Durkheim’s Deviance and Robin Hood

For my film application of theory I chose to watch the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and apply two different theories. Here I will look at the relationship between Durkheim’s views on deviance and the themes of Robin Hood.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves tells the story of a young mercenary soldier, Robin of Loxley, who escapes imprisonment in the Middle East. Upon returning to his home in England he finds that the corrupt and power-hungry Sheriff of Nottingham has killed his father and has also been unfairly taxing the local peasants. Many of the peasants are disgruntled, but have no way to act against the Sheriff, as they live in fear of his retaliation. Robin Hood vows to oppose the Sheriff of Nottingham, while protecting his best friend’s sister, Lady Marion. The sheriff does not take Robin’s opposition well and places a reward upon him.
In response to the sheriff’s attempts to do away with him, Robin is forced to flea with his lovable sidekicks to the “haunted” Sherwood forest. Here he meets up with a band of peasants who for some reason or another are targets of the Sheriff. Many of them are there because they were unable to pay his burdensome taxes. Robin sees them as potential allies and convinces them that they must fight back against the tyrannical sheriff. Together they form a community of thieves who steal from rich passerby in order to distribute the money to the poor.
Eventually the Sheriff’s men find Robin and conflict between the peasants and the corrupt Sheriff ensues.

Durkheim viewed crime as an inevitable component of social life. As long there is society, there will be individuals who act outside of the widely accepted norms. These individuals are often categorized by mainstream society as criminals. Durkheim did not view all crime as negative. In fact, he believed that at times crime could affect positive social change (Edles and Appelrouth 107). In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves the crimes carried out by Robin and the other “thieves” are carried out for the sake of affecting positive political change within their community. As the peasants become more responsive to Robin’s message then the societal norms begin to change and they accept Robin as a hero and the Sheriff as a villain.
One example of crime for the greater good was in the beginning of the film when Robin defends a young boy who is being pursued by the Sheriff’s men for poaching a deer that belonged to the Sheriff himself. It is revealed that the boy was only hunting the deer in order to feed his starving family who was suffering from financial hardships due to the new taxes. The lieutenant responds that the boy has committed a crime and Robin asks, whether it is not a greater crime to starve a family? Having killed several of the Sheriff’s men, Robin has committed a crime, but he feels justified in doing so to protect the young boy and to send a message about the injustices of the new taxes inflicted by the Sheriff. (This scene can be viewed below starting at 5:30).

This sentiment is echoed throughout the film as Robin encourages the peasants to rebel against the unjust laws of the Sheriff. He encourages them to engage in theft to teach the Sheriff and his supporters a lesson: that they will not accept being oppressed and overtaxed. Their deviance becomes a way of effecting social change.

Durkheim also argues that crime and punishment are used to impose a sort of social control upon society. This theme is also seen in Robin Hood. It is first introduced within the first ten minutes of the film when Robin is being held captive in Jerusalem. There a man has his hand cut off for the crime of stealing. The guards are thus using punishment as a means of forcing individuals to conform to societal norms. By cutting off his hand as punishment it is a visible message to the rest of society that deviance will not be tolerated.

We see a similar use of punishment in Nottingham when several of the thieves from Sherwood Forest are caught by the Sheriff. He has a strong desire to send a message to the peasants that rebellion will not be tolerated so he orchestrates a public hanging. This becomes a way for him to establish appropriate and inappropriate behavior. By demonstrating that traitors will be punished he hopes to discourage any further rebellion. (The Sheriff expressing this desire can be seen below beginning at 3:48).

I think the story of Robin Hood illustrates Durkheim’s perception of deviance, crime and punishment quite well. Crime exists within any society and the definitions of said crimes, as well as the punishments, are unique to different societies. Crime can be used by criminals to affect some sort of change or as an act of rebellion and punishment is used to reinforce standards of behavior that have been agreed upon by those in power. All of these concepts are reflected in this film.

One Response to “Durkheim’s Deviance and Robin Hood”

  1. Lewis says:

    I do like your work; it’s very easy to digest and well put. On the other hand it does give the wrong impression of Durkheim as it suggests he opposes the crime and punishment system. It may be the Robin Hood example you have chosen to use as we can surely agree that the Sheriff is unjust; this however indicates that Durkheim would believe prisons and courts are unjust. In actual fact Durkheim is a functionalist and therefore believes that institutions in society are in place with good reason.
    I support what you have wrote about his view on crime: there are positive affects of crime. It can, for example; act as a safety valve for criminals so they feel relieved without committing to extreme crimes, create consensus in society as if people can agree on bad behaviour that needs punishing they can agree on what is acceptable behaviour and as you said lead to positive societal change (i.e. Robin Hood convincing his people that the Sheriff’s taxing is unjust and they should not stand for it).
    I do however feel you have ignored his views on punishment in a non-fictional society. As most functionalists do Durkheim would argue that the criminal punishment system acts, in a number of ways, as a deterrent for criminals committing crime thus protecting wider society. The Robin Hood example would be used better to explain a Marxist theory on crime and deviance as it demonstrates the ruling class to be corrupt. It does not suit Functionalism as well because functionalist theorists would state there is in fact a meritocracy and anybody has the chance to rid class based inequalities and improve their position in society; this option is not given in Robin Hood.
    Either that or I have not understood your work completely. Both are likely.
    I hope this has helped, if possible.