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Deviance is a creation of law

Book review


Studies in the Sociology of Deviance

Howard Becker (1963)

This is one of several reviews I published at Goodreads – though “review” is too charitable; rather they’re brief notes on what caught my attention reading the book, or things I ought to remember in the future about it. Enjoy, maybe?

This is one of those books which changed forever the way I conceived of social science – and life, indeed, to the extent that I spend my time thinking about and living in society.

Cover for the 1997 edition.

I read a chapter or two of Outsiders as part of the assigned readings for a “sociology of violence” class, and fell in love with it immediately, for various reasons. The first was seeing an actual, concrete phenomenon being studied first-hand, and (most importantly) one which seems quite quotidian – recreational cannabis use. To see such a palpable activity being considered by science was a very welcome surprise to my young eyes, so accustomed thus far to “detached” and “objective” analyses through the lens of quantitative methods, or worse still, sloppy marxist-oriented and/or functionalist sociology. Social interactionist theory showed me social science needed not concern itself solely with abstract, intangible, researcher-created categories and concepts (e.g. “superstructure”, “social forces”, “anomie” and the like) but instead ought to focus on studying phenomena from the point of view of all social actors involved in its making, bringing back a certain “metaphysical common sense” to sociology. This means heeding two distinct but related principles:

1. People act together
2. People give meaning to their experience as they interact with it

“People act together.” This may be sociology’s most obvious lesson, and thus in a way general to every social theory out there. Hardcore theoretical-oriented systemic functionalist Niklas Luhmann, for instance – the furthest one could get from Becker – asserts that (e.g.) smoking a cigarette cannot be a social act insofar as no one else but the individual themself is involved, meaning such action will have no effect on others. In a general sense, then, for some happening or action to be “social” requires it to be “collective” (as opposed to “individual”). But Becker, following symbolic interactionism’s fathers Herbert Blumer and George H. Mead, means something a tad more specific than that.

[People] do what they do with an eye on what others have done, are doing, and may do in the future. One tries to fit his own line of action into the actions of others, just as each of them likewise adjusts his own developing actions to what he sees and expects others to do. The result of all this adjusting and fitting in can be called a collective action, especially if it is kept in mind that the term covers more than just a conscious collective agreement to, let’s say, go on strike, but also extends to participating in a school class, having a meal together, or crossing the street–each of these seen as something being done by a lot of people together.

In Becker’s sociology of deviance, this implies looking at “at all the people involved in any episode of alleged deviance”:

When we do, we discover that these activities require the overt or tacit cooperation of many people and groups to occur as they do. When workers collude to restrict industrial production (Roy, 1954), they do so with the help of inspectors, maintenance men, and the man in the tool crib. When members of industrial firms steal, they do so with the active cooperation of others above and below them in the firm’s hierarchy (Dalton, 1959).

As Becker wisely points out, such observations “cast doubt on theories that seek the origins of deviant acts in individual psychology” – by seeing “deviance” to some mental property of individual persons, one misses out on the collective action required for whatever “deviance” to take place. But if deviance is not an intrinsic property of an act, nor of an agent, what is it? Symbolic interactionist requires us to remember that the very definition of any phenomenon as “deviant” requires a definer, a process which may also be seen as collective action.

That something is or is not deviant is, it should go without saying, often very controversial. It is sufficient to point out that at the time Outsiders was published in 1966, “homosexuals” were openly categorized under the same line of inquiry – “deviance studies” – as cannabis users, jazz musicians, and “juvenile delinquents”. Social categories, and societal moral evaluations of them, shift over time and space, demonstrating their volatility to active interference and manipulation. Indeed, one need only look at the impact of data-marketing agencies in the past several elections worldwide on directing (or diverting) the focus of public debate/anger at this or that out-group to see how categories are ‘arbitrarily’ created and maintained by actual, living people with conscious purposes in mind.

In other words, social categories such as the property of being a “deviant” act or person do not come ready-made from nature. Any serious study of “deviance” as a social (collective)phenomenon should then speak not only – as done traditionally – of “deviants” themselves – as if their behavior had some metaphysical property in common – but crucially also about those who create and enforce the social rules which label deviants as such. This means looking, too, at i) the activities of those who enact or create official or unnofficial rules – legislators and interest groups (lobbies, businesses, activists, etc.), but also “moral entrepreneurs”, the mass media, educational institutions, etc.: in short, every actor and group involved in creating beliefs which go about claiming that “behavior X (homosexuality, jazz playing, or cannabis use) is wrong”; and at ii) the actions aimed towards enforcing such beliefs, through verbal censorship, arrest, violence, or other types of punishment – which inserts the entire state apparatus of policing within this our sphere of analysis, but also the dynamics of public political discourse (see #MeToo and other public calls for the redefinition of some abusive actions as “sexual assault”).

This raises epistemological (and moral) questions of the social researcher’s viewpoint, or language, adopted in her account of social reality. For instance, i) by describing the point of view of policemen, surely the researcher is vindicating their actions, overvaluing them over those of those who complain about such actions, such as drug users? ii) Should she then take up a scientifically detached stance uniquely distinct from and more objective than those of the subjects studied? A moral point is clearer in the first question, while an epistemological point is raised when considering the second.

Question (i) may be rephrased as: by studying a collective social phenomenon from the point of view of group X (and not groups Y, Z, etc. who also take part in its making), and describing group X’s experience, mental categories, and “reasons for action”, is the researcher not condoning group X’s stance in a – often heated – debate on the legitimacy of the actions of this or that group? The unstated consequence of this, of course, is a potential charge of partiality (or lack of scientific objectivity). Becker states the problem as such:

If we study drug addicts, they will surely tell us and we will be bound to report that they believe the outsiders who judge them are wrong and inspired by low motives. If we point to those aspects of the addict’s experiences which seem to him to confirm his beliefs, we will seem to be making an apology for the addict. On the other hand, if we view the phenomenon of addiction from the point of view of enforcement officials, they will tell us and we will be bound to report that they believe addicts are criminal types, have disturbed personalities, have no morals, and cannot be trusted. We will be able to point to those aspects of the enforcer’s experiences which justify that view. In so doing, we will seem to be agreeing with his view. In either case, we shall be accused of presenting a one-sided and distorted view.

To this, one of Becker’s answers is natural scientific, quasi-Baconian: the best way to ensure objectivity is to exempt no one from study. “To be exempted from study means that one’s claims, theories, and statements of fact are not subjected to critical scrutiny” (p. 197). It is in the rich description of the experiences of and interactions between all those involved in a social situation where lies any possibility of theorizing about such situation.

But, taking up question (ii), what of social-scientific theories and concepts themselves? Surely beyond (or “underneath”) the common sense of individual agents described by the sociologist, they ought to occupy a central place in sociology, just as fields do in eletrodynamics and natural selection principles do in biology? Isn’t the sociologists’ job to uncover such hidden principles, and construct theories describing the “truth” of social reality? Here lies one of the most precious gems of symbolic interactionism. In answer to this question, it may seem as if there are only two possible answers: either to agree that the job of sociologists (functionalist trope of Durkheim or Parsons comes to mind) is to go hunting after master principles or laws which dictate social behavior and define social ontology (the so-called “grand theories”); or, contrariwise, that there are absolutely no such things as social “theories” to be ultimately developed, and the best we can hope for is to describe groups’ and individual’s stances and relations, making no attempt to “generate theory”.

The former position may be called “realist” regarding social-theoretical concepts, that is, it believes such concepts under study “exist” in such sense that they constitute the subject matter and end goal of social theory – which may thus be aptly called “science”, as are those other fields concerned with the natural world such as physics and biology. The latter position, on the other hand, might be dubbed “anti-realist”, as it denies objective ontology to any such theoretical artifacts, and is not afraid to give up the title of “science” to its activities – this seems to be the position of ethnomethodologists, among others.

Once more joining Mead, Blumer, and other interactionists, Becker escapes this dilemma by taking a pragmatist stance. In the book, this means he does not deny the possibility nor the usefulness of theorizing, but such activity clearly does not occupy central stage in symbolic interactionism: this place is reserved for people. More than once Becker makes clear this primacy of social interaction over social theorizing:

[T]he people sociologists study often have trouble recognizing themselves and their activities in the sociological reports written about them. We ought to worry about that more than we do. We should not expect laymen to make our analyses for us. But neither should we ignore those matters laymen habitually take into account when we describe, or make assumptions about, how they carry on their activities. Many theories of deviance posit, implicitly or explicitly, that a particular set of attitudes underlies commission of some potentially rule-violating act, even though the theory bases itself on data (such as official records) which cannot speak to this point. Consider the descriptions of the actor’s state of mind found in theorizing about anomie, from Durkheim through Merton to Cloward and Ohlin. If the people studied cannot recognize themselves in those descriptions without coaching, we should pay attention.

It is not only the descriptions of their own mental states that actors cannot recognize. They often cannot recognize the acts they are supposed to have engaged in, because the sociologist has not observed those acts closely, or paid any attention to their details when he has. The omission has serious results. It makes it impossible for us to put the real contingencies of action into our theories, to make them take account of the constraints and opportunities actually present. We may find ourselves theorizing about activities which never occur in the way we imagine.

But as there is no such thing as a “brute description” of social reality, symbolic interactionists inevitably employ linguistic categories in social theorizing. So what is “social interaction” made of? The talk of “mental states” above was not accidental: in interactionist theories, in a similar fashion to phenomenology-oriented approaches, subjectivity occupies a central place in the explanation of social behavior. What “exists”, and thus what constitutes valid entities in an interactionist explanation, are the objects (including other persons/subjectivities) of a person’s lived world (aka Lebenswelt), e.g. their resources, their material, physical, or economic capabilities, but also more abstract things such as shares, rights, etc., on the one hand, and the meanings people ascribe to such objects, on the other hand. The emphasis on the meaning-attributing activity of agents towards their lived reality is at the core of symbolic interactionism: although (perhaps) not forgotten by Durkheim, Marx, or researchers in other strands, it is Mead, Blumer and their followers that an obvious truth really comes to fore: “humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things” (Blumer, 1969). Much less importance is given (if at all) to the validity (or truth-status) of agents’ meanings, beliefs or reasons for action. Much more relevant are how such beliefs motivate their behavior, how reasons for action are constructed, or how meanings are acquired and changed over time and context. This stance requires that the researcher accept, at least methodologically, a certain form of epistemological relativity toward the subjects studied – a fairly consensus assumption of contemporary ethnography, I’d say (cf. e.g. the introduction of Hammersley and Atkinson’s Ethnographic interview: principles and practice).

And here I believe the epistemological question raised above, regarding the possibility of an “objective language” for social science, may be taken up again. Considering the methodological tenets of symbolic interactionism (very roughly) outlined above, it should be clear why striving for any sort of “objective language” is bound to fail, from a symbolic interactionist standpoint. It is inevitable that we eventually apply any theory of social action to the sociologist herself. In our case, if sociological description is to be grounded in subjective meaning and “everyday objects”, a (meta-)sociological explanation of sociological research can only also ground itself in the same sort of entity. But then we are simply adding another dimension (or another group) to the theoretical corpus (specifically, to the corpus of social research studying social research). No “jump” to an objectivity outside the text (or the theory) is made, nor is possible.

This is, of course, nothing new today: it is the famous “reflexive” character of social science, familiar to all in anthropology and common sense in theories as distant from symbolic interactionism as Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory. Still, it seems to be a frequently ignored piece of common-sense outside of these areas, and certain fields, such as law or economics, seem especially keen on forgetting it, much to the world’s chagrin. 

Image credits: a photograph I took at Kabukichō district, in Shinjuku, Tokyo in September 2018. All rights reserved.

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