Sociology of deviance:  Social Disorganisation Approaches


This file begins with discussing the issue of deviancy - some general points need to be made first about the awful problems presented by any attempt whatsoever to study deviancy, crime or delinquency.  The problem really at base is one of attempting to be scientific about a very ill-defined issue.  Defining deviancy presents acute problems - do we take common-sense, legal, or official definitions, and can this be done 'objectively '. Definitionial problems produce appalling methological difficulties as a result - many studies rely upon samples of those actually convicted and sentenced (and these may be atypical deviants in several important ways -- what of those who commit crimes but are never caught and sentenced, for example?). 

There are also lots of naively established correlations between sentenced deviants and psychological or social characteristics - and commentators are too ready to infer that one set of variables ('broken homes', too much violent TV etc) cause the other ('crime'). Before we can do this, though, there are the usual problems to consider. Correlations are not causal relations -- factors may operate in different directions, so that 'criminal tendencies' may predispose people towards family violence or a taste for violent TV and not the other way round. Also, there may be a third underlying variable causing BOTH family violence AND criminal behaviour. All these problems are exhaustively discussed in the good research -- the (much derided) Belson study [see summary here]

The usual conclusions from RESEARCH like this are that it is difficult if not impossible to establish any general propositions about causal factors, that there are enormous disagreements between researchers about the whole field.  As I have argued before, this is a blow for those who expect Sociology to come up with simple solutions, and it canlead to a good deal of complaint about the irrelevance of sociological  studies. However, the implications do not stop at sociological studies, but apply to all those common sense "theories" of delinquency held by professionals, politicians, lawyers, policemen and parents -- these too depend on even more dubious samples and inferences (often mere 'hunches' or prejudices) about causal connections.

'Social Disorganisation' theories 

These seem at first eminently common-sensical - people are deviant because they are insufficiently socialised ('they do not know right from wrong'). This in turn arises because they are located in parts of the social structure where socialisation is likely to be especially weak.  There are two possibilities here:

  1. (a)The "Chicago school".  This involved several theories of delinquency in fact, (including subcultural ones), but one emphasis concerns the effects of living in 'transitional zones' which had been identified in inner US cities.  In such zones, crime rates, divorce statistics, illegitimacy rates etc. are higher than average -- and this can be seen as a sign of social breakdown or pathology. There might be some connection between the physical or ecological disorganisation of these zones - high rates of mobility in and out, for example - and social or moral disorganisation. Thus having a variety of cultural beliefs about what is and is not appropriate behaviour (pluralism) can lead to conflicting value systems which leads to moral confusion ('anomie' in the weakest sense). This view has played a major part, I suspect, in social policies towards the cities in both the US and Britain. In research terms, two early empirical studies (Morris and Sainsbury, found in a very early collection -- Carsons and Wiles 1971) indicate some support for this sort of view- but also present some contradictory evidence for Britain.  There may be good reasons for these differences between the US and Britain as we'll see in the stuff on subcultures.
  2. (b) The British "social pathology" school. This approach drew upon common views of the 'cultural deficits of  working class (male) kids, which also lay at the heart of much educational research and policy [ as in this file] . Working class kids were believed to be inadequately socialised into the norms of industrial society.  This explained a range of problems like educational underachievement, 'restricted' cultures and language codes, low ambitions - and high delinquency rates. Of course, the statistics, and the working beliefs of professionals confirmed that there were high rates, at least of officially defined delinquency in working class areas).  All the factors found in the classsics of the Sociology of Education - "inadequate mothers" pathological working class values and so on were identified, and these were often combined with psychological variables such as inadequate child-rearing,  rigid conformity and therefore vulnerability to peer pressures, delay in the 'normal' development of adult moral codes and so on. This work was nicely criticised long ago, in fact, ( Wootton 1959) in the ways we might expect, including the usual problems of methodology, but I think it still persists in the working ideologies of politicians, priests and policemen.

Anomie theories

These are perhaps the most famous (and best?) social pathological models, found in both Durkheim's and Merton's classic works.

For Durkheim, several types and several explanations of deviancy arise in industrial societies. Most textbooks discuss this (e.g.Downes and Rock 1988), but try my gloss on what I believe are the main implications:

  1. (a) Deviancy is undeniably social. There are no separate individual or asocial (e.g. biological or genetic?) roots or origins -- as with all social facts, deviancy is to be explained with social factors. Basically, deviancy arises from contradictory currents in the conscience collective. As we know, Durkheim went on to explain suicide in social terms -- so that 'egoistic' types arise from excessive individualism in the conscience collective, 'altruistic' types from its opposite, that is excessive commitments induced by the conscience collective, and 'anomic' types from serious (and possibly temporary) dislocations in the conscience collective following rapid social change, leaving the way open to wobbling and depressive individualism again Of course, these types of suicide may or may not have parallels with other forms of deviance -- can you think of any altruistic crimes against property (destruction of GM crops? Merton (below) is the theorist here, of course). Let us punch home this rigorous sociological line with two additional implications. One is that even politically-inspired or deeply thought-out deviancy obeys social pressures and social forces,or, as Durkheim put it  "the principle of rebellion is the same as that of conformity". Another is that deviancy can be a good thing, with positive functions to discharge, such as inaugurating a period of necessary social change.
  2. (b) Deviancy is normative, with no 'objective' defintions (except a statistical one).  'Pathological' behaviour can only defined against average types of  conduct,and, as we would expect with averages, we can always find deviants at both ends of the distribution. Again, there are some thought-provoking implications. First, we will always have deviants -- even if we kill or expel the existing people at the end of our distribution, those closer to the middle will simply occupy the places at the ends and become deviants from the new average. All groups have their deviants -- even selective schools classify the weakest even of their students as 'failures', even monasteries have deviants, even though the range of behaviour would be seen as perfectly acceptable outside. And even deviants have deviants -- as prison life demonstrates, so that no self-respecting thief would dream of befriending a sex offender. These examples indicate that deviancy is socially necessary and even useful in enabling the rest of us to clarify and demonstrate our own 'normality' -- the great theatrics of a sensational criminal trial show this happening, of course, but on a more mundane scale, learned academics love discussing student mistakes and failures at examination boards for the same reason (so we can show how clever and civilised and well-educated we are by comparison).  Of course there are problems with this relativist position -- some crimes are so awful and genuinely anti-social that no group or society would tolerate them? This sort of calm acceptance is horribly distant from and unsympathetic to the real victims of crime?
  3. (c)Reactions to deviancy are social too.  Reactions, including concern and a desire for punishment, are also inspired by the conscience collective. This is a useful insight, I think, to explain later developments in deviancy theory -- there are social reasons to explain why labelling takes place, for example. Durkheim sometimes comes over as an old reactionary for insisting on the social origins of and need for punishment, but there is an implication that punishment need not necessarily be draconian or excessive -- there is no need to inflict suffering beyond the level necessary to reassert the conscience collective. Looking back on this, I found myself thinking of Foucault's influential work on punishment and its evolution (from massively brutal physical retribution to some sort of reparation, and then to the notion of individual supervision and internal reform), and the similarities to and differences from Durkheim's work --no time to pursue it here though

Merton's famed discussion (in Part II of his Social Theory and Social Structure) set in the broader context of attempting to rescue functionalist theory and respond to its critics (many of which Merton himself had read and embraced). I mean to imply no adverse motives here. I like Merton a great deal,and I think he is a much better theorist than those usually chosen to represent functionalism (like Parsons). In fact, I think myself that Merton did for functionalism what Althusser or Habermas did for marxism -- tried to turn it (back?) into a study of concrete forms, moving away from the certainties of abstract theory (see also Sztompka 1986).  Merton is interested in establishing how universal goals and values actually are, rather than just assuming they must be universal, or how psychological mechanisms actually do convey cultural goals to individuals, or what concrete sources of strain and social conflict actually do exist and how culture responds to strain, instead of theorising away these strains as temporary, as the result of evolutionary lags or whatever.  Merton also attempts to move away from the value-laden implications of terms like 'function' and 'dysfunction' (often associated before with simple support for the current status quo). His work sets out to investigate social conformity instead of assuming it, and argues, famously, that there can be unintended and ironic consequences of action in matters like 'self-fulfilling prophecies'.

The chapters on anomie theories and deviancy open with attacks on psychological accounts (especially Freudian) and utilitarian/social contract views of punishment and conformity.  Deviance is not psychopathological -- it is instead a normal response to abnormal conditions, which have been produced by definite social pressures.

What are these social pressures?  They arise from strain provided by discrepancies between approved goals and available means in US culture. Thus high levels of achievement - especially monetary success - are stressed as goals for all. There is, however, a relatively weaker emphasis on the legitimate means to achieve these goals - and general ignorance about the quite limited availability of these legitimate means in practice. The USA has a popular and widely appealing view of itself as an open society, where anyone may rise 'from log cabin to White House', but in fact life chances are very unequally distributed.  This discrepancy between goals and means induces strain - and individuals adapt in different ways, including 'deviant' ways. The usual way to depict these different options is to draw them in a table.

Modes of  adaptation Culture/goals
Institutionalised means

This table tells us quite a lot about deviancy, I think, even though additions can be made to it (eg Hopper (1981) makes it 7 types of adaptive response). Even so, I think it does illustrate many of the developments Merton makes to functionalism which I have listed above -- eg it does help generate concrete and more complex results than the usual simple split in functionalist thought between conformity and deviance. In particular, note that 'innovation'  is labelled in this way to indicate some doubt about the distinction between professional crime (the usual exemplar of this category) and capitalist enterprise in general -- capitalism allows some innovations but not others. Also there is anti-social behaviour which is not actually criminal -- ritualism. Merton estimates that this sort of adaptation, which might be thought of as 'going through the motions', pretending to be managing an enterprise (or college) while in practice doing nothing of the kind but pushing paper around instead, is actually very damaging to the US economy and can cost a fortune -- but it is not illegal!! Marxists were not the first to draw attention to 'white collar crime' as a neglected category, and Merton's is still a powerful critique which has been little developed -- I happen to think that ritualism of this kind is rife in Britain, for example, and I would love to research it..It connects with other interests of mine like how students cope with university life.

More generally, anomie is unevenly experienced.  Much depends on alternative sources of prestige (e.g. artistic achievement) which can mitigate the effects - but it is possible to deduce the most likely locations of the innovative response (professional crime, which people were quite keen to study in Chicago in the early part of the century!) - lower strata deprived ethnic minorities, even families where high ambitions are transferred to kids while remaining basically unaware of the limits to the real opportunities. (So maybe those low ambitions identified among working class British kids were not so harmful after all?)

In Chapter V, Merton goes on to extent and develop the notion of anomie a bit more.  He distinguishes types and degrees of anomie (from slight confusion to acute dislocation). As a good sociologist, he is well aware of the problems operationalising the concept (neither psychological feelings nor objective data like marriage and divorce rates etc. are really good enough) - yet he insisits the concept must be testable.  In particular, research (never systematically done to my knowledge) is still needed on:

1. rates and amounts of exposure to goals and norms;
2. degrees of acceptance of goals and norms;
3. life chances (which may vary --the emancipation of black people and women is one example of a change);
4. particular discrepancies between goals and life chances;
5. degrees of  anomie;
6. the rates of deviant behaviour (not just criminal behaviour -- oh for a systematic study of ritualism!).
Discussing problems, Merton offers a possible extension into subcultural theories.  He admits that, in pure form, anomie theory seems not to apply to working class boys, as Cohen argues (see file)  - their deviancy is negative, non-utitilarian, and expressive, rather than a 'normal' and understandable approach to strain. Yet Merton says that while the forms of the responses might well be subcultural in origin, the underlying source of this behaviour lies in  social strain nevertheless.  Anomie theories explain the distribution even of subcultural responses. In the spirit of pursuing concrete complexities which characterises his work, Merton has two further suggestions. First, an anomic core of individuals might well be capable of socialising less anomic individuals within delinquent subcultures (raising very interesting questions about the structureof subcultures -- see below). Secondly, delinquency itself strains the mainstream culture, so that a kind of deepening crisis can occur.

Finally, Merton's work has been influential, although not always acknowledged as such. Thus later work, associated with gramscian accounts of youth subcultures ( such as Hall and Jefferson 1976 or even Willis) saw deviant behaviour largely as a matter of rebellious 'style', focused among young working class males. Yet at the heart of the work lay a social strain theory, not dissimilar to Merton's -- capitalist society provided such young men with social problems ('real' ones like unemployment or school failure, and more 'imaginary' ones like loss of status). Again the response was not so 'rebellious' as was hoped -- instead of engaging in 'real' (i.e.socialist) politics, such men took to symbolic politics as an 'imaginary solution' to their perceived tensions, and began 'acting out' their feelings as various challenging 'styles'.


Carsons W and Wiles P (eds) (1971) The Sociology of Crime and Deviancy in Britain, vol 1, Oxford: Martin Robertson
Downes D and Rock P (1988) Understanding deviance: a guide to the sociology of crime and rule-breaking, 2nd edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hall S and Jefferson T (eds) (1976) Resistance Through Rituals, London: Hutchinson
Hopper E (1981) Social Mobility, Oxford: Basil Blackwell
Stzompka P (1986) Robert Merton: an intellectual profile, London: Macmillan
Wootton B (1959) Social Science and Social Pathology, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul