Durkheim & the Normalization of Deviance Research Paper Starter

Durkheim & the Normalization of Deviance

(Research Starters)

This article revolves around Émile Durkheim's (1858–1917) controversial proposal that society necessitates the presence of crime, as criminal activity is both normal and functional, and as Durkheim implies, subjective. Even though different communities possess varying degrees of criminal intensity, acts that are the highest form of malignancy in any particular region (e.g., the vandal in New Hampshire; the gang-banger in Los Angeles) will correspondingly warrant an upper-echelon "criminal" label. Society's reliance upon the existence of crime is confirmed by the fact that it will search for such transgressions, even in the absence of delinquent activity. Likewise, benefits that are acquired by admirable and radical acts of crime, such as those practiced by the revolutionary, help thrust society into that which is ever-evolving. A brief discussion is presented surrounding the pervasive components of crime, which survive the test of time, and exist regardless of regional differences or various forms of punitive retribution. Furthermore, the fact that society isolates unacceptable behavior as a means to shape its values is broached. Anomie, or the absence of structure, rules, and societal organization, and its correlation with crime is introduced, followed by relevant research that intersects Durkheimian theory with deviance. This research includes a detailed account by Liska and Warner (1991), who offer a comparison of different theoretical models on crime, Roshier's (1977) critique of Durkheim's ambiguous inability to properly operationalize pertinent concepts, and Maris' (1971) intriguing Durkheimian twist regarding the view that destructive behavior conducted by females can be viewed in productive terms.

Keywords Altruism; Anomie; Crime; Deviance; Durkheim, Emile; Egoism; Fatalism; Strain Theory; Traditional Functionalist Theory



Émile Durkheim (LaCapra, 1972; Lukes, 1972; Lukes & Scull, 1983; Mestrovic, 1988) greatly contributed to the field of sociology by expounding upon the nature of suicide ideology (Allett, 1991; Hassan, 1998; Taylor, 1982; Van Poppel & Day, 1996), crime (Cohen & Machalek, 1994; Leavitt, 1990; Schattensberg, 1981), religion (Belier, 1999; Stark, 2003; Tole, 1993), and education (Cladis, 1995; Dill, 2007; Oelkers, 2004). One of his most controversial premises was the notion that criminal activity was a normal, functional element of society, one from which the masses tremendously benefited. Before launching into his ideals that support such a hypothesis, rough elucidation surrounding the nature of crime must first be explored. Although crime appears to be a fairly straightforward concept for which most people have a working definition, theoretical differentiation surrounding deviant classifications exist, such as the debate surrounding whether or nor war involvement is criminal or heroic (Kauzlarich, 2007). Durkheim's definition of criminality recognizes the amount of widespread individuality and uniqueness strewn throughout the world, as demonstrated through varying religions, political beliefs, and personality differences, and which precludes the possibility for uniform customs to exist.

The impossibility of establishing one solid "norm," therefore, lends itself to the existence of several distinct "norms" peppered throughout the realm of human existence, which creates a platform ripe for dissention. Even if a person's behavior is consistently in accordance with mainstream society, his volitions naturally reside outside the periphery of other worldwide ethical frameworks. For example, a person in the United States who adheres to Christian ideology might find comfort in the fact that his ideals are compatible with the larger society, although they might conflict with people inhabiting other regions of the world, including those that are predominately Muslim, Hindu, etc. What is considered acceptable behavior in one location might be viewed unusual in another; hence, a Durkheimian perspective illuminates the unavoidable and subjective nature of values, and therefore the subjectivity of that which constitutes "deviance."

Deviance is Relative

Objectively speaking, it appears indisputable that a villain is a person who breaks conventional boundaries, rules, policies, moral codes and/or ethical expectations. However, the actual tenets comprising a society's moral structure are based on a variety of subjective factors. For example, in a "lawless" society where theft, muggings, and vicious attacks are rampant, a scoundrel might be defined only along extreme conditions, such as rape or murder. On the other hand, districts that hold intolerant views toward social blunders might hastily label a person committing minor crimes as that of a rogue. A case illustrating the latter found notoriety in 1994, when Michael Fay, an American teenager temporarily living in Singapore, an area renowned for punitive directives and low crime rates, was caught vandalizing cars and sentenced to receive both a fierce caning and a jail term (Gill, 1994; Kelley, 1994).

Differentiation can also occur intra-culturally, and the United States currently contains areas that are riddled with crime, as well as safe havens that are idyllic and serene. To highlight such discrepancy, the gang-infested streets of Los Angeles are so dangerous that officials seek community solace by granting immunization to non-violent gangs, and save their retributive energy for those who resort to mayhem and brutality (Living with cockroaches, 2007). On the other side of the spectrum, New Hampshire, deemed untarnished and renowned for its harmless and secure neighborhoods (Northern Safety, 2007), recently attempted to pass legislation surrounding the punishment of vandals via public paddling, which was declined. Though vandalizing is a serious infraction, it is interesting that both areas (i.e., L.A. and New Hampshire) proactively identify, define, and chastise the highest form of corruption infiltrating their streets. Though both actions vary in intensity, the contempt and penalty for both situations are related, and the vandal and the violent gang member render comparable eminence. Durkheim asserts that crime is normal because we search for its existence; even in a "perfect" environment, residents would search for the most "imperfect" behaviors to classify as aberrant, as is alluded to in the following passages:

Imagine a society of saints, an exemplary and perfect cloister. Crimes in the strict sense would be unknown there. But faults which seem venial to the vulgar would raise the same scandal as ordinary misdemeanors in ordinary consciences. Thus if this society found itself armed with the power to judge and punish, it would qualify these acts as criminal and treat them as such (Durkheim, as cited in Lacapra, 1972, p. 95).


…[society would] denounce more severely acts which it would have judged more leniently: and that, in consequence, criminality, having disappeared under one form, would reappear under another (Durkheim, as cited in Lukes & Scull, 1983, p. 16).

There is an element of high regard that Durkheim extends toward certain types of crime. Whereas law-abiding citizens can descend into the complacent comfort of their safe habitats, renegades that consistently defy norms and established rules are able to test boundaries by encouraging flexibility and change, which reposition society into a broader, more progressive stratosphere. History is brimming with instances that demonstrate the contrary, in which arbitrary, archaic, or stale governing principles have lost their relevancy throughout the course of evolving social mores. A recent example can be seen in "District of Columbia vs. Heller," the Supreme Court's controversial decision to grant Washington DC residents with the ability to bear arms, which some consider a fundamental constitutional privilege (Bravin, Davis, Fields, & Radnofsky, 2008). Others feel that because the constitution was drafted over 200 years ago, its basic doctrine has lost touch with issues that reflect the needs of today's American, and in fact might facilitate combat in an increasingly aggressive society.

In adherence to Durkheim's grounds, those who oppose such legislation should rally against its existence, thus challenging an antiquated constitutional premise. Hence, Durkheim believed that those who retaliate against the regulations with which they contest venture into illicit territory and might be legally reprimanded; however, they ultimately benefit society, who reaps the advanced strides of that which has been stirred up. In this way, the criminal and the idealist are indiscriminately one-and-the-same, rebelliously forging new and innovative pathways on which the members of society can tread. Furthermore, in the process of violating legal guidelines, a person ironically becomes more intimately acquainted with such governing principles. For example, on a small-scale level, a schoolchild who breaks the "no gum-chewing" rule might receive a lecture from the principal and have to attend after-school detention, which more thoroughly acquaints him with the "no gum chewing policy" than his classmates who have remained under the radar of observant faculty members. Similarly, the outlaws of society also relate themselves more intimately to their district's penal code, in ways that the lay public can only theoretically surmise.

Crime is Consistent

Durkheim indicated that another sign suggesting the normalization of crime includes its pervasiveness across several factors, resulting in a civilization that has never been completely devoid of criminal activity. Indeed, this level of consistency proves that deviance is a normal part of social functioning. If one could prove that crime was, say, accidental or random, then one might build a testimonial to the contrary by examining such abnormal fixtures that infrequently disrupt the social order. Durkheim recognizes that there are anomalous, irregular elements of crime, such as those that occur when the crime rate becomes either markedly low or high, and he claims that the former occurs during time of financial or social despondency. However, during "normal" times, crime exists in regulated form and is indiscriminate of chronological timeframes, regional differences, and restitution. For example, historical eras have been interspersed with legal wrongdoings ranging from an insurgence of Ku Klux Klan retaliation following the Civil War (Everitt, 2003) to 20th and 21st century hate crimes targeting the GLBT (i.e., gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual) community (Towns, 2006; Tulin, 2006), as well as ethnic minorities (Cuauhtemoc & Hernandez, 2008). From a cross-cultural perspective, crime can be examined internationally through statistics that delineate global aberrant realities, including the 1996 victimization rates in the following countries: U.S., 24%; the Netherlands, 32%; England/Wales, 31%; Switzerland, 27%; Scotland, 26%; France, 25%; Canada, 25%, among others (Mogelonsky, 1998), which suggest regularity despite regional division. Additionally, crime exists regardless of the level of punitive condemnation that a community imparts onto its people, a point validated by New Jersey's recent abolishment of the death penalty, due to its ineffective ability to deter crime rates ("No death penalty," 2008).

Lastly, the delineation of deviance allows populations to sculpt and identify their own tailor-made value systems. The fabric of any given society creates its texture based upon a variety of factors, and in order to fully come to terms with the multicultural dimensions that comprise a group of people, it is necessary to examine their collective preferential leanings, ways of expressing faith, and communication styles. It is simultaneously essential to comprehend acts that are...

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