About this Course

The conventional approach to teaching the sociology of deviance and social control implies that deviance is, and deviants are, a social problem and asks the question "why do they do it?":

"This course examines why individuals and groups violate social norms."[2]

Other courses problematize the idea of the norms themselves:

"Some sociologists interested in these topics attempt to explain why some individuals and groups commit acts that are considered to be deviant. Other sociologists ask: how and why are some behaviors defined as deviant in the first place?"[1]

And some courses suggest that it is social control — how society reacts to deviance and deviants — that is the problem:

This course asks you to imagine social deviance as noise— a cacophony of subversions disrupting the harmony of a given social order. Social control is the opposite. It works to silence the resistive sounds of deviance and to transform the noisy challenge of difference into the music of conformity.[4]

One thing you take away from most courses in the sociology of deviance is that historically various agents of "society" have engaged in control of nonconformists and this has often harmed those individuals and groups as well as society as a whole. In addition, since the standards against which conformity is judged change over time and across social space, social control activity is inherently suspect.

But what is the sociology of deviance and social control, apart from how it is traditionally taught? A sociological study of deviance is the sociology of behavior that breaks norms, rules, or laws (though some might put the latter under criminology). A sociology of social control is the sociology of how individuals, groups, organizations, and states react to rule breaking — all the way from what is done to prevent it before it happens to what is done to respond to it when it happens.[3]

How we will proceed.

Can we all just get along?

We begin with an exercise that orients us toward the basic idea that, at its foundation, social control is about "the group" getting "the individual" to behave in a manner that is good for the group.

We will see, along the way, that there are many ways in which this can fail, especially in the form of completely successful control, just not really in a manner that is good for the group as a whole (e.g., it might be good for some some subgroup). And we will see that it is not easy to figure out what is "good for the group as a whole" and that contests over this form a big part of what we end up studying when we study social control.


At the beginning our focus will be thinking and theory and "models of humans" so that we can get our heads around the questions "what kind of thing is a person?" and "what kind of thing is society?"

In the Upanishad, Plato, and later in Freud we get a bi-partite model of the human individual — we have a good side and a bad side. Durkheim and Simmel will have us seeing these as a social side and an individual part. Then we will think about it in terms of group socialization — we get people to internalize social values as real.

  • Upanishad
  • Plato
  • Hobbes
  • Wuthnow

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault lays out a history of social control. Not all readers will agree with his sequencing and periodization and interpretations, but the schema he provides is useful to us as a basic framework. The book has four parts:

  1. Torture
  2. Punishment
  3. Discipline
  4. Prison

Torture corresponds with the period when the paradigm of control was the absolute physical power of the monarch. Torture — in Foucault it's about absolute, terrible, overwhelming violence as well as the use of this violence to extract confessions and information — represents an era in which the challenge to authority is essentially unimaginable. The non-conformist is alien or possessed.

Arguably (this is actually an alternative interpretation inspired by Foucault), humans begin by assuming that people are good — that is, are prosocial — if they are members of a group. The only folks who are not are those who are, in fact, not members or who are possessed or occupied by a bad spirit. And thus, the societal reaction to the worst crime — regicide, which attacks the symbol of us — is torture that attempts to extract the truth of one's possession or mistake.

Part I Torture in Discipline and Punish (theme of body)

In connection with this we will examine two things that bracket history. First, we will look at early criminology and the search for the "born criminal" in the 19th century (and into the 20th (and, we'll see, the 21st)). Then we will make a note to ourselves about torture — we'll also visit a 21st century manifestation of it later in the course.

In the 19th and 20th centuries we see some to us today odd ideas about types and bodies and such.

  • Lombardo

The tradition of studying those who'd gotten themselves "in trouble" continued in the 1920s and 1930s. Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck at Harvard published several books during the 1930s that covered the whole spectrum criminology from criminal careers to the effects of punishment and rehabilitation.[5]

  • Glueck

This approach strikes us as outmoded but the ideas are alive and well and being carried forward by contemporary research.

  • William Herbert Sheldon and the Somatotypes
  • genes and neuroscience

An intellectual contest ensued in the 1930s over whether criminology would be a psychological/medical/legal profession or a sociological one. Edwin Sutherland did battle for the latter position.

  • Sutherland differential association

Strain theory Robert Agnew. A Revised Strain Theory of Delinquency Social Forces (1985) 64 (1): 151-167. doi: 10.1093/sf/64.1.151

The next step in Foucault's cosmology is prison, the science of which is utilitarianism — a recognition that individual values, preferences, desires that are not subordinated to the collective interest can exist but that they can be balanced by punishment or the threat of punishment.

  • Foucault Part II: Punishment
  • Research on deterrence

Then we discover that human's have a malleable inside. Society creates pro-social creatures, more or less effectively.

“Strain Theory,” Robert Agnew in Constructions of Deviance
“Differential Association,” Edwin Sutherland and Donald Cressey in Constructions of Deviance (Matsueda)
“Control Theory,” Travis Hirschi in Constructions of Deviance
John H. Laub and Robert J. Sampson The Sutherland-Glueck Debate: On the Sociology of Criminological Knowledge American Journal of Sociology Vol. 96, No. 6 (May, 1991), pp. 1402-1440
Society is More than Context: It's a System

“Functionalism: The Normal and the Pathological,” Emile Durkheim in
Constructions of Deviance

But then we recognize that social context is dynamic. That the self interacts with its environment.

Then, we begin in earnest with a section that looks at four basic approaches:

  • Nonconformists are bad or broken
  • There but for the grace of God… Social causes — nonconformists are reacting to structural forces
  • Just labels, secondary, careers, stigma

Functions of deviance
Tertiary deviance

What if it's relative?

  • It's rebellion

Merton Willis

"This course examines how norm breaking behavior is labeled as good or bad, how these definitions
vary in different times and places and how they are reinforced or challenged. [3]