using crime as a form of social regulation is through staging public trials.
    • By punishing someone for their crimes in this way, enforcers of the law are sending a warning message to the rest of society that such deviant behaviour won’t be tolerated.
    3. Social change
    • Another important function of crime is in the fact that it can bring about social change. Deviant behaviour causes people to reflect on what is or isn’t allowed within a particular society, allowing them to discover when the law doesn’t line up with the collective sentiments of the majority.
    • This can lead to necessary legal reform which ends up benefiting the community and its members.

    Robert Merton's theory of crime

    Several other researchers have gained ground by taking Durkheim’s theorisation of crime and deviance and extending it to understand particular societies or different types of criminal activity. Let's look at Merton's strain theory.

    Strain theory as a cause of crime

    Strain theory was pioneered by Robert Merton (1949). He took on Durkheim’s idea of anomie and applied it to his examination of contemporary American society. He argued that the vision of success in American culture is attached to material and financial gain, achieved through legitimate means like skill-building and formal qualifications.

    The goal of material success is a part of the American Dream - an ethos that states that every American has the opportunity to advance their careers and make it to the top.

    However, there’s a lot of proof that various demographics are constrained by structural factors which prevent them from achieving the material success that the American Dream glorifies.

    • Strain to anomie
      • The main argument of strain theory is that anomie is caused by the pressure (known as ‘strain to anomie’) to accomplish these goals, and is felt most by those who have trouble in accomplishing them. There is a strain between society’s expectations, and the means to live up to them.
      • Therefore, people turn away from legitimate means of achieving material success and take up crime as a way to achieve it.

    If it is not possible for unemployed individuals to purchase something like a car, they may turn to theft as an alternative means to an end.

    While Merton’s ideas might come across as slightly Marxist, it’s important to note that he was a functionalist.

    Responses to strain in strain theory

    Merton identified five potential responses to strain. The first one was the most 'traditional'.

    1. Conformity: following the normative means of achieving success regardless of structural setbacks. This can look like working hard, getting a promotion, and becoming successful in the 'traditional' way.

    He also identified some more 'deviant' adaptations:

    2. Innovation: turning to criminal activity to achieve success.

    3. Ritualism: abandoning the goal of success but still conforming to the means to achieve it.

    4. Retreatism: rejecting both the goal and the means to achieve it.

    5. Rebellion: adopting alternative goals and aiming to bring revolutionary change to society.

    Functionalist subcultural theories of crime

    A few theorists in functionalist criminology use the concept of 'subcultures' to explain the prevalence of crime.

    Albert Cohen's theory of crime

    Albert Cohen (1955) built on Merton's Strain theory, with his theory of status frustration.

    Functionalist theory of crime: status frustration theory

    Status frustration theory, a subcultural theory, was developed by Albert Cohen in the 1950s. Cohen accepted Merton’s explanation that the generally valued forms of success are impossible for many groups to attain.

    Cohen looked specifically at how this is the case for young, working-class males who tend to experience status frustration. It referred to the sense of discouragement that young, working-class males felt as a result of being defined as ‘failures’ and denied respect from the rest of society.

    According to Cohen, this demographic group channelled their frustration into the creation of a subcultural solution. The solution involved the group using their shared problem to collectively form a deviant subculture which turned the norms of the dominant culture upside down.

    According to Gelsthorpe (2006, p.613),

    Subcultures refer to subgroups of local cultures; in a more critical perspective, they refer to symbolic representations of social contradictions and offer a symbolic eschewing of the established order." 1

    The behaviours that delinquent subcultures value are those that wider society tends to condemn. Members of subcultural groups are rewarded with praise and status within the subgroup if they successfully carry out those behaviours.

    So, male, working-class delinquents engage in deviant behaviours to gain each other’s respect - but also as a means to strike back at the society which has rejected these young men by framing them as ‘failures’.

    Cloward and Ohlin's subcultural theory of crime

    Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1961) argued that Merton and Cohen both had significant shortcomings in their theories. Specifically, Merton and Cohen failed to explain why there were so many different types of delinquent subcultures (like those which focused on theft, as opposed to those who turned to violence).

    Cloward and Ohlin argued that young, working-class males can have a variety of responses to being denied opportunities for success. These responses depend on how and where delinquents grow up, simply because different places have different opportunities which might allow (or even encourage) different forms of deviance. This results in different types of delinquent subcultures.

    We call their formulation opportunity structures theory.

    Cloward and Ohlin's types of delinquent subcultures

    Cloward and Ohlin (1961) named three kinds of delinquent subcultures.

    1. Criminal subcultures

    • Emerge in areas with high adult crime rates.

    • Experienced deviants become role models and mentors to new delinquents.

    2. Conflict subcultures

    • Emerge in areas with frequent demographic changes and little social solidarity, where adult crime levels are low.

    • Delinquents tend to engage in gang violence as a means to gain status from other members of the gang.

    3. Retreatist subcultures

    • Emerge among those who have failed to succeed through legitimate means, criminal subcultures and conflict subcultures.

    • Delinquents tend to engage in drug use.

    Travis Hirschi's theory of crime

    Another one of the key functionalist theories of crime was pioneered by Travis Hirschi (1969); we know it as social bonds theory.

    Social bonds theory as a functionalist theory of crime

    Merton's strain theory proposed that people commit deviance because they're responding to pressure from society. Instead of asking why deviants commit crime, Hirschi chose to ask why they don't. And his answer was: social bonds.

    Hirschi suggested that the social bonds that people have with society and its institutions are what keep us from getting involved in crime and deviance - that morality is a social contract that we all want to adhere to. There are four types of bonds:

    • Attachment: psychological affection for members and institutions of society, such as parents and school.
    • Commitment: not wanting to jeopardise the social bonds that people value by committing crime and risking important relationships, such as employment.
    • Involvement: people who are willingly engaged in cementing the social bonds that they value, such as a student who's focused on achieving well at school, are less likely to commit acts of deviance.
    • Belief: the link between behaviour and attitude - this bond refers to whether people agree with the morality/value behind norms and laws imposed by wider society.

    Hirschi's bonds, while not directly doing so, still signal mechanisms of social control. For example, education and employment are indirect forces of social control that, based on our attachment to them, keep us from committing crime.

    Social bonds theory explained the prevalence of deviance by saying that those who do commit crimes are most likely to have weak social bonds to members and institutions of society. The typical delinquent is probably a young, working-class male.

    Advantages of the functionalist theory of crime

    Let's now take a look at the advantages of each functionalist theory of crime.



    Durkheim's theory of crime

    • Functionalism, as one of the key perspectives in sociology, allows us to reconsider whether the structures of society are working for everyone.

    • The functionalist perspective on crime and deviance disregards biological and psychological explanations, making it less deterministic.

    An explanation is deterministic when it assumes that people have no control when it comes to their own behaviour.

    Merton's theory of crime

    • It considers how social structures create pressure to turn to deviance.

    • It explains why certain demographics may be more likely to commit a crime, accounting for aspects like motivation.

    • It has room to consider that people can conform to mainstream goals, but still adopt rebellious means to achieve them.

    Cloward & Ohlin's opportunity structures theory

    • Cloward and Ohlin make up for Cohen and Merton's theory by addressing and explaining working-class delinquency that's unrelated to monetary gain.

    Cohen's status frustration theory

    • Explains non-utilitarian crimes, which both Durkheim and Merton’s explanations lack.
    • Explains the prevalence of group deviance.

    Hirschi's social bonds theory

    • Hirschi acknowledges the role of people’s commitments to their community, their beliefs, and to wider society in encouraging them to abide by set norms and laws.

    • The theory encourages us to consider how we can reduce criminality by strengthening social bonds.

    • Hirschi makes an important link between non-legal societal institutions and social control.

    Disadvantages of the functionalist theory of crime

    On the other hand, there are also some disadvantages of the functionalist theory of crime that we need to be aware of.



    Durkheim's theory of crime

    • Durkheim failed to theorise about the functions of different types of crime. Some crimes are so harmful, they are simply always ‘dysfunctional’.
    • There’s no objective way of knowing how much crime is beneficial to society, or how much is excessive and has the potential to lead to a dysfunctional society.

    • Many criticise functionalism by arguing that simply pointing out the potential functions of crime doesn’t necessarily explain why it happens in the first place.

    • The functionalist view on crime also doesn’t explain why certain demographics are more likely to commit crimes than others. It doesn’t acknowledge the power structures which benefit from punishing vulnerable populations (such as the working class).

    Merton's theory of crime

    • Strain theory doesn’t explain crimes of passion or those which are not utilitarian, or a means to a material end (such as vandalism).

    • It gives too much focus to individual crime, not accounting for group deviancy.

    • Strain theory disproportionately attributes criminal activity to the working class by using official crime statistics, which tend to obscure white-collar crime.

    Cloward & Ohlin's opportunity structures theory

    • Their division of subcultures is a little reductive - there are quite a few overlaps between different types of deviance. For example, many gang members are also drug dealers.

    Cohen's status frustration theory

    • There is a much wider variety of subcultures that Cohen does not account for in his explanation for deviance.

    • Doesn’t acknowledge crimes committed by elites or those who have not been marginalised by the dominant society.

    • Assumes that all members of society strive for the same forms of success.

    Hirschi's social bonds theory

    • Highlights crime committed by marginalised communities at the expense of realising that some crimes, like white-collar crime, rely on the existence of social bonds. These crimes are also less likely to show up in official statistics.

    • Marxists might criticise Hirschi’s social bonds theory for victim-blaming, arguing that working-class criminals are simply victims of circumstance. Wealthier people are just as deviant.

    Functionalist Theories of Crime - Key takeaways

    • The functionalist view on crime explains the existence of crime as being the result of the structure of society (rather than as a result of individuals themselves). Functionalist criminology combines the study of crime and criminals (criminology) with the theory of functionalism.

    • For Durkheim, crime is inevitable and has several functions in society - including those related to social integration, social regulation and social change.

    • Merton's strain theory considers the specific motivations behind crimes, accounting for both an individual’s view of dominant cultural goals as well as their perceived means of achieving them. However, it does not explain non-utilitarian crimes.

    • Cohen's status frustration theory explains male delinquency as a response to society’s marginalisation of them. It offers an insight into group deviance in the form of subculture formation, but fails to acknowledge crimes committed by the privileged.

    • Cloward and Ohlin address and explain the existence of different types of working-class subcultures, while Hirschi’s theory of social bonds suggests that people are less likely to commit crime because they don’t want to risk upsetting other members and institutions of society.


    1. Gelsthorpe, L. (2006). Subcultures. In B. S. Turner (Eds.), Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology (pp. 613-614). Cambridge University Press.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Functionalist Theories of Crime

    What is the functionalist theory in simple terms?

    The functionalist theory in simple terms is a branch of sociology that understands society as a system made up of interdependent parts. These parts, which include agencies of socialisation such as the family, work, law, education, religion (and many more) all need to function properly for society to run smoothly. The functioning of a healthy society also relies on a value consensus, achieved when all members of society are cohesively integrated into a shared system of norms and beliefs. 

    What is an example of functionalist theory?

    An example of functionalist theory would be that crime has a specific function in society. Some level of crime is necessary because it reinforces social integration, strengthens social regulation, and brings about social change.

    What causes crime in society, according to the functionalist theory?

    According to the functionalist theory, what causes crime in society are the broad social structures that shape human behaviour. While functionalists don’t offer any explicit explanation for crime, they suggest that people turn to deviant behaviour whilst in a state of anomie. When people commit crimes, they’re responding to a societal structure that they don’t feel integrated into. 

    What do functionalists think the three main functions of crime are?

    Functionalists such as Émile Durkheim argue the three main functions of crime are:

    • social integration,
    • social regulation, and 
    • social change.

    What does Émile Durkheim believe about crime?

    Durkheim believed that a certain amount of crime was inevitable. Not only this, it was beneficial to society as well, because of the social integration, regulation, and change it led to.

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