THE POVERTY OF THE SOCIOLOGY OF DEVIANCE: NUTS, SLUTS, AND
C. Wright Mills left a rich legacy to sociology. One of his earliest, and best, contributions was
"The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists" (1943). In it, Mills argues that the small
town, middle-class background of writers of social problems textbooks blinded them to basic
problems of social structure and power, and led them to emphasize melioristic, patchwork types
of solutions to America's "problems." They assumed as natural and orderly the structure of
smalltown America; anything else was pathology and disorganization. Moreover, these
"problems," ranging from rape in rural districts to public housing," were not explored
systematically and theoretically; they were not placed in some larger political, historical, and
social context. They were merely listed and decried.'
Since Mills wrote his paper, however, the field of social problems, social disorganization, and
social pathology has undergone considerable changes. Beginning in the late 1940s and the 1950s,
and culminating in the 1960s, the field of "deviance" has largely replaced the social problems
orientation. This new field is characterized by a number of features which distinguish it from the
older approach. 2
First, there is some theoretical framework, even though it is often absent in edited collections
(the Rubington and Weinberg(1968) edited book is an outstanding exception). Second., the
small-town morality is largely gone. Writers claim they will examine the phenomena at hand-
prostitution, juvenile delinquency, mental illness, crime, and others-objectively, not considering
them as necessarily harmful and immoral. Third, the statements and theories of the field are
based on much more extensive, detailed. and theoretically oriented research than were those of
the 1920s and 1930s. Fourth, writers attempt to fit their theories to some central theories,
concerns, and problems found in the general field of sociology-., they try to transcend mere
The "deviant" has been humanized; the moralistic tone is no longer ever-present although it still
lurks underneath the explicit disavowals, and theoretical perspectives have been developed.
Nevertheless, all is not well with the field of "deviance." Close examination reveals that writers
of this field still do not try to relate the phenomena of "deviance" to larger social, historical,
political, and economic contexts. The emphasis is still on the "deviant" and the "problems" he
presents to himself and others, not on the society within which he emerges and operates.
I examined 16 textbooks in the field of "deviance," eight of them readers, to determine the state
of the field. (They are preceded by an asterisk in the references.) Theoretically, eight take the
labeling-interactionist approach; three more tend to lean to that approach; four others argue for
other orientations (anomie, structural-functional, etc.) or, among the readers, have an "eclectic" approach; and one (McCaghy, et al., 1968) is a collection of biographical and other statements
by "deviants" themselves, and thus may not be said to have a theoretical approach (although, as
we shall see, the selection of the types of statements and "deviants" still implies an orientation
and viewpoint). A careful examination of these textbooks revealed a number of ideological
biases. These biases became apparent as much from what these books leave unsaid and
unexamined, as from what they do say. The field of the sociology of deviance, as exemplified in
these books, contains three important theoretical and political biases
1. All writers, especially those of the labeling school, either state explicitly or imply that one of
their main concerns is to humanize and normalize the "deviant," to show that he is essentially no
different from us. But by the very emphasis on the "deviant" and his identity problems and sub-
culture, the opposite effect may have been achieved. The persisting use of the label "deviant" to
refer to the people we are considering is an indication of the feeling that these people are indeed
2.By the overwhelming emphasis on the "dramatic" nature of the usual types of "deviance"-
prostitution, homosexuality, juvenile delinquency, and others-we have neglected to examine
other, more serious and harmful forms of "deviance." I refer to covert institutional
violence(defined and discussed below) which leads to such things as poverty and exploitation,
the war in Vietnam, unjust tax laws, racism and sexism, and so on, which cause psychic and
material suffering for many Americans, black and white, men and women.
3.Despite explicit statements by these authors of the importance of power in the designation of
what is "deviant," in their substantive analyses they show a profound unconcern with power and
its implications. The really powerful, the upper classes, and the power elite, those Gouldner
(1968) calls the "top dogs," are left essentially unexamined by these sociologists of deviance.
Always implicit, and frequently explicit, is the aim of the labeling school to humanize and
normalize the "deviant." Two statements by Becker and Matza are representative of this
"In the course of our work and for who knows what private reasons, we fall into deep sympathy
with the people we are studying, so that while the rest of society views them as unfit in one or
another respect for the deference ordinarily accorded a fellow citizen, we believe that they are at
least as good as anyone else, more sinned against than sinning." (Becker, 1967: 100-101).
"The growth of the sociological view of deviant phenomena involved, as major phases, the
replacement of a correctional stance by an appreciation of the deviant subject, the tacit purging
of a conception of pathology by a new stress on human diversity, and the erosion of a simple
distinction between deviant and conventional phenomena, resulting from intimate familiarity of
the world as it is, which yielded a more sophisticated view stressing complexity." (Matza, 1969:
10). For a number of reasons, however, the opposite effect may have been achieved; and "deviants"
still seem different. I began to suspect this reverse effect from the many essays and papers I read
while teaching the "deviance" course. The clearest example is the repeated use of the word
"tolerate." Students would write that we must not persecute homosexuals, prostitutes, mental
patients, and others, that we must be "tolerant" of them. But one tolerates only those one
considers less than equal, morally inferior, and weak; those equal to oneself, one accepts and
respects; one does not merely allow them to exist, one does not "tolerate" them.
The repeated assertion that "deviants" are "at least as good as anyone else" may raise doubts that
this is in fact the case, or that we believe it. A young woman who grew up in the South in the
1940s and 1950s told Quinn (1954:146): " 'You know, I think from the fact that I was told so
often that I must treat colored people with consideration, I got the feeling that I could mistreat
them if I wanted to.' " Thus with "deviants" if in fact they are as good as we are, we would not
need to remind everyone of this fact; we would take it for granted and proceed from there. But
our assertions that "deviants" are not different may raise the very doubts we want to dispel.
Moreover, why would we create a separate field of sociology for "deviants" if there were not
something different about them? May it be that even we do not believe our statements and
The continued use of the word "deviant" (and its variants), despite its invidious distinctions and
connotations, also belles our explicit statements on the equality of the people under
consideration. To be sure, some of the authors express uneasiness over the term. For example,
we are told, "In our use of this ten-n for the purpose of sociological investigation, we emphasize
that we do not attach any value judgement, explicitly or implicitly, either to the word "deviance"
or to those describing their behavior or beliefs in this book." (McCaghy, et al.,1968:v).
Lofland (1969:2, 9-10) expresses even stronger reservations about the use of the term, and sees
clearly the sociological, ethical, and political problems raised by its continued use. Yet, the title
of his book is Deviance and Identity.
Szasz (1970: xxv-xxvi) has urged that we abandon use of the term: "Words have lives of their
own. However much sociologists insist that the term "deviant" does not diminish the worth of
the person or group so categorized, the implication of inferiority adheres to the word. Indeed.
sociologists are not wholly exempt from blame: they describe addicts and homosexuals as
deviants, but never Olympic champions or Nobel Prize winners. In fact, the term is rarely applied
to people with admired characteristics, such as great wealth, superior skills, or fame-whereas it is
often applied to those with despised characteristics, such as poverty, lack of marketable skills, or
The term "social deviants" . . . does not make sufficiently explicit-as the terms "scapegoat" or
"victim" do-that majorities usually categorize persons or groups as "deviant" in order to set them
apart as inferior beings and to justify their social control, oppression, persecution, or even
Terms like victimization, persecution, and oppression are more accurate descriptions of what is
really happening. But even Gouldner (1968), in a masterful critique of the labeling school, while describing social conflict, calls civil-rights and anti-war protesters "political deviants." He points
out clearly that these protesters are resisting openly, not slyly, conditions they abhor. Gouldner is
discussing political struggles; oppression and resistance to oppression; conflicts over values,
morals, interests, and power; and victimization. Naming such protesters "deviants," even
if political deviants. is an indication of the deep penetration within our minds of certain
prejudices and orientations.
Given the use of the term. the definition and examples of "deviant" reveal underlying sentiments
and views. Therefore, it is important that we redefine drastically the entire field, especially since
it is a flourishing one: "Because younger sociologists have found deviance such a fertile and
exciting field for their own work, and because students share these feelings, deviance promises to
become an even more important area of sociological research and theory in the coming years"
The lists and discussions of "deviant" acts and persons reveal the writers' biases and sentiments.
These are acts which, "like robbery, burglary or rape [are] of a simple and dramatic predatory
nature . . ." (The President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice,
in Dinitz, et al., 1969:105). All 16 texts, without exception, concentrate on actions and persons
of a "dramatic predatory nature," on "preverts." This is true of both the labeling and other
schools. The following are examples from the latter:
"Ten different types of deviant behavior are considered: juvenile delinquency, adult crime,
prison sub-cultures, homosexuality, prostitution, suicide, homicide, alcoholism, drug addiction
and mental illness."(Rushing, 1969: preface).
"Traditionally, in American sociology the study of deviance has focused on criminals, juvenile
delinquents, prostitutes, suicides, the mentally ill, drug users and drug addicts, homosexuals, and
political and religious radicals." (Lefton, et al., 1968:v).
"Deviant behavior is essentially violation of certain types of group norms; a deviant act is
behavior which is proscribed in a certain way. [It must be] in a disapproved direction, and of
sufficient degree to exceed the tolerance limit of the community.... [such as] delinquency and
crime, prostitution, homosexual behavior, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental disorders, suicide,
marital and family maladjustment. discrimination against minority groups, and, to a lesser
degree, role problems of old age." (Clinard, 1968:28).
Finally, we are told that these are some examples of deviance every society must deal with: ". . .
mental illness, violence, theft, and sexual misconduct, as well as ... other similarly difficult
behavior" (Dinitz, et al., 1969:3).
The list stays unchanged with the authors of the labeling school.
"In Part 1, "The Deviant Act," I draw rather heavily on certain studies of homicide,
embezzlement, "naive" check forgery, suicide and a few other acts ... in discussing the
assumption of deviant identity (Part II) and the assumption of normal identity (Part III), there is heavy reference to certain studies of paranoia, "mental illness" more generally, and Alcoholics
Anonymous and Synanon (Lofland, 1969:34).
"Homicide, suicide, alcoholism, mental illness, prostitution, and homosexuality are among the
forms of behavior typically called deviant, and they are among the kinds of behavior that will be
analyzed. (Lofland, 1969:34) 1). Included among my respondents were political radicals of the
far left and the far right, homosexuals, militant blacks, convicts and mental hospital patients,
mystics, narcotic addicts, LSD and marijuana users, illicit drug dealers, delinquent boys, racially
mixed couples, hippies, health-food users, and bohemian artists and village eccentrics (Simmons,
Simmons (1969:27, 29, 31) also informs us that in his study of stereotypes of "deviants" held by
the public, these are the types he gave to people: homosexuals, beatniks, adulterers, marijuana
smokers, political radicals, alcoholics, prostitutes, lesbians, ex-mental patients, atheists, ex-
convicts, intellectuals, and gamblers. In Lemert (1967) we find that except for the three
introductory (theoretical) chapters, the substantive chapters cover the following topics: alcohol
drinking, four; check forgers, three; stuttering, two; and mental illness, two. Matza (1969) offers
the following list of "deviants" and their actions that must be appreciated if one adheres to a
naturalistic perspective:" paupers, robbers, motorcycle gangs, prostitutes, drug addicts,
promiscuous homosexuals, thieving Gypsies, and "free love" Bohemians (1969:16). Finally,
Douglas' collection (1970a) covers these forms of "deviance": abortion, nudism, topless bar-
maids, prostitutes, homosexuals, violence (motorcycle and juvenile gangs), shoplifting, and
The omissions from these lists are staggering. The covert, institutional forms of "deviance" (part
II, below) are nowhere to be found. Reading these authors, one would not know that the most
destructive use of violence in the last decade has been the war in Vietnam, in which the United
States has heaped unprecedented suffering on the people and their land; more bombs have been
dropped in Vietnam than in the entire World War II. Moreover, the robbery of the corporate
world-through tax breaks, fixed prices, low wages, pollution of the environment, shoddy goods,
etc.-is passed over in our fascination with "dramatic and predatory" actions. Therefore, we are
told that "while they certainly are of no greater social importance to us than such subjects as
banking and accounting [or military violence], subjects such as marijuana use and motorcycle
gangs are of far greater interest to most of us. While it is only a coincidence that our scientific
interests correspond with the emotional interest in deviants, it is a happy coincidence and, I
believe, one that should be encouraged" (Douglas, 1970a:5). And Matza (1969:17), in
commenting on the "appreciative sentiments" of the "naturalistic spirit," elaborates on the same
theme: "We do not for a moment wish that we could rid ourselves of deviant phenomena. We are
intrigued by them. They are an intrinsic, ineradicable, and vital part of human society."
An effort is made to transcend this limited view and substantive concern with dramatic and
predatory forms of "deviance." Becker (1964:3) claims that the new (labeling) deviance no
longer studies only "delinquents and drug addicts, though these classical kinds of deviance are
still kept under observation." It increases its knowledge "of the processes of deviance by
studying physicians, people with physical handicaps, the mentally deficient, and others whose
doings were formerly not included in the area." The powerful "deviants" are still left untouched, however. This is still true with another aspect of the new deviance. Becker (1964:4) claims that
in the labeling perspective "we focus attention on the other people involved in the process. We
pay attention to the role of the non-deviant as well as that of the deviant." But we see that it is the
ordinary non-deviants and the low-level agents of social control who receive attention, not the
powerful ones (Gouldner, 1968).
In fact, the emphasis is more on the subculture and identity of the "deviants" themselves rather
than on their oppressors and persecutors. To be sure, in varying degrees all authors discuss the
agents of social control, but the fascination and emphasis are on the "deviant" himself. Studies of
prisons and prisoners, for example, focus on prison subcultures and prisoner rehabilitation; there
is little or no consideration of the social, political, economic, and power conditions which
consign people to prisons. Only now are we beginning to realize that most prisoners are political
prisoners-that their "criminal" actions (whether against individuals, such as robbery, or
conscious political acts against the state) result largely from current social and political
conditions, and are not the work of "disturbed" and "psychopathic" personalities. This realization
came about largely because of the writings of political prisoners themselves: Malcolm X (1965),
Eldridge Cleaver (1968). and George Jackson(1970), among others.
In all these books, notably those of the labeling school, the concern is with the "deviant's"
subculture and identity: his problems, motives, fellow victims, etc. The collection of memoirs
and apologies of "deviants" in their own words (McCaghy, et al., 1968) covers the lives and
identities of 'prevert' deviants:" prostitutes, nudists, abortionists, criminals, drug users,
homosexuals, the mentally ill, alcoholics, and suicides. For good measure, some "militant
deviants" are thrown in: Black Muslims, the SDS, and a conscientious objector. But one wonders
about other types of "deviants:" how do those who perpetrate the covert institutional violence in
our society view themselves? Do they have identity problems? How do they justify their actions?
How did the robber barons of the late 19th century steal, fix laws, and buy politicians six days of
the week and go to church on Sunday? By what process can people speak of body counts and kill
ratios with cool objectivity? On these and similar questions, this book (and all others) provides
no answers; indeed, the editors seem unaware that such questions should or could be raised.
Becker (1964), Rubington and Weinberg (1968), Matza (1969), and Bell (1971) also focus on the
identity and subculture of "prevert deviants." Matza, in discussing the assumption of "deviant
identity," uses as examples, and elaborates upon, thieves and marijuana users. In all these books,
there are occasional references to and questions about the larger social and political structure, but
these are not explored in any depth; and the emphasis remains on the behavior, identity, and
rehabilitation of the "deviant" himself. This bias continues in the latest book which, following
the fashions of the times, has chapters on hippies and militant protesters (Bell, 197 1).
Even the best of these books, Simmons's Deviants (1969), is not free of the overwhelming
concentration of the "deviant" and his identity. It is the most sympathetic and balanced
presentation of the lives of "deviants": their joys, sorrows, and problems with the straight world
and fellow victims. Simmons demystifies the processes of becoming "deviant" and overcoming
"deviance." He shows, as well as anyone does, that these victims are just like us; and the
differences they possess and the suffering they endure are imposed upon them. Ultimately, however, Simmons too falls prey to the three biases shown in the work of others: (a) the
"deviants" he considers are only of the "prevert" type; (b) he focuses mostly on the victim and
his identity, not on the persecutors; and © the persecutors he does discuss are of the middle-level
variety, the agents of more powerful others and institutions.
Because of these biases, there is an implicit, but very clear, acceptance by these authors of the
current definitions of "deviance." It comes about because they concentrate their attention on
those who have been successfully labeled as "deviant," and not on those who break laws, fix
laws, violate ethical and moral standards, harm individuals and groups, etc., but who either are
able to hide their actions, or, when known, can deflect criticism, labeling, and punishment. The
following are typical statements which reveal this bias.
". . . no act committed by members of occupational groups [such as white-collar crimes],
however unethical, should be considered as crime unless it is punishable by the state in some
way (Clinard, 1968:269). Thus, if some people can manipulate laws so that their unethical and
destructive acts are not "crimes," we should cater to their power and agree that they are not
Furthermore, the essence of the labeling school encourages this bias, despite Becker's
(1963:14)assertion that.."insofar as a
scientist uses "deviant" to refer to any rule-breaking behavior and takes as his subjects of study
only those who have been labeled deviant, he will be hampered by the disparities between the
two categories." But as the following statements from Becker and others show, this is in fact
what the labeling school does do.
Deviance is "created by society ... social groups create deviance by making the rules whose
infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling
them as outsiders" (Becker, 1963:8-9). Clearly, according to this view, in cases where no group
has labeled another, no matter what the other group or individuals have done, there is nothing for
the sociologist to study and dissect.
"Rules are not made automatically. Even though a practice may be harmful in an objective sense
to the group in which it occurs, the harm needs to be discovered and pointed out. People must be
made to feet that something ought to be done about it." (Becker, 1963:162).
"What is important for the social analyst is not what people are by his lights or by his standards
but what it is that people construe one another and themselves to be for what reasons and with
what consequences." (Lofland, 1969:35).
"... deviance is in the eyes of the beholder. For deviance to become a social fact, somebody must
perceive an act, person, situation, or event as a departure from social Norns, must categorize that
perception, must report the perception to others, must get them to accept this definition of the
situation, and must obtain a response that conforms to this definition. Unless all these
requirements are met, deviance as a social fact does not come into being." (Rubington and
Weinberg, 1968:v). The implication of these statements is that the sociologist accepts current, successful definitions
of what is "deviant" as the only ones worthy of his attention. To be sure, he may argue that those
labeled "deviant" are not really different from the rest of us, or that there is no act intrinsically
"deviant," etc. By concentrating on cases of successful labeling, however, he will not penetrate
beneath the surface to look for other forms of "deviance"-undetected stealing, violence, and
destruction. When people are not powerful enough to make the "deviant"