Critically compare the three main theories of deviance and assess their strengths & weaknesses

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Chirag Patel

Critically compare the three main theories of deviance and assess their strengths & 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 different ways:

  • Conformity

The most common response is conformity. Conformists strive for success through the accepted channels.

  • Innovation

People from lower classes may have few qualifications and turn to crime to achieve material success.

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  • Ritualism

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.

  • Retreatism

Retreatists are ‘drop-outs’ who have rejected both the shared value of success and the means provided to achieve it.

  • Rebellion

Rebels reject both goals and means but replace them with different ones. They wish to create an entirely new kind of society.

Evaluation of Merton

  1. Taylor criticises Merton for failing to consider wider power relations in society – that is, who actually makes the laws and who ...

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