Functionalism and Deviance

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain functionalist views on deviance
Protesters are shown here wearing yellow chicken costumers and holding PETA signs that say “I Am Not a Nugget” and “Stop McCruelty.”
Figure 1. Functionalists believe that deviance plays an important role in society and can be used to challenge people’s views. Protesters, such as these PETA members, often use this method to draw attention to their cause. (Photo courtesy of David Shankbone/flickr)


Sociologists who follow the functionalist approach are concerned with the way the different elements of a society contribute to the whole. They view deviance as a key component of a functioning society. Social disorganization theory, strain theory, and social control theory represent the main functionalist perspectives on deviance in society.

Émile Durkheim: The Essential Nature of Deviance

Émile Durkheim believed that deviance is a necessary part of a successful society and that it serves three functions: 1) it clarifies norms and increases conformity, 2) it strengthens social bonds among the people reacting to the deviant, and 3) it can help lead to positive social change and challenges to people’s present views (1893).

For instance, segregation laws remained intact for nearly a century in the United States after slavery was abolished. Those who violated these norms reinforced their legitimacy for those in power, which often led to even harsher laws and sanctions, which in turn led to increased conformity or adherence to the norms. Norm violators were often severely punished, even lynched, which led to increased social bonds among racist whites. On the other hand, when norm violations became more widespread and collective, as a result of various historical and cultural factors (i.e. war in Vietnam, other social movements, televised police brutality, etc.), this cycle of continued deviance eventually led to social and legal change. A key example of this dynamic is the Civil Rights Movement, which corrected many historical wrongs by continuously challenging the dominant society’s values and norms.

Social Disorganization Theory

Developed by researchers at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, social disorganization theory asserts that crime is most likely to occur in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social control. Several sociologists at the time, who viewed the city as a laboratory for study, were dubbed “The Chicago School.” These sociologists included Robert Park and Ernest Burgess (1916 and 1925) became the first to utilize an ecological approach, which examined society much as an ecologist examines an organism and their environment—by paying attention to the social, institutional, and cultural contexts of people-environment relations. They studied deviance by examining rapid changes to the neighborhoods, caused by population increases, immigration, and urbanization in Chicago. Park, a journalist and sociologist, suggested a program to increase the number of playgrounds to counteract social disorganization and juvenile delinquency.

Proponents of social disorganization theory believe that individuals who grow up in impoverished areas are more likely to participate in deviant or criminal behaviors than an individual from a wealthy neighborhood with a good school system and families who are involved positively in the community. Social disorganization theory points to broad social factors as the cause of deviance. A person isn’t born a criminal but becomes one over time, often based on factors in his or her social environment.

A block of run-down, dirty rowhouses lining an abandoned street are shown.
Figure 2. Camden, New Jersey. (Photo courtesy of Apollo 1758/Wikimedia Commons)

Although this theory sounds like common sense, critics argue that it places blame on the neighborhoods themselves, which opens the door for politicians to point out social issues like drug use, disrupted families, and violence as endemic to low-income neighborhoods, thus allowing them to circumvent the larger structural issues that give rise to these predicaments.

Let’s examine Camden, New Jersey, once one of America’s deadliest cities. As a city of 74,000, there were 58 homicide victims in 1995, and 67 in 2012 (a rate of about 87 murders per 100,000 residents), which ranked Camden fifth nationwide. In 2017, there were 22 homicides [1].

Camden County Metro Police Chief John Scott Thomson and then President Barack Obama take a tour of the Camden County Police Headquarters.
President Barack Obama, with Camden County Metro Police Chief John Scott Thomson, takes a tour of the Camden County Police Headquarters.

In 2013, the Camden Police Department was disbanded, reimagined, and renamed the Camden County Police Department, with fewer officers, lower pay—and a strategic shift toward “community policing” (Holder, 2018). The police chief, who has been on the Camden force for over 25 years, says “Nothing stops a bullet like a job” and stresses the importance of increasing access to social services, economic opportunities, and good public schools. In his emphasis on multiple causal factors, he sounds like a functionalist! 

By strengthening essential social institutions in communities (a macro approach) and working to increase citizen-police relations, that is, how police see themselves and how residents view police (a micro intervention), Camden provides us an example of how sociological theories can help explain deviance but also inform social policy. 

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Strain Theory/Anomie Theory of Deviance

In 1938 Robert Merton expanded on Durkheim’s idea that deviance is an inherent part of a functioning society by developing strain theory (also called the anomie theory of deviance), which notes that access to the means of achieving socially acceptable goals plays a part in determining whether a person conforms and accepts these goals or rebels and rejects them. For example, from birth we’re encouraged to achieve the American Dream of financial success. A woman who attends business school, receives her MBA, and goes on to make a million-dollar income as CEO of a company is said to be a success. However, not everyone in our society stands on equal footing. A person may have the socially acceptable goal of financial success but lack a socially acceptable way to reach that goal. Much more common might be the young person who wants financial security and success but attends a failing school and is not able to attend college, does not have connections in business or finance, and might not have any CEOs in their immediate circle. The young person might be attracted to other types of entrepreneurial activities outside of the corporate world that are more accessible, such as selling stolen goods and/or drugs, gambling, and/or other types of street-level commerce. Another path might be to embezzle from his employer. These types of crimes will be discussed later, but this is one example of the contrast between “crime in the streets” and “crime in the suites.”

Merton defined five ways people respond to this gap between having a socially accepted goal and having no socially accepted way to pursue it.

  1. Conformity: Those who conform choose not to deviate. Conformists pursue their goals to the extent that they can through socially accepted means. This is the most common option.
  2. Innovation: Innovators pursue goals they cannot reach through legitimate means by instead using criminal or deviant means.
  3. Ritualism: People who ritualize lower their goals until they can reach them through socially acceptable ways. These members of society focus on conformity rather than pursuing an unrealistic dream.
  4. Retreatism: Others retreat and reject society’s goals and means. For example, some beggars and street people have withdrawn from society’s normative goal of financial success.
  5. Rebellion: A handful of people rebel and replace a society’s goals and means with their own. Terrorists or freedom fighters look to overthrow a society’s goals through socially unacceptable means.

In Table 1, you can see how conformists accept societal goals and means, while innovators, ritualists, retreatists, and rebels reject either societal goals or societal means, or both. 

Table 1. Strain Theory.
Societal Goals Societal Means Examples
Conformists Accept Accept college students, professionals who strive to do their best and excel at their job
Innovators Reject Reject drug dealers, embezzlers, gamblers
Ritualists Reject Accept workers who “punch the clock”
Retreatists Reject Accept homeless, drug addicted
Rebels Reject/ Replace Reject/ Replace radicals, revolutionaries, terrorists

Watch It

Watch the selected first four minutes of this video to learn about how structural functionalists think about deviance. You’ll review how Durkheim emphasized the way that deviance has its purpose in society; it helps define cultural norms, clarify moral boundaries, bring people together, and encourage social change. Merton also recognized the role that deviance plays in society, and developed strain theory to explain why some people develop deviant solutions to reach socially acceptable goals.

Deviant Subcultures

During the 1950s, a group of sociologists theorized deviance as subcultural. As you recall from an earlier module about culture, a subculture is a group that operates within larger society but is distinctive in the values and norms that govern membership (formal or informal). A subculture usually exhibits some type of resistance to the existing social structure and/or social norms. Oftentimes a subcultural group is visibly, aesthetically distinctive (i.e. goths, emo, skaters, etc.).

Much of this early research was a response to a growing concern about street gangs in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, with notorious gangsters like Al Capone in national headlines. In 1927, Frederick Thrasher’s The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago highlighted the geography of gang activity within Chicago and examined the “Poverty Belt” as an area within which gang membership would be particularly enticing. Deviant subcultures theorists also utilized The Chicago School’s models and methods to study delinquency.

Albert K. Cohen (1955) stated that “the crucial condition for the emergence of new cultural forms is the existence, in effective interaction with one another, of a number of actors with similar problems of adjustment” (no emphasis added, pp. 12 and 59). Cohen (1955) observed that a “sympathetic moral climate” within which actors’ perception of norms and shared norms is a result of the subculture’s benefit from those norms, which are a “repudiation of the middle class standards.” Walter Miller (1958) broadened Cohen’s framework by looking beyond the “delinquent boys” and using “over eight thousand pages of direct and observational data” in a “slum” district of Chicago. He lists the following six “focal concerns of lower-class culture”: trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate, and autonomy.

This scholarship from the 1950s reflected a growing unrest in post-World War 2 America as the Cold War gained momentum, demonstrating both a fear of ideological dissent from within and a new concern with low income immigrant communities. The work was also implied a gendered exclusionary focus, negating the agency of females as potential deviant actors.

Marvin Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti published The Subculture of Violence in 1967, which blended criminology, psychology, and sociology in an attempt to theorize the causes of assaultive behavior and homicide. They used empirical data which showed violence as being localized among specific groups and said it “reflects differences in learning about violence as a problem-solving mechanism” (1967, p. 159). Wolfgang and Ferracuti suggest the value systems in subcultural groups, particularly inner city men, differ from centra value systems and result in more violence (1967, 97).

Social Control Theory

Another functionalist theory of deviance is Travis Hirschi’s (1969) social control theory. Similar to Comte’s original question, “What holds society together?” Hirschi asked, “Why do people adhere to social norms?” In other words, why aren’t people more deviant? Building from Durkheim’s work on social solidarity, Hirschi looked at bonds to conventional social institutions as reasons people feel connected to society and thereby less likely to be deviant. He identified four types of bonds: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.

Let’s apply these types of bonds to an example. Say a high school student is trying to decide whether to skip a class to go to the mall with friends. He or she might consider the following:

  • Attachment: how their teacher and school administration would think about them if they skipped school and/or how their parent/s’ opinion would be affected (“If my parents find out they will be very disappointed”).
  • Commitment: how much they value their education and what they would miss (“I like my American history class and would miss the unit on school desegregation”).
  • Involvement: how much time has been invested in school up until this point (“Why spoil a “clean record” by skipping one class?”).
  • Belief: how the school’s attendance policy reflects societal beliefs about the importance of education (“I want to go to college and know that attending class will be important to my success and future job prospects”).

We can also imagine more serious forms of deviance and consider how attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief might operate in other scenarios. In what ways can this theory help inform prevention strategies, especially for young people? How can we strengthen attachment and commitment, for example?

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social control theory:
a theory that states social control is directly affected by the strength of social bonds and that deviance results from a feeling of disconnection from society
deviant subcultures theory:
several theories that posit poverty and other community conditions give rise to certain subcultures through which adolescents acquire values that promote deviant behavior
social disorganization theory:
a theory that asserts crime occurs in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social control
strain theory:
a theory that addresses the relationship between having socially acceptable goals and having socially acceptable means to reach those goals

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  1. Holder, S. 2018. What happened to crime in Camden? City Lab.


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