Chapter 7. Deviance, Crime, and Social Control
Figure 7.1. Psychopaths and sociopaths are some of the star deviants in contemporary popular culture. What makes them so appealing as fictional characters? (Photo courtesy of Christian Weber/Flickr)

Learning Objectives

7.1. Deviance and Control

Define deviance and categorize different types of deviant behaviourDetermine why certain behaviours are defined as deviant while others are notDifferentiate between methods of social controlDescribe the characteristics of disciplinary social control and their relationship to normalizing societies

7.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance

Describe the functionalist view of deviance in society and compare Durkheim’s views with social disorganization theory, control theory, and strain theoryExplain how critical sociology understands deviance and crime in societyUnderstand feminist theory’s unique contributions to the critical perspective on crime and devianceDescribe the symbolic interactionist approach to deviance, including labelling and other theories

7.3. Crime and the Law

Identify and differentiate between different types of crimesEvaluate Canadian crime statisticsUnderstand the nature of the corrections system in Canada

Introduction to Deviance, Crime, and Social Control

Psychopaths and sociopaths are some of the favourite “deviants” in contemporary popular culture. From Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, to Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, to Dexter Morgan in Dexter, to Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock and Elementary, the figure of the dangerous individual who lives among us provides a fascinating fictional figure. Psychopathy and sociopathy both refer to personality disorders that involve anti-social behaviour, diminished empathy, and lack of inhibitions. In clinical analysis, these analytical categories should be distinguished from psychosis, which is a condition involving a debilitating break with reality.

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Psychopaths and sociopaths are often able to manage their condition and pass as “normal” citizens, although their capacity for manipulation and cruelty can have devastating consequences for people around them. The term psychopathy is often used to emphasize that the source of the disorder is internal, based on psychological, biological, or genetic factors, whereas sociopathy is used to emphasize predominant social factors in the disorder: the social or familial sources of its development and the inability to be social or abide by societal rules (Hare 1999). In this sense sociopathy would be the sociological disease par excellence. It entails an incapacity for companionship (socius), yet many accounts of sociopaths describe them as being charming, attractively confident, and outgoing (Hare 1999).

In a modern society characterized by the predominance of secondary rather than primary relationships, the sociopath or psychopath functions, in popular culture at least, as a prime index of contemporary social unease. The sociopath is like the nice neighbour next door who one day “goes off” or is revealed to have had a sinister second life. In many ways the sociopath is a cypher for many of the anxieties we have about the loss of community and living among people we do not know. In this sense, the sociopath is a very modern sort of deviant. Contemporary approaches to psychopathy and sociopathy have focused on biological and genetic causes. This is a tradition that goes back to 19th century positivist approaches to deviance, which attempted to find a biological cause for criminality and other types of deviant behaviour.

The Italian professor of legal psychiatry Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) was a key figure in positivist criminology who thought he had isolated specific physiological characteristics of “degeneracy” that could distinguish “born criminals” from normal individuals (Rimke 2011). In a much more sophisticated way, this was also the premise of Dr. James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California. His research involved analyzing brain scans of serial killers. He found that areas of the frontal and temporal lobes associated with empathy, morality, and self-control are “shut off” in serial killers. In turn, this lack of brain activity has been linked with specific genetic markers suggesting that psychopathy or sociopathy was passed down genetically. Fallon’s premise was that psychopathy is genetically determined. An individual’s genes determine whether they are psychopathic or not (Fallon 2013).

Figure 7.2. Lizzie Borden (1860–1927) was tried but not convicted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in 1892. The popular rhyme of the time went, “Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother 40 whacks.When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41. ” (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

However, at the same time that he was conducting research on psychopaths, he was studying the brain scans of Alzheimer’s patients. In the Alzheimer’s study, he discovered a brain scan from a control subject that indicated the symptoms of psychopathy he had seen in the brain scans of serial killers. The scan was taken from a member of his own family. He broke the seal that protected the identity of the subject and discovered it was his own brain scan.

Fallon was a successfully married man, who had raised children and held down a demanding career as a successful scientist and yet the brain scan indicated he was a psychopath. When he researched his own genetic history, he realized that his family tree contained seven alleged murderers including the famous Lizzie Borden, who allegedly killed her father and stepmother in 1892. He began to notice some of his own behaviour patterns as being manipulative, obnoxiously competitive, egocentric, and aggressive, just not in a criminal manner.He decided that he was a “pro-social psychopath”—an individual who lacks true empathy for others but keeps his or her behaviour within acceptable social norms—due to the loving and nurturing family he grew up in. He had to acknowledge that environment, and not just genes, played a significant role in the expression of genetic tendencies (Fallon 2013).

What can we learn from Fallon’s example from a sociological point of view? Firstly, psychopathy and sociopathy are recognized as problematic forms of deviance because of prevalent social anxieties about serial killers as types of criminal who “live next door” or blend in. This is partly because we live in a type of society where we do not know our neighbours well and partly because we are concerned to discover their identifiable traits as these are otherwise concealed. Secondly, Fallon acknowledges that there is no purely biological or genetic explanation for psychopathy and sociopathy.

Many individuals with the biological and genetic markers of psychopathy are not dangers to society—key to pathological expressions of psychopathy are elements of an individual’s social environment and social upbringing (i.e., nurture). Finally, in Fallon’s own account, it is difficult to separate the discovery of the aberrant brain scan and the discovery and acknowledgement of his personal traits of psychopathy. Is it clear which came first? He only recognizes the psychopatholoy in himself after seeing the brain scan. This is the problem of what Ian Hacking (2006) calls the “looping effect” that affects the sociological study of deviance (see discussion below). In summary, what Fallon’s example illustrates is the complexity of the study of social deviance.

7.1. Deviance and Control

Figure 7.3. Much of the appeal of watching entertainers perform in drag comes from the humour inherent in seeing everyday norms violated. (Photo courtesy of Cassiopeija/Wikimedia Commons)

What, exactly, is deviance? And what is the relationship between deviance and crime? According to sociologist William Graham Sumner, deviance is a violation of established contextual, cultural, or social norms, whether folkways, mores, or codified law (1906). Folkways are norms based on everyday cultural customs concerning practical matters like how to hold a fork, what type of clothes are appropriate for different situations, or how to greet someone politely. Mores are more serious moral injunctions or taboos that are broadly recognized in a society, like the incest taboo. Codified laws are norms that are specified in explicit codes and enforced by government bodies. A crime is therefore an act of deviance that breaks not only a norm, but a law. Deviance can be as minor as picking one’s nose in public or as major as committing murder.

John Hagen (1994) provides a typology to classify deviant acts in terms of their perceived harmfulness, the degree of consensus concerning the norms violated, and the severity of the response to them. The most serious acts of deviance are consensus crimes about which there is near-unanimous public agreement. Acts like murder and sexual assault are generally regarded as morally intolerable, injurious, and subject to harsh penalties. Conflict crimes are acts like prostitution or smoking marijuana, which may be illegal but about which there is considerable public disagreement concerning their seriousness. Social deviations are acts like abusing serving staff or behaviours arising from mental illness and addiction, which are not illegal in themselves but are widely regarded as serious or harmful. People agree that they call for institutional intervention. Finally there are social diversions like riding skateboards on sidewalks, overly tight leggings, or facial piercings that violate norms in a provocative way but are generally regarded as distasteful but harmless, or for some, cool.

The point is that the question, “What is deviant behaviour?” cannot be answered in a straightforward manner. This follows from two key insights of the sociological approach to deviance (which distinguish it from moral and legalistic approaches). Firstly, deviance is defined by its social context. To understand why some acts are deviant and some are not, it is necessary to understand what the context is, what the existing rules are, and how these rules came to be established. If the rules change, what counts as deviant also changes. As rules and norms vary across cultures and time, it makes sense that notions of deviance also change.

Fifty years ago, public schools in Canada had strict dress codes that, among other stipulations, often banned women from wearing pants to class. Today, it is socially acceptable for women to wear pants, but less so for men to wear skirts. In a time of war, acts usually considered morally reprehensible, such as taking the life of another, may actually be rewarded. Much of the confusion and ambiguity regarding the use of violence in hockey has to do with the different sets of rules that apply inside and outside the arena. Acts that are acceptable and even encouraged on the ice would be punished with jail time if they occurred on the street.

Whether an act is deviant or not depends on society’s definition of that act. Acts are not deviant in themselves. The second sociological insight is that deviance is not an intrinsic (biological or psychological) attribute of individuals, nor of the acts themselves, but a product of social processes. The norms themselves, or the social contexts that determine which acts are deviant or not, are continually defined and redefined through ongoing social processes—political, legal, cultural, etc. One way in which certain activities or people come to be understood and defined as deviant is through the intervention of moral entrepreneurs.

Becker (1963) defined moral entrepreneurs as individuals or groups who, in the service of their own interests, publicize and problematize “wrongdoing” and have the power to create and enforce rules to penalize wrongdoing. Judge Emily Murphy, commonly known today as one of the “Famous Five” feminist suffragists who fought to have women legally recognized as “persons” (and thereby qualified to hold a position in the Canadian Senate), was a moral entrepreneur instrumental in changing Canada’s drug laws. In 1922 she wrote The Black Candle, in which she demonized the use of marijuana:

has the effect of driving the completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain, and could be severely injured without having any realization of their condition. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility…. They are dispossessed of their natural and normal will power, and their mentality is that of idiots. If this drug is indulged in to any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict (Murphy 1922).

One of the tactics used by moral entrepreneurs is to create a moral panic about activities, like marijuana use, that they deem deviant. A moral panic occurs when media-fuelled public fear and overreaction lead authorities to label and repress deviants, which in turn creates a cycle in which more acts of deviance are discovered, more fear is generated, and more suppression enacted. The key insight is that individuals’ deviant status is ascribed to them through social processes. Individuals are not born deviant, but become deviant through their interaction with reference groups, institutions, and authorities.

Through social interaction, individuals are labelled deviant or come to recognize themselves as deviant. For example, in ancient Greece, homosexual relationships between older men and young acolytes were a normal component of the teacher-student relationship. Up until the 19th century, the question of who slept with whom was a matter of indifference to the law or customs, except where it related to family alliances through marriage and the transfer of property through inheritance. However, in the 19th century sexuality became a matter of moral, legal, and psychological concern. The homosexual, or “sexual invert,” was defined by the emerging psychiatric and biological disciplines as a psychological deviant whose instincts were contrary to nature.

Homosexuality was defined as not simply a matter of sexual desire or the act of sex, but as a dangerous quality that defined the entire personality and moral being of an individual (Foucault 1980). From that point until the late 1960s, homosexuality was regarded as a deviant, closeted activity that, if exposed, could result in legal prosecution, moral condemnation, ostracism, violent assault, and loss of career. Since then, the gay rights movement and constitutional protections of civil liberties have reversed many of the attitudes and legal structures that led to the prosecution of gays, lesbians, and transgendered people. The point is that to whatever degree homosexuality has a natural or inborn biological cause, its deviance is the outcome of a social process.

It is not simply a matter of the events that lead authorities to define an activity or category of persons deviant, but of the processes by which individuals come to recognize themselves as deviant. In the process of socialization, there is a “looping effect” (Hacking 2006). Once a category of deviance has been established and applied to a person, that person begins to define himself or herself in terms of this category and behave accordingly. This influence makes it difficult to define criminals as kinds of person in terms of pre-existing, innate predispositions or individual psychopathologies. As we will see later in the chapter, it is a central tenet of symbolic interactionist labelling theory, that individuals become criminalized through contact with the criminal justice system (Becker 1963). When we add to this insight the sociological research into the social characteristics of those who have been arrested or processed by the criminal justice system—variables such as gender, age, race, and class— it is evident that social variables and power structures are key to understanding who chooses a criminal career path.

One of the principle outcomes of these two sociological insights is that a focus on the social construction of different social experiences and problems leads to alternative ways of understanding them and responding to them. In the study of crime and deviance, the sociologist often confronts a legacy of entrenched beliefs concerning either the innate biological disposition or the individual psychopathology of persons considered abnormal: the criminal personality, the sexual or gender “deviant,” the disabled or ill person, the addict, or the mentally unstable individual. However, as Ian Hacking observes, even when these beliefs about kinds of persons are products of objective scientific classification, the institutional context of science and expert knowledge is not independent of societal norms, beliefs, and practices (2006).

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The process of classifying kinds of people is a social process that Hacking calls “making up people” and Howard Becker calls “labelling” (1963). Crime and deviance are social constructs that vary according to the definitions of crime, the forms and effectiveness of policing, the social characteristics of criminals, and the relations of power that structure society. Part of the problem of deviance is that the social process of labelling some kinds of persons or activities as abnormal or deviant limits the type of social responses available. The major issue is not that labels are arbitrary or that it is possible not to use labels at all, but that the choice of label has consequences. Who gets labelled by whom and the way social labels are applied have powerful social repercussions.