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What Is Deviance?
For sociologists, the term deviance does not mean perversion or depravity. Deviance is behavior that violates the standards of conduct or expectations of a group or society (Wickman, 1981:83). In American society, alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, and persons with mental illnesses (see Chapter 17) would all be classified as deviants. Being late for class is categorized as a deviant act; the same is true of dressing too casually for a formal wedding. On the basis of the sociological definition, we are all deviant from time to time. Each of us violates common social norms in certain situations.
Deviance involves the violation of group norms which may or may not be formalized into law. It is a comprehensive concept that includes not only criminal behavior but also many actions not subject to prosecution. The public official who takes a bribe has defied social norms, but so has the high school student who refuses to sit in an assigned seat or cuts class. Of course, deviation from norms is not always negative, let alone criminal. A member of an exclusive social club who speaks out against its traditional policy of excluding women, blacks, and Jews from admittance is deviating from the club's norms. So is a police officer who "blows the whistle" on corruption or brutality within the department.
As we noted earlier, deviance can be understood only within its social context. A nude photograph of a woman or man may be perfectly appropriate in an art museum but would be regarded as out of place in an elementary school classroom. A pharmacist is expected to sell prescription drugs only to people who have explicit instructions from medical authorities. If the pharmacist sells the same drugs to a narcotics dealer, he or she has committed deviant (and criminal) behavior.
Standards of deviance vary from one group (or subculture) to another. In American society, it is generally considered acceptable to sing along at a rock or folk concert, but not at the opera. Just as deviance is defined by the social situation, so too is it relative to time. For instance, having an alcoholic drink at 6:00 p.m. is a common practice in our culture, but engaging in the same behavior immediately upon arising at 8:00 a.m. is viewed as a deviant act and as symptomatic of a drinking problem (Katovich, 1987).
Deviance, then, is a highly relative matter. Americans may consider it strange for a person to fight a bull in an arena, before an audience of screaming fans. Yet we are not nearly so shocked by the practice of two humans fighting each other with boxing gloves in front of a similar audience.
Functionalist PerspectiveAccording to functionalists, deviance is a normal part of human existence, with positive (as well as negative) consequences for social stability. Deviance helps to define the limits of proper behavior. Children who see their mother scold their father for belching at the dinner table learn about approved conduct. The same is true of the driver who receives a speeding ticket, the department store cashier who is fired for yelling at a customer, and the college student who is penalized for handing in papers weeks overdue.
Durkheim's contribution Emile Durkheim (1964: 67, original edition 1895) focused his sociological investigations mainly on criminal acts, yet his conclusions have implications for all types of deviant behavior. In Durkheim's view, the punishments established within a culture (including what we have identified as formal and informal mechanisms of social control) help to define acceptable behavior and thus contribute to stability. If improper acts were not committed, people might extend their standards as to what constitutes appropriate conduct.
Kai Erikson (1966) illustrated this boundary-maintenance function of deviance in his study of the Puritans of seventeenth-century New England. By today's standards, the Puritans placed tremendous emphasis upon conventional morals. Their persecution of Quakers and execution of women as witches represented continuing attempts to define and redefine the boundaries of their community. In effect, changing social norms created "crime waves," as persons whose behavior was previously acceptable suddenly faced punishment for being deviant (Abraham-son, 1978:78-79; N. Davis,1975:85-87). Durkheim (1951, original edition 1897) also introduced the term anomie in sociological literature to describe a loss of direction felt in a society when social control of individual behavior has become ineffective. As was noted in Chapter 1, anomie is a state of normlessness which typically occurs during a period of profound social change and disorder, such as a time of economic collapse. People become more aggressive or depressed, and this result in higher rates of violent crime or suicide (refer back to the discussion of Durkheim's four types of suicide. Since there is much less agreement on what constitutes proper behavior during times of revolution, sudden prosperity, or economic depression, conformity and obedience become less significant as social forces. It also becomes much more difficult to state exactly what constitutes deviance.
Subsequent theorists have expanded on Durkheim's insights regarding anomie and deviance. For example, after examining juvenile delinquency in a sample of 4000 California youngsters, sociologist Travis Hirschi (1969) concluded that people become free to commit acts regarded as improper, and develop feelings of normlessness, when their ties to conventional society are broken. Later research has confirmed that young people with fewer ties to society commit more acts of misbehavior (Empey, 1978; D. Gibbons, 1981:140-143).
In Hirschi's view, the process of "bonding" represents a major aspect of social control. The term bond refers to the ties of an individual to society and, in particular, to standards of proper behavior. Attachment to family, commitment to societal beliefs and moral standards, and involvement in socially acceptable groups all strengthen the bonds between the individual and society. Of course, if normal societal bonds are disrupted on a massive scale, as is the case during a period of anomie, we can expect a dramatic rise in behavior which violates social norms.
Merton's contribution A mugger and a secretary do not seem at first to have a great deal in common. Yet, in fact, each is "working" to obtain money which can then be exchanged for desired goods. As this example illustrates, behavior that violates accepted norms (such as mugging) may be performed with the same basic objectives in mind as those of people who lead more conventional lifestyles.
Using the above analysis, sociologist Robert Merton of Columbia University (1968:185-214) adapted Durkheim's notion of anomie to determine when people accept the goals of a society and use socially approved means to fulfill their aspirations—or reject such goals and function without direction from social norms. Merton maintained that one important cultural goal of American society is success, measured largely in terms of money. In addition to providing this goal for Americans, our society offers specific instructions on how to pursue success—go to school, work hard, do not quit, take advantage of opportunities, and so forth.
What happens to individuals in a society with a heavy emphasis on wealth as a basic symbol of success? Merton reasoned that people adapt in certain ways, either by conforming to or by deviating from such cultural expectations. Consequently, he developed the anomie theory of deviance, which posits five basic forms of adaptation.
Conformity to social norms, the most common adaptation in Merton's typology, is the opposite of deviance. It involves acceptance of both the overall societal goal ("become affluent") and the approved means ("work hard"). In Merton's view, there must be some consensus regarding accepted cultural goals and legitimate means for attaining them. Without such consensus, societies could exist only as collectives of people—rather than as unified cultures—and might function in continual chaos.
Of course, in a society such as that of the United States, conformity is not universal. For example, the means for realizing objectives are not equally distributed. People in the lower social classes often identify with the same goals as those of more powerful and affluent citizens yet lack equal access to quality education and training for skilled work. Even within a society, institutionalized means for realizing objectives vary. For instance, it is legal to gain money through roulette or poker in Nevada, but not in neighboring California.
The; "innovator" accepts the goals of a society but pursues them with means regarded as improper. For example, Harry King—a professional thief who specialized in safecracking for 40 years—gave a lecture to a sociology class and was asked if he had minded spending time in prison. King responded:
I didn't exactly like it. But it was one of the necessary things about the life I had chosen. Do you like to come here and teach this class? I bet if the students had their wishes they'd be somewhere else, maybe out stealing, instead of sitting in this dumpy room. But they do it because it gets them something they want. The same with me. If I had to go to prison from time to time, well, that was the price you pay (Chambliss, 1972).
Harry King saw his criminal lifestyle as an adaptation to the American goal of material success or "getting something you want." According to Merton's anomie theory of deviance, if a society largely denies people the opportunity to achieve success through socially approved avenues, some individuals (like King) will turn to illegitimate paths of upward mobility.
In Merton's typology, the "ritualist" has abandoned the goal of material success and become compulsively committed to the institutional means. Therefore, work becomes a way of life rather than a means to the goal of success. In discussing goal displacement within bureaucracy in Chapter 6, we noted that officials can blindly apply rules and regulations without remembering the larger goals of an organization. Certainly this would be true of a welfare caseworker who refuses to assist a homeless family because their last apartment was in another district. People who overzealously and cruelly enforce bureaucratic regulations can be classified as "ritualists."
The "retreatist," as described by Merton, has basically withdrawn (or "retreated") from both the goals and the means of a society. In the United States, while drug addicts and residents of skid row are typically portrayed as retreatists, there is growing concern about adolescents addicted to alcohol who become retreatists at an early age.
The final adaptation identified by Merton reflects people's attempts to create a new social structure. The "rebel" is assumed to have a sense of alienation from dominant means and goals and to be seeking a dramatically different social order. Members of a revolutionary political organization, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or the Puerto Rican nationalist group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberation National (FALN), can be categorized as rebels according to Merton's model.
Merton has stressed that he was not attempting to describe five types of individuals. Rather, he offered a typology to explain the actions that people usually take. Thus, leaders of organized crime syndicates will be categorized as innovators, since they do not pursue success through socially approved means. Yet they may also attend church and send their children to medical school. Conversely, "respectable" people may occasionally cheat on their taxes or violate traffic laws. According to Merton, the same person will move back and forth from one mode of adaptation to another, depending on the demands of a particular situation.
Despite its popularity, Merton's theory of deviance has had relatively few applications. Little effort has been made to determine how comprehensive the five modes of adaptation are—in other words, to what extent all acts of deviance can be accounted for by innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion. Moreover, while Merton's theory is useful in examining certain types of behavior, such as illegal gambling by disadvantaged persons functioning as innovators, his formulation fails to explain key differences in rates. Why, for example, do some disadvantaged groups have lower rates of reported crime than others? Why is criminal behavior not viewed as a viable alternative by many people faced with adversity? Such questions are not easily answered by Merton's theory of deviance (Cloward, 1959; Hartjen, 1978).
Nevertheless, Merton has made a key contribution to sociological understanding of deviance by pointing out that deviants (such as innovators and ritualists) share a great deal with "normal," conforming persons. The convicted felon may hold many of the same aspirations that people with no criminal background have. Therefore, deviance can be understood as socially created behavior, rather than as the result of momentary pathological impulses.
Interactionist Perspective: Cultural TransmissionThe functionalist approaches to deviance explain why rule violation continues to exist in societies despite pressures to conform and obey. However, functionalists do not indicate how a given person comes to commit a deviant act. The theory of cultural transmission draws upon the interactionist perspective to offer just such an explanation.
There is no natural, innate manner in which people interact with one another. Rather, humans learn how to behave in social situations— whether properly or improperly. These simple ideas are not disputed today, but this was not the case when sociologist Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950) advanced the argument that an individual undergoes the same basic socialization process whether learning conforming or deviant acts.
Sutherland's ideas have been the dominating force in criminology. He drew upon the cultural transmission school, which emphasizes that criminal behavior is learned through interactions with others. Such learning includes not only techniques of lawbreaking (for example, how to break into a car quickly and quietly) but also the motives, drives, and rationalizations of criminals.
Sutherland maintained that through interactions with a primary group and significant others, people acquire definitions of behavior that are deemed proper and improper. He used the term differential association to describe the process through which exposure to attitudes favorable to criminal acts leads to violation of rules. Recent research suggests that this view of differential association can be applied to such noncriminal deviant acts as sitting down during the singing of the National Anthem or lying to a spouse or friend (E.Jackson et al., 1986).
Sutherland offers the example of a boy who is sociable, outgoing, and athletic and who lives in an area with a high rate of delinquency. The youth is very likely to come into contact with peers who commit acts of vandalism, fail to attend school, and so forth. However, an introverted boy living in the same neighborhood may stay away from his peers and avoid delinquency. In another community, an outgoing and athletic boy may join a Little League baseball team or a scout troop because of his interactions with peers. Thus, Sutherland views learning improper behavior as the result of the types of groups to which one belongs and the kinds of friendships one has with others (Sutherland and Cressey, 1978:82).
As another example, differential association theory can be applied to a star high school football player who accepts a bribe from a college recruiter in exchange for a commitment to attend the recruiter's school. Such football stars are typically surrounded by other players, family members, coaches, and recruiters who stress the paramount goals of success in "big-time" football and the money and fame that such success can bring. Consequently, these athletes may be exposed to many persons who favor norm-defying behavior and relatively few who oppose the deviant act of accepting a recruiter's bribe.
According to its critics, however, the cultural transmission approach fails to explain the deviant behavior of the first-time impulsive shoplifter or the impoverished person who steals out of necessity. While not a precise statement of the process through which one becomes a criminal, differential association does direct our attention to the paramount role of social interaction in increasing a person's motivation to engage in deviant behavior (Cressey, 1960:53-54; E.Jackson et al., 1986; Sutherland and Cressey, 1978:80-82).
The cultural transmission approach deals not only with the process by which criminal techniques are learned, but also with the content that is actually passed on from one person to another. This content includes methods of committing a crime as well as ways of justifying criminal behavior. The concept of "techniques of neutralization," illustrates how criminal and other norm-defying sentiments are defined by the deviant person to justify his or her conduct.
Labeling TheoryThe Saints and Roughnecks were two groups of high school males who were constantly occupied with drinking, wild driving, truancy, petty theft, and vandalism. There the similarity ended. None of the Saints was ever arrested, but every Roughneck was continually in trouble with police and townspeople. Why the disparity in their treatment? On the basis of his participant-observation research in their high school, William Chambliss (1973) concluded that social class standing played an important role in the varying fortunes of the two groups.
The Saints effectively produced a facade of respectability. They came from "good families," were active in school organizations, expressed the intention of attending college, and received good des. Their delinquent acts were generally wed as a few isolated cases of "sowing wild 5." By contrast, the Roughnecks had no such aura of respectability. They drove around town in beaten-up cars, were generally unsuccessful in school, and were viewed with suspicion no matter what they did.
The Roughnecks were labeled as "troublemakers," whereas the Saints were seen merely as "fun-loving kids." Both groups were gangs of delinquents, yet only one came to be treated that way. More recently, Chambliss's observations concerning juveniles have been confirmed in research using self-reports of delinquents and police records in Seattle, Washington. Sociologist Robert Sampson (1986) found that juveniles from the lower classes who came into contact with the Seattle police because of delinquent behavior were more likely to be arrested and then indicted than were their middle-class counterparts engaged in similar activities.
Such discrepancies can be understood by use of an approach to deviance known as labeling theory. Unlike Sutherland's work, labeling theory does not focus on why some individuals come to commit deviant acts. Instead, it attempts to explain why certain people (such as the Roughnecks) are viewed as deviants, delinquents, "bad kids," "losers," and criminals, while others whose behavior is similar (such as the Saints) are not seen in such harsh terms.
Reflecting the contribution of interactionist theorists, labeling theory emphasizes how a person comes to be labeled as deviant or to accept that label. Sociologist Howard Becker (1968:9, 1964), who popularized this approach, summed it up with the statement: "Deviant behavior is behavior that people so label." Labeling theory is also called the societal-reaction approach, reminding us that it is the response to an act and not the behavior that determines deviance. For example, studies have shown that some school personnel and therapists expand educational programs designed for learning-disabled students to include those with behavioral problems. Consequently, a "troublemaker" can be improperly labeled as learning-disabled, and vice versa (Osborne et al., 1985).
Traditionally, research on deviance has focused on those individuals who violate social norms. In contrast, labeling theory focuses on police, probation officers, psychiatrists, judges, teachers, employers, school officials, and other regulators of social control. These agents, it is argued, play a significant role in creating the deviant identity by designating certain individuals (and not others) as "deviant." An important aspect of labeling theory is the recognition that some persons or groups have the power to define labels and apply them to others. This view recalls the conflict perspective's emphasis on the social significance of power.
Edwin Lemert (1951:75-76, 1967:42-64) has offered a useful clarification of the labeling approach. He distinguishes between primary and secondary forms of deviance. Primary deviance is rationalized violation of rules that is dealt with as acceptable behavior. Person who uses excessive alcohol alter the death of a loved one or a business failure will generally not be regarded as deviant. Similarly, a college student who uses cocaine once to find out what his or her friends are talking about will probably not be regarded as a "drug abuser." Such excused or undetected deviant acts do not generate self-images of being a delinquent or criminal and may involve the use of techniques of neutralization.
Lemert argues that if people who are in a position to apply socially respected labels learn of deviant behavior, an act of deviance will take on a much different meaning. Secondary deviance occurs when a person has been labeled as deviant. This labeling arises more frequently when a person engages in repealed acts of misconduct. As a result of the labeling process, the person may reorganize his or her life around this new deviant status and thus embark on a life of norm-violating behavior.
For example, imagine an adolescent boy who is brought before a court and charged with his first offense—shoplifting. He may regard the experience with fear and awe at the time. But if he is "let off" on the basis of his previous good conduct, the memory of the court appearance will fade. The act thus remains one of primary deviance; the youth is labeled as a "good kid" who "made a mistake." Suppose, however, that he is bitterly condemned by his family and rejected by his friends. If the youth perceives that he is being viewed as a delinquent, he may begin to see himself that way. Once he accepts this self-image, the incident is transformed into one of secondary deviance. Lemert's work emphasizes the process of developing a deviant identity over time, just as one can gradually accept the identity of "born leader" or "class comic."
The criticisms of labeling theory are similar to those advanced against the cultural transmission approach of Sutherland. He was criticized for failing to explain why some individuals—but not others—accept deviant norms and standards. Similarly, the labeling approach does not fully explain why certain people accept a label and others are able to reject its application. In fact, this perspective may exaggerate the ease with which our self-images can be altered by societal judgments. On the other hand, competing approaches (including those of both Merton and Sutherland) fail to explain why some deviants continue to be viewed as conformists rather than as violators of rules. According to Becker (1973:179-180), labeling theory was not conceived as the sole explanation for deviance; its proponents merely hoped to focus more attention on the undeniably important actions of those persons officially in charge of defining deviance (N. Davis, 1975:172; compare with Cullen and Cullen, 1978:36-37).
Conflict TheoryWhy is certain behavior evaluated as deviant while other behavior is not? According to conflict theorists, it is because people with power protect their own interests and defines deviance to suit their own needs. For decades, laws against rape reflected the overwhelmingly male composition of state legislatures. As one consequence, the legal definition of rape pertained only to sexual relations between unmarried persons. It was legally acceptable for a husband to have forcible sexual intercourse with his wife—without her consent and against her will. However, repeated protests by feminist organizations finally led to changes in the criminal law. By 1987, husbands in 25 states could be prosecuted for rape of their wives. In this instance, the rise of the women's liberation movement (see Chapter 10) led to important changes in societal notions of criminality (Barden, 1987; MacKinnon, 1983; Schur, 1983:145-156).
Sociologist Richard Quinney (1974, 1979, and 1980) is a leading exponent of the view that the criminal justice system serves the interests of the powerful. Crime, according to Quinney (1970:15—23), is a definition of human conduct created by authorized agents of social control— such as legislators and law enforcement officials— within a politically organized society. He and other conflict theorists argue that lawmaking is often an attempt by the powerful to coerce others into their own brand of morality.
This helps to explain why our society has laws against gambling, drug usage, and prostitution which are violated on a massive scale (we will examine these "victimless crimes" later in the chapter). According to the conflict school, criminal law does not represent a consistent application of societal values, but rather an arbitrary—and, in many cases, unjust-—assortment of specific policies. Thus, marijuana is outlawed in the United States because it is alleged to be harmful to users, yet cigarettes and alcohol are sold on virtually every street corner.
The conflict perspective reminds us that while the basic purpose of law may be to maintain stability and order, this can actually mean perpetuating inequality. For example, researchers have found that blacks and Hispanics receive suffer prison sentences and serve longer terms than whites convicted of similar felonies. A two-year study prepared for the National Institute of Corrections of the Department of Justice focused on three states which account for 22 percent of American inmates: California, Michigan, and Texas. Minorities were found to be less likely to make bail than whites and more likely to use court-appointed lawyers.
According to conflict theorists, the criminal justice system of the United States treats suspects and offenders differently, on the basis of racial, ethnic, and social class backgrounds. In commenting on the exercise of discretion in the courts, Justice Lois Forer (1984:9) of Philadelphia suggests that there are:
. . . two separate and unequal systems of justice: one for the rich in which the courts take limitless time to examine, ponder, consider, and deliberate over hundreds of thousands of bits of evidence, . . . and hear elaborate, endless appeals; the other for the poor, in which hasty guilty pleas and brief hearings are the rule and appeals are the exception.
While the racial, ethnic, or social class background of criminal suspects and offenders may lead to differential justice, the background of crime victims can achieve the same result. A study by the Chicago Sun-Times of 400 randomly selected crimes (including rapes, stabbings, and shootings) found that crimes against members of minority groups are more likely to be "downgraded" from felonies to minor offenses, thereby reducing the seriousness of the offense and the potential jail sentence. All the downgraded crimes studied involved a victim from a minority group; in most cases, both victim and assailant were black or Hispanic and lived in a low-income neighborhood. One researcher, reflecting on the social hierarchies of the United States, suggested that this pattern of differential justice was "victim discounting"—that is, "if the victim is worth less, the crime is worth less" (T. Gibbons, 1985:1, 18).
Quinney (1974) argues that, through such differential applications of social control, the criminal justice system helps to keep the poor and oppressed in their deprived position. In his view, disadvantaged individuals and groups who represent a threat to those with power become the primary targets of criminal law. Yet the real criminals in poor neighborhoods are not the people arrested for vandalism and theft, but rather absentee landlords and exploitive store owners. Even if we do not accept this challenging argument, we cannot ignore the role of the powerful in creating a social structure that perpetuates suffering (Currie, 1986:152-160; Reiman, 1984; Void, 1979:301-305; for a similar conflict approach to crime, see Turk, 1969).
The perspective advanced by labeling and conflict theorists forms quite a contrast to the functionalist approach to deviance. Functionalists view standards of deviant behavior as merely reflecting cultural norms, whereas conflict and labeling theorists point out that the most powerful groups in a society can shape laws and standards and determine who is (or is not) prosecuted as a criminal. Thus, the label "deviant" is rarely applied to the corporate executive whose decisions lead to large-scale environmental pollution. In the opinion of conflict theorists, agents of social control and powerful groups can generally impose their own, self-serving definitions of deviance on the general public.
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