Last modified on 21 July 2009, at 20:35

Social Deviance/Structural Functionalism

Main page: Wikipedia:Structural functionalism

The structural-functionalist school of sociology is concerned with macro-level explanations. Therefore, this school is interested primarily in how norms and institutions fit in the study of deviance.


Main page: Wikipedia:Norm (sociology)

In a society, a norm is a sort of rule that is enforced by the society. They are generally unwritten and most people take them for granted, not realizing the powerful force of norm enforcement until they have deviated from a norm. Society may punish deviants in three different levels:

  • Legal sanctions.
  • Stigmatization by the society as a deviant.
  • The preference of one action over another.


Anomie, in contemporary English, means a condition or malaise in individuals, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values. When applied to a government or society, anomie implies a social unrest or chaos.

    • Etymology

The word comes from Greek, namely the prefix a- “without”, and nomos “law”. The Greeks distinguished between nomos (νόμος, “law”), and arché (αρχή, “starting rule, axiom, principle”). For example, a monarch is a single ruler but he or she might still be subject to, and not exempt from, the prevailing laws, i.e. nomos.

In the original city state democracy, the majority rule was an aspect of arché because it was a rule-based, customary system which might or might not make laws, i.e. nomos. Thus, the original meaning of anomie defined anything or anyone against or outside the law, or a condition where the current laws were not applied resulting in a state of illegitimacy or lawlessness.

The contemporary English understanding of the word anomie can accept greater flexibility in the word “norm”, and some have used the idea of normlessness to reflect a similar situation to the idea of anarchy. But, as used by Émile Durkheim and later theorists, anomie is a reaction against or a retreat from the regulatory social controls of society, and is a completely separate concept from anarchy which is an absence of effective rulers or leaders.

    • Anomie as individual disorder

The nineteenth century French pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim borrowed the word from the French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau and used it in his book Suicide (1897), outlining the causes of suicide to describe a condition or malaise in individuals, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values (referred to as normlessness), and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life. This is contrary to previous theories on suicide which generally maintained that suicide was precipitated by negative events in a person's life and their subsequent depression.

In Durkheim’s view, traditional religions often provided the basis for the shared values which the anomic individual lacks. Furthermore, he argued that the division of labor that had been prevalent in economic life since the Industrial Revolution led individuals to pursue egoistic ends rather than seeking the good of a larger community.

Robert King Merton also adopted the idea of anomie to develop Strain Theory, defining it as the discrepancy between common social goals and the legitimate means to attain those goals. In other words, an individual suffering from anomie would strive to attain the common goals of a specific society yet would not be able to reach these goals legitimately because of the structural limitations in society. As a result the individual would exhibit deviant behavior. Friedrich Hayek notably uses the word anomie with this meaning.

Anomie as a social disorder is not to be confused with anarchy. Anarchy denotes lack of rulers, hierarchy, and command, whereas anomie denotes lack of rules, structure, and organization. Many proponents of anarchism claim that anarchy does not necessarily lead to anomie and that hierarchical command actually increases lawlessness (see e.g. the Law of Eristic Escalation).

As an older variant, the Webster 1913 dictionary reports use of the word anomie as meaning “disregard or violation of the law”.


Emile Durkheim

Emil Durkheim is the founder of the structural functionalist perspective. This is essentially the view that everything in society has a given function that it must perform within that society in order for it to continue to survive. There are two main types of functions that a particular social phenomena can perform. They are Manifest and Latent functions. The former are those functions in society that are intended and direct. An example of this would be the function of a police force to prevent crime and enforce criminal law. Latent functions on the other hand are those things which come about indirectly and, while still being a necessary function, are less straight forward. Another example using a police force would be its latent function of maintaining the belief in the general population that society is operating smoothly (or that it isn't running so smoothly, depending on regional variations).


Merton's structural-functional idea of deviance and anomie.

Robert King Merton expanded on the idea that anomie is the alienation of the self from society due to conflicting norms and interests by describing 5 different types of actions that occur when personal goals and legitimate means come into conflict with each other. Instead of social integration and social regulation, Merton focused on the two variables of goals and legitimate means. These two dimensions determine the adaptation to society according to the cultural goals, which are the society's perceptions about the ideal life, and to the institutionalized means, which are the legitimate means through which an individual may aspire to the cultural goals. There are 5 possible combinations of adaptation. When an individual accepts the goals and means together, he is working under conformity. (Example: White collar employee who holds a job to support a family.) When an individual accepts the goals but uses illegitimate means in order to achieve them, he commits crimes in order to emulate the values of those who conform; in other words, they must use innovation in order to achieve cultural goals. (Example: Drug dealer who sells drugs to support a family.) An individual may lose faith in cultural goals but still feel obligated to work under the routines of legitimate daily life. This person is practicing ritualism. (Example: A white collar employee who holds a job, but has become completely discontent with the American Dream.) Individuals may also reject both goals and means and fall under retreatism, when they ignore the goals and the means of the society. (Example: Drug addicts who have stopped caring about the social goals and use drugs as a way to escape reality.) Finally, there is a fifth type of adaptation which is that of rebellion, where the individual rejects the cultural goals and the institutionalized means, but seeks to redefine new values for society. (Example: Radicals who want to repair or even destroy the capitalist system in order to build a new social structure.)

    • Merton states that anomie is the state in which social goals and the legitimate means to achieve them do not correspond.
    • 5 ways of adaptation to society according to Culture Goals (A) and Institutionalized Means (B)
      • Conformity: A+B+
      • Innovations: A+B-
      • Ritualism: A-B+
      • Retreatism: A-B-
      • Rebellion: A(Change)B(Change)