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Durkheim’s View on Crime, Term Paper Example

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Term Paper

Durkheim’s view on crime, as shown in statements such as “crime is necessary” and “crime is useful”, are prima facie controversial statements, however, only to the extent that they are separated from his greater sociological theory. The necessity and the utility of crime in Durkheim’s account must rather be understood as a condition for the possible growth and stability of society in terms of the strengthening of societal institutions and the formation of the law. In other words, crime denotes “a normal evolution”, as the very identification of crime itself as crime is the recognition of the potentiality of society to organize its structure on a legal basis: In the academic literature, this is thus described as a functional approach. The functionalist approach precisely denotes the examination of a given social phenomenon such as crime in terms of its contribution to the potential evolution of society.

At the same time, however, this is not to suggest that for Durkheim crime is a desirable phenomenon. With his concept of anomie, Durkheim is essentially indicating that crime itself is also symptomatic of the malfunctioning of society. Primarily, anomie means that the very notion of the societal structure as some type of organic whole is upset: anomie demarcates a moment in which societal norms and the needs of the individual are no longer harmonious, meaning that the individual can no longer act in terms of these norms. According to Durkheim, this is largely a phenomenon produced by society itself, such that the phenomenon of excessive crime would be the result of an anomie created by a society that is ambiguous in its norms, which leads individuals to undertake asocial actions. Concomitantly, anomie can be positive to the extent that in the face of excessive crime society is forced to take measures to re-evaluate its norms and minimize anomie, which can lead to – in Durkheim’s conceptual language – a stronger collective consciousness. Insofar as society desires to prevent crime, this very act indicates that the society is conscious of itself as a society. Accordingly, excessive crime may lead to a strengthening of social solidarity, in which the society realizes that its very norms are threatened by a criminal phenomenon, such that the society becomes more cohesive in light of this threat to its very existence.

This strengthening of social solidarity can manifest itself in the various forms of laws a society accepts, such as repressive law and restitutory law. These two forms of law essentially possess two diverse functions. Repressive law intends to prevent crime through means the monitoring and excessive punishment of crimes in an attempt to stop societal erosion before it happens. In order to function the repressive law thus needs a stronger societal apparatus that can monitor the actions of its populace. In contrast, restitutory law operates “after the fact” – the point is not to initially prevent crime, but to treat crime in a manner that recovers the social relationships that were injured by the crime itself. In both cases, however, what is crucial is that both responses allude to a strengthening of societal function: in repressive law, there is the strengthening of societal organs to respond to crime in a preventative manner, whereas in restitutory law the importance of the original social form is stressed.

The parallel of Durkheim’s theory to Hobbes’ is clear insofar as both stress that the violence of crime and disorder can contribute to the strengthening of social bonds and relations. In Hobbes, this notion famously takes the form of the social contract, in which human beings create social relations in order to combat the brute force of violent nature and a state of total lawlessness. Society is thus a healthy response to these negative phenomena in its attempt to mitigate the latter’s effect, essentially functioning as an act of preservation. The radical (and positive) side effect of this gesture is precisely the development of social bonds. Both Durkheim and Hobbes thus construe of a crucial relationship between society and crime/violence in terms of how the latter can ultimately engender the strengthening of the former.

The dialectic between the principle of retribution and the principles of deterrence and rehabilitation can be viewed as one of the key historical and conceptual binaries of societal formation. The principle of retribution primarily represents a “primitive” form of law, in which crime is only punished in a retroactive manner. Retribution takes the particular form of “revenge” punishment, in which punishment is conceptually placed as following the initial act of crime. Crime is thus not treated by society as something to be prevented, but as a phenomenon to be addressed after it has occurred, much like a cleanup process after a natural disaster. Crime in this regard is a natural phenomenon and will happen; it is then to be dealt with in a specific manner. An example of such a phenomenon is the various traditional laws in countries such as Albania, which dictate how people may exact revenge after incurring an injustice. Deterrence and rehabilitation differ from retribution insofar as they essentially attempt to prevent crime before it happens. Thus, crime is viewed as something undesirable to the societal body, and norms and social relationships must be constructed to prevent it from happening. Deterrence and rehabilitation, however, differ from each other in the precise means by which they prevent crime. Deterrence represents the radical prevention of crime, through a societal apparatus that tries to deter crime from ever occurring, for example, the collection of data on members of society, such as fingerprints. Rehabilitation, in contrast, looks at the criminal event and tries to re-integrate the criminal into the social community, as, for example, demonstrated in the penal phenomenon of the half-way house.

This dialectic can be said to correspond to Durkheim’s two laws of penal evolution, as Durkheim’s theory stresses how penal codes develop: in less advanced society, punishment tends to be severe, whereas in more developed societies, punishment leans towards more humane treatments, for example, the elimination of capital punishment. This corresponds to the dialectic of retribution and deterrence/rehabilitation insofar as notions of deterrence and rehabilitation tend to view crime as a non-natural phenomenon, in the attempt to prevent it from happening. In the treatment of crime as a natural phenomenon, retribution is not structured according to any notions of “humanity”, but rather as a response to the phenomenon of crime itself. Yet Foucault’s approach generally rejects the Durkheimian notion. In the gesture towards prevention, according to Foucault, society slowly becomes an apparatus of control. Thus, more developed societies, insofar as they emphasize control, are essentially less humane, as the penal codes they establish attempt to radically restrict human behaviour.

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