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Created: November 4, 2001
Latest Update: November 4, 2001

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Durkheim on Deviance
This essay is based on meterial from Timothy Mason's course on Deviance and Transgression About three-fifths of the way down the file you will find:
"Crime and punishment are necessary, then, in all social systems. They allow both the social flexibility which is necessary to the survival of the social organism, and the ceremonial affirmation of the social norms upon which any society is founded. What, then, of the content of these norms?

"For Durkheim, the criminal law constitutes a social fact. It exists outside the consciousness of individuals and embodies the collective consciousness of the social system. Each society has its own moral code, and so the criminal law will differ from one social system to another. The French criminal law differs from the English, as both differ from the Japanese or the American. Does this mean to say that the law is, in some way, arbitrary? Sometimes it may appear that this is what Durkheim is suggesting, and that the content of the law matters very little, so long as there is one, and so long as it is sufficiently applied. For example, he recognizes that 'primitive societies' may interdict certain activities which are regarded as permissible in modern societies. Thus, he writes

Le crime ne s'observe pas seulement dans la plupart des sociétés de telle ou telle espèce, mais dans toutes les sociétés de tous les types. Il n'en est pas où il n'existe une criminalité. Elle change de forme, les actes qui sont ainsi qualifiés ne sont pas partout les mêmes ; mais, partout et toujours, il y a eu des hommes qui se conduisaient de manière à attirer sur eux la répression pénale. (Règles, 65)



Crime isn't just observed in most societies of such and such a type, but in all societies of all kinds. There are none in which criminality does not exist. It changes form, the acts thus qualified are not everywhere the same; but, everywhere and always, there have been men who conducted themselves in such a manner as draw penal repression down on themselves. (The Rules of Method)



Three reasons for the existence of crime as Durkheim understood it, according to Timothy Mason's lecture, are

  1. "[T]he relative strength of different social influences make it inevitable that there should be individual differences in the strength of moral consciousness from one person to another - it is therefore also inevitable that some of these differences should be of a criminal type." In other words, deviation from the norm will produce some differences that should be statistically predictable.

  2. Deviance is bound to occur through individual experimentation with freedom. This is the source of originality, creativity, change, necessary to ongoing vitality of the society.

  3. Society's punishment of deviance, and nudging or shoving the deviant back on the "right path" provides public socialization on the normative expectations and tolerances of the social group. See Fundamentalism.
    "Throughout the weeks that we shall be together, we will hear echoes of this basic disagreement between those who believe that crime and delinquency exist out there, in the real world, and that the primary object of criminology is the person who commits those crimes - the criminal or the delinquent - and those who believe that crime is a social construct, a product of social institutions, and in particular of those institutions whose declared objective it is to fight the war against crime. On the one hand, then, are those who see themselves as auxiliaries of the war against crime, and on the other, those who on the contrary, see themselves as either as purely theoretical sociologists, or as critics of the status quo." (Timothy Mason; Scroll about a fourth of the way down the file.)

Thus, we see that Durkheim saw the effects of dominant discourse, of "a little touch of fundamentalism, as a social fact, as a part of the structural context with which individual agency interacts and with which it is interdependent. Now, that's re-interpreting Durkheim in terms of modern theoretical approaches, but you can see that the seeds for these new approaches were there to be found in his theoretical system. This is another reason that classical theory is important. There are few new ideas under the sun. Thinking humans have grappled with these social issues over many centuries. Each builds on the thoughts of those before him/her. (Robert K. Merton. On the Shoulders of Giants.)