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Structural Functional Theory

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Another framework sociologists use to understand the world is the structural functional theory. Its central idea is that society is a complex unit, made up of interrelated parts. Sociologists who apply this theory study social structure and social function. French sociologist Émile Durkheim based his work on this theory. 

Functions of Deviance

Durkheim argued that deviance is a normal and necessary part of any society because it contributes to the social order. He identified four specific functions that deviance fulfills:

  1. Affirmation of cultural norms and values: Seeing a person punished for a deviant act reinforces what a society sees as acceptable or unacceptable behavior. Sentencing a thief to prison affirms our culturally held value that stealing is wrong. Just as some people believe that the concept of God could not exist without the concept of the devil, deviance helps us affirm and define our own norms.
  2. Clarification of right and wrong: Responses to deviant behavior help individuals distinguish between right and wrong. When a student cheats on a test and receives a failing grade for the course, the rest of the class learns that cheating is wrong and will not be tolerated.
  3. Unification of others in society: Responses to deviance can bring people closer together. In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, people across the United States, and even the world, were united in their shock and grief. There was a surge in patriotic feeling and a sense of social unity among the citizens of the United States.
  4. Promoting social change: Deviance can also encourage the dominant society to consider alternative norms and values. Rosa Parks’s act of deviance in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration that segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional.

Strain Theory of Deviance

Sometimes people find that when they attempt to attain culturally approved goals, their paths are blocked. Not everyone has access to institutionalized means, or legitimate ways of achieving success. Strain theory, developed by sociologist Robert Merton, posits that when people are prevented from achieving culturally approved goals through institutional means, they experience strain or frustration that can lead to deviance. He said that they also experience anomie, or feelings of being disconnected from society, which can occur when people do not have access to the institutionalized means to achieve their goals.

Example: In a class of graduating high school seniors, 90 percent of the students have been accepted at various colleges. Five percent do not want to go to college, and the remaining five percent want to go to college but cannot, for any one of a number of reasons. All of the students want to succeed financially, and attending college is generally accepted as the first step toward that goal. The five percent who want to attend college but can’t probably feel frustrated. They had the same goals as everyone else but were blocked from the usual means of achieving them. They may act out in a deviant manner.

Institutionalized Means to Success

In the 1960s, sociologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin theorized that the most difficult task facing industrialized societies is finding and training people to take over the most intellectually demanding jobs from the previous generation. To progress, society needs a literate, highly trained work force. Society’s job is to motivate its citizens to excel in the workplace, and the best way to do that is to foment discontent with the status quo. Cloward and Ohlin argued that if people were dissatisfied with what they had, what they earned, or where they lived, they would be motivated to work harder to improve their circumstances.

In order to compete in the world marketplace, a society must offer institutionalized means of succeeding. For example, societies that value higher education as a way to advance in the workplace must make educational opportunity available to everyone.