Sociology of Deviance Essay

To what extent do you agree that the Sociology of Deviance and Control has little or no relevance for contemporary social work?

Illustrate your discussion with reference to age and crime.

With the rise in mass media, the reporting of crime and deviance has become commonplace. We are now faced with images of criminal activity, whether that be large scale operations such as terrorism or drug trafficking or small scale like youth crime and delinquency, everyday of our lives and the trend in this seems to be on the rise.

The sense of the immediacy of crime and deviance through the intervention of the media has made it an important political issue. The Blair government’s dictum of being “Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime” has become a cliché of the contemporary political scene but one that seems to have found favor with public opinion. A recent MORI poll, for instance, concerning the public’s attitudes towards the area of crime and delinquency reveals that almost 45 per cent of those poled thought that their concern of crime had “Increased a lot” over the last few years and that 46 per cent had lost confidence in the police and the social services ability to deal with its victims.

With this in mind, this paper attempts to place the theories of deviance and control within the context of modern theories concerning social work and social work policy. Firstly, I would like to outline in some depth the various differing theories of crime and deviance, starting with the historical psychobiological model (leading into more recent notions of genetic and criminal profiling), then I will move on to look at the more sociologically based theories of Emile Durkheim and Robert K. Merton. I will, after this consider the theories of the Chicago school before concluding this section with an assessment of Howard Becker and labeling theory.

With this base firmly established I will move on from there to look specifically at the area of crime and the young, isolating points of reference between the theory and the official statistics and drawing inferences from this. I will then move on to look at the area of postmodern social theory as exemplified in the work of, among others Michel Foucault, and how such notions of privileging and minor narratives can be used to challenge criminal stereotypes and provide a sound foundation for future practice.

First of all, what is the theory of deviancy? It is not enough, as most commentators point out (Haralambos, 1991; Giddens, 2001; Downes and Rock, 1998 etc.) to suggest that it is merely the study of criminal activity, although they are of course inextricably linked. As Lefton, Skipper and McCaghy state (1968) the sociology of deviance, like many definitions in the social sciences, can best be thought of as a series of linked practices that are generally considered as constituting a partially homogenous discipline:

“Traditionally (for instance) in American sociology the study of deviance has focused on criminals, juvenile delinquents, prostitutes, suicides, the mentally ill, drug users and drug addicts, homosexuals and political and religious radicals.” (Lefton, Skipperand McCaghy, 1968: v)

It is obvious from this statement that not only are definitions of sociology of deviance problematic but so too are definitions of deviance itself. It is unlikely, given today’s socio-political climate that gay men or lesbians would be included under the heading of deviance and the same possibly goes for the mentally ill.

A working definition of deviance as Haralambos (1991) suggests should involve some idea of relativity; with the current moral and ethical trends and mores taken as a benchmark for comparison:

“Deviance is a relative: there is no absolute way of defining a deviant act. Deviance can only be defined in relation to a particular standard and no standards are fixed or absolute. As such what is regarded as deviant varies from time to time and place to place.” (Haralambos, 1991: 581)

In many ways then, deviance and its study must be looked at within the context of the country and the historical era that produced it. This does not however negate its importance as an opinion forming notion within society because, as we shall see, in many ways those who are excluded are equally as important, if not more so, as those that exclude.

One of the earliest perspectives of deviance and its causes was the notion of criminal typing as seen in the work of Cesare Lombroso and William Ferrero (1895, 1995). For Lombroso and Ferrero, the criminal displayed psychical differences from the law-abiding. The deviant could be judged and, presumably the authorities pre-warned, through the isolating of certain physical features such as an asymmetrical face or unusual facial features. What is important about Lobroso and Ferrero’s theories, I think, is not so much their conclusions as their attempt at founding a discipline that views deviance as something that can be categorized and eventually countered.

It is also no great leap of imagination to suggest parities between Lombroso and Ferrero’s work and the recent rise in interest concerning criminal genetics. A 2002 article by the BBC, for example, suggests that steps have been made to try and isolate a gene that causes delinquency and anti-social behavior. The outcomes of such research, commentators have suggested, could be the use of drugs in the prevention of crime and deviance.

Of course, most of the theories concerning crime and deviance rely more on sociology than psychology or genetics. The use of psychobiology in this area may seem reasonable, it may even offer attractive easy answers like the use of crime-curbing drugs but, ultimately the problem is more likely to reside in the complexity of the interface between the individual and the society. Even that most biological of thinkers Hans Eysenck acquiesces to the importance of context and culture in this area:

“The very notion of criminality or crime would be meaningless without a context of learning or social experience and, quite generally, of human interaction. What the figures have demonstrated is that heredity is a very strong predisposing factor as far as committing crimes is concerned. But the actual way in which the crime is carried out, and whether or not the culprit is found and punished—these are obviously subject to the changing vicissitudes of everyday life.” (Eysenck, 1970: 74)

One of the earliest sociological expositions of deviance was the functionalist view of Emile Durkheim. Commensurate with his over all schema of sociological thought, Durkheim stressed not only the inevitability but also the function of crime in a social context. Firstly, he asserted, the universality of deviance as a subject - the fact that every society has a notion of deviance (even though this may change from society to society) points to the fact that it has an important role to play in the formation of societies. He says in his The Rules of Sociological Method (1982):

“What is normal is simply that criminality exists, provided that each social type does not reach or go beyond a certain level which it is perhaps not impossible to fix conformity with…previous rules.” (Durkheim, 1982: 98)

As long as the levels of deviance do not become unstable and threaten the social order, thought Durkheim, notions like crime and delinquency are important social functions; providing social cohesion and homogeneity. The concept of breaking the law, in other words must always be in a dialectical relationship to the up holding of the law but the latter must always prevail in order to maintain the status quo.

For Durkheim, also, deviance can be seen as a prefiguring of future actions or morality (Thompson, 2002). The consensus of the society can be broken by individuals that may seem deviant at the time but whose views, eventually, come to represent the general consensus. Perhaps we could think here of Martin Luther King’s public image in 1960s America, or perhaps the Gay Pride marches of the early 1980s. In both of these examples we see images of individuals (or at least small groups) who reverse the current trends in society but whose notions eventually are adopted.

Allied to Durkheim’s ideas are those of Robert K. Merton, for Merton also crime and deviance is founded upon consensus of opinion. Since many of those within a society will share these opinions (thus, obviously, forming a consensus) the only difference between the deviant and the non-deviant must be the social structure that they exist under, as Haralambos explains:

“since members of society are placed in different positions in the social structure (for example they differ in terms class position) they do not have the same opportunity of realizing the shared values. This situation can generate deviance. In Merton’s words ‘the social and cultural structure generates pressure for socially deviant behaviour upon people variously located in the structure.” (Haralambos, 1991: 587)

In other words, the ability to achieve cultural goals is unequal across the society and it is the frustration of this that results in deviance and crime.

The Chicago school based their notions on similar founding precepts although they stressed the importance of environmental factors in the formation of deviance and crime (Messner and South, 2000). Centered around Chicago in the 1920s, the Chicago school saw that deviant and criminal behaviour was localized in certain districts, districts that were poor both environmentally and economically. The more urban an area was, the more centrally based within a city, the more it was open to a highly transitory population that they saw as being commensurate with criminal activity. As those in the inner city areas became wealthier they moved out to suburban areas leaving a space that could be filled by new, largely migratory, poor.

This demographic explanation of crime and deviance has become popular and, we can assert, is embodied in the notions we outlined earlier regarding the tenant “Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime”. Apart from widening the debate of crime to include the environment we can see that their notions (that obviously stretch much further than the brief outlines I have the space to give here) place onus not upon the individual or the society as a whole but the mechanisms within that society; the town planners, the politicians, the architects and the social workers and, as we shall see when we come to look at the work of Michel Foucault, this is of great relevance today.

The last area of theory that I wish to highlight is the notion of labeling as it appears in Howard S. Becker’s. Outsiders (1963). Becker’s study deals with the ways in which society labels certain individuals and activities as deviant thus not only excluding but also creating the deviance in question. An important question that arises from this, of course is who makes the rules and who decides the punishments? Becker is quite clear on this:

“This is, of course, a question of political and economic power…By and large, for example, rules are made for young people by their elders. Though the youth of this country exert a powerful influence culturally - the mass media of communication are tailored to their interests, for instance - many important kinds of rules are made for our youth by adults.” (Becker, 1963: 17)

In Becker, then, and labeling theory the concept of deviance and the concept of rule making is inextricably linked; the one who controls the later also creates the former.

Becker’s work of course, especially the passage quoted above opens up to us the area of crime and youth; more and more these two areas are being seen as conflated in the public arena. Government statistics reveal that a staggering 21 per cent of all 10 to 17 years olds arrested in 1998 had had from three to nine previous convictions compared to 28 per cent of 18 to 34 and 22 per cent of 35 to 54 year olds. The average duration of arrest for a young offender in 2005 was 65 days and in 2000 a massive 105,000 people between the ages of 10 and 17 were cautioned on indictable offences with a further 56,000 for summary offences.

It is not difficult to see how these figures fit in with many of the theories we have been looking at so far. The youth demographic, as Paul Friday asserts in his essay ‘Youth Crime in Postindustrial Societies: An Integrated Perspective’ (1981), is notoriously vulnerable to the kinds of environmental notions highlighted by the Chicago school and the kinds of failure to achieve, in a legitimate manner, social goals that Merton suggested. By and large, obviously, it is the young who are least able economically to achieve the things that society deems as socially important and yet, as Becker suggests, it is also the young who are the most powerless when it comes to drawing rules and reasonable bounds of behavior.

The position of youth crime is clearly outlined in Friday’s essay:

“(1) youth crimes are most frequent in urban, industrial, affluent societies, and within these societies are concentrated primarily in urban areas; (2) the perpetrators of the majority of offenses are young males under the age of 24; (3) the offenses themselves are generally against property; and (4) the majority of these youthful offenders do not continue in crime but eventually lead relatively law-abiding lives. “ (Friday, 1981: 43)

It is interesting to note here how Friday asserts that youth crime is most frequent in societies that are, more or less, the most affluent. If we consider all of the various theories we have been looking at so far we could venture that is it this very affluence that creates the types of crime typically associated with young people. Commensurate with both Durkheim and Merton, contemporary youth crime could be seen as the frustration engendered by the failure to achieve the kinds of goals an affluent society expects through legitimate means.

However, is this really the case? In their essay ‘Postmodernism and Discourse Approaches to Social Work’ (1998) Nigel Parton and Wendy Marhsall discuss the whole concept of a social work theory that sees deviance and youth for that matter as merely two more discourses in the whole fabric of the social system:

“Discourses are structures of knowledge claims and practices through which we understand explain and decide things. In constituting agents, they also define obligations and determine the distribution of responsibilities and authorities for different categories of person, such as parents, children, social workers, doctors, lawyers and so on.” (Parton and Marshall 1999: 244)

Drawing on the work of Derrida and more importantly Michel Foucault, postmodern social work theory as described in Parton and Marhsall sees concepts such as deviance and criminality as a way of suppressing the discourse of various groups; the mentally ill for instance, the black or the young. Youth crime, in this sense becomes merely a manifestation of the desire of the adult to maintain their socio-economic power and the deviant becomes a way of shoring up psychosocial borders and boundaries, creating abject others that act as consoling definitions of what has been expelled to maintain order.

Foucault, in his Discipline and Punish (1991) is quick to highlight the extent that, under the modern system of legality and incarceration, the concept of deviance and its control rests within a multiplicity of different social agencies:

“We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements.” (Foucault, 1991: 304)

It is this point, perhaps, that allows us to question the relevancy of the sociology of deviance to modern social work practice. As Foucault asserts, in a changing global environment that is party to all manner of new modes and methods of surveillance and incarceration, in a political system that is terrorized by unknown, faceless threats from within itself, in an age of mass media that seeks not only to judge but to punish as well, the idea of deviance is fast losing its validity as we are all seen as potential criminals or deviants.

As a modern social worker, I think, is it only through an understanding of the complexity of such issues that we can to hope address the future; seeing, perhaps, not deviants and criminals but hitherto unaddressed issues, differences and discourses, however as I have shown in this paper this is only possible through a thorough understanding of historical theory. A postmodern age, perhaps, demands a postmodern theory.


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  • Durkheim, Emil (1982), The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected texts on Sociology and its Method, (London: Macmillan)
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  • Rubington, earl and Weinberg, Martin (1995), The Study of Social Problems: Seven Perspectives, (Oxford: Oxford)
  • Rubington, Earl and Weinberg, Martin (1999), Deviance: The Interactionist Perspective, (London: Allyn and Bacon)
  • Thompson, Ken (2000), Emile Durkheim, (London: Routledge)



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