Functionalist theories of deviance

Going back at least to Herbert Spencer (and maybe even to Comte), society has been compared to a biological organism. Just as all parts of the body (or almost all) contribute to the overall health of the whole organism, so the basic institutions and patterns of society contribute to the functioning of the whole society.

What do the functionalists do with deviant behavior?

I. Emile Durkheim. You may already be familiar with the background of Durkheim's sociology. He was educated during the second republic, a time of more or less democratic rule in France after a long period of alternating instability, kings and emperors, and he was intensely interested in how to maintain social cohesion and stability under a democratic system. Ultimately, he became convinced of the importance of the collective conscience, a concept that combines our ideas of culture, consciousness, and conscience. He was arguing against the predominance of individualistic emphases in psychology and economics and was convinced that a society where everyone looked out strictly for his/her own self interest would be a sociological monstrosity. In this context, he discovered an important function for crime and talked about the normality of crime. Not only can crime not be eliminated, but the way in which a society reacts to crime contributes to the health of society in important ways.

A. If the collective conscience were so strong that no one could imagine violating the basic norms, change would be impossible and that society could not adapt to new conditions and challenges. Indeed, what is initially labeled crime sometimes serves as "an anticipation of future morality." Think of Margaret Sanger, jailed for opening a birth control clinic in New York City, or Rosa Parks, jailed for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, or maybe Jack Kervorkian, currently imprisoned in Michigan for his role in doctor-assisted suicides.

B. Durkheim asks us to imagine a society of saints... perhaps it would help to think about a group like the Amish. In such a society, deviance doesn't disappear; it just gets defined by a more sensitive standard. If there are no armed robbers, greed in small areas of life may be perceived as sinful; if no murderers, petty hatreds may be singled out.

C. The real function of punishment is not the abolition of crime, which is impossible, but the reaffirmation of society's basic values. People turn out in large numbers for public executions, they buzz with gossip of the latest atrocity, they devour media representations of crime, because this is an opportunity to draw the line between us (the good people) and them (the bad guys).

This is not to say that Durkheim believed every level of crime was healthy; in fact, he was concerned that France in 1900 was becoming too individualistic, the collective conscience too weak, and a whole variety of social pathologies such as crime and suicide were on the rise.

II. Kai Erikson, Wayward Puritans

In my view, Erikson provides the most creative and powerful application of functionalist ideas about deviance by a contemporary sociologist in this analysis of crime and punishment in the 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony (the land of the Puritans).

"Human behavior can vary over an enormous range, but each community draws a symbolic set of parentheses around a certain segment of that range and limits its activities within that narrow range. These parentheses, so to speak, are the moral boundaries of that society."

Deviant behavior and the group's reaction to deviance are the key processes in defining those boundaries and investing them with moral fervor.

"The excitement generated by the crime quickens the tempo of interaction in a group and creates a climate in which the private sentiments of many people are fused into a common sense of morality."

How is it that people learn the boundaries and convey them to the next generation. This takes place through "criminal trials, excommunication hearings, courts martial, or even psychiatric case conferences." More often than not, we don't really expect to reform the deviant (especially to the extent that we are influenced by our Puritan heritage, because the Puritans believed that God had destined people for heaven or damnation before he even created the world) but the processing of the deviant is a ritual, ceremonial occasion for society as a whole.

In this book, Erikson provides at least a mini-test of three propositions that he teases out of Durkheim's analysis:

1. That there is a close relationship between the type of moral boundaries emphasized in a given society and the type of deviance that predominates. Puritan society, for example, generated large quantities of religious deviance; Bolshevik society generated the great political trials of the 1930s.

2. That in a relatively stable society, the amount of crime is likely to remain somewhat constant... for example, when England was shipping all her worst criminals to the colonies, the overall rate of crime processed by the English courts probably did not drop significantly. Erikson looks at the records of a particular Puritan court and shows that during the Quaker crime wave (when Quakers were being punished by the courts for their religious heresy), other kinds of crime got less attention from the court.

3. Crime waves are produced not so much by a multiplication of criminal acts as by some kind of moral crisis or challenge to the collective conscience. A good example would be the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s and the discovery of large numbers of communists and "fellow travelers" in the midst of American society that were subsequently blacklisted and driven from their jobs.

One of the interesting aspects of Erikson's treatment of these moral challenges and crises is that Erikson does not assume they will always be resolved in the direction of the stability of the old moral order. Thus Erikson's functionalism does not have the conservative bias attributed to figures like Talcott Parsons at Harvard in the 1940s and 1950s.