Crime is Normal
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Kai T. Erikson: "Notes on the Sociology of Deviance" in Wayward Puritans.

"On the sociology of deviance" Roots of the book are in Durkheim's Rules of the Sociological Method (especially the chapter "The Normal and the Pathological"1) and Division of Labor. Two points we take away from those works:

  1. crime and deviation from norms are natural social activities rather than social illnesses;
  2. deviation provides an opportunity for groups of separate individuals to merge their personal sentiments in support of group solidarity.

Now before we go any further it is important to understand the way in which Durkheim means "crime is normal." Neither he nor Erikson is glorifying crime and deviance nor even "normalizing" it. Neither is saying that a serial killer is "just like you and me." They are, rather, pointing out that crime is normal for society, that deviance is normal for groups — all groups have it and its presence is not a sign of "pathology." We should not, that is, think that a society that has crime or a group that has deviance is a sick society or a sick group.

It cannot be emphasized enough how important this "social level" of their perspective is. Now consider this provocative quote (4.8):

Unless the rhythm of group life is punctuated by occasional moments of deviant behavior, presumably, social organization would be impossible.

This attention to the "rhythm of social life" is quite central in Erikson's thinking.

What is Deviant?

Assertion I. There is nothing objective to unite different kinds of deviant acts. It is a not a property inherent in an act, it is an attribute conferred upon an act.
Murder, using the wrong fork, being late to class, marrying an Irishman, …

Thus, in studying deviance, we learn not about the deviant actor but about the audience that responds to her or his act. You'll recognize in that statement the echoes of the idea that social control can be seen as the dependent variable.

This leads to a definition (6.2): "deviance" is "conduct which the people of a group consider so dangerous or embarrassing or irritating that they bring special sanctions to bear against the persons who exhibit it."

It is critical to recognize that "deviance" is relative to time and place. Consider how the definition of rape has changed during the lifetimes of everyone in this room. As society evolves, its definitions of what is acceptable and what is not change. The emergence of date rape, for example, is not a discovery, but an invention. This does not for one second reduce the moral abhorrence with which we have come to see this conduct, but, again, as sociologists, it reminds us that this abhorrence lies in us as audience not in the act itself.

When I was in sixth grade I had a strange teacher named Brother Francis. One day he stood in front of the class and got very sincere and serious. He had, I think, yelled at someone for doing something. He very slowly spelled out the following: when I yell at someone I am angry, but I want you always to remember that I am angry at what you did not at who you are. At the time I thought it was pretty profound for an adult to have such insights, but years later I realized that there was a sociological insight buried in there as well…

…because usually, when we identify deviance we often think we have identified a deviant This is more than a simple linguistic game.

Assertion II. Even the worst "deviant" is mostly a conformer. It is very easy to be distracted by the behavior which we call deviant. As analysts, however, as sociologists, it is important to avoid this ordinary social reaction by which we spot some "deviant" act and we extrapolate – generalize from it – so that the characterization "deviant" "washes over" everything else we know about the person.

S/he probably eats with utensils, speaks the language correctly, stops at red lights, pays taxes, limits sexual advances to her/his own species, etc.

Consider the stories after someone is apprehended for having allegedly committing a crime. The news reporters interview people who say "s/he seemed perfectly normal" and the subtext is "but I guess s/he wasn't." The alleged act is automatically taken to reveal what the person was REALLY like, deep down, on the inside. The deviant label, once applied, is taken as all encompassing. As Erikson notes (7.3)

the very expression "he is a thief" or "he is an addict" seems to provide at once a description of his position in society and a profile of his character.

As sociologists we need to exercise discipline here. The point is not simply to be good liberals by not jumping to conclusions or by being open minded. Rather, we want to slow things down so that we can see this generalizing as a process. We want to see how it unfolds, why it happens the way it does.

Thus, the act of identifying and reacting to deviance is a complex (collective) process of filtering and weighing in which much evidence is effectively ignored. To label someone "deviant" requires a filtering process whereby a few acts are taken to stand out from many others.

Assertion III. Important, then, as sociologists, to pay attention to how a community sifts through the available evidence from a person's "overall" performance.

…the difference between those who earn a deviant title in society and those who go their own way in peace is largely determined by the way in which the community filters out and codes the many details of behavior which come to its attention (7.8).

Again, I hope you'll see the resonance here with Donald Black's notion of social control as a dependent variable.

Social Units and Boundaries

Assertion IV. Human actors grouped into various types of collectivity. Multiple levels. Overlapping circles. Deviance is relative to the "level" at which one is operating. "I want you to look at this not as a woman, but as a citizen," or "not as a daughter, but as a soldier," or "not as a person on the street but as a scientist," etc.

Key insight here is that questions of deviance and social control are always tied up with questions of social units, boundaries, and identity.

Assertion V. Communities are boundary maintaining. This means that communities identify themselves in terms of where they are and where they are not, in terms of what they do and what they do not do. Think back, for a minute, to our discussion of etiquette. The old meaning of etiquette was "a ticket into society" – we might, for a moment, modify this: etiquette is a passport that allows us to cross boundaries in order to enter the space of various social units.

One way to see this is to note that any and all talk of community or group is implicitly talk of not-community or not-group. That is, even if every US doesn't have a THEM, every US does have a NOT US.

In terms of behavior, any US will have a particular "radius of activity" which includes all those forms of conduct which are consonant with being a good, upstanding, acceptable US. Any activity that falls outside this radius is considered inappropriate, distasteful, or immoral.

Consider, for example, a campus group dedicated to pro-choice. Which of the following might enjoy membership in this club? Someone who believed abortion should be legal in all situations.

  • Someone who believed abortion should be legal in the first trimester.
  • Someone who believed abortion should be legal only if the fetus' father agreed.
  • Someone who believed abortion should be legal only if the life of the woman was in danger.
  • Someone who believed abortion should be legal only if the woman can afford it.
  • Someone who believed abortion should be legal only if woman is over 18.
  • Someone who believed abortion should be legal only if woman was raped.
  • Someone who believed abortion should be legal for minors only if woman has parental permission.

Consider, in this same regard, the question of who should be allowed to run for office on the reform party ticket, or, for that matter, on the democratic or republican ticket. What criteria might be used to figure out the difference between a reform minded republican and a conservative democrat?

Or for a third example, how many of you know the difference between a footnoted quotation and plagiarism? We know the difference between extremes, but middle ground cases give us headaches. "The Academy" or the club of good students or what have you, has an implicit radius of activity in this regard and those who which to survive in this community need to know where the bounds of that radius are.

We can sit here and have a philosophical discussion about these things, but most folks don't have time for such things most of the time.

Question: How, then, do social groups help their members to know what the "radius of activity" is for the various communities of which they are a part? (11.7)

Answer: The occasional "big" event (wars, pageants, etc.), but mostly by participation in the rituals surrounding the encounter between individuals who venture out toward the edges of the group space and those agents of the group who are charged with guarding the "cultural integrity of the group." We often refer to this as the "police" function but it need not be confined to legal rule breaking:

Criminal trials, excommunication hearings, courts-martial, psychiatric case conferences, social work case conferences, academic standing committee, appointments/ promotion/ tenure committee, OP-ED pages, theater and music reviews, …

There has been a shift in recent centuries away from punishment as spectacle in which the king demonstrated his power for all of his subjects by public torture and humiliation of his enemies, but don't let this seduce you into thinking that the "dramatization" of "good" vs. "evil" has ceased to be something we put time and energy into in modern society. It's all around us all the time. Same process, different instruments.

Three Themes

  • Most feared and respected styles of behavior may mirror one another. Deviant behavior appears at exactly those points where it is most feared.
  • Volume of deviance fairly stable
  • Deployment patterns

Another set of notes

  1. Durkheim: “Crime is normal.”
  2. Crime (or rather the reaction to it) as concentrating the consciousnesses of community members.
  3. Claim (Erikson): unless “the rhythm of group life is punctuated by moments of deviant behavior…social organization would be impossible.”
    • Implicit here is a resonance with later theories of structuralism in which things are defined by their opposites, so-called binary oppositions. Profane as that which is not sacred, for example. Point is that for groups to have identities and solidarity, they must know who they are AND who they are not.
  4. Erikson’s question, then: does it make sense to say that deviant behaviors area natural and even beneficial part of social life?
  5. Deviant behavior itself has unruly boundaries:
    • search for “natural born” deviants always fails (somatotypes, phrenology, psychoanalysis, genetics) – the info never allows us to draw a clear line between those who will and those who won’t deviate…
    • behavior itself that gets called deviant varies across time, space, and social groups
    • Thus, there are no objective properties of either persons or behaviors that makes them deviant.
  6. “New” strategy: let each group define what is deviance for its members. This leads to a definition:
    • conduct a group finds dangerous, embarrassing, or irritating enough to bring sanctions against those who engage in it…
    • You have to look at how the audience reacts. The so-called “societal reaction” paradigm.
  8. Even deviants conform most of the time.
    • Think about the complex phenomenon of selecting out some traits as constitutive of identity.
    • As an example, compare me to someone who looks similar (say, in terms of hair color, height, weight, age) but who is the opposite sex. Why do we focus on sex as difference rather than the others traits as sameness?
    • We select only a few deviant details from among a vast array of conformity.
  9. What do we think we know about someone when we say “he is a thief” or “she is a murderer” or “they are racists” ?
    • “The manner in which a community sifts these telling details out of a person’s overall performance, then, is an important part of its social control apparatus.”
  10. And other factors get taken into account. People’s fate depends on the filtering process. Consider the notion of “mitigating circumstances” as social construction.
  11. Why does society do this?
    • Conventional answer: to rid itself of deviance.
    • BUT: many “deviant” acts are not actually harmful, they are merely conventionally beyond the pale.
      • Why does a community assign one behavior to the deviant category and another not?
  12. Societies have multiple levels of groups. To “get” society one must come to appreciate how rules change between levels of organization. You need to have a sense for how rules change as you move from family, to community, to public place, to organization, to state.
  13. Groups belong to a kind, live in a place. COMMUNITIES ARE BOUNDARY MAINTAINING. That is a description of the kind of thing a community is.
    • “cultural space” – geographic and cultural dimensions
    • control of fluctuations so that the whole retains a limited range of variability
    • a particular radius of activity “symbolic parentheses”
    • “cultural integrity”
  14. How do societies mark boundaries?
    • myths of founding/origins (cf. Ritual among couples of telling and retelling how they met stories)
    • naming enemies and threats
    • punishing deviants
    • Consider practice of “setting an example,” “sending a message.” Much of it is at a consciously rational level (as in deterrence), but much is quite implicit.
  15. Cf. How we learn grammar. When I took the SATs I simply said each sentence out loud and asked which alternative sounded correct. Having grown up among proper speakers of English this technique worked fine. * So, the grammar section of the test measured my social environment as much as my “knowledge” of English grammar. But note that these are, in the case of something like rules of grammar, not so easily distinguished.
  16. Public spectacle of hangings gives way to TV and radio. Consider the impact of this recent Clinton story.
  17. Punishment as ceremony. What’s that about?
  18. If societies need deviance, then, are they organized to produce it? Ask what we might mean by that?
    • prisons as training grounds
    • watch dog committees as rooting out and “finding” deviance. Cf. A dean of sexism.
  19. Control agencies often do more labeling than rehabilitating.
  20. Decision to sanction is not censure but identity transition.
    • change in status (cf. Goffman’s piece on “Becoming a mental patient”)
    • mostly irreversible (or at least we put a lot more ceremonial energy into the transition into than the transition out of a deviant identity).
    • self fulfilling prophecy [Ask for examples – ex-cons, usual suspects, “relapse,” “recidivism”]
    • Does “deviance is functional” make sense to you? What do you understand by functional? (p. 18)
      • Be wary of the idea that society is organized for the prevention of deviance. Not that it never is, but not that this is the “fall back” position and that it might not be as generally applicable as we try to make it.
  21. All too often we focus on the uniformities rather than the diversities of life. Ironic, of course, that diversity watchdogs often specialize in this.
  22. Two central social forces
    • Connect these to the processes of identity and control.
  23. And so, themes in the book:
  24. Relationship between boundaries and kinds of deviation. Think about these questions: what kinds of deviance would you expect to find in
    • …a lesbian feminist community?
    • …an HIV+ community?
    • …an almost all married community?
    • …a highly educated community?
  25. Point: the distinctions we make in one place, time, group may be all but invisible in another.
  26. “If deviation and conformity are so alike … it should appear where it is most feared.”
  27. Volume of deviant behavior in a community fairly constant over time and related to number of control agents available to process it
    • “point is to keep it within bounds rather than to eliminate it”
    • “social triage”
  28. How societies handle deviant members.
    • Deployment patterns
      • special days
      • expected of certain groups
      • special clubs or groups (unitarians have their pagans, other groups their S & M enthusiasts)
      • provides a first hand experience for group members of what the boundaries are like and where they are
      • each pattern controls the amount of deviance not by prevention or elimination, but by “scheduling its appearance”
    • POINT: By channeling to a festival or subgroup or period of life, society exerts enormous control