Kai Erikson's View of Crime in Society

A Functionalist Perspective in 'Wayward Puritans' (1966)

Scientific Essay, 2012

10 Pages, Grade: 2.1 (British scale)


Kai Erikson’s criminological perspective towards functionalism in Wayward Puritans: deviance in society as an important condition in preserving the stability of social life

In order to assess Erikson’s functionalist view of what happened during the 1692 witchcraft hysteria in Salem Village, the following points will be considered in this paper. Firstly, the key assumptions of functionalism and what role does deviance plays in society will be outlined briefly. How does Erikson explain the Salem witch-hunt to be functional? How has he adopted Durkheim’s assertions on the deviance in society? Then as a contrast, this paper will demonstrate an example where deviance was not prevented through rejection, but still preserved the society in which it took place. Finally, critique about the perspective will attempt to illustrate a more accurate conception of functionalism and its drawbacks.

According to Bensman and Gerver (1963), functionalism “attempts to describe on-going systems as operating units (p.588)”. It follows the assumption that social systems are composed of complex networks and interrelations involving social actions of a variety of individuals. Here, dysfunction will be defined as “actions and interrelationships that operate against the maintenance of the on-going social system (Bensman & Gerver, 1963 p.589)”. Deviant elements may develop in a society where social goals are unobtainable, the norms become disregarded or unaccepted, the community’s solidarity decreases or animosity increases, and a state of anomie is created. Social norms consist of “rules, which determine the nature of socially permissible actions and transactions [created by] the participants themselves (Bensman & Gerver, 1963 p. 589)”. Therefore deviance is not a separate entity from social norms, but a categorized, organized set of actions against the custom.

Gibbs (1977:408) demonstrates two key assumptions in functionalism; extensive agreement in social life, and conforming to norms is functional. Conformity upholds social relations and is rewarded through social inclusion and harmony; therefore deviance is not pursued because of the fear of losing social security (Gibbs, 1977 p.410). When a deviant act or behaviour occurs, it alerts the members of the community to their common interests, and draws attention to their values (Erikson, 1966:4 cited in Jensen, 2010 p.17) based on their reaction to the crime.

The functionalist perspective seeks out underlying dimensions of dysfunction in society, how it is used and how it affects a social response in terms of growth (Meier, 1976 p.461). Theorists believe there is a reason that dysfunctional behaviour in society exists, and that it does not occur as a mere antecedent to social norms. Robert Merton is a well-known functionalist through his work regarding “social class position as a determinant of criminality (Meier, 1976 p.463)”. His perspective suggests the deviant is not to blame for their position in society rather the social structure is built to their advantage. This is an interesting notion when looking at the witch executions of Massachusetts Bay, the very first individuals singled out to be witches were the social outsiders. In their case, the structure and the progression of deviance, was very much built to their detriment. Howard Becker also agrees that deviance is defined by society and not an inherent behaviour (Meier, 1976 p.468). Essentially, the social and cultural norms define deviance; acts and behaviours not accepted within the margins of social order.

Furthermore, Durkheim (1933,1938) believed that “crime is a necessary and functional part of social life (Liska & Warner, 1991 p.1441)”. The community’s reaction to deviance encourages and affirms the differences between what is considered to be correct and incorrect conduct. The specific level of reaction from the public toward deviance is critical to the solidarity of the social structure; such cohesion is necessary for the survival of the social order.

The Salem witchcraft hysteria began in Reverend Parris’ home, in 1692, where several young girls befriended the kitchen slave, Tituba. Being from Barbados, Tituba had a reputation to be skilled “in the magic arts (Erikson, 1966)” and eventually the girls started to act in a manner very unbecoming for moral Puritan ladies. An important circumstance here is that, as the girls started behaving strangely, screaming, acting like animals, and convulsing at random, the people of Salem were experiencing multiple social anxieties. A prolonged state of anomie existed throughout the colony as “political outlines of the commonwealth had been subject to sudden, often violent shifts, and the people of the colony were quite uncertain about their own future (Erikson, 1966)”.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Kai Erikson's View of Crime in Society
A Functionalist Perspective in 'Wayward Puritans' (1966)
The University of York
Sociology with Criminology
2.1 (British scale)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
418 KB
sociology, criminology, functionalism, durkheim, Kai erikson, Wayward puritans, Salem witch trials
Quote paper
Saskia Andresen (Author), 2012, Kai Erikson's View of Crime in Society, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/233283


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