Crime is Normal.

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Copyright Peter Heerdegen ©1998.

Emile Durkheim’s contention that crime is normal is at first blush a somewhat startling claim. In fact, it startled Durkheim himself. He wrote, “We are faced with a conclusion which is apparently somewhat paradoxical. Let us make no mistake: to classify crime among the phenomena of normal sociology is not merely to declare that it is an inevitable though regrettable phenomena arising from the incorrigible wickedness of men; it is to assert that it is a factor in public health, an integrative element in any healthy society.” (note i)

Some thinkers have argued that, on the contrary, in a state of civilisation crime is, by its very nature, an aberration in society, a return to Bellum omnium contra omnes , (note ii) in which life is “solitary, poore (sic), nasty, brutish and short.” (note iii)

In the Positivist tradition, Durkheim apparently sought law-like regularities in the phenomena of a society. If these phenomena could be subsumed under and usefully explained by a social theory, it could be reasonably inferred that the social theory could perform the work of scientific explanation; hence the Positivist's focus on objective empirical observation and hypothetico-deductive reasoning, and their hesitancy in admitting individual, subjective data.

“Crime is a social fact… If such things are found in an ‘average’ society, then they are normal; hence crime is normal.” (note iv) However, it does not follow from this assertion that in the average society crime is not destructive or pathological.

All of the lions at Auckland Zoo have feline H.I.V. By this reasoning, for the average lion at Auckland Zoo feline H.I.V is normal. This does not mean that feline H.I.V is not pathological for the lion.

Normal versus pathological are distinctions more often discovered in biological science, but it is possible to draw an analogy between a society and an organism. In attempting to penetrate the meanings of the notion of the normal, Durkheim contrasted it with the notion of the pathological and drew precisely these types of biological analogies.

To briefly purloin some of Aristotle’s metaphysics, a property, from the Latin proprius meaning one’s own, was thought to be something that does not exhibit a things essence (it’s it-ness, thingness?) but belongs to that thing and is predicable of it. (note v)

Therefore, we can say that a lion at Auckland Zoo is a thing or entity. It possesses the property of having feline H.I.V. One may assess whether that property is normal or pathological by examining the function the property performs for the entity. In the case of the lion, feline H.I.V weakens its immune system, causing it to fall victim to and ultimately die from opportunistic infections it might otherwise have survived.

That feline H.I.V is regularly and inevitably observed in the lions at Auckland Zoo is a biological fact. The important point should therefore be made that, although feline H.I.V at Auckland Zoo is an inevitable property of the lions, it is not a necessary property. That is to say, it is not a necessary property of the individual lions. It is contingent on their exposure to it. We can therefore assume that feline H.I.V is pathological (dysfunctional) and therefore not normal (functional), because it serves only to weaken or destroy the lion.

And so, by this same line of reasoning, we can not immediately infer that crime is normal, and not pathological, merely because it is regularly and inevitably observed in society. It is, arguably, a social fact. (note vi) One can only assert that crime is normal if one can demonstrate that it is functional for society, that it is beneficial and constructive (and not destructive & pathological). That is to say, that crime is not merely contingent on certain undesirable but avoidable social conditions, but that it necessarily follows from desirable social conditions.

Crime is a subcategory of deviance, where deviance is defined as a departure from, or violation of social norms. It will be noted that there is some overlap between the category of social norms and deviance. This will be dealt with elsewhere in this essay. It will be admitted, however, that all crime is deviance. The literature on deviance may therefore prove useful in our discussion of crime. Deviance is not an intrinsic property of certain types of behaviour. Rather, deviance is a property conferred on that behaviour by a social audience, in relation to its conceptions of acceptable behaviour (or social norms). Durkheim seems to have been relativist rather than absolutist in his contention that “law and morality vary from one social type to another… and that they… even change within the same type if the conditions… are modified”. (note vii) Ultimately, an act is not condemned because it is a crime, but it is a crime because it is condemned.

One can reasonably use notions of crime and deviance interchangeably, to argue that deviance (and so, by inference, crime) is not necessarily pathological, but can be shown to be normal and necessary. What follows are, inter alia, ways in which deviance can be seen to have a normative and functional effect. _

“The act of hostility toward the lawbreaker has the unique advantage of uniting all members of the community.” (note viii) In the collective condemnation of a crime, individuals can feel that they are not isolated and alone, but members of a community of like-minded individuals. Through this fellow-feeling, their own values, and therefore the social norms transgressed by the criminal, are reinforced, and authority is given to the norms themselves.

Crime can be seen to enhance and even create group solidarity in the precautions individuals take to protect them-selves. A single burglary can begin relationships between neighbours who previously had no interest in knowing or communicating with each other. It can similarly unite entire streets in community meetings and neighbourhood watch groups.

Deviance can help to set and reinforce the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in that “…morality and immorality meet at the public scaffold.” (note ix) In the news media criminals are exposed and their names and faces shown when allowed by the Courts. The law-breaker “informs us…what evil looks like” (note x) and illustrates to the community “the difference between kinds of experience which belong within the group and kinds of experience which belong outside it.” (note xi) Crime as a functional force of societal change may usefully be analysed in the form of an Hegelian historical dialectic . (note xii) The standing social order of social and interpersonal arrangements – Social Norms, establishes boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable act (Thesis). These boundaries are confronted and challenged by deviant or criminal behaviour (Antithesis). In the resulting Synthesis, acts in the category of deviance may be re-categorised, morally if not legally, as normal. Such conflicts might be highly functional for a social system.

In recent history, United States Pathologist Jack Kevorkian has completed a lengthy jail term for manslaughter by aiding and abetting suicide. Many people have thought that his actions were morally right, but the Courts found his actions to be legally wrong. Moreover, there has been considerable disagreement in the news media over the moral rectitude of his actions as a ‘suicide Doctor’. Thus “the innovator has transformed (his)individual nonconformity into (perceived) group conflict and has raised it from the idiosyncratic to the collective level.” (note xiii)

This example may go some way to illustrating the overlap between the categories of social norm and deviance discussed earlier. There may be some disagreement between individuals within a social group as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. “In the history of every society…some of its cultural heroes have been regarded as heroic precisely because they have had the courage and the vision to depart from norms then obtaining in the group.” (note xiv)

The United States legal system was unable to ignore Kevorkian’s increasingly provocative and public ‘assisted suicides’. They rose to his challenge.

In Nietzsche, we read “Behold the good and the just! Whom do they hate most? Him who smashes their tables of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker – but he is the creator.” (note xv) Also, “A change in values – that means a change in the creators of values. He who has to be a creator always has to destroy.” (note xvi) Is it possible, then, that our legislators are not only our elected representatives, but also our deviants and criminals?

Either way, evolutionary biology has suggested that organisms unable to change and adapt to an alteration in environment, that is to say, an externally wrought change, become extinct. New Zealand Native birds are a prime example. They are replaced by organisms more able to adapt to and thrive in the new conditions. Similarly, societies do not exist in complete isolation. A society unable to adapt to external forces through internal change seems similarly doomed.

Erikson suggests that “In recent years, sociological theory has become more and more concerned with the concept “social system” – an organization of society’s component parts into a form which sustains internal equilibrium, resists change, and is boundary maintaining.” (note xvii)

This view appears to emphasise themes of control, hegemony, and homeostasis. There is a clear tension here between functional means of social control and the contrary; deviant behaviour as a source of functional innovation (in bringing about a change in norms) and so an alteration in the boundaries set between moral and immoral, and ultimately between the legal and illegal.

This brings us inevitably to the yet unaddressed question of whether there are societies in which there is no crime or deviance. “But such universal and absolute uniformity (Durkheim assures us) is utterly impossible, for the immediate physical environment in which each one of us is placed, our hereditary antecedents, the social influences upon which we depend, vary from one individual to another and consequently cause a diversity of consciences.” (note xviii)

Durkheim refers us to an hypothetical “community of Saints in an exemplary and perfect monastery” (note xix). In this community, he claims, “crime as such will be unknown, but faults that appear venial to the ordinary person will arouse the same scandal as does normal crime…” (note xx)

Thus deviance has remained, albeit hypothetically, if only due to the unique and disparate natures of the ‘diversity of consciences’ involved. Deviance has not disappeared. The threshold of tolerance to deviance has merely shifted. The social audience views the ‘scandalous’ fault as strongly as an outright crime might be viewed within a less absolutely pious moral framework. If the monastic community does any punishing at all, it will be of these merely scandalous faults. With the instance of that punishment, it seems reasonable to assume that some sort of ‘crime’ has occurred after all.

Ironically, and perhaps unfortunately for the previous case, Saints are, historically speaking anyway, notoriously idiosyncratic. Their contemporaries have generally misapprehended them. The Christian martyrs were generally misunderstood in a particularly sanguine and final fashion. Most became martyrs as a direct consequence of their singular inability or refusal to conform.

Yesterday’s heretic, condemned and terminally immolated, is today’s Saint Joan of Arc. Arguably, the functionality of the Catholic Church’s use of deviance, or ‘rehabilitated’ deviants, is interesting precisely because Catholicism has hardly changed at all in the last four hundred years. However it has shown remarkable function, with respect to our question, in beatifying the prodigal siblings that it once condemned to the flames. Function, that is, in its continuing apparent cohesion in the face of hostile external forces. How it eventually responds to the notions of contraception (or onanism for that matter), abortion, the ordination of women, and its own fearsome history of cultural imperialism, remains to be seen. Only time will tell, and if history is anything to go by, it may be a great deal of time indeed. One may or may not be forgiven for wondering how many Criminals will be reclaimed as Saints.

The contention that crime is normal is, then, perhaps not as surprising as it first seemed. Crime is normal in that “It is linked to the basic conditions of social life… (in that it is not only inevitable but functional, and therefore) indispensable to the normal evolution of morality and law.” (note xxi)

Crime and deviance in general propose a counter-claim which can be dismissed without moment. They can propose a counter-claim producing the form of moral conflict which leads to discussion and discovery. They can also be dismissed and punished in the name of, and to the greater good of, righteousness. This evolution of morality and law is perhaps not to be taken as an evolution towards a more perfect instantiation of an objective moral truth. That is to say, there are not necessarily ethical absolutes that a functional society will ultimately discover. The measure of functionality is a society’s continued coherent survival, and whether that progress is towards virtue or depravity is moot.


i - Emile Durkheim. The Rules of Sociological Method, Ch 3.3: Rules for the Distinction of the Normal from the Pathological. P98.
ii - ‘The war of all against all’
111 - Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan. Part 1, Ch 13, Of Man. P186.
iv - John Tierney. Criminology, theory and context. P85.
V - Collin’s Dictionary of Philosophy. P277.
Vi - This statement naturally suggests the question; “But is crime a social fact? Is it regularly and inevitably observed in all societies?” This question will be dealt with later in the essay.
vii - John Tierney. Criminology, theory and context. P85.
viii - George Herbert Mead. The Psychology of Punitive justice. Quoted by Lewis A. Coser in Some functions of deviant behaviour, from The Study of Society, P. I. Rose (Ed). Ch 62. P763.
ix - Kai T. Erikson. Notes on the sociology of deviance, from Social Processes and Social Structures. Scott W. Richard (Ed), Ch 10. P 119.
x - Ibid.
xi - Ibid.
xii - George F.W. Hegel. Phenomenology of Spirit, and Oxford Companion to Philosophy, P198.
xiii - Lewis A. Coser. Some functions of deviant behaviour, in The study of Society, (Ed – P.I. Rose) Ch 62. P769.
ixx - Lewis A. Coser. Ibid. P 771.
xx - Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus spoke Zarathustra. P51.
xxi - Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus spoke Zarathustra. P85.
xxii - Kai T. Erikson. Op.Cit. P122. Durkheim. Op.cit. P100. Ibid. Durkheim. Op.cit. P100. Ibid. P101.

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Social Processes and Social Structures. Scott W. Richard (Ed). Holt, Rinehart.
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Emile Durkheim. The Rules of Sociological Method. S. Lukes (Ed), W.D.Halls (Trans), Macmillan Pub Co.
Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan. C.B.Macpherson (Ed) Penguin.
John Tierney. Criminology, theory and context. Prentice Hall.
Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus spoke Zarathustra. Penguin.
George F.W. Hegel. Phenomenology of Spirit.

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