Durkheim rejected the definition of crime, which would constitute the commonsense of any society, that crimes are acts that are harmful to society. He pointed to the enormous variations between societies in the acts, which have been regarded as criminal in order to rebut the claim that conceptions of crime are rooted in the social evil represented by particular actions. The only attribute applicable to crimes in general is that they are socially proscribed and punished.
Crime, argues Durkheim, is a universal feature of all societies. This is because crime serves a vital social function. Through the punishment of offenders, the moral boundaries of a community are clearly marked out, and attachment to them is reinforced. The purpose of punishment is not deterrence, rehabilitation nor retribution. Punishment strengthens social solidarity through the reaffirmation of moral commitment among the conforming population who witness the suffering of the offender.
Durkheim believed there are four functions of crime.
The law makes the extremities of acceptable behaviour to set and make it clear to the rest of the public what is acceptable behaviour. The boundaries are set through the media via broadcasts etc. Another function performed by criminals is to prove a constant test of boundaries of permissible action by also helping the law to reflect the wishes and population and legitimising social change.
Durkheim believed that society is held together by shared economic values, that when a person is arrested for a crime they are clarifying the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and giving society an opportunity to reaffirm these values thus safeguarding a continued social cohesion. Erikson agreed with this theory pointing out the drama of a courtroom scene and the media involved in a court case again publicising the boundaries as well as condemning the criminal act. Marxists argue that the young,