Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Is Crime Healthy?

I've been working through Emile Durkheim's classic The Rules of Sociological Method and in one section he works to draw a line between types of acts that are normal and those that are pathological. I don't want to discuss the criterion, but as an example in the section he argues that crime is normal. Not only is it present in all societies, but he argues, it needs to be -- both because it serves a positive function and because it follows from the nature of social structures that there must be crime.

Crime, he argues, is deviance from socially expected norms that are initially culturally enforced through shame and ostracism, but eventually become encoded into law and formally enforced. But while society has formal and informal mechanisms to enforce uniformity, social change requires people who challenge the norms. Durkheim follows a path analogous to Darwin in saying that individuals will have random mutations that will cause them to be different, to act differently, and some of the changes are selected for and are social progress, while others are selected against and are crimes that the society needs to punish to maintain its integrity. Trying and punishing criminals provides opportunities to reflect on what makes something a crime and either strengthens the norm because it is seen as necessary for the social order or gets weaker because it is seen as arbitrary, capricious, and unnecessarily limiting. While individual crimes may be harmful to the society, crime as a general phenomenon is a challenging of the social order and needed for advancement.

The Utopian dream of a culture without crime is not only undesirable, but impossible. If a society were to eliminate everything it considered criminal activity at a given time, then it would not only have a stultifying degree of conformity, but it would take minor differences from the norm, differences that could previously be accepted and ignored, and turn them into crimes further crushing opportunities for progress and human freedom and growth.

Is this right? Is there a difference between criminal behavior and harmless weirdness? Would we outlaw weirdness if we got rid of more serious crimes? Is crime really something socially healthy? Couldn't we have a happier, freer society without crime?