The Influence of Durkheim on Modern Criminological Investigation

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The ‘father of academic sociology’ (Hopkins Burke, 2006), Emile Durkheim believed that crime was an important necessity in every society as it played important functional roles in the maintenance of social cohesion, the continuity of social progress and the establishment and reinforcement of societal norms. He stated that criminality was a normal phenomenon, its influence prevalent even on the most saintly of societies. Durkheim’s theories regarding the normality and inevitability of crime, along with his influential concepts of anomie, the division of labour and mechanical and organic solidarity, had a lasting effect on the field of criminological study, particularly in subsequent research conducted by fellow populist theorists of the Chicago School.

Emile Durkheim was on of the first sociologists to reject both biological and psychological populist theories of crime and criminal behaviour in an attempt to analyse criminality as a social phenomenon (Hopkins Burke, 2006). Central to his sociological perspective of crime was the concept of anomie which he defined as “the breakdown of social norms and values” leading to “social disorganisation” of many forms, including an overabundance of criminal activity. He used anomie in his most famous work, The Division of Labour (Dukheim, 1933), in which he broke down societies into two distinct categories depending on the complexity and sophistication of the division of labour present. Traditional, pre-modern societies contained what he proclaimed to be mechanical solidarity. This type of society was characterised be a simple division of labour and conformity amongst societal members. The public shared identical understanding of societal norms and values, whilst crimes and to a lesser extent individuality were dealt with by harsh, retributive punishment. As years passed, rapid social changes such as urbanisation and significant technological advances lead to a more complex system of division of labour. This along with the rise of individualism and the decline of conformity was characteristic of what Durkheim defined as organic solidarity. Most importantly, Durkheim advocated that during periods of significant and rapid social change, the shift from a traditionalist to a modernist society, where norms, values and laws were not yet established, anomie and social disorganisation would arise which in turn would lead to a significant increase in criminal activity.

According to Tierney (2006), Durkheim’s believed crime was a normal and inevitable phenomenon in every society. He argued that ‘crime is a social fact’ and that ‘if such things are found in an ‘average’ society, then they are normal’. A society without crime would therefore be abnormal and ‘pathological’. He illustrated the fact that when a society attempts to eliminate crime by enforcing harsh, retributive punishments on those who breach criminal law, they are unknowingly restricting individual freedom and the future progress and development of that particular society. Increasing repressive legislation inevitably lead to deeds previously considered as acts of nonconformity and self expression being classified as criminal. Durkheim did, however, state that theoretically, a society without crime may exist if and every member was in absolute agreement about societal norms and values. However, as he later stated, ‘a uniformity so universal and absolute is utterly impossible’ (Durkheim, 1982). Therefore, due to the overabundance of contrasting social demographics in modernist communities, especially in regards to differing cultures, religions and age groups, disagreements are bound to occur in regards to what should be considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. These disagreements may leads to extreme acts of nonconformity to both the law which governs the society in question and the values established and accepted by the majority of the populous.

One of Durkheim’s most notions was that crime is not only normal,...
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