Crime according to Marxism and Functionalism

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Functionalism is often viewed as the polar opposite to Marxism, a form of conservative ideology. It is unsurprising then that as Marxism views crime within its general critique of capitalism, functionalists emphasize the positive role that crime may have within the social system. However both perspectives are structural theories which explain crime as a broad social phenomenon. It is therefore useful to also look at subcultural approaches, where some researches have applied Marxist and functionalist theory in the study of particular criminal subcultures.

Functionalist theory stems from Emile Durkheim who believed that crime was inevitable in all societies. Asserting that even in a society of saints some saints would adhere to the rules more closely than others. Marxists conversely believe that crime is the result of an unjust social order and look forward to a society with no exploitation or ownership; where crime would be redundant. Marxists are, therefore, primarily concerned with revealing why the criminal system is biased towards the ruling class, and functionalists with why crime is, as Durkheim stated, "an integral part of all healthy societies".

Durkheim expressed a number of reasons why crime is beneficial in western society. He thought that it set the boundaries for permissible behavior and that public horror at abhorrent crimes could actually strengthen social solidarity. His main belief though was that the criminal system is a motor for legitimate social change. The courts provide a public forum where laws are constantly being tested, if there is an outcry that a law is irrelevant or out of date then it is changed. It is possible to view the abolition of child labor and the establishment of women's rights in this manner.

Marxists refute this position, claiming that the law, its creation, change and policing is part of the 'repressive state apparatus' which protects the interests of the ruling class. For instance laws which protect private ownership are biased toward the rich, while laws that help the working class, e.g. legalizing trade unions, are mere concessions to the poor. Furthermore law enforcement concentrates on working class crime, Box's 'Crime, Power and Mystification' argues that corporate crime is hardly policed, the Serious Fraud Squad in London rarely brought about a successful prosecution, whereas petty crime, such as shop lifting is heavily policed.

Arguments about the process of criminalization, however, do not address the reasons why individuals undertake criminal activity. The Marxist approach is relatively simplistic. Marxists view capitalism as characterized by exploitation, competition and greed. With the priority of life being the accumulation of wealth, breaking the law represents a small barrier; economically motivated crime is the logical extension of the capitalist system. Crimes with no apparent economic motivation, such as vandalism, are just an expression of frustration at the capitalist model.

A detailed functionalist theory that sought to explain criminal behavior has been produced by Robert Merton. Merton argued that societies set goals for people to attain [in western society this is primarily financial success] and the approved means of obtaining these goals, e.g. hard work and success in business. Merton believed that as long as there is a reasonable chance of achieving success through the approved means, the society will function. However, if there is little chance of success than a situation of anomie, a moral vacuum, results. Merton detailed four anomic responses when an individual can not achieve society's goals.

The most prevalent way is 'innovation', where people accept the goals of society but reject the socially approved means, for instance organized crime. Some people follow the path of 'ritualism' where they accept the socially approved means but have ceased to believe they will achieve success, e.g. people who blindly stick to the rules. Others retreat, 'retreatism', they lose sight of the goals and the means, e.g. drug users. The final adaptation, 'rebellion' is the rarest, where people adopt new goals and ways to achieve them, for instance, revolutionaries, or joining or a cult.

Merton's anomie theory with its economic determinist stance is broadly similar to existing Marxist theory. The first theorist to develop Merton's work was Albert Cohen in 'Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang'. Cohen agreed with Merton that crime results from a situation of anomie, however this rejection of society's values does not result from a difficulty in gaining wealth but status. Thus gang culture inverts society's values, activities which are normally frowned upon, such as vandalism and theft, are ways in which to gain a reputation and enhance one's status within the gang.

Another subcultural study where Merton's previous work is evident was undertaken by Cloward and Ohlin. They outlined three different types of deviant subculture. 'Criminal subculture' in which youths used crime to attain money emerged in areas where organized crime pre-existed providing an 'illegitimate opportunity structure'. In the absence of financial opportunity 'conflict subculture' exists where frustrated youths resort to violence to gain status. For those that fail at economic or violent success, 'retreatist subculture' is evident, centered on hustling and retreating into drug use.

A Marxist approach to the study of criminal subculture can be seen in Howard. J Parker's 'A View from the Boys'. Parker studied criminal youths in the British city of Liverpool. He asserted that their behavior, such as stealing car radios, was simply a rational response to being at the lowest ebb of British society. Criminal behavior, therefore, was not a way to achieve society's goals, but a deviant action that allowed them to cope with their marginalized situation. Instead of bringing a sense of achievement the boys felt trapped by their petty-crime existence.

Functionalists concede that too much crime is dysfunctional to society. However in relation to contemporary western culture it isn't surprising that as consensus theorists they view crime as a means by which people can achieve the goals of society. The classical theory of Marxism obviously lends such theorist to highlight the plight of the working class. However while they both seem to agree, for different reasons, with the old adage that money is the root of all evil', neither perspective can explain why one individual will turn to crime whilst another does not.

Sociology in Focus: Paul Taylor et al. (Causeway Press) 1997
Sociology: Ivor Morgan (Letts Educational) 1998

More about this author: William J. Stevens

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