Sociology of Deviance: The Disciplines of Social Exclusion

Heinz Steinert. The Sage Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Craig Calhoun, Chris Rojek, Bryan Turner. Sage Publication. 2005.

Introduction: Deviance as a Field of Sociological Study

This chapter interprets recent thinking about deviance in Western Europe and the United States in its relation to the social changes in the last 20 years of the twentieth century. The last two decades of a century of counter-Enlightenment marked a distinctive phase of economic and social development. The predominant Fordist mode of production, which mostly meant lifting all obstacles to consumerism, hedonism, individualism and informality, has been supplanted by globalization, neoliberalism and the service- or knowledge-economy The new formation includes a new praxis of politics with (and concomitant knowledge about) deviance. The sociology of deviance is an adaptive or oppositional part of this.

To begin to understand this phase it is useful to see the sharp contrast to the Fordist formation in the 1960s and 1970s. Then we generally had a public attitude of supporting the needy, of resocialization and of democratic inclusion. If in doubt, it was the social norm that had to be re-examined, not the deviation from it. The predecessor chapter to this, by Andrew Scull (1988), was written under this perspective: it took a relatively consolidated labeling theory and a politics of benign social control for granted. In contrast to this, we now have a relatively consolidated politics of social exclusion. The deviant, the foreign and the poor are now met with a considerable willingness to get them out and to keep them out. Prison rates since the 1980s have more than tripled in the United States and drawn equal with the former USSR. Everywhere in the West there have been attempts to curb immigration. It is no exaggeration to call this politics of social exclusion a new wave of nationalist, race and class discrimination. In the now dominant populist politics, knowledge about deviance has taken on a new function: to target the ‘losers,’ the underclass’ and the ‘superfluous,’ as they are now called.

Certainly this general tendency does not go uncontested. And it is itself not unitary, but rather the result of diverse forces supporting and contesting each other, with some unexpected outcomes. To understand the development of knowledge about deviance in some detail, a broad and multi-faceted discourse has to be considered.

Two approaches to such an analysis are used here: placing academic contributions in the wider discursive field (which is mainly determined by relevant social movements) and describing ‘defining experiences’ in this field, nodal points of confluence in which the interplay of forces becomes visible.

Problems of Definition

Deviance is the subject of (mostly introductory) courses in the social sciences. But it is not one of the consolidated sub-fields of sociology. Rather, its subject matter is spread over a number of specializations, from criminology and abnormal psychology to historical ethnographies of rural resistance or Holocaust studies. The textbooks on deviance usually cover a field narrowed in three ways.

First, by a normative assumption, only phenomena that are undesirable—that ought not to occur—are seen as deviant (Black, 1984: 5; similarly Tittle, 1995: 132). Positive deviance (Goode, 1991) is excluded.

Second, there is an under-representation of state-organized crime. The historical examples of slavery and colonialism or the great European witch craze, all powerful examples of state- and church-organized violence and destruction, are quite well researched and theorized but rarely brought into the field of the sociology of deviance. Neither is the research on ‘death by government.’ Connected to this is the amazing fact that the whole topic of state-organized crime treats the example of genocidal states, including the Nazi state, marginally if at all.

Third, there is a strong tendency to regard as deviant only those categories that are seen as social problems, which mostly constitute a middle ground of tolerated deviance. Youths, fashions and fads, nuts, sluts and perverts,’ the subcultures of more or less bizarre activities and predilections, and the harmless and often transitory deviance of otherwise respectable persons are examples.

The politics of deviance comprises the drawing and patrolling of society’s boundaries. In its harsher forms this means varying degrees of social exclusion. At the extreme, the utmost negative valuation defines the category as less than human: barbarians and savages or slaves and serfs. External and internal enemies often get dual ascriptions: despised and ridiculed, but at the same time exalted to super cruelty, baseness and threatening to all humanity. Regrettably, the examples for this are not only historical.

Institutions of Deviance

Deviance, in a sociological understanding, is not a specific behavior or characteristic of a category of persons. Rather, deviance is a social relation: a set of social institutions, in which such behaviors and characteristics are defined, recognized and processed. We can distinguish four such structured, habitual and organized ways of processing deviance. The main institutions are crime and punishment (organized in criminal law, the judiciary and corrections) and weakness and care (the illness and the infirmity models supported by psychiatry, clinical psychology, social work and welfare). Obviously, these institutions are related to poverty, which, interestingly, is not seen as deviant per se. The institutions of neutralization are organized in ‘safety-valve activities’ like sports and tourism or in niches (clubs, carnivals, the artists’ subculture and nightlife) set aside so they do not bother the rest of society too much. Most consequentially, there are institutions of subhumanity and social exclusion, organized in slavery, colonialism and in some forms of enemy treatment, especially mass murder and genocide.

All these institutions sort actions and human beings into broader or narrower categories. These are primarily derived from the regulatory needs of these institutions, not from persons’ inherent characteristics. Immigration offices sort us into nationalities—and then based on the security we can give that we will behave according to regulations. They do not do this because we have passports; rather we carry passports because they want to do this sorting.

There is a necessary individual complement to this. We are not just passive objects of such identification, but take an active part in the creation of categories as well as in the sorting—of others and of ourselves. The period under consideration has produced an enormous literature concerned with identity. Finding, negotiating, projecting, hiding, assuming an identity, but mainly insisting on having our identity recognized, was one of the big topics of these 20 years.

The social science study of deviance is one special endeavor to produce knowledge about these processes of categorizing and institutional subsumption. It is not the only source of such knowledge and not the most powerful player in the field. To describe social knowledge about deviance, and the place of the sociology of deviance in it, this contested terrain has to be mapped.

Mapping the Discursive Field

Relative to the 1960s and 1970s, the most obvious changes in the phase under consideration are modifications in the status of a number of forms of deviance brought about by (new) social and political movements. These movements act in a changed arena, as the whole field of politics has moved onto the stage of an advanced culture industry (Steinert, 2003). Strange habits and predilections that we once tried to hide have become marketable commodities on TV talk shows. Experts now peddle their wares in competing culture-industry formats, and politics in general has become more populist. Academic life has changed under the influence of movements and culture-industry involvement.

The discursive field of deviance can be described through the social movements that scandalize or normalize deviance and the academic contributions to these struggles.

Normalizing and Scandalizing Movements

Most of the movements to be considered here continue a struggle that started much earlier. They do their present work on the backdrop of that history and often with the impression that conditions have become harsher for them. But they also do it in the spirit of success, from which they will not slide back. The distinction I suggest refers to whether they aim at alleviating some entrenched understanding of some ‘deviance,’ or whether they need to produce awareness that something is not as it should be in the first place.

Perhaps the most successful normalizing movement has been the gay and lesbian movement, which made the former deviance of homosexuality an accepted variant of the private pursuit of happiness. Legislation decriminalizing homosexuality was enacted in the 1970s in many countries, and since then the normalizing struggle has been a political and social success. Even beyond formal rules, the emotions of horror and shame this vice’ once elicited have substantially disappeared.

Somewhat less radically, the former deviance of physical and mental handicap has lost much of its stigma. In the Western world, great efforts have been made to integrate such children into schools and grown-ups into the workplace and all into family life. Physical arrangements have slowly been adapted to their special needs (Fleischer and Zames, 2001).

A second group of movements could be called scandalizing movements. They have turned formerly taken-for-granted discriminations into visible and unacceptable domination—and have thereby created instances of deviance that formerly did not appear as such.

The feminist movement broke the taken-for-granted male perspective and produced theories of male dominance and/or patriarchy (which is an important difference). It successfully scandalized male violence against women, redefining rape, domestic violence and child abuse. What before was seen as the husband’s legal right was turned into deviance and crime.

In other fields, the feminist movement had normalizing as well as scandalizing effects. Prostitution was normalized to a degree in campaigns to make it a service profession like others, renaming prostitutes ‘sex-workers,’ or even ‘sex-therapists.’ On the other hand, there were other forms of prostitution, especially in the context of neocolonialism, that had to be scandalized as slavery and trade in women. Pornography, too, has been scandalized, becoming the (demeaning) theory to the (violent domination) practice of rape.

Similarly, the anti-racist, postcolonialism and multiculturalism movements, and the prolongation of the civil rights movement, scandalize other formerly taken-for-granted forms of discrimination. They have broken down the dominant white perspective in movements against superiority, against elitism and elite self-images and generally against ‘Herrenmenschentum’ (claim for super-humanity and master-race status). The deviance resulting from this scandalization is that of the racist, the xenophobe, the authoritarian and the prejudiced person (and occasionally stronger words, like fascist or Nazi).

The ecological movement, too, had to be mostly a scandalizing movement, showing up the dangerous and hidden-costs side of an industrial economy. Again, new forms of deviance were created, in law as ecological crime, and socially as a new form of morality. Connected to this is a form of health consciousness that has produced new norms of diet and lifestyle. Included here we have the most amazing example of the creation of a new form of deviance: the complete turnaround in the norms of smoking tobacco.


There certainly are counter-movements to all of these. They can be grouped into reaffirmation- of-order and market-populist, neoliberal movements.

Reaffirmation of order is most obvious in government, with its wars on drugs and crime which have replaced the war on poverty. It is also visible in religious fundamentalists’ battles against abortion, homosexuality and divorce. Movements that put a high value on the family usually do this in the expectation that the functioning family is a nucleus of order and authority. This can be directed against feminism, which is then seen as breaking up the family. The more extreme articulations affirm male and white supremacy, and in the even more racialized version, Aryan supremacy. In these cases, a clear order of domination is sought.

The market-populist, neoliberal development is the most vigorous and the most consequential of these past 20 years. It has inaugurated a whole new set of values and rationalities centered on a conception of universal and unrestrained competition, which lets the ‘invisible hand’ bring about the result most beneficial for all. With shares in the hands (or at least the pension funds) of everyone, and a strict shareholder-value (in contrast to a long-term managerial) orientation, this unfettering of markets is believed to enrich labor as well as capital. Labor is strictly individualized (no collective, unionized or state-guaranteed solutions for them) and redefined as ‘labor-power entrepreneurs.’ With this goes a belief in some ‘knowledge economy’ that has replaced the former economy of material production. The traditional working class, and its manual work, is declared to be vanishing fast (together with its necessary masculinity).

The deviance defined by this approach relies on state regulations and transfers (not so much to capital, as these are not usually talked about, but to labor). Poverty is redefined as laziness, a parasitic attitude and a lack of moral fiber. The welfare mother and the junkie are two exemplary figures of the passive type, the mugger and the pusher of the active.

On the less obviously political side of the knowledge economy, consulting and, more specifically, ‘psychobabble’ have contributed through popular thought and entertainment to create new forms of deviance. The sale of consultant literature and services presupposes a ‘problem,’ a need or, at least, the hope of self-improvement in performance, functioning or looks on the buyer’s side.

Academic Contributions to the Discourse

There are some striking examples of a seeming dependence of practical politics on research results. William Bratton’s New York police reform, for example, explicitly claimed adherence to a specific piece of criminological knowledge: the ‘broken windows’ dynamic. (Signs of neglect in a neighborhood [can] lead into a downward spiral of deterioration, including crime.)

The politics of massive incarceration had a school of juridical thinking, ‘just deserts,’ to support it. Politicians may not have needed this scientific input to get ideas like ‘let’s try to take all the potential criminals out of circulation by tough sentences,’ or ‘let’s not tolerate easily detectable misbehavior, perhaps this way we can deter more serious crime too.’ But it certainly was a welcome help to be able to elevate such rules of thumb to the status of theory and cite a professorial authority to confirm common-sense knowledge.

Rather than being useful in such a directly instrumental way, academic work has traditionally performed a synthesizing and reflexive function. Historically this meant the enlightening critique of programs and historical narratives propounded by major religious and political movements. Now, however, instead of, say, five such institutional positions (two churches and three political parties), multiple religious and political movements and numerous TV stations, journals, university departments, think-tanks, publishing houses, free-floating artists and intellectuals all take part in the public competition for having their say. Originality and sensationalism reign. Every position has a counter-position; the serious character of the question is diluted into entertainment. All positions are equally (in)valid.

The academic task has been made more difficult by the multiplication of forces and tendencies. It is endangered by the culture-industry embeddedness. It has, through the same multiplicity, gained in irrelevance as well as possible autonomy.

The Public Discourse and the Sociology of Deviance

In what follows, four forms of academic contribution will be described. Interspersed are short sketches of exemplary content: the main defining experiences for the sociology of deviance over the past 20 years.

The Academic Branches of Social Movements

All of the movements described above have academic representation. But for some, like the feminist or the postcolonial movements, their academic branch is of particular importance, having spawned new specializations, specific studies and research agendas. These have contributed to a redefinition of the sociological enterprise by bringing their specific criticisms to bear upon a discipline dominated by the perspective of ‘dead white European males.’ This process of widening the perspective of the discipline is far from complete and certainly not uncontested.

The changes concern the very concepts we use. Feminist sociology, for instance, has irreversibly altered the meaning of ‘work’ in social theory by focusing on household or reproduction work. This has at the same time affected the understanding of family. Gender roles and sexuality have come under inspection and revision in a radical way. Patriarchy as a form of domination, and its function in a capitalist regime, has become a renewed subject of analysis. Processes of exclusion and boundary maintenance, including social definitions of ‘sub-humanity’ in war, slavery, colonialism and internal servitude, as basic for the capitalist formation, have found attention and interest.

The reaffirmation-of-order and especially the market-populist movements have certainly had their academic representations too. These have reinforced the orthodox explanations of all ‘social problems’: family breakdown and a general decline of community norms. Women play a special role in this breakdown: the pill and labor force participation set them free. As the predominance of the male breadwinner sags, the result is crime, teenage pregnancy and poverty.

There was a certain convergence in that some former critics took up these topics. ‘Taking crime seriously’ became a watchword in British critical criminology. In view of conservatives’ electoral success in making crime policy a campaign topic, the ‘left realist’ school shifted its concerns toward victim protection and prevention (Lea and Young, 1984; Young and Matthews, 1992). Among the new victimist agenda groups to be protected (by state punishment) were lower class persons, immigrants, women and children. A relatively broad consensus developed on what has been termed ‘populist criminology’ (Steinert, 1997b; Cremer-Schäfer and Steinert, 1998). Punitiveness was strengthened. While the movement towards liberation was successful in some fields (homosexuality, handicaps), poverty and criminality, especially in combination with (illegal) immigration, were answered with an exclusionary rhetoric to fit the praxis.

In practically all Western countries the difference between the rich and the poor grew greater. For a time this was conceptualized as ‘split society’ and ‘two-thirds society.’ But with gradual resignation to two-digit unemployment figures in Europe, the current concept became ‘exclusion.’ Just as the eighteenth century had to invent ‘class’ to conceptualize developing forms of inequality, so do we struggle for a new concept to grasp today’s inequalities. ‘Exclusion’ is one candidate.

Defining Experience (I): The New York Zero Tolerance Story

The New York Zero Tolerance episode occurred during a period in which, by all available measures, crime was high and on everyone’s mind. Politicized by populist politics, this awareness of crime was loaded not only with fear of the ‘dangerous classes’ again, but with race fears as well.

Politics instigated and instrumentalized fear of crime in a number of electoral campaigns and, significantly, in Ronald Reagan’s programs of massive imprisonment and prison privatization, creating a ‘prison industry’ with its own dynamic in the United States (Christie, 1993; Donziger, 1996, esp. ch. 3; Baer and Chambliss, 1997; Dyer, 2000; Garland, 2001a; Gest, 2001). The contribution of criminologists to such fear-mongering has not been researched systematically. Their use of concepts like ‘underclass’ or ‘persistent offender’ (in the German discussion ‘Intensiv-Taeter’), not to mention inventions like ‘superpredators’ (DiIulio, 1996), would be prime starting points for such analyses. Politics with the fear of crime could, in varying degrees and without the creation of a prison industry, be observed in Europe too.

Bratton’s New York police reform, which became famous under the label of ‘Zero Tolerance,’ can be seen as the local contribution—at a rather late point in the process—to the politics of massive punishment and incarceration. In the first place, though, the New York Zero Tolerance experiment was a radical organizational reform. It exchanged high-level personnel and flattened hierarchies, decentralized police work and responsibility for its local effects, and at the same time centralized control by a new computerized system of describing the local crime situation and the famous CompStat sessions at headquarters, in which police activities were programmed and controlled.

This was also one of the best-publicized such reforms ever, but after only two years Bratton was dismissed from his position as police commissioner (by all current accounts, he became too much of a rival for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani). The New York model, often in comparison and in competition with the Chicago community policing one (Skogan and Hartnett, 1997), became a national and international export article.

Bratton attributed his success to a criminological idea: the ‘broken windows’ model of downward escalation that can be stopped by early intervention, first published by Wilson and Kelling in 1982. It was operationalized by making police intervene actively on minor infractions and on suspicion in the streets. Its campaign against fare-dodgers in the subway, squeegee men and drug couriers, whatever its other effects, certainly changed police work in a radical way. A demoralized organization became active again.

During the same time, crime statistics began to drop quite dramatically, in New York as elsewhere. Obviously, Bratton had to claim this as his success, as did Giuliani. And so did crim-inologist Kelling (Kelling and Coles, 1996). New York became an export article not only for police reform but also for criminological theory. Practical effect was explicitly made the criterion of valid theory.

More complex interpretations of the drop in crime could be offered: the consolidation of the crack market that ended the warfare over participation, shifts in age composition, an improved employment situation, the simple dislocation of poverty and criminal activities from highly visible inner-city sites to outlying places (if not to the vastly increased prisons), better technical protection of apartments and cars, disarmament efforts, etc. Such lists are, of course, quite unsatisfactory for political as well as scientific debates, even if adequate to describe a multi-faceted reality. They simply make it clear that such natural experiments’ are not very well suited for theory testing. Good research into the complicated net of effects—not least on the statistics we use—is hard to come by and takes time (see Harcourt, 2001; Taylor, 2001).

The Zero Tolerance experiment has produced high social costs too. Its toughest criticisms arose from the cases of police misconduct encouraged by it, the most scandalous of which were shootings and even torture (Abner Louima). The everyday costs, borne especially by African American and Hispanic communities, still go undocumented.

Defining Experience (II): The Multiple-Personality Disorder (Mpd) Recovered Memory Incest-And-Abuse Story

Child abuse, the sexual exploitation of children, is particularly abhorrent, but some aspects of the recent campaign to make the public aware of this problem have been difficult to accept. A lot of the initial evidence came from allegedly therapeutic sessions of ‘recovered memory,’ sometimes with the help of hypnosis. Other evidence came from difficult-to-interpret children’s accounts. Some accusations could not be confirmed by additional, independent evidence and did not hold up under rigorous judicial challenge. Accusations were sometimes even put into the context of hard-to-digest phenomena like Satanism. It is not easy to establish whether they are literary fictions and fearful-lusty fantasies or what exactly their reality may be. There were situations that reminded observers of witch-hunts organized by child protection activists. The consequences for those accused, even if not found guilty, were quite real.

The movement to uncover child abuse became organized and international fast. Recovered memory and multiple-personality disorder also became strong movements with their own practitioners and gurus. MPD is a state of person dissociation into at least two, and sometimes a multitude, of roles between which there is no conscious connection. It is understood to be the answer to early experiences of abuse. Recently, at least, the attention these phenomena get seems to have declined. Counter-movements of parents falsely accused of incest have helped to shift the public understanding from ‘recovered memory’ to ‘false memory.’

There has from the beginning been an academic branch to these currents. Efforts were made to produce tenable figures and research information on the phenomena not only of incest and child abuse, but more generally of violence against women. Often this academic branch seems to have been embarrassed by the seeming irrationality of movements, but at the same time there is reluctance to support those who want to deny the relevance of child abuse completely. It is interesting to note that even in an empirically minded setting the point of reference is not ‘truth’ but political correctness. Recently historical interpretations have gone back to framing the issue in terms of the social meaning of children, taking up where the social history of childhood (Aries, 1962; deMause, 1974) had made an interesting start in the 1960s, but was neglected in the abuse debate (Kincaid, 1998; Heins, 2001).

The academic elaboration of this kind of topic has a tendency to use a broader context of ‘violence against women’ on the one hand, and of ‘masculinity’ on the other. The broad information and discussion on rape and wife battering can be joined with the child abuse debate to interpret all these phenomena in the context of a theory of gender relations or of patriarchy. The theoretical formulations also use a conception of patriarchal domination, combined with some class distinctions (Connell, 1987, 1995; Messerschmidt, 1993; Kersten, 1997; Cossins, 2000). In this case, a social-problems-oriented and movement-driven debate has finally produced theoretical interpretations that are seen by many as one of the more interesting innovations in criminology.

Another topic that has been changed enormously by feminist efforts, is hysteria. It has long been noted that the defining illness of the nineteenth century and of psychoanalysis has disappeared in the forms Breuer and Freud studied (Gilman et al., 1993). But increasingly hysteria is being interpreted as a female defense against the many indignities and unrealistic demands of Victorian (and later) gender relations, including relationships with doctors (Showalter, 1985; Bronfen, 1998; Maines, 1999; Bollas, 2000; Mitchell, 2000). These social and historical studies have produced excellent and detailed confirmation and modification of Foucault’s (1975) contention that Western sexual and gender relations are a history of the production, not the ‘repression’ of sexuality. There certainly is domination at the basis of this ‘illness,’ which is at the same time one form of negotiating the gender relation.

These lines of theory development converge in, put bluntly, the dismounting of psychoanalysis. The traditional attacks in the name of experimental science, which accused psychoanalysis of being untestable and of unproven effectivity as a therapy, were joined by feminist critique. The much and easily ridiculed idea of ‘penis envy’ was a bad enough blow, but what really finished Freud for feminists was the assertion that he had, by assuming there were traumatic fantasies of incest, denied the very real sexual abuse of girls rampant at his time—and today (Masson, 1984; Miller, 1984; for a survey of feminist critique see Buhle, 1998).

The Lure of General Theory

There is a striking proliferation of claims to have produced a general theory for the field in the 20 years surveyed here. The first of these is Donald Black’s ‘General Theory of Social Control’ of 1984 (two edited volumes), later (1993) complemented by his own systematic formulation. Then we have Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) ‘General Theory of Crime.’ Tittle (1995) presents a ‘General Theory of Deviance.’ Akers (1998) summarizes long years of his work in a ‘General Theory of Crime and Deviance.’

There are three ways of deriving a general theory. The historical critique surveys the history of relevant thought and identifies a shared and emerging problematic that is identified as ‘general.’ This classic procedure, as used from Parsons to Habermas, is rarely encountered in criminology. The subsumption technique discusses the principal approaches of textbook renown and claims that one of them (in a new modification), or a further concept the author proposes, integrates all the others. The ordering approach aspires not so much to structure theories, but the subject matter of a discipline, and offers a general model of factors or (micro and macro) levels and feedback loops between them.

The Gottfredson and Hirschi offer has the highest appeal. Hirschi is on second place in the criminology citation index (Cohn et al, 1998), and there is a growing corpus of empirical work that draws on this theory. By 2000, the number of such reports was big enough to warrant a meta-analysis and the drawing of a balance (Pratt and Cullen, 2000). The point that was taken to be the single most important piece of information in that theory, as shown in what exactly was tested in this corpus of work, was the basic self-control hypothesis: crime is the result of low self-control. The second element is the biographical production and consequent stability of such self-control. According to the theory, it is produced by strict parental control during childhood and is stable afterwards. The third element is the generality of the self-control effect. It applies to all forms of crime and ‘analogous behavior’ (deviant acts of all kinds below the crime threshold, such as smoking, drinking, involvement in accidents, gambling, loitering). There seems to be a lot of confirmation for the first assumption, whereas for the other two the evidence is not fully consistent. This first assumption, though, has been charged as being a tautology and, further, has a striking similarity to popular and legal assumptions about crime and criminals: they lack self-control. The popular assumption is that self-indulgence problems (in contrast to psychopathology and ability deficit) can and have to be overcome by willpower (Furnham, 1988: 98ff).

One of the conditions of success for a criminological theory is the possibility of deriving feasible research projects from it. The Gottfredson and Hirschi theory meets this condition. We therefore see a little Gottfredson-and-Hirschi-testing industry in the journals. The obvious ideological fit of a reaffirmation that the cause of crime is the criminal’s lack of self-control may have advanced its public and political appeal at a time of ‘lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key’ politics. But that alone would not explain the academic success.

Beyond academic competition and claims to fame, the proliferation of general theories must be seen as an answer to the fragmentation of the field. Criminology is widely perceived by its practitioners as having split up into theoretical (or rather, paradigmatic) subcultures none of which can become hegemonic. The general theory attempts seek to reconstitute a common field of the discipline. A strong motivation for ordering is fear that the field is falling apart—or hope for an opportunity to occupy a field that has already fallen apart.

Defining Experience (III): The (State-)Organized Crime Story

There was a curious development in European (mainly German-language) criminology in the 1990s. The traditional concept of ‘Wirtschafts-kriminalität’ (economic crime, the German equivalent of white-collar crime) practically disappeared from the discourse and was replaced by organized crime’ (Pilgram and Kuschej, 1997). The reason is quite obvious in retrospect: the concern over the opening of Eastern Europe and what the demise of communist order and stability there would mean for Western Europe. Also, there was a new danger to be named—the ‘Russian Mafia.’ Relative to this, the old concerns about EU-subsidies fraud and fraudulent bankruptcies paled. This new form of organized crime became part of the new xenophobia in Western Europe after 1989.

This type of organized crime (OK, as it quickly became known) has slightly contradictory features, combining familial/tribal, military and ultra-capitalist elements in its organization. The fear was that the moderate welfare-capitalist forms of doing business in the secure framework of state guarantees (still current in Western Europe) could not hold up to this predatory competition. In the wider public sphere, OK was, and is, a vehicle to discuss business ethics in a xenophobic context. The seeming absence of an analogous change in US criminology corresponds to the fact that the change to a neoliberal economy was only a small step there. Reagan’s unfettering of banking and the stock market with the corresponding new instruments of speculation has not had a very great impact on criminology (although it could and perhaps should have: see Calavita et al, 1997).

The difficulties of ‘studying upwards’ seem to be even greater in the field of state-organized crime. The topic has been thematic as ‘elite deviance’ (Simon and Eitzen, 1990) or ‘official deviance’ (Douglas and Waksler, 1982) before, but the historical dimension had been missing. The literature also makes this into a new specialization of criminology with little relation to other topics—not to mention political science or sociology. Barak (1991) uses the category of ‘crimes of omission’ which could open the field to general studies of inequality and domination. Hagan (1997) uses the category of ‘patriarchal crime’ (similar to Messerschmidt, 1986), which, with the exception of gender-specific criminal law (for example, female in contrast to male adultery in some states), also incorporates ‘crimes of omission.’ He also includes slavery as a political crime. Such possibilities to connect the field to broader studies typically are not followed up.

Thus these interesting approaches fall short of the complex connections Chambliss (1988) could identify inside the political and economic machine of a US city. Similarly, the potential of C. Wright Mills’s (1956) concept of ‘higher immorality’ still needs elaboration. What Bauman (1989) has done for sociology-reminding the discipline of the relevance that studies of the dictatorships and the genocides of the twentieth century have for social theory—still needs to be done for criminology. As long as they, as well as colonialism and slavery, remain outside the field of studies, the basic insight that it is states that organize criminal and other forms of exclusion on a mass scale is hard to come by.

One important development in the field is the emergence of organizations to document business and government misconduct. Amnesty International and other human rights groups and organizations have done more to document torture and political repression than any social science research ever could. Initiatives like ‘Corporate Crime Reporter’ and ‘Multinational Monitor’ (Mokhiber and Weissman, 1999), the Center for Public Integrity (Lewis and Allison, 2001) or, for that matter, Transparency International (monitoring corruption), and others, will provide data beyond that of mainstream journalism.

Creating Conceptual Units—Suggesting Comparisons

General concepts are among the decisive contributions of academic work. The abstraction under a general concept like deviance of such behaviors as petty theft, wife beating, campaign finance fraud, genocidal politics (past and present) and different ways of seeking sexual pleasure, to name but a few, is alien to the common-sense and political discourse on any of these topics. Its usefulness, if any, lies in making these different phenomena comparable and thereby better understood. By looking for common features between phenomena seen as ‘incomparable’ by taken-for-granted cultural knowledge, societies, through social science, can learn about general mechanisms regulating both.

One well-known example of this procedure is an article by Charles Tilly (1985), in which war and state-making are compared to the classical protection racket: states, in exchange for a sizable contribution, offer their citizens the protection they would not need without states. This bold comparison opens up questions about different forms of such ‘extraction,’ the reasons why people accept and even defend them, about possible redistributions—and the violence and force states exert on their own citizens. It does a similar service for organized crime, bringing the ‘order function’ of local regimes of domination into the spotlight.

There is another principle of finding useful comparisons implicit in this example: the principle of genealogy and historical facilitation. It is much easier to see connections, causations and functions in historical examples than it is in contemporary ones. Once identified in historical material, concepts can be applied to contemporary states.

What we can call ‘strong functionalism’ is another model that can help us to get beyond taken-for-granted cultural assumptions. It is particularly useful in questions of deviance in that it makes us look for functions—contributions to a regime of domination—in phenomena that are generally regarded as ‘dysfunctional.’ The most famous recent example is Foucault’s (1975) assumption that the prison’s failure to re-socialize may be its exact function. It creates, this way, a subculture of outcasts who can be used to render services not available legally but still needed now and then. Their very existence can, on the other hand, be used to justify ever-new reforms and attempts to make the prison ‘effective,’ which keeps it alive.

Prison failure and prison reform, then, are integral parts of this form of punishment. (Petty) criminality, used by quite respectable people, may be the other side of the equation. Illegal immigrants as farm hands during the harvest in California, Spain and elsewhere are a well-studied example. Crimes without victims, in general, become ‘normal,’ or at least useful (if not necessary), parts of society and its economy. This again connects the study of deviance with that of labor markets and social security in an obvious way. The ‘informal economy’ partly consists of activities which, if provided legally, would be too expensive or morally unbearable. But there is demand for these services, a demand that mostly arises within respectable society. This is certainly true for drug consumption, for many sexual and entertainment services, for unregistered labor and household services. And it is true for what is prosecuted as corruption (see Clinard, 1990; Lee-Chai and Borgh, 2001), industrial espionage and illegal arms trade (see US Congress, 1991; Navias and Willet, 1996; Tirman, 1997), or, recently, the trade in body parts (Andrews and Nelkin, 2001). From an understanding of the prison’s ‘failure’ we are led right into an analysis of market regulations in general (Taylor, 1999; Ruggiero, 2000).

Another old and well-known application of the same ‘strong functionalism’ found in Foucault’s work is the interpretation of prostitution as a necessary complement to bourgeois monogamy (Davis, 1961). In an interesting way, this understanding, provocative at the time, has become obsolete and superseded by two others. One, the Dworkin type, says prostitution (and pornography, pre-marital sex and, finally, all hetero sex) is coercion, rape and a form of slavery; the other takes a sociology-of-the-professions approach (see Scambler and Scambler, 1997; Weitzer, 2000).

According to this second understanding, prostitution is a profession that needs to be treated as one, and given the organizational and infrastructural status and resources given to all registered businesses. ‘Sex work’ is seen as a possible line of self-employment with a relationship between labor and income that is better than in most factory or office work. It just needs to be kept free of exploitation and violence (see Vance, 1984; Nagle, 1997; Sullivan, 1997; Phoenix, 1999; O’Neill, 2001). Also, the connection with drug dependence, under-age status and immigrant illegality needs to be severed. It is argued that moralistic regulations make life unnecessarily difficult for the women in the trade and prevent the kind of protective regulation they need (Brock, 1998).

The other approach, seeing itself as more radically feminist, cannot conceive of such a taming of sex work by state regulation. Instead, it sees (and documents) the coercive and abusive forms of war prostitution (Barstow, 2000), sex tourism (Ryan and Hall, 2001) and its sex-industry counterpart, de facto slavery (Barry, 1984, 1995), as the norm. In this perspective, even self-chosen prostitution as a source of income cannot really be a deliberate choice and, in even the best case, the activity still implies demeaning and instrumentalizing oneself.

By taking the perspective of the women in the business, a new model—comparing sex work to other types of service in a capitalist economy—made the old functionalist interpretation obsolete. And its one-sided perspective—taking insatiable male sexual wishes for granted—has become visible. The new perspective has opened up new questions and possible interpretations: sex (and even love) could be analyzed as service, its rewards could be systematized beyond the piecework financial relation in prostitution, which then links in with the debate about household work and its remuneration. The second perspective, which concentrates on coercion and violence, also connects prostitution to forms of domination central to the present mode of production, not least including neocolonialist forms of exploitation.

Again, deviance is shown as not necessarily marginal, but is connected right into the center of contemporary institutions. Looking at them from the deviance perspective adds to understanding these institutions properly. New insight does not necessarily need general theory. New interpretations emerge by subsuming phenomena under general concepts, which make them appear in a novel light.

Defining Experience (IV): The Racism Story

The Bell Curve debate in the United States focused on a national sensitivity: racism in relation to African Americans. In Europe, the corresponding category is the less specific ‘foreigners.’ The discussion is about the justification of social inequality and its consequences. It is about ‘keeping them out’ in Europe (increasingly in the United States too), and about welfare benefits and their reduction. Herrnstein and Murray (1994) offer a biologistic and a meritocratic argument joined together. In a deeper layer, it is also about history and its relevance for present conditions—a denial of history in favor of some genetic essentialism. This debate is about claims and rights, but it is also and foremost about the reverse: white predominance and superiority.

What is interesting about the Bell Curve debate is the return of scientifically supported elitist biologism and the sharp reaction against it. Obviously political, the debate is about welfare policies and affirmative action, as well as the possibility of racist models in social science. Many of the analyses countered Herrnstein and Murray not by a critique of ideology (an exercise in obviousness), but by a critique of statistical methods (in fact, the Devlin et al. (1997) book is explicitly placed in a statistics and methods context) and stringency of argument. One of the insights to be gained from this debate is that racism today hides in (the fallacies of) ‘hard’ science. Our dominant ideas about measurement of abilities and of causation in social relations are (part of) the background to the overwhelming plausibility of the Bell Curve argument. People are different in their intellectual abilities and these differences matter a lot for their success in life. The critics just do not share the self-satisfied pride some high achievers show by celebrating IQ.

The study of deviance finds one of its most important topics in the study of racism with its claims to superiority and its justification of privilege. Racism is not primarily about the inferiority of the other, but about the superiority of the racist. Racism is about the colonialist’s right and duty to rule (the white man’s burden’), and it is about today’s claims for supremacy, not least those put in terms of IQ.

In this formulation, the current bias that racism is some sort of prejudice or stereotyped thinking that can be overcome by proper schooling and mutual acquaintance becomes a little less plausible. The idea of a master race’ has its historical roots and many centuries of praxis in slave economies and colonialism. Western thinking in terms of subordination and rule has only recently been contested. European colonial rule ended no more than 50 years ago. Only 100 years ago there were still freak shows and ‘Negro kraals’ in world exhibitions. And slavery is an institution of thousands of years which was formally ended less than 200 years ago and which de facto still exists in various forms (see Bales, 1999, 2000). Slave labor remains an economic factor of some importance. Penal servitude is a special form (‘one dies, get another’) of de-humanization (Mancini, 1996).

The understanding of slavery as compatible even with Enlightenment ideas (see Thomas Jefferson) depends on a variant theory of history that sees some parts of the world, and those who inhabit them, as more advanced, more civilized than others. The Darwinist idea of a development of species from ‘primitive’ to ‘higher’ forms gave an excellent justification for the superiority of conquerors, that was actually based on more destructive weaponry and the lack of resistance indigenous populations had to imported germs and illnesses. ‘Savage’ and ‘primitive’ are categories of deviance that automatically included domination and exploitation rights—down to the right to eradicate.

In this set of colonialist practices, from conquering to enslaving, the material power of stigma becomes impossible to deny. To see as a ‘prejudice’ what was actually a right to dehumanize is a rather euphemistic concept. The instrumental understanding of other human beings has a material force. Nowhere has this been more terribly effective than in the Nazi application of racism to an ‘internal enemy.’ On the basis of nineteenth-century ‘racialization’ of European (formerly religious) anti-semitism, they were able to install diverse organizations of destruction, from the sterilization, then euthanasia programs via massacres and mass executions to the death factories of the extermination camps. It is this material (and division of labor) organization of a ‘sub-human’ position—often supported by biological, medical, statistical and engineering sciences—that gives racism its destructive edge.

The noble idea of human rights is only slowly, if at all, gaining an organizational basis that may counter some of this.

Rewriting the Disciplinary History

In social science, an interesting and radical way of integrating new developments is the rewriting of the discipline’s history under the newly established perspective. Aspects of this history that have been neglected or suppressed (as the accusation often goes) can be reconstructed as what looks, superficially, like a whole new development. This has been done in the sociology of deviance to a remarkable degree. Criminology has recaptured its less-than-noble ancestry in a number of detailed studies (Strasser, 1984; Beirne, 1993; Rafter, 1997; Wetzell, 2000). Similarly, the histories of psychiatry and of social welfare have been re-examined.

One result of this re-examination is the rediscovery of the racist, biologist and exclusionary strand of Western social thought. While once (in the 1970s) sociology was seen as a ‘liberal,’ ‘critical,’ if not ‘revolutionary’ way of thinking, the deeply conservative lines in its history are now acknowledged. It is by now standard to include the British (and later American) eugenics movement in histories of psychology as well as sociology (see, for example, Fienberg and Resnick, 1997; Dikötter, 1998). Darwinism, the model of ‘selective breeding of the fittest,’ linked with ideas about ‘degeneration,’ ‘corruption’ and ‘parasitic’ relationships, has proved important in the development of sociology. If Darwinism and its radicalized applications to human society integrated an understanding of ‘master race’ and ‘subhumanity’ into a schema of development, social Darwinism was a ‘naturalized’ replacement for a philosophy of history. Instead of ‘liberation,’ this vision implied a progress of domination: the ‘higher’ race has to rule and to defend against possible ‘degeneration.’

There is no way to deny this strong and consequential current in Western thinking about state and society. It has today, after the Nazi delegitimization, shed its most reckless rhetoric. But the basic pattern can still be recognized in its present, relatively cautious, reduction of genders and races to heredity.

We can no longer be sure that sociology is per se a science of inclusion. With biological and otherwise exclusionary thinking forcefully returning we are made aware that the liberal inclusionary consensus of sociology is just one side of a social process, in which inclusion and exclusion are negotiated, conceptualized and executed in diverse ways. The other side consists of the sciences of social exclusion, the institutions of social exclusion and the social experiences connected to them.

We are in the middle of a change in Western self-interpretation: diversity and inequality are again described by ‘natural’ categories. New hierarchies are being negotiated. The ‘masters of the universe’ are willing to push aside any obstacle to the project of a global competitive market. Deviance that is not useful is excluded—not without scientific support.