Kitsuse: Coming Out All Over

Kitsuse, John I. "Coming Out All Over: Deviants and the Politics of Social Problems," 1979 Presidential Address, SSSP, Social Problems 28:1-13.

In his 1979 SSSP presidential address sociologist John Kitsuse introduced a concept he called "tertiary deviance." The term is a play on "secondary deviance" which is what happens when people who are labeled deviant commit further infractions (either because they internalize the label or because the label makes legitimate behavior impossible – as when an ex-con cannot get an honest job).

Kitsuse suggests that we might want to extend our ideas of deviance to include people in social groups that are in one way or another "outcast" based on racial, ethnic, and sex categories. When the experience of such groups/categories is included in the social control and deviance realm, we can start including the political mobilization of "deviants" in the study of social control.

The technique typically involves a sort of reverse politics. Calling the labelers things like pig, sexist, prude, etc. If the former labeler persists s/he can become the deviant. The dynamic of such entrepreneurial efforts – not all of which succeed – is an interesting study in its own right. Some of the research questions one might pose include

  1. what are the historical cusps that groups can take advantage of to unite and engage in tertiary deviance?
  2. When are these moves successful? When are they inconceivable?
  3. Can they (these moments) threaten society? Are they the moral Achilles heel of any truly free society?
  4. Is there a deconstructionist theme in all this? Aren't the first few questions above really the ones that Marx was trying to answer?

In Black's typology, the social movements of deviants can be seen as "reform" social control – social control that aims at changing the rules. Tertiary deviance is when a deviant group becoming conscious of themselves as a group and attempting to take control of the stigma attached to them (This may remind us of Marx's distinction between class "in itself" and class "for itself."). The example from which the talk's title is derived is the formation of the homosexual "community" which began to say "yes, we are gay, but we are all over, and we deserve the same rights that everyone else deserves." Other examples of groups/categories that have engaged in such tertiary deviance include sex workers, transsexuals, poly-amorites, the deaf, HIV positives.

The concept of "coming out" and "fighting back" is a sociological conundrum. Such fighting back is putting into practice the ideas about cultural relativism that we've been teaching for the last generation or so, taking seriously the idea that "deviance is relative." But, also sociologically, we know that groups ARE defined by their boundaries and so it raises the question, "Where will it all end?" Should the pedophiles be able to organize against Megan's law? Are "drug dealers people too"? How far can adherence to a liberal democratic norm of tolerance lead a society? Is that the only irrevocable norm? Or is it too changeable? The best summary is provided by his closing lines:

What are the limits of cultural and social pluralism for the operational integration and symbolic coherence of liberal democratic societies? Is such and integration and coherence necessary, is it desirable, and is it, finally, possible to achieve? These are the larger issues that lend significance to the proliferation of deviant populations and their organized activities to claim legitimation.