Joel Best. Handbook of Social Problems: A Comparative International Perspective. Editor: George Ritzer. Sage Publication. 2004.
Social problems and deviance are concepts so familiar that, at first, it seems that their meaning must be obvious. Courses in these topics have long been among the most widely offered and most popular in the undergraduate sociology curriculum. And yet, both terms turn out to be slippery, hard to define, and of uncertain value in sociological theorizing. This chapter explores these problems by tracing the evolution in sociological thinking about social problems and deviance.
The term social problem emerged in the nineteenth century (Schwartz 1997). Originally, it was singular; “the social problem” referred to the complicated, conflicted relationship between labor and capital in recently industrialized societies. But, by the century’s end, it became plural; commentators now recognized that there were many social problems, and it was understood that they fell—albeit not exclusively—within sociology’s domain.
As a concept, social problem had one great advantage, and one glaring flaw. The advantage was that the term seemed familiar and most people thought they understood what it meant; the flaw was that it proved almost impossible to define social problem in any analytically satisfactory way. From the beginning, sociologists used the term primarily as a course title; generations of undergraduates took courses called “Social Problems,” but sociologists’ analyses rarely made serious use of the concept.
Compared with social problem, the term deviance has a much shorter history (Best 2004). Sociologists began writing about deviance after World War II. At least at first, deviance seemed to have a workable, agreed upon definition, although this soon came into question. Like social problems, deviance remains the subject of a common undergraduate course, but its theoretical value has become disputed.
The Search for an Objective Definition of Social Problem
At first glance, the meaning of social problem seems evident. In the commonsensical use of the term, social problems are all those phenomena, such as crime, racism, poverty, and overpopulation, that pose problems for society. Historically, this is how the undergraduate social problems course has used the term. One 1929 survey of sociology departments found that about half of those responding had social problems courses; the 13 subjects treated most frequently were “Poverty, Crime, the Family, Race Problems, Immigration, Divorce, Population, Standards of Living, Disease, Labor Problems, Wages, Accidents, and Child Problems” (Reinhardt 1929:384). Twenty-five years later, a review of social problems textbooks found that the nine most frequently covered problems were “crime, delinquency, mental disorders, race conflict, family breakdown, alcoholism, unemployment, sex offenses, [and] political corruption” (Herman 1954:106). The list has continued to evolve, but the format of the social problems course has not: the first week’s lectures and the textbook’s first chapter offer some definition of social problem; the remaining lectures and chapters then address crime, racism, and other social problems, one by one. Typically, there is next to no effort to relate these various topics to one another, or to the concept of social problem.
Sociologists have had considerable difficulty agreeing on a more formal definition of social problems; one early critic noted: “The phrase … is one of those much used popular expressions which turn out to be incapable of exact definition” (Case 1924:268). Typically, however, sociologists define social problems as harmful social conditions that become a focus of concern and an object of reform efforts. Such definitions are called objectivist, in that they imply that conditions can be recognized as social problems through the application of some objective standard for measuring harm, that they share some identifiable qualities that fit the definition. This objectivist approach transcends many of sociology’s classic theoretical divides. Thus, Robert K. Merton (1961) offers a functionalist interpretation: “The first and basic ingredient of a social problem consists of any substantial discrepancy between socially shared standards and actual conditions of social life…. [T]he study of social problems requires sociologists to attend to the dysfunctions of patterns of behavior, belief, and organization” (pp. 701, 731). In contrast, consider this definition from Eitzen and Baca Zinn’s (2000) conflicted-oriented text:
(1) [S]ocietally induced conditions that cause psychic and material suffering for any segment of the population, and (2) acts and conditions that violate the norms and values found in society. The distribution of power in society is the key to understanding these social problems. The powerless, because they are dominated by the powerful, are likely to be thwarted in achieving their basic needs…. In contrast, the interests of the powerful are served. (P. 10)
These definitions emphasize predictably different aspects of social life—functionalism’s “socially shared standards” or conflict theory’s “distribution of power”—but both suggest that social problems have distinctive qualities that set them apart from other, nonproblematic conditions within society.
Objectivist definitions face at least three serious challenges. The first is that they must be very broad, and therefore vague. Lists of social problems tend to encompass phenomena as different as acts and experiences of single individuals (such as suicide and mental illness) and global phenomena (such as globalization or global warming). The challenge confronting any definition is obvious: what exactly do suicide and global warming—to say nothing of crime and racism and all of the other chapter topics in the typical social problems text—have in common? What objective qualities do they share?
A second challenge is historical: the lists of social problems change. After 1970, few social problems texts dared to ignore sexism, but earlier books had given gender issues little attention. Similarly, we can anticipate that more and more textbooks published in the near future will feature a chapter on globalization. If social problems can be defined according to objective criteria, why do lists of social problems change? Surely there was sexism before 1970 and globalization before 2000. Why weren’t they identified as social problems by textbook authors?
The third challenge is practical: social problem has not proved to be a particularly useful concept for sociological analysis. Precisely because the category was so diverse, because the phenomena that it encompassed had so little in common, social problems rarely became the focus for either theoretical writings or empirical research. At first glance, this may seem to be a ridiculous claim. After all, a very large share of sociological work is about crime, racism, and other topics considered social problems; bibliographies for some of these topics feature thousands of entries. Haven’t there been hundreds of concepts, such as alienation, anomie, class conflict, cultural lag, deviance, dysfunction, and social disorganization, that focus on social problems? Surely the literature on social problems is vast.
But such arguments miss the point. To be sure, sociologists have written extensively about many of the phenomena that are considered social problems, but they have written very little about social problems as such, or even about those social phenomena as social problems. If Spector and Kitsuse (1977) exaggerated when they asserted “there is not and never has been a sociology of social problems” (p. 1), they were not far off the mark. The concept of social problem was too broad and too vague to be useful. There have been remarkably few efforts to devise general theories of social problems. After all, what sort of theory might be expected to account for suicide, crime, racism, and global warming? And how could analysts frame empirical research that could hope to address such a diffuse concept?
The difficulties posed by the concept were apparent surprisingly early. Theoretical articles about social problems generally were rare, and many of those that did appear criticized the logical flaws in objectivist definitions (Case 1924; Fuller and Myers 1941; Waller 1936). Other sociologists viewed the study of social problems as a throwback to their discipline’s early ties to social work: social problems research was tainted as being applied, whereas true sociology was a form of pure science, and therefore more prestigious (Rose 1971). When the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) was established, its first president, Ernest W. Burgess (1953), argued that one of its purposes was “to bridge the gap (which seems to be widening instead of closing) between sociological theory and the study of social problems” (p. 2).
In principle, broad theoretical frameworks might seem to offer ways of thinking about social problems. Functionalism, for example, might argue that social problems are dysfunctional (except, of course, when they serve latent functions), or conflict theory might insist that social problems—like all other social arrangements—are products of conflicting class interests. Horton (1966) contrasted order and conflict theories of social problems, but without identifying specific sources in which either was fully articulated. In fact, such efforts at theoretical statements were rare—probably because the variation within the broad category of social problems made it virtually impossible to develop plausible generalizations. Rather than presenting fully articulated theories of social problems, sociologists identified “perspectives” centered on concepts such as social disorganization or value conflicts that might be applied in the analyses of the various specific conditions called problems (Rubington and Weinberg 2003).
In other words, the term social problem has been associated with sociology since the late nineteenth century, but its use as a concept has been more pedagogical than analytic. In the United States, courses called “Social Problems” became standard entry-level offerings, and most books entitled Social Problems have been written as textbooks for those courses. There were few—and no especially influential—theories about social problems as a general category of phenomena, nor was there any agreed upon definition of the term. This also seems to be true for social problems studies in other countries: at least in Japan (Ayukawa 2000) and Canada and other English-speaking nations, social problems textbooks and courses adopt the familiar problem-by-problem organization; the chapters written by foreign scholars for collections about social problems in India (Sakena  1978) and Africa (Rwomire 2001) focus on particular phenomena defined as problems while glossing over the broader nature of social problems (the same approach was adopted by American scholars writing in a volume on Soviet social problems [Jones, Connor, and Powell 1991]); and even the book in hand, for all its emphasis on international coverage, addresses problems one by one. Rather than discussing social problems in general, sociologists have almost always preferred to study and theorize about crime, racism, and other particular phenomena considered social problems.
Nor did this change when SSSP began publishing the journal Social Problems. Neither the association nor the journal were founded upon a precise, agreed upon definition of social problems. Almost without exception, the papers presented at the annual SSSP conferences and the articles published in the journal dealt with particular problems—such as crime, or even specific types of crime—rather than with social problems as a whole. The field of social problems did not begin to achieve intellectual coherence until the 1970s.
The Emergence of Deviance
The history of deviance as a sociological concept is rather different than that of social problems. Whereas social problem was a familiar, albeit ill-defined concept, sociologists only began to speak of deviance after World War II. To be sure, there was a long history of interest in—and theorizing about—suicide, crime, delinquency, mental illness, drug addiction, and other behaviors that would eventually be considered forms of deviance. They were all considered instances of social pathology or social problems, but of course those broader categories also included other phenomena, such as racism and poverty, that usually would not be classified as deviant. There was, during the first half of the twentieth century, no distinctive classification for what would be called deviance.
The concept of deviance had its origin in the statistical concept of deviation. The discovery that many measured phenomena assumed an approximately normal distribution around some mean led to measures of dispersal, such as the standard deviation. Social scientists began using the term deviation as a metaphor to describe differences from what was typical. For example, in the 1920s, the new science of intelligence testing identified statistical standards for normal intelligence, and those at the extremes of the distribution—particularly the low-scoring “feebleminded,” but also high-scoring “geniuses”—became “mental deviates” (Witty and Lehman 1928). Similarly, Fuller and Myers (1941) used the term when they defined a social problem as “an actual or imagined deviation from some social norm cherished by a considerable number of persons” (p. 25). Near mid-century, “sex deviate” enjoyed some popularity as a term for homosexuals and others whose behavior, again, was thought to vary from the norm. As late as 1951, when Edwin Lemert published Social Pathology—the first fully articulated statement of what would become the labeling perspective—he began by defining deviation in statistical terms: “[W]e are interested in…how human beings differ and deviate from the central tendencies or average characteristics of populations in which they are found and in which they interact” (p. 27). It is important to appreciate the implications of this word choice: both deviation and deviate conjured visions of scientific objectivity, of a measurable distance from some statistical norm.
Metaphorically speaking, breaking rules that most people obeyed could be seen as a form of behavioral deviation. But, while deviation retained its technical meaning within statistics, characterizing some behavior as deviant gave the term additional, moral connotations. If deviation referred to rulebreaking (or deviant) behavior, then what made an act deviant was not simply that it varied from what was typical, but that it violated some norm. This shift in emphasis is apparent in Robert K. Merton’s “Social Structure and Anomie” (1938)—undoubtedly the most influential work on deviance to appear in the first half of the twentieth century. Merton identifies his topic as nonconformity—“deviations from prescribed patterns of conduct” (p. 672). At a couple of places, he refers to these violations as “deviate behavior,” as well as “antisocial behavior” and “aberrant conduct.” However, Merton was less interested in defining deviant behavior than in extending Durkheim’s idea of anomie, by locating it within culture and social structure.
Merton’s basic argument has become familiar: any culture articulates goals for society’s members, while the social structure provides an approved set of institutionalized means for achieving those goals. Individuals who accept both the approved goals and the approved means are conformists—they conform to society’s expectations (e.g., individuals may work hard [approved means] to earn the money needed to get ahead [approved goal]). However, there are other possible responses: innovators accept the approved goals but reject the means (say, by turning to crime to steal the money to get ahead); ritualists reject the goals but embrace the means (Merton says little about this option); retreatists reject both the goals and the means (e.g., dropping out of society and into drug dependence or mental illness); while rebels simultaneously accept and reject both goals and means by trying to subvert the current system and promote some alternative social arrangements. While Merton’s analysis was theoretical, he makes occasional reference to several types of “deviate behavior” including crime, mental illness, and vice.
It would be another 10 years before sociologists began speaking of “deviance.” The new word belonged to the era of Grand Theory (Talcott Parsons  was one of the first to use it). The impulse was to recognize underlying patterns, similarities among what might seem on the surface to be diverse phenomena. Deviance was defined as rulebreaking, the violation of some social norm. (Although Durkheim [(1895) 1982] spoke only of “crime,” his observations that rule violations marked societal boundaries and thereby affirmed the social order provided a conceptual foundation for the new term.) Deviance encompassed—at least—crime, delinquency, suicide, homosexuality and other forms of sexual misbehavior, drug addiction, and mental illness; all of these, analysts argued, violated laws, religious commandments, or at least informal expectations for normal behavior. Most sociologists had not followed Durkheim’s lead: while there were already substantial sociological literatures on each of these topics, they had not previously been analyzed as one phenomenon—deviance.
This vision of deviance as rulebreaking belonged within the Durkheimian, functionalist tradition of emphasizing societal consensus. Societies had shared norms and sanctioned those who broke the rules. Sociologists could recognize these general patterns and, by doing so, might be better able to understand specific forms of deviant behavior, such as criminality. It is no accident that deviance emerged as a sociological concept when it did—during the postwar years when structural functionalism had its greatest influence. In 1957, Marshall Clinard published Sociology of Deviant Behavior, the first textbook devoted to the new term. Rulebreaking seemed to offer a simple, straightforward, objective definition of deviance.
The Rise and Fall of Labeling Theory
By the early 1960s, however, critics challenged rulebreaking’s adequacy as a definition of deviance. Howard S. Becker’s Outsiders (1963) became the emblematic statement for what would be called labeling theory. Becker’s basic point was that deviance could not be defined by any objective quality, such as rulebreaking behavior. It was too easy to identify instances where individuals were sanctioned when they had not actually broken any rules (witchcraft prosecutions became a favorite example of this), as well as instances of rulebreaking that were not treated as deviance (e.g., studies showing that middle-class adolescents could get away with behavior that would have gotten lower-class youths arrested [Chambliss 1973]). Deviance could not be simply equated with rulebreaking. Rather, Becker (1963) argued, what mattered was societal reaction: “[D]eviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender.’ The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label” (p. 9).
This call to shift the focus from offenders to social control was heeded by other analysts who began to examine the creation of rules, the designation (or labeling) of particular acts as rule violations, the way social control agents processed designated deviants, and the ways individuals responded to being labeled. These studies were often grouped together as labeling theory, although the designation was too grand. There was no integrated theory of labeling deviance. Rather, different analysts associated with the labeling school located their own work in very different theoretical traditions—Durkheimian (Erikson 1966), Weberian (Gusfield 1963), Marxian (Chambliss 1964), phenomenological (Kitsuse 1962), and so on. What the studies considered to reflect labeling theory had in common was a critical approach: they usually adopted qualitative methods and inductive reasoning; and they tended to portray deviants sympathetically while being more critical of social control agents. Many of the early labeling studies appeared in Social Problems (which Becker edited from 1961 through 1964). SSSP, which had been organized in opposition to the American Sociological Association, provided an organizational base for labeling’s critique of mainstream sociology. By the late 1960s, the labeling perspective began to spread abroad; in particular, a new generation of critical English sociologists began adopting it (Cohen 1971).
Defining deviance in terms of societal reaction did not delineate the concept’s domain with any precision. Outsiders devoted a good deal of attention to jazz musicians—a perfectly legal occupation—although Becker (1963) argued: “[T]heir culture and way of life are sufficiently bizarre and unconventional for them to be labeled outsiders” (p. 79). Erving Goffman’s Stigma (1963), another influential labeling statement, added to the confusion. Perhaps all deviants were stigmatized, but were all the stigmatized deviant? Goffman explicitly indicated that racial minorities were stigmatized, but few sociologists seemed eager to treat race as deviance. It was all very well to define deviance in terms of societal reaction, but which sorts of reactions distinguished deviance? It was not clear that labeling’s definition could stand close inspection.
Although labeling theory claimed the spotlight during the early 1960s, it soon attracted critics of its own. By the mid-1970s, labeling had come under attack from at least four rival theoretical orientations. First, the resurgence of conflict theory led to charges that labeling theory failed to appreciate and criticize elites’ involvement in deviance. Conflict theorists argued that social control was a tool of elite interests, that elites managed the creation of rules and controlled the agencies that enforced them. This enabled elites to define efforts by the powerless to resist domination as deviant, so that the entire social control apparatus served to maintain the status quo and thereby preserve elite privilege. In this critique, labeling theorists stood accused of ignoring the political significance of deviance and social control. Further, conflict theorists charged that the labeling perspective overlooked elite actions—ranging from white-collar crime and corruption, to economic and political domination—that should be considered deviant. This was an influential critique, in part because it portrayed labeling theory, which had been presented as a worldly, radical critique of mainstream sociology, as itself naive and conservative (Gouldner 1968; Liazos 1972; Taylor, Walton, and Young 1973).
Second, the emergence of feminism led to claims that labeling theory, like most sociology, ignored the interests and concerns of women. Here, the most troubling criticism was that labeling theory was insensitive to women’s victimization. Social control agents sought to sanction deviants who, labeling suggested, could be seen as either relatively powerless victims, or as clever trickster heroes who outwitted the more powerful forces of social control. Indeed, labeling theorists often studied “crimes without victims” that could be analyzed in these terms (Schur 1965). In contrast, feminists drew attention to women’s victimization, especially via rape and domestic violence, and they charged that labeling theory’s sympathetic treatment of deviants ignored these serious problems (Millman 1975; Rodmell 1981).
A third, related critique reflected the emergence of identity politics within both society and sociology. During the 1970s, identity-based social movements began emerging; noteworthy were the movements among gays and lesbians and the disabled. Both homosexuality and disability had routinely been classified as forms of deviance, but activists now argued that these designations were inappropriate. Advocates of gay liberation, for example, insisted that homosexuals should be viewed as a minority group, analogous to a racial or religious minority. Just as the civil rights movement had struggled to gain equal rights for African Americans, so should the gay rights movement demand equality for gays and lesbians. Thus, classifying homosexuality as deviance was an offensive distraction; for these critics, what should have been at issue was not the morality of breaking rules, or the reaction of the societal majority, but the politics of gaining rights. Identity politics was important because it characterized the sociology of deviance as misguided, as just one more barrier to victims of discrimination achieving full equality. Like the criticism of conflict theorists, the feminist and identity politics critiques condemned labeling theory—which had defined itself as championing the vulnerable—for being allied with the powerful and neglecting the claims of the weak (Humphreys 1972; Scotch 1988).
Finally, mainstream sociology—which had been the target of labeling’s critique—in turn leveled its own attack against labeling theory. Its principal critiques were (1) that labeling focused on a very narrow set of questions about societal reaction and, in the process, ignored some of the oldest and most important research topics in the study of deviance, such as trying to identify the causes of deviance, and (2) that labeling’s descriptions of deviance and social control were, if not empirically wrong, at least distorted versions of what deviants and social control agents did. Labeling’s sudden rise to prominence in the 1960s had taken mainstream sociologists by surprise. In general, they did not attempt to counter labeling’s central theoretical claim—that deviance could not be defined except in terms of societal reaction. Rather, they finessed the issue by translating the labeling approach into testable hypotheses (e.g., regarding the degree to which racial minorities were disadvantaged in social control processing), and tested them. Those tests often offered only weak support for the labeling perspective (Gove 1975).
By the mid-1970s, all four of these attacks had been mounted, and the sociology of deviance was in considerable confusion. The original consensus—that deviance could be objectively defined as rulebreaking—had been disrupted by labeling’s critique that deviance could only be defined in terms of subjective societal reactions. But, in turn, labeling’s critics challenged that position for acquiescing to a social system that maintained political, social, and economic inequities, for ignoring the victimization of women, for overlooking the political rights of minorities, and for promoting a narrow and incorrect vision of social control. In the face of these varied attacks, the sociology of deviance became fragmented, and at least some sociologists fled the field of deviance into the emerging sociology of social problems.
Social Problems: The Constructionist Stance
The familiar critique that objectivist definitions of social problems were inherently inadequate paralleled labeling’s argument that deviance could only be defined in terms of subjective reactions. But the labeling theorists had gone beyond simply criticizing mainstream sociology and offering a subjectivist definition of deviance; they had developed a body of theoretical and empirical work based on the insight that societal reaction was central to understanding deviance. With labeling’s example in mind, during the 1970s, sociologists began trying to develop a coherent theory of social problems based on recognizing that the only thing all social problems had in common was their designation as social problems.
Although there were competing formulations (Blumer 1971; Mauss 1975), the most influential version of this approach was that of Spector and Kitsuse (1977). They defined social problems as “the activities of individuals or groups making assertions of grievances and claims with respect to some putative conditions” (p. 75). This was a radical reformulation. Objectivist definitions of social problems had centered on the characteristics of problematic social conditions; most analysts had assumed that it was some feature of those conditions that distinguished social problems from other phenomena. Even critics of the objectivist mainstream, Spector and Kitsuse argued, had been reluctant to commit to a subjectivist approach; they had invariably focused their own research on social conditions, rather than definitions. Now, conditions were dismissed as merely “putative,” and the analyst’s focus was redirected to the activities—the claimsmaking—through which people designated social problems. The previously unanswerable question—“What do the various phenomena (suicide, overpopulation, etc.) labeled social problems have in common?”—that had bedeviled every effort to develop a coherent sociology of social problems now had an answer: the only thing those phenomena have in common is that they are labeled social problems. That is, if there was to be a sociology of social problems, it would have to be rooted in the study of claimsmaking, rather than conditions.
This new approach was called constructionist because it concerned the social construction of social problems. (The expression social construction spread widely, particularly among qualitative sociologists, following the publication of Berger and Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality .) Typically, constructionist researchers presented case studies that examined how some social problem became a focus for concern; for example, Pfohl (1977) argued that pediatric radiologists played a key role in calling attention to the “battered child syndrome” during the 1960s. Such studies were guided by such research questions as Who made the claims about this social problem, and why did they do so? What was the nature of those claims? and What reactions did those claims produce among the press, the public, and policymakers? Soon dozens, then hundreds of analyses were added to a literature on the construction of social problems. Particularly during the perspective’s emergence, constructionist research tended to be concentrated in the journal Social Problems, which, just as it ad supported labeling’s emergence, now seemed eager to provide a forum for a fledgling theory of social problems; however, as constructionism evolved, work began to appear in a wide range of venues, including sociology’s flagship journals (e.g., Hilgartner and Bosk 1988).
Constructionism’s great accomplishment was that, for the first time, one could argue that there was a substantial sociology of social problems. Earlier studies of crime, racism, and so on had failed to find a useful analytic foundation in objectivist definitions of social problems, and therefore failed to generate analyses of the larger category of social problems. However, constructionists began to develop studies of the strengths and weaknesses of different sorts of claimsmakers, the relative effectiveness of different sorts of claims, and so on. They framed their research questions and interpreted their findings in terms of social problems generally.
Still, constructionism had its critics. Most mainstream sociologists, who had been accustomed to using social problems as a title for the undergraduate course, dismissed constructionism for shifting the focus away from social conditions (and, therefore, the problem-by-problem organization long favored by lecturers and textbooks). Pressed by constructionism’s example, there were even efforts to devise objectivist social problems theories, although these have yet to inspire researchers (Jamrozik and Nocella 1998). Most social problems courses continued to fit the familiar mold, undisturbed by critiques of the logical flaws in objectivist definitions, or by the emergence of constructionist research. Some sociologists misunderstood the new approach, and equated it with a sort of vulgar constructionism; that is, they assumed that social constructionists analyze the creation of fanciful, nonexistent social problems. In this view, crime and racism are social problems, while UFO abductions or satanic ritual abuse are social constructions. (Constructionists abetted this misunderstanding. They often favored studying moral panics and other dubious claims, precisely because these examples laid bare the process of social construction.)
However, the most significant critique of constructionist studies of social problems came from within the phenomenological tradition (Woolgar and Pawluch 1985). They argued that constructionists depended on a form of analytic hocus-pocus; on the one hand, constructionists insist that all knowledge is socially constructed, yet, on the other hand, constructionists routinely privilege some knowledge as true, while dismissing other knowledge as mere claims. Woolgar and Pawluch referred to this process as ontological gerrymandering. For example, a constructionist analyst might ask why feminists were able to construct rape—long a common crime—as a major problem in the 1970s. In framing this question, the analyst tacitly assumes that the condition (i.e., the actual nature and incidence of rape) was more or less unchanged, while attributing any increased concern about rape to the feminists’ claimsmaking. Thus, Woolgar and Pawluch argued, constructionism is built upon a logical inconsistency: analysts may assert that all knowledge is socially constructed, but they in fact divide knowledge into that which goes uncontested and the claims that are considered problematic.
The issue of ontological gerrymandering split constructionists. Some viewed the critique as devastating. They came to be called strict constructionists because they argued that social problems analysts ought to strictly avoid making any assumptions about objective reality. For example, Ibarra and Kitsuse (1993) suggested that sociologists of social problems should stop referring to social conditions, and focus only upon “condition categories,” that is, upon the language (or categories) used to construct social problems. However, removing themselves one step further from the phenomena considered social problems was no solution, because language is itself embedded in society, so that whatever words analysts choose carry their own assumptions about reality (Best 1993).
Most constructionists adopted a position of contextual constructionism (Best 1995). That is, they viewed Woolgar and Pawluch’s critique as a useful warning that analysts needed to be aware of the assumptions they made. However, they argued that it remained legitimate to interpret claims within their contexts. For instance, if claimsmakers announced that drug use was out of control, analysts could place those claims within their context (e.g., What was known about the level of drug use that provided a basis for the claims?). Where strict constructionism threatened to force sociologists into an infinite regress, moving ever further away from the phenomena that were labeled social problems, contextual constructionism allowed them to continue studying the process of claimsmaking. It was no contest.
Two other developments paralleled the emergence of constructionist analyses in the 1970s. The first involved other sociologists of deviance who focused on the process of medicalization (Conrad and Schneider 1992). Medicalization was the process of redefining deviance in medical terms, of adopting the language of disease, symptom, treatment, and so on. Scientific advances and increased professionalism led to increased prestige for medical authorities during the course of the twentieth century, and they in turn claimed authority over a growing domain of phenomena. Medical terminology was applied to many forms of deviance, such as juvenile delinquency, alcoholism, and poor school performance. Medicalization became a familiar way of constructing social problems, and analysts of medicalization and social problems construction often invoked each other’s work.
The second development involved the revival of social movements as a sociological specialty. As late as 1960, many sociologists viewed social movements as aberrant arrangements that attracted the socially marginal, and researchers focused on understanding why some individuals came to join movements. However, the growing visibility of the civil rights movement and other campaigns that had sociologists’ sympathies led to the emergence of new theoretical approaches to studying movements, such as resource mobilization and framing processes. Rather than trying to understand what might lead some people to join social movements, sociologists began studying the conditions under which movements might succeed. These efforts—particularly studies of how movements framed, or articulated, their grievances—overlapped with constructionist analyses; claimsmaking was often the work of social movement activists (Benford and Snow 2000).
As the body of constructionist work expanded, so did statements of constructionist theory (Hilgartner and Bosk 1988; Loseke 2003). The process was largely inductive. The typical constructionist research project was a case study that sought to explain how and why some social problem came to public attention, and the growing body of case studies served as a foundation for generalizations that might, in turn, raise new questions that could inspire further research. Because constructionism developed within American sociology, most early case studies focused on some problem’s recent rise to national visibility in the United States. However, as the constructionist orientation spread, analysts began examining other sorts of cases, such as constructions of social problems in the historical past (Fine 1997) or in specific localities (Mann 2000). In particular, studies situated in other countries began to appear; some of these were the work of analysts based in the United States (e.g., Jenkins’s  study of British moral panics), but foreign scholars also began examining the construction of social problems in their own nations, particularly in Japan (Ayukawa 2000), Canada (Mann 2000), and England (Furedi 1997). More recently, analysts have begun to move beyond single case studies, into comparative analyses (such as Linders’s  analysis of abortion claims in the United States and Sweden) and studies of the diffusion of social problems claims across national borders (Best 2001).
Similarly, research and theoretical writing began to focus on particular processes, including the rhetoric of claimsmaking, mass media dissemination of claims, policy making, and social problems work. Social problems work refers to the application of social problems constructions, often during interpersonal interaction (Holstein and Miller 1993). For instance, after claimsmaking led to the recognition of domestic violence as a social problem and after new policies (e.g., establishing additional shelters for abused women) emerged, it remained necessary for individual social control agents to construct particular situations as instances of the larger social problem. Thus, workers in shelters must determine whether prospective clients are victims of domestic abuse, and they must further help the clients define themselves in those terms (Loseke 1992). Such studies, of course, derived from earlier labeling analyses of social control agents processing deviants. While the typical constructionist case study examines a national claimsmaking campaign, social problems construction can also be viewed as a process that occurs within microsociological, interpersonal interaction.
The expression social construction spread across many disciplines after 1980 and, in the process, took on very different meanings (Guillory 2002; Hacking 1999). Particularly within the humanities, the term became associated with postmodern theory and political critiques. The fact that the same term, social construction, was being used by people making a wide range of theoretical assumptions led to considerable confusion. Denunciations of constructionism often equate it with nihilistic critiques of science and other knowledge. It is important to understand that sociologists of social problems meant something very different when they used the term.
Constructionism flourished as an approach to social problems, in part, because it lacked competition. The obstacles to developing a coherent objectivist definition of social problems meant that other sociologists had never developed social problems as a focus for research, so constructionists had the field largely to themselves. However, it is not enough to merely insist that social problems are socially constructed and to continue to produce case studies demonstrating how the process occurred in this or that instance. Theoretical perspectives that do not continue to grow begin to wither. Whether the constructionist perspective will remain a useful research focus will depend upon researchers finding ways to extend it. Sociologists have linked constructionism to sociological studies of medicine, science, mass media, social movements, political sociology, or diffusion, and the perspective is increasingly borrowed by scholars in other disciplines, such as political science, communication, and public health (Rochefort and Cobb 1994; Winett 1998). Such connections offer the best hope of extending sociology’s only general theory of social problems.
The Decline of Deviance
For some sociologists of deviance, the shift to constructionist studies of social problems offered an escape from the various critiques of labeling theory mounted in the 1970s. However, other sociologists continued to write about deviance. In a few cases, they sought to develop alternative, general theories of deviance. Some proponents of conflict theory, for example, seemed interested in exploring deviance, but suggestions that, say, armed robbery might better be viewed as political action rather than deviance, while false advertising should be recognized as deviant, threatened to so dramatically alter the domain of deviance that few other analysts seemed eager to adopt this approach (Liazos 1972). Similarly, social learning theory sought to apply the perspective of behaviorism to the study of deviance (Akers 1998), while control balance theory (Tittle 1995) attempted to integrate several theoretical approaches into a single framework. There was even a call for the sociology of deviance to return to its earliest principles, to define deviance as moral lapses (Henderschott 2002). At least initially, none of these approaches attracted wide interest or acceptance among students of deviance.
For the most part, sociologists of deviance seemed to prefer finessing the larger theoretical issues raised by labeling theory and its critics, to discuss deviance without committing themselves to a precise definition of the term. This was most easily accomplished by focusing on theoretical issues within the general topic of deviance: examining the social psychology or social organization of deviance; discussing deviant transactions or deviant careers; or linking the study of deviance to other subjects of current sociological interest, such as emotion (Braithwaite 1989; Katz 1988), gender (Schur 1984), the life course (Sampson and Laub 1992), or discourse (Hall et al. 1978). Case studies continued to appear, especially in the journal Deviant Behavior, often dealing with relatively exotic forms of deviance, such as rodeo groupies (Gauthier and Forsyth 2000). Although there were exceptions, such as the volumes by Adler and Adler (2003) and Rubington and Weinberg (2002), many deviance textbooks downplayed the importance of theoretical coherence, in favor of a series of loosely related chapters concerned with different forms of deviance—crime, mental illness, and so on. It became, in short, common to write and teach about deviance without actually committing to a particular definition of deviance.
Deviance had become a standard term within the sociological lexicon. For example, a discussion of early corporate takeovers—a legal, albeit frowned-upon business transaction—calls them “deviant” (Hirsch 1986). However, even these casual references were declining. JSTOR (the name is short for journal storage) offers a full-text database for major academic journals; a search for articles containing the word deviance published in the discipline’s flagship journals—the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology, and Social Forces—reveals that usage of the term peaked in the 1970s and declined through the 1980s and 1990s (Best 2004). There was a growing sense that deviance was no longer an area of active, cutting-edge scholarship. Colin Sumner published his book The Sociology of Deviance: An Obituary in 1994, and other critics began arguing over the proposition that deviance was “dead” (Goode 2002; Hendershott 2002; Miller, Wright, and Dannels 2001). Although the fact that deviance was both a familiar term and institutionalized as a popular undergraduate course meant that the reports of its demise may have been premature, it was no longer the lively focus for intellectual work that it had been between 1950 and 1975.
Sociologists of deviance had never developed a strong organizational base to support their specialty. They had no distinctive professional organization: the American Sociological Association had dozens of specialized sections, but none for deviance; nor did the SSSP have a division devoted to the topic. There were, however, numerous professional societies dedicated to the study of specialized topics within deviance. Students of crime, for instance, could present their papers at meetings of an ASA section, an SSSP division, the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and a host of regional organizations as well as groups devoted to studying homicide and other subspecialties within criminology. Similarly, Deviant Behavior, the only journal devoted to the topic, appeared relatively late (in 1981); published by a commercial press, rather than a scholarly society, it lacked the circulation and visibility of many other journals. The absence of a strong organizational base did nothing to discourage analysts’ shift away from studying deviance.
Many sociologists turned away from studying deviance in general, in favor of research on specialized topics within the larger category of deviance. In a sense, that represented a reversion to the favored research topics before deviance emerged as a concept, when sociologists had studied crime, delinquency, mental illness, and the like separately. Of course, this specialized research had never stopped, but, while deviance was a fashionable concept, sociologists envisioned these specialized studies as somehow falling within the broader category of deviance. Now they were more often content to locate their work within some specialty.
In particular, criminology enjoyed a great revival after 1980, aided by both the emergence of criminal justice as a separate academic discipline and the influx of substantial additional funding for research on crime and criminal justice. As personal computers became increasingly powerful, and as statistical software packages became increasingly easy to use, the criminological literature—like that in sociology more generally—became characterized by ever more sophisticated methods and statistics. These provided tools for reformulating and testing established criminological theories.
For example, classical criminology viewed offenders as motivated by short-run self-interests; from this perspective, strong social controls were needed to constrain criminality. This approach was revived as control theory, which argued that it was not crime that demanded explanation, but individuals’ failure to commit crimes. Theorists argued that law-abiding behavior had its roots in childhood socialization toward self-control and in the controlling effect of ties to family, school, work, and respectable friends (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990; Sampson and Laub 1993). Similarly, Merton’s (1938) “Social Structure and Anomie,” which saw blocked opportunities as the root of deviance, evolved into strain theory, which identified a variety of circumstances that might lead individuals to define their opportunities as blocked, and a variety of ways they might respond to those obstacles, including angry reactions that led to criminal behavior (Agnew 1992). Experiencing blocked opportunities, of course, reflected social structure; advantaged individuals—those who had more social capital (Hagan and McCarthy 1997)—were less likely to experience strain and turn to crime.
Control theory and strain theory had their roots in functionalist sociology, but critical, conflict interpretations also flourished. These focused on differential power—elites’ ability to shape the laws and their enforcement, and criminality as acts of the powerless that, if not overtly political, at least had political implications. Many of the most influential theoretical statements of the conflict approach dated from the 1970s (Quinney 1977; Taylor et al. 1973; Turk 1969). While these theorists offered an expansive, macrosociological vision, the researchers who sought to test those theories required data that might be subjected to sophisticated statistical analyses; as a result, they tended to concentrate on narrow research questions for which data sets might be assembled, such as examining whether the criminal justice system favored whites and the middle and upper classes.
Still other criminologists focused on the geography of crime. Routine activity theory emphasized that crime depended on locating vulnerable targets; places that offered more of these opportunities would attract crime (Cohen and Felson 1979). For example, as more women entered the workforce, residences were less likely to be occupied during the daytime, making burglary more attractive. Perhaps the most heavily publicized criminological theory at the end of the twentieth century was broken windows theory (Kelling and Coles 1996). Here, the argument was that minor forms of disorder, such as an unrepaired broken window, signaled a neighbor-hood’s tolerance for trouble and attracted criminals who believed they could operate with impunity. This approach attracted public attention when authorities in New York City claimed that cracking down on disorder had led to dramatic reductions in crime rates during the 1990s. However, crimes also fell in cities that had not adopted broken-windows policing, and researchers who studied the decline in crime concluded that rising economic prosperity probably had more effect on crime rates than police policies (Karmen 2000; Taylor 2001). The most careful empirical analysis suggested that, while disorder and crime were correlated, both had their roots in neighborhood poverty and were affected by collective efficacy (residents’ sense that people can and do try to exert control over a neighborhood) (Sampson and Raudenbush 1999).
This is by no means a complete list. Criminologists entertained a variety of other theoretical approaches—social learning theory, rational choice theory, feminist theory, even sociobiology. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, criminology had become a complex, thriving specialty, the scene of considerable intellectual activity. Yet, it is remarkable that, although it would not have been difficult to generalize from much of this criminological work to the broader topic of deviance—after all, control theory, strain theory, and conflict theory had previously served as influential perspectives within the study of deviance, and approaches such as routine activity theory or broken windows theory could have been easily extended to cover more than criminality—few analysts chose to take this step. It seemed much easier to develop and debate ideas within the narrower confines of criminology than to try to extend the same ideas into the contested realm of deviance. In general, most criminologists accepted that the criminal law defined the boundaries of their field, whereas the definition and domain of deviance remained disputed.
Criminology was by no means unique. Parallel developments occurred in specialties centered on other forms of deviance: specialties such as substance abuse, mental illness, suicide, homosexuality, and disability all extended their institutional bases during the last quarter of the twentieth century; they expanded the number and size of their professional associations, journals, research centers, and funding agencies. In short, the literature addressing most of the topics that might be subsumed under the broad heading of deviance continued to grow and grow, even as sociologists made less and less use of the term deviance. Sociologists continued to have a great deal to say about crime, mental illness, and so on, but they seemed increasingly reluctant to address the general topic of deviance.
The Importance of Definitions
Both social problems and deviance are generalizing concepts, intended to draw attention to underlying similarities among what might otherwise seem to be diverse, unrelated phenomena. Of course, this is a central form of sociological thought—many key concepts, including status, role, and social change, have this generalizing quality; identifying and exploring patterns of previously unrecognized similarities is one of the things that distinguishes the sociological perspective from common sense. But such concepts can only advance our thinking to the degree that their definitions are coherent (they must make sense) and useful (generalization must offer some analytic advantage).
Definitional issues have bedeviled analysts of both deviance and social problems. In general, sociologists have substituted commonsense understandings—as revealed in the standard method of organizing textbooks and undergraduate courses—for precise definitions. That is, both deviance and social problems usually have been defined in terms of lists of the phenomena they include. Deviance, an examination of textbooks’ tables of contents reveals, includes crime, mental illness, drug abuse, and so on, while social problems covers crime, racism, poverty, and the like. Both lists feature phenomena considered troubling: deviance is often thought of as troubling behavior, while social problems are considered troubling social conditions.
As a pedagogical device, a means of getting undergraduates to think about topics of contemporary concern, courses in social problems and deviance may be defensible. This week’s lectures about crime may disabuse students of folk stereotypes, and teach them something about the sorts of questions sociologists ask, and the sorts of answers they favor. And next week’s topic—say, racism in the social problems class, or mental illness in the deviance course—may offer similarly helpful information.
But this pedagogical framework falls short of a sociological theory of social problems or deviance. Mainstream sociology has preferred to pretend that some sort of objectivist stance is possible, that social problems are social conditions that share some qualities, or that all deviance involves rulebreaking. Subjectivist critics have found it easy to challenge the mainstream’s arguments; instead, they argue, social problems and deviance must be understood as subjective categories—as, respectively, social constructions or labels.
These subjectivist critiques have had differing impacts. Within the sociology of social problems, constructionism continues to thrive, in large part because it has no rival. The concept of social problem has never been the foundation for extensive sociological theorizing and research by analysts adopting other perspectives. They continue to study specific social problems from any of the available theoretical perspectives—functionalism, conflict theory, feminism, and so on—so that we have many studies of the causes of delinquency, patterns of racial inequality, and the like, but few nonconstructionist analyses of social problems in general. Constructionists—a relatively small group made up of primarily qualitative sociologists—currently have the field of social problems theory to themselves.
The situation among sociologists of deviance is rather different. At least when the concept first emerged in the 1950s, analysts hoped that it could be the basis for systematic theorizing, based, presumably, on the notion of rulebreaking. Labeling’s critique called that possibility into question, but, in turn, labeling’s approach came under attack. While some sociologists continue to write about deviance, there is evidence that the concept has become less popular and that researchers increasingly choose to frame their work in terms of specialized subjects, such as criminology.
Sociologists are unlikely to develop general theories of either social problems or deviance until they can resolve the definitional issues that underpin discussions of both concepts.