Marxism and functionalism are two core schools of sociological thought, but their outlooks are often in disagreement with each other. Marxism sees society in conflict; functionalism sees everything in cooperative balance and harmony. Their differences are perhaps most clearly shown in an analysis of crime.
Marxist theory views crime as the result of conflict between the social and economic classes. Marx viewed crime through the prism of a struggle for power and resources. Those in power write laws that benefit and protect themselves, while at the same time oppressing and criminalizing the lower classes. The definition of crime, therefore, is of critical importance to Marxist theory.
Marxism sees the law as a tool which the ruling class uses to benefit themselves and oppress the working classes. The law is less an indicator of right and wrong than it is a measure of what threatens the rich and powerful. The criminal justice system is less an institution which keeps society safe and more a flawed and unjust judge of right and wrong.
In today’s society, Marx would examine the difference in the treatment of white collar criminals compared to street criminals. Despite the far greater financial damage caused by white collar crime, street crime is treated as the primary concern of law enforcement. A robbery of a wallet from one person is virtually always treated in a far harsher manner than an instance of corporate fraud that leads to financial losses for thousands of victims.
Another example which fits very well into Marx’s conflict model is drugs. Currently, many drugs are deemed criminal while others are perfectly legal, socially accepted, and regularly prescribed by medical professionals. Marx would point out that the alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drug industries have powerful lobbies which are interested in protecting their own businesses while at the same time quelling competition by keeping certain drugs illegal.
Functionalism, developed in part from the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim, views crime as a normal function of society. According to functionalist theory, society is like an organism with all organizations, institutions, and other components – each with their own functions – working together.
Whereas crime is generally seen in a negative light as an unnecessary inconvenience for society, functionalism would hold that crime actually has many functions in society. The existence of crime leads to the development of an entire job-creating industry: law enforcement. Further, crime and deviance promote social cohesion, bringing people together in a united front against those deemed dangerous and disreputable.
The main criticism of this functionalist perspective of crime is that crime is still not technically necessary in a society. If society did not employ police, investigators, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges, such monetary resources and manpower could be put to a more positive use in an area like health or technology.
According to Marxism, inequality is the engine that propels society: those with great resources exploit those with few resources, using their power to influence the very definition of crime. The functionalist perspective sees crime in a very different light, stressing its uses in society. While they are virtual opposites, the Marxist and functionalist schools shed light on valuable constrasting perspectives on criminal theory in sociology.