Deviance Construction and Adopting a Deviant Identity

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Lecture 1A

Deviance Construction and Adopting a Deviant Identity


Constructing Deviance


The process of constructing and applying definitions of deviance can be understood as a moral enterprise. I.e. it involves the constructions of moral meaning and the association of them with specific acts or conditions. The way people “make” deviance is similar to the way they manufacture anything else, but because deviance is an abstract concept rather than a tangible product, this process involves individuals drawing on the power and resources of organizations, institutions, agencies, symbols, ideas, communication, and audiences. (Becker, 1963)


  1. Moral Entrepreneurs – people involved in “making” deviance. There are 2 kinds:


  1. Rule Creators – E.g. politicians, crusading public figures, teachers, parents, school

Administrators etc.


  1. Rule Enforcers – Applying these rules to specific groups of people

E.g. Police/courts, RAs, Inter-fraternity council,

Neighborhood Watch Association etc.


  1. Moral entrepreneurs manufacture public morality through a multistage process:


  1. Create awareness of a problem


  1. making claims through the use of “danger messages”. E.g. Issues such as second-hand smoke, texting while driving, hate crimes, illegal immigration, outsourcing, guns in schools, junk food, obesity etc.


  1. Draw on testimonials of various “experts” in the field. E.g. scholars, doctors, ex-participants.


  1. Use of statistics and case examples.


  1. Rules creators must bring about Moral Conversion


  1. Must convince others of their views in order to gain support


  1. Use visibility – must attract media attention necessary to spread word of their campaign widely. E.g. Demonstrations (anti-war); marches (gay pride parade); strikes and picketing (against deunionization) etc.


  1. Often enlist support of sponsors, opinion leaders who need not have expert knowledge but are liked and respected, to provide them with public endorsements. E.g. Athletes, Actors, musicians, religious leaders etc.


  1. Finally, they look to different groups in society to form alliances or coalitions to support their campaigns. Alliances are made up of long-term allies, such as Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and conservative republican politicians. Coalitions, on the other hand, represent groups that do not normally lobby together but are bonded by their mutual interests in a single issue. E.g. Conservative Republicans, religious leaders, and ironically, radical feminists come together to campaign against pornography.


  • Moral Panic – sometimes efforts of moral entrepreneurs are so successful that they create a moral panic or threat to society, when new media whip the public into a “feeding frenzy”. E.g. school shootings; priesthood pedophilia, internet predators, obesity, octomom – tend to develop a life of their own, often moving in exaggerated propulsion beyond their original impetus.


  1. To be successful, they usually have to be triggered by a specific event, occur during a ripe historical period, draw attention to a specific individual or group as a target, have meaty content that gets revealed, and become heightened by the spread of panic through mass media, grassroots communication, and internet warnings.


  1. Eventually dies out à Represent inflated fears and cannot be sustained indefinitely. Usually leave in their wake some residual effect. E.g. flying in US will never be the same as prior to 9/11.


  1. Rule may remain at the level of a norm or become elevated to the status of law through a legislative effort. E.g. Smoking bans



Differential Social Power – Labeling


  1. Certain groups have greater social power to construct definitions of deviance and to apply those labels onto others.


  1. Social Power includes:


  1. Money


  1. Campaign contributions by big businesses to sway politicians; fund favorable research; lobby against unfavorable legislation; fight restrictive lawsuits.


  1. Defines individuals’ social class à harder to define practices of middle and upper classes as deviant than those of lower, working, and underclasses.


  1. Race and ethnicity – behaviors of dominant population (whites) less likely to be defined and enforced than those of Hispanics and African Americans.


  1. Gender – Men dominate women politically, economically, historically, religiously, occupationally, culturally, and interpersonally.


  1. Age – Young (up to age 30) and older people (65 and older) hold less respect, influence, attention, and command than their middle-aged counterparts in US society.


  1. Greater numbers and organization can empower groups, as positions backed by larger populations often hold sway over smaller ones.


  1. Education – well-educated professionals have the ability to speak as experts, to organize moral entrepreneurial campaigns, to advocate for their positions, and to argue from a legitimate base of knowledge.


  1. Social status (apart from social class) generates power through prestige, tradition, and respectability associated with various positions in society. E.g. Religious people, heterosexuals, married people etc.


Differential Social Power – Resisting Labeling


  1. Halo effect – Powerful groups and persons have a halo effect that leads others to think highly of them, and are less likely to be perceived as deviant whether they actively work to fight the label or not.


  • Powerful groups can undertake proactive collective identity protection. Many organizations such as pharmaceutical companies and the manufacturers of cigarettes or alcoholic beverages work to build and sustain a positive social image. E.g. Fund favorable research, respected “spokespersons” etc.


  1. People have preconceived biases in their favor and assume that they are responsible and prosocial, whether they are or not. People also make perceptual biases toward them based on their appearances, occupations, behavior, and/or associations, forming instantaneous judgments about them that are positive.


  1. Differential social power may be applied either directly or comparatively as when society judges the behavior of one group against another, or when individuals or a group are judged on their own. à Reinforces social inequality and the status quo.


Deviant Identity Development


Labeling is tied to individuals’ former “secret deviance” becoming exposed, or to an abstract status coming to bear on their personal experience. E.g. Jews may not feel stigmatized unless they experience anti-Semitism; and embezzlers may not think of themselves as thieves until they get caught. When this happens, they enter the pathway to the deviant identity, a pathway that follows a certain trajectory. The process of acquiring a deviant identity unfolds as a “deviant” or “moral” career, with people passing through stages that move them out of their innocent identities toward one labeled as “different” by society.


  1. The Deviant Identity Career


  1. Stage One – When the individual is caught and publicly identified as deviant


  1. Informal labeling process – others start to think differently about person


  1. Stage Two – People will probably change their attitudes toward her, as they find themselves talking about her behind her back.


  1. May engage in “retrospective interpretation” – reflecting back onto past to see if current and earlier behavior can be recast differently in light of their new information.


  1. Stage Three – As news spread, individual may develop a “spoiled identity” – a tarnished reputation (Goffman, 1963)


  1. Deviant labeling is hard to reverse, and once people’s identities are spoiled they are hard to socially rehabilitate.
  2. Commitment ceremonies – e.g. trials or psychiatric hearings where individual is officially labeled as deviant. (Few cleansing ceremonies exist to mark the cleansing of people’s identities and welcome them back into normative fold).
  3. Self-fulfilling prophecy – Individuals find that society expects them to commit further deviance, and therefore, enact the labels placed upon them, despite possible intentions otherwise.


  1. Stage Four – The Dynamics of Exclusion (Lemert, 1951) à former friends deride and ostracize individual from their social group.


  1. Stage Five – Although reputation may be repelling to some groups, others find it attractive, and invite the individual to join their deviant circles or activities.


  1. Stage Six – Others usually begin to treat differently those defined as deviant, indicating through their actions that their feelings and attitudes toward the newly deviant have shifted, often in a negative sense. i.e. deviants are seen as less trustworthy


  1. Stage Seven – “Looking glass selves” (Cooley) à in the culminating stage of the identity career, individuals internalize the deviant label and come to think of themselves differently. This is likely to affect future behavior.


  1. Master Statuses


People juggle many statuses e.g. sibling, son/daughter, student, friend, etc. Some statuses are more dominant, overpowering others and coloring the way people are viewed. Having a deviant identity may become a master status = status that rises to top of hierarchy, infusing people’s self-concept and others’ reactions, and taking precedence over all others. E.g. Minority race; heroin addict; homosexual; etc.


Master statuses are linked to auxiliary traits à common social preconceptions that people associate with these statuses. E.g. Heroin addicts seen as prostitutes/thieves; Homosexuals seen as promiscuous or AIDS-infected.


  1. Relationship between master status and auxiliary traits is reciprocal – when people learn others have a deviant master status, they may input the associated auxiliary traits onto them. Inversely, when people begin to recognize a few traits that they can put together to form the pattern of auxiliary traits associated with a particular deviant master status; they are likely to attribute that master status to others. E.g. if parents notice that their children are staying out late with friends, wearing “alternative” clothing styles, growing dred locks in hair, dropping out of after-school activities, and hanging out with “wrong” crowd of friends, they may suspect them of using drugs or committing crimes.


  • Primary vs. Secondary Deviance


  1. Primary Deviance – Stage where people commit deviant acts but their deviance goes unrecognized.


  1. Secondary Deviance – Deviant acts are discovered; others identify them as deviant, the labeling process begins, and the seven identity stages (above) begin.


  1. Use “vocabulary of motive” where they present legitimate reasons to others around them that explain the meaning of their actions. E.g. Matza’s Neutralization Techniques


  1. Tertiary Deviance – People who engage in deviance embracement. Unlike primary deviants who engage in deviance denial, and secondary deviants who accept their deviant identities.


  1. Use “vocabulary of motive” as well as other excuses and justifications for their behaviors.


With their internalization of the deviant label, adoption of the self-identity, and public interaction through it, they ultimately move into groups of differential deviant associates and commit further acts of deviance.


  1. Stigma Management


When people are labeled as deviant, it marks them with a stigma in the eyes of society. This label may lead to devaluation and exclusion. Consequently, people with deviant features learn now to “manage” their stigma so that they are not shamed or ostracized. This effort requires considerable social skills. Two categories whose lives are characterized by a constant focus on secrecy and information control:


  1. The Discreditables – those with easily concealable deviant traits (e.g. ex-convicts, secret homosexuals) who may manage themselves so as to avoid the deviant stigma.


  1. Engage in “passing” as normals in everyday lives, concealing deviance and fitting in with regular people. E.g. avoiding contact with “stigma symbols” – objects or behaviors that would tip people off to their deviant condition (e.g. mentally ill taking medicine surreptitiously; anorexic avoiding family meals)


  1. Also use “disidentifiers” such as props, actions, or verbal expressions to distract and fool people into thinking that they do not have the deviant stigma (e.g. homosexuals bragging about heterosexual conquests or taking date to company picnic)


  1. They may also lead a double life – maintaining two different lifestyles with two distinct groups of people, one that knows about their deviance and one that does not.


  1. May employ aid of others to help conceal their deviance by “covering” for them à cover identities, whereabouts, deficiencies, or pasts. E.g. Anorexic gets siblings to make excuses for missing family meals.


  1. Sometimes, when concealment fails, person may disclose the deviance:


  1. Cathartic reasons – alleviating burden of secrecy
  2. Therapeutic reasons – casting it in a positive light
  3. Preventive reasons – so others don’t find out in negative ways later


  1. The Discredited – The discreditables who have revealed their deviance or those who cannot hide their deviance (e.g. obese, racial minorities)


  1. Disclosures of deviance affect the relationship between non-deviants and discredited deviants, and can follow two courses:


  1. Deviance disavowal – Begins with a conspicuous and stilted ignoring of the individual’s deviance, then progresses through stages where more relaxed interaction begins, interaction is directed at features of the person other than his or her deviant stigma, and finally gets to the point where the deviant stigma is overlooked and almost forgotten.


  1. Deviance avowal – Discredited deviants openly acknowledge their stigma and try to present themselves in a positive light à often taking form of humor by joking about their deviant attribute, showing others that they can take the perspective of the normal and see themselves as deviant too, thus forming a bridge to others.


  1. Stigma management can also be managed through a group or collective effort, such as voluntary associations of stigmatized individuals (e.g. Gay Liberation Front, National Stuttering Project, 12-step programs such as AA, NA etc.). These groups serve several functions:


  1. Expressive dimension – primary function is to provide support for their members. E.g. organizing social and recreational activities à tend to be apolitical, helping members adapt to their social stigma rather than evade it à allows disclosures to others without fear of rejection.


  1. Instrumental dimension – members gather to accomplish both expressive function and also to organize for political activism à tertiary deviance (individuals fight to reject societal conception and treatment of their stigma and organize to change social definitions. E.g. Disabled in Action


  1. On another continuum, groups may vary between conformity and alienation/


  1. Conformity – conforming groups adhere to norms and values of society à help members to fit in with others who may neither accept nor understand them.


  1. Alienation – 1) willing to step outside of conventional means to fight for changed definitions of their single form of deviance, or 2) they have multiple conflicting values with society. E.g. Activists, such as Black Panthers, a single-issue group, were willing to break the law to fight for improved social opportunities and status for African Americans. Further, modern-day descendants of the Ku Klux Klan such as the skinheads, Aryan Nation, and various militia groups may incorporate both elements, rejecting social attitudes of acceptance towards Blacks, Jews, immigrants, gays, and others. At the same time, they have resorted to violence to attain their ends, such as blowing up the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City to avenge the Waco siege where members of the Branch Davidian cult and their leader David Koresh perished during an FBI assault. Members of other alienative groups, such as the Amish, nudists, and hippie communes, simply want to take their radically different values and form communities removed from conventional society.




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