Deviance: Durkheim's contribution


Durkheim rejected the definition of crime, which would constitute the commonsense of any society, that crimes are acts that are harmful to society. He pointed to the enormous variations between societies in the acts, which have been regarded as criminal in order to rebutt the claim that conceptions of crime are rooted in the social evil represented by particular actions. The only attribute applicable to crimes in general is that they are socially proscribed and punished. He said:

'The only common characteristic of all crimes is that they consist... in acts universally disapproved of by members of each society... crime shocks sentiments, which, for a given social system, are found in all healthy consciences.'

So Durkheim is the forerunner, not only of positivist-functionalist theories of deviance, but also of labelling theory because it is clear that he regards societal reaction and labelling, not the intrinsic character of an act, but as the defining characteristic of what is seen as a criminal or deviant act.

We must not say that an action shocks the common conscience because it is criminal, but rather that it is criminal because it shocks the common conscience.

Crime, argues Durkheim, is a universal feature of all societies. This is because crime serves a vital social function. Through the punishment of offenders, the moral boundaries of a community are clearly marked out, and attachment to them is reinforced. The purpose of punishment is not deterrence, rehabilitation nor retribution. Punishment strengthens social solidarity through the reaffirmation of moral commitment among the conforming population who witness the suffering of the offender.

Crime prevention

Durkheim also argues that the elimination of crime is impossible, this is because there are, and always will be, differences between people. People will identify differences between themselves and others, no matter how small, and these differences will constitute a form of deviance. Humans then don't just identify differences, they also evaluate them: good/bad, normal/abnormal, natural/unnatural. He says:

'Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes properly so called, will there be unknown; but faults which appear venial to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offence does in ordinary consciousness. If, then, this society has the power to judge and punish, it will define these acts as criminal and will treat them as such.'

Another argument put forward by Durkheim, is that crime can have a positively beneficial role in social evolution. Individuals, who anticipate necessary adjustments of social morality to changing conditions, may be stigmatised as criminals at first. Crime is the precondition and the proof of a society's capacity for flexibility in the face of essential change. He says:

'How many times, indeed, it is only an anticipation of future morality - a step toward what will be! According to Athenian law, Socrates was a criminal, and his condemnation was no more than just. However, his crime - namely the independence of his thought - rendered a service not only to humanity, but to his country.'

The conclusion of Durkheim's argument, is that contrary to the conventional view that crime is a social pathology that must be eradicated, it is a normal and inescapable phenomenon which can play a useful part in facilitating social progress. He says:

'Contrary to current ideas, the criminal no longer seems a totally unsociable being, a sort of parasitic element... on the contrary, he plays a definite role in social life. Crime, for its part, must no longer be conceived as an evil that cannot be too much suppressed. There is no occasion for self-congratulation when the crime rate drops noticeably below the average level, for we may be certain that this apparent progress is associated with some social disorder.'

It does not follow from this, however, that crime is not something that should be disliked. There is nothing contradictory about disliking something that is inevitable, or even functional. For example, physical pain as an indicator of illness.

Durkheim argues that some crime is inevitable, but that in some societies, the crime rate may become pathological and as such, this indicates a society that is sick, which means that it is suffering from social disorganisation. Durkheim does not, however, provide any indication of what a 'normal' crime rate might be, or how it could be calculated.

There was a paradigm shift in criminology in the 1960s which can loosely be called labelling theory. Durkheim's work was influential because of his insight that crime depends on societal reaction, and his arguments about the normality of deviance. However, the dominant theoretical tendency in recent labelling theory has been a symbolic interactionist one, stressing the face-to-face encounters of potential deviants and control agents. This is sharply at odds with Durkheim's view that particular societies exert special pressure for higher rates of deviation.

Durkheim also ignores conflicts about morality within a society, which is the stock in trade of the labelling theorist. Equally important, Durkheim, while accepting the relative nature of crime, also seems to think that some acts seem constant, in terms of being defined as criminal, in all societies. That is, he recognises a minimum content of 'natural law'. Finally, Durkheim, while regarding a certain rate of crime as a normal inescapable feature of society, also was aware that particular societies might be in a pathological condition, which generates excessive deviance. This leads into the area of anomie and the work of Robert Merton.

Robert Merton
'Durkheim's central achievement was to spell out the elements of social explanation at a time when political and ethical philosophy, the science of political economy and the positive schools were united under the banner of individualism... Durkheim urged a confrontation between sociologists, concerned with social facts, and those who would engage in individual reductionism.' (Taylor, Walton and Young)

1. Sociology, instead of concentrating on the individual, looks at society as a whole. Society is not seen as simply a collection of individuals, it has an existence of its own, it exists outside any one individual. It predates the individual and is a powerful force in moulding behaviour.

2. Crime/deviance is seen as a normal and regular social fact, therefore there must be some reason for its persistence.

'Let us make no mistake... crime... is a factor in public health, an integral part of all societies.' (Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method)

3. Crime can be functional in bringing about social change - when social norms are incompatible with the conditions of life. Yesterday's criminal is tomorrow's philosopher.

4. A high crime rate is an indication of a social system that has failed to adapt to change. Deviance acts as a warning device, indicating that an aspect of society is malfunctioning. Deviance may also act as a safety valve - a relatively harmless expression of discontent.

5. The function of punishment is to maintain collective sentiments, and reinforce collective beliefs, not to remove crime.

A healthy society requires both crime and punishment. Both are inevitable; both are functional.

1. The biological deviant - due to genetic or psychological malfunctioning.


2. The functional rebel - functional because they indicate strains in the social system.

3. The skewed deviant - improperly socialised in a sick society. Two related sources:

  • Anomie - lack of regulation and weakness of the collective conscience.
  • Egoism - cult of the individual.

Both circumstances allow the appetites of the individual free reign. Individuals strive to achieve desires in a way that is incompatible with social order.

Thus the links between society and deviance are:

Society: Individual:
Normal division of labour deviants. Conformists/Biological.
Pathological division of Labour. Functional rebel/Skewed deviant/biological rebel.

Most standard treatments of Durkheim deal only with the skewed deviant (for example, Merton and the Subculture theorists). Clearly, this sort of deviant is seen as the result of an abnormal or pathological society, and is capable of remedy through social reform.

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