The Functionalist Perspective on Deviance

The Functionalist Perspective on Deviance

Functionalism claims that deviance help to create social stability by presenting explanations of non-normative and normative behaviors.

Learning Objectives

Describe the functionalist view of deviance in society

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A structural functionalist approach emphasizes social solidarity, divided into organic and mechanical typologies, and stability in social structures.
  • Deviance provides the key to understanding the disruption and recalibration of society that occurs over time. Some traits that could cause social disruption will be stigmatized.
  • Systems of deviance create norms and tell members of a given society on how to behave by laying out patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
  • Deviance allows for group majorities to unite around their worldview, often at the expense of those marked as deviant. Social parameters create boundaries between populations and enable an “us-versus-them” mentality within the two groups.
  • Being marked as deviant can actually bolster solidarity within the marked community as members take pride and ownership in their stigmatized identity.
  • Some traits will be stigmatized and can potentially cause social disruption. However, as traits become more mainstream, society will gradually adjust to incorporate the formerly stigmatized traits.

Key Terms

  • structural functionalism: A sociological approach that looks at society through a macro-level orientation, which is a broad focus on the social structures that shape society as a whole.
  • population: A count of the number of residents within a political or geographical boundary, such as a town, a nation, or the world or of the number of individuals belonging to a particular group.
  • Social Parameters: The given rules and norms in a given social situation.

What function does deviance play in society? This is a question asked by sociologists subscribing to the school of structural functionalism. Structural functionalism has its roots in the very origins of sociological thought and the development of sociology as a discipline. Though precursors of structural functionalism have been in existence since the mid-1800’s, structural functionalism was solidified by Émile Durkheim in the late nineteenth century. A structural functionalist approach emphasizes social solidarity, divided into organic and mechanical typologies, and stability in social structures. Structural functionalists ask “How does any given social phenomenon contribute to social stability?” This question cannot be answered without investigating deviance.

Functions of Crime: This is a short clip from the “Functions of Crime” segment of their new seven-part DVD “Short Cuts to Sociology: Crime and Deviance. ”

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Émile Durkheim: Durkheim formally established the academic discipline and, with Karl Marx and Max Weber, is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science and father of sociology.

For the structural functionalist, deviance serves two primary roles in creating social stability. First, systems of recognizing and punishing deviance create norms and tell members of a given society how to behave by laying out patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In order to avoid unsettling society, one must be aware of what behaviors are marked as deviant. Second, these social parameters create boundaries between populations and enable an “us-versus-them” mentality within different groups. Deviance allows for the majorities to unite around their normativity, at the expense of those marked as deviant. Conversely, being marked as deviant can actual bolster solidarity within the marked community, as members take pride and ownership in their stigmatized identity and create cohesive units of their own (for example, members of the LGBT community unifying around Pride).

From a structural functionalist perspective, then, how does society change, particularly in regards to establishing norms and deviant behaviors? Deviance provides the key to understanding the disruption and re-calibration of society that occurs over time. Some traits will be stigmatized and can potentially cause social disruption. However, as traits become more mainstream, society will gradually adjust to incorporate the formerly stigmatized traits.

Take, again, the example of homosexuality. In urban America 50 years ago, homosexual behavior was considered deviant. On the one hand, this fractured society into those marked as homosexuals and those unmarked as normative heterosexuals. While this us-versus-them mentality solidified social identities and solidarities within the two categories, there was an overarching social schism. As time went on, homosexuality has come to be accepted as somewhat more mainstream. Accordingly, what originally appears as a fracturing of society actually reinforces social stability by enabling mechanisms for social adjustment and development.

Strain Theory: How Social Values Produce Deviance

Strain theory states that social structures within society may pressure citizens to commit crimes.

Learning Objectives

Apply Merton’s typology of deviance to the real world and give examples for each type

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Social strain theory was developed by famed American sociologist Robert K. Merton. “Strain” refers to the discrepancies between culturally defined goals and the institutionalized means available to achieve these goals.
  • Merton was proposing a typology of deviance based upon two criteria: (1) a person’s motivations or her adherence to cultural goals; (2) a person’s belief in how to attain his goals.
  • A typology is a classification scheme designed to facilitate understanding.
  • According to Merton, there are five types of deviance based upon these criteria: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion.

Key Terms

  • typology: The systematic classification of the types of something according to their common characteristics.
  • Social strain theory: Social strain theory was developed by famed American sociologist Robert K. Merton who, in his discussion of deviance, proposed a typology of deviant behavior.

Social strain theory was developed by famed American sociologist Robert K. Merton. The theory states that social structures may pressure citizens to commit crimes. Strain may be structural, which refers to the processes at the societal level that filter down and affect how the individual perceives his or her needs. Strain may also be individual, which refers to the frictions and pains experienced by an individual as he or she looks for ways to satisfy individual needs. These types of strain can insinuate social structures within society that then pressure citizens to become criminals.

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Social Strain Theory: Five types of deviance.

In his discussion of deviance Merton proposed a typology of deviant behavior that illustrated the possible discrepancies between culturally defined goals and the institutionalized means available to achieve these goals. A typology is a classification scheme designed to facilitate understanding. In this case, Merton was proposing a typology of deviance based upon two criteria: (1) a person’s motivations or his adherence to cultural goals; (2) a person’s belief in how to attain his goals. According to Merton, there are five types of deviance based upon these criteria:

  • Conformity involves the acceptance of the cultural goals and means of attaining those goals.
  • Innovation involves the acceptance of the goals of a culture but the rejection of the traditional and/or legitimate means of attaining those goals. For example, a member of the Mafia values wealth but employs alternative means of attaining his wealth; in this example, the Mafia member’s means would be deviant.
  • Ritualism involves the rejection of cultural goals but the routinized acceptance of the means for achieving the goals.
  • Retreatism involves the rejection of both the cultural goals and the traditional means of achieving those goals.
  • Rebellion is a special case wherein the individual rejects both the cultural goals and traditional means of achieving them but actively attempts to replace both elements of the society with different goals and means.

What makes Merton’s typology so fascinating is that people can turn to deviance in the pursuit of widely accepted social values and goals. For instance, individuals in the U.S. who sell illegal drugs have rejected the culturally acceptable means of making money, but still share the widely accepted cultural value in the U.S. of making money. Thus, deviance can be the result of accepting one norm, but breaking another in order to pursue the first. In this sense, according social strain theory, social values actually produce deviance in two ways. First, an actor can reject social values and therefore become deviant. Additionally, an actor can accept social values but use deviant means to realize them.

Critics point to the fact that there is an ample amount of crime/delinquent behavior that is “non-utilitarian, malicious, and negativistic” (O’Grady, 2011), which highlights that not all crimes are explicable using Merton’s theory. Crimes such as vandalism, for example, can’t be explained by a need for material acquisition.

Illegitimate Opportunity Structures: Social Class and Crime

Illegitimate opportunity structures are the rules that operate within deviant subcultures.

Learning Objectives

Explain how illegitimate opportunity structures function in different subcultures

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • American sociologists Richard Cowan and Lloyd Ohlin extended Robert K. Merton’s social strain theory to directly address juvenile delinquency and social class.
  • A subculture is a group of people with a culture that differentiates them from the larger culture to which they belong.
  • In a criminal subculture, youth learn to use crime for material gain.
  • In a conflict subculture, youth learn to form gangs as a way to express frustration about the lack of normative opportunity structures in their neighborhood.
  • In a retreatist subculture youth learn to reject both legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures.
  • In a retreatist subculture youth learn to reject both legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures

Key Terms

  • Conflict subculture: In a conflict subculture, youth learn to form gangs as a way to express frustration about the lack of normative opportunity structures in their neighborhood.
  • subculture: A portion of a culture distinguished from the larger society around it by its customs or other features.
  • Illegitimate opportunity structure: In criminology, subcultural theory emerged from the work of the Chicago School on gangs and developed through the symbolic interactionism school into a set of theories arguing that certain groups or subcultures in society have values and attitudes that are conducive to crime and violence. The primary focus is on juvenile delinquency because theorists believe that if this pattern of offending can be understood and controlled, it will break the transition from teenage offender into habitual criminal.

American sociologists Richard Cowan and Lloyd Ohlin extended Robert K. Merton’s social strain theory to directly address juvenile delinquency and social class. If you recall, social strain theory develops a typology of deviance in which an individual can deviate on two planes. An individual can be deviant by refusing to accept social norms or an individual can deviate by accepting social norms but using deviant means to achieve their realization. In the context of the U.S., in which prosperity is a social value, one could deviate by rejecting the notion of wealth. Alternatively, one could deviate by aspiring to a wealthy lifestyle but earning one’s living as a pickpocket.

In 1960, Cowan and Ohlin published Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs. In this work, they noted that the individuals who achieved social norms by deviant means frequently operated from within institutions that, similarly to those operating in normative institutions, had rules of behavior. A key to understanding Cowan and Ohlin’s theory is the notion of subculture. A subculture is a group of people with a culture that differentiates them from the larger culture to which they belong. Subcultures create a stacking or layering effect within a larger cultural context. While a pickpocket may deviate from American social norms, he adheres to social norms of a smaller group of individuals who identify as American pickpockets. Cowan and Ohlin asserted that subcultures have rules of their own. Illegitimate opportunity structures are the rules that operate within deviant subcultures. Cowan and Ohlin emphasized how the structures of these deviant subcultures paralleled the rules and operations of more socially acceptable institutions.

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Goths: Goths are an example of a subculture: A group of people with a culture that differentiates them from the larger culture to which they belong.

Cowan and Ohlin used juvenile delinquency as a case study to explore this theory of illegitimate opportunity structures. In a criminal subculture, youth learn to use crime for material gain. This subculture usually forms in areas where there is an established organization of adult crime that provides an illegitimate opportunity structure for youths to learn how to behave criminally for material success. In a conflict subculture, youth learn to form gangs as a way to express frustration about the lack of normative opportunity structures in their neighborhood. New initiates into the gang will learn how to engage in conflict or gang activities to express frustrations by watching gang leadership. Thus, gangs become a subculture of their own, in contradistinction to the normative, peaceful model of youth behavior. Finally, in a retreatist subculture youth learn to reject both legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures. These individuals are thought to be “double failures” in that they engage in conduct that is neither normative and accepted by society at large nor deviant but accepted by a subculture.

Criminal and conflict subcultures demonstrate that individuals can reject the normative means of the culture at large and still find a place within a smaller deviant subculture. The retreatist subculture is the exception that proves the rule of illegitimate opportunity structures. The extreme deviance and isolation of individuals affiliated with a retreatist subculture demonstrate that others who engage in deviant behavior are able to find a subculture to which to subscribe.