“All kind of person, one who cannot be

 “All social groups make rules and attempt, atsome times and under some circumstances, to enforce them. Social rules definesituations and the kinds of behaviour appropriate to them, specifying someactions as ‘right’ and forbidding others as ‘wrong’. When a rule is enforced,the person who is supposed to have broken it may be seen as a special kind ofperson, one who cannot be trusted to live by the rules agreed on by the group.He is regarded as an outsider.”(Becker, pg.

1). Althoughit has been over half a century since Howard Becker’s ‘Outsiders: Studies inthe Sociology of Deviance’ was published, its relevance amongst criminologicaland sociological circles endures, with it remaining a key text when teaching orlearning about criminology. As is written by Hartung (1965), “Outsiders is avaluable contribution to the analysis and understanding of deviant behaviour”. Indeed, Becker’s analysisof deviance encompasses a clear majority, if not all, of the content of ‘Outsiders’;his discussion on deviance and further exploration of labelling theory could bedescribed as the hallmark of Becker’s work. ‘Outsiders’ is one of the mostwell-known pieces of criminological and sociological literature – and Becker iswell-known to have played an important role in the development of the study ofdeviance and labelling theory. Interestingly, this is in despite of the factthat Becker himself stated that he “never really did work on deviance as such”(Plummer, pg.

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22) and that at the same time as he was “writing the marijuanastuff up” he “sat down and wrote 90 pages about deviance” (Plummer, pg. 22). Thethought that such an influential piece of literature was written on a whim isalmost mindboggling, and goes to show how a random sequence of events can haveunanticipated results. TheOxford Dictionary defines deviance as being “the fact or state of divergingfrom usual or accepted standards, especially in social or sexual behaviour”;however, Becker’s analysis regards the topic of deviance as being rather morecomplicated than a simple divergence from the norm. It is presented as being amulti-faceted, unpredictable and almost hypocritical phenomenon. Dienstfrey (1963)notes that “deviance is neither absolute nor patently recognizable.

Nor, Beckerargues, is it easily achieved”. As is stated in the textitself, “whether an act is deviant, then, depends on how other people react toit” (Becker, pg. 11). The chain of events that leads to a person being labelledas deviant or not follows a process that appears to be largely subjective. Itis complicated further by the assertion that the person that is labelled mayturn the tables and, in fact, decide that those that labelled them are thedeviants. As Hartung (1965) summarises, “individuals and groups classified asdeviant may, and sometimes do, reject that classification. It is theircondemners who, they may assert, are in fact deviant” (pg.

230). Becker’s explanation of howone may come to acquire a deviant label is somewhat hard to follow due to themultitude of examples given; it required more than one reading to be able tosort through the different forms of deviancy and separate them, as it seemed asthough one topic immediately ran on to the next. In a way it was almost akin toreading an internal thought process, rather than a structured piece of academicliterature. “Becker begins his argument by noting thatdefinitions of deviancy vary widely as we range across the various groups andclasses which make up social life.

Since no single criterion can be used todecide what forms of conduct are deviant and what forms are not, we can onlydevelop a reasonable grasp of the problem by studying the setting in which onegroup of persons confers a deviant label on another” (Erikson, 1964, pg.417). By paying attention to the smaller circumstancesin which the label of ‘deviant’ may be transferred, Becker offers a morepersonalised understanding of the way in which labelling may affect anindividual. Granted, this exposure rests solely on a very small group of peoplethat would likely not even be considered relevant today – though this alsodemonstrates perfectly the point of the text. Dismissing marijuana users anddance musicians as being an irrelevant deviant group is, effectively, labellingthem as being unimportant in the same way that they would have been labelled asdeviant in the past.

Therefore, even though society has moved on, the assertionsthat Becker put forward can still be applied. Althoughnot particularly pertinent to what the primary focus of ‘Outsiders’ is supposedto be, one intriguing observation that was noticed when reading the text isthat there are certain elements of society that have remained static. Forexample, that “boys from middle-class areas do not get as far in the legalprocess when they are apprehended as do boys from slum areas” (Becker, pg. 13).Even today, “the rich get richer and the poor get prison” (Reiman and Leighton,2012) – which denotes the fact that society has not, perhaps, evolved as muchas it should have done in half a century. This is not the only social commentarythat stands; although he was discussing the work of another, Becker’s mentionof the stigmatisation of women in extramarital pregnancies is also relevant:”Vincent points out that illicit sexualrelations seldom result in severe punishment or social censure for theoffenders.

If, however, a girl becomes pregnant as a result of such activities,the reaction of others is likely to be severe. (The illicit pregnancy is alsoan interesting example of differential enforcement of rules on differentcategories of people. Vincent notes that unmarried fathers escape the severecensure visited on the mother)” (pg. 13). Whilst becoming a singlemother is now more socially acceptable than it was in the 1960’s, there isstill some stigma attached. It was reported in 2014 that 3 out of 4 singleparents had “personally experienced social stigma due to their lack ofparenting partner” (Moss, 2014), with the same article stating that 92% ofsingle parents are mothers.

Stigma and deviance arearguably different things (it could also be stated that stigma is an umbrellaterm under which deviance falls), and yet there is a certain amount of overlapbetween the two that ensures that Becker’s description of the emotional implicationof labelling can still be applied: “a person may feel he is being judgedaccording to rules he had no hand in making and does not accept, rules forcedon him by outsiders” (pg. 16). Immersingin participant observation is another factor that sets ‘Outsiders’ apart fromthe crowd. However, whether or not this can be described as a good thing isdebatable; Becker’s personal attachments to both marijuana usage and dance musicianslead to a certain sense of bias, whereas typically one of the goals of social researchis that the researcher should be objective and able to produce impartialresearch.    This is not to say,however, that the text does not contain some content that would be regarded asproblematic if it were to be published today. Whilst the themes and theoriespresented throughout the work continue to maintain a strong and frontalposition in the study of criminology, it is worth noting that certain elementsof the text have not weathered the passage of time. Becker’s use of terminology,for example, is one of the more noticeably outdated elements of the text. Thecontinued use of the word ‘negro’ could be used as one illustration of somethingthat would not be acceptable if the text were to be published today, as ‘negro’is now generally regarded as being a derogatory term – regardless of whether itwas written with any semblance of ill-will toward people of colour.

“From our vantage point at the beginning ofthe twenty-first century it is worth noting Becker’s use of language. Hisunproblematic description of the sociologist/criminologist as a scientist isoutdated, and his use of the pronoun ‘he’ and generic term for black people isnow unacceptable” (Jewkes & Letherby, 2002, pg. 36). Another example is theuse of the word ‘homosexuals’ when referring to gay individuals; whilst this labelis not necessarily considered to be derogatory, it is certainly outdatedterminology. Additionally, the portrayal of ‘homosexuals’ as criminally deviant,viewed from a criminological perspective in terms of the police attention thatwas placed on them at that time, is no longer something that is relevant. Whilethere could be an argument made for the fact that LGBT individuals do deviatefrom the mainstream social norms to some extent, the matter is no longer acriminal one in the Western world and homosexuality has been largely normalised.In defence of the text, keepingup with modern labels can be something of an arduous task.

Social evolution isconstant, especially with the introduction of social media platforms that givea voice to social justice warriors; while it is good that people are becomingmore socially aware, it is now possible more than ever to be offensive withoutmeaning to be. For example, referring to a black person as ‘coloured’ may beoffensive to some and acceptable to others. Addressing the gay community canalso be extremely confusing; LGBT is not a static label, with differentacronyms accumulating regularly, and changing depending on context. Forexample, going from LGBT to LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual) (Betgevargiz,2015). It could be argued, then, that the issue of outdated terminology is onethat is impossible to win.

The constant shift in attitude towards certainwords, and introduction of new ones could potentially leave any work that ismore than a few years old appearing dated and out of place as society moves on.Additionally, thecomparison of gay people and drug addicts is a clear demonstration of anarchaic mindset; “some deviants (homosexuals and drug addicts are goodexamples) develop full-blown ideologies explaining why they are right and whythose who disapprove and punish them are wrong” (Becker, pg. 3), and “thebehaviour of a homosexual or drug addict is regarded as the symptom of a mentaldisease” (Becker, pg. 6). This attitude is understandable when considering thefact that: “In the fairly recent past male homosexualityhas been variously seen as a sickness, a deviance and an evil. Today, someindividuals and groups retain these views, even though homosexuality is, nolonger a crime.

” (Giddens and Sutton, pg. 187).But just becausesomething is understandable does not mean that it would be acceptable if thesame work was to be published today. Therefore, the contentdiscussed within the text could be considered outdated and largely irrelevant,although redeemable in that the theories presented remain extremely relevant. Boththe use of the word ‘negro’ to describe black people and the representation ofhomosexuals as being criminally deviant are not particularly pertinent to whatBecker’s main points are, and yet upon reading the text, these dated/derogatorydescriptions of minority groups did stand out in a way that was impossible notto notice. However, being that themain focus of the text rests on the deviancy/othering of marijuana users anddance musicians rather than terminology, in this instance there is a case to bemade for the point that the bigger picture overrides the relevancy of some ofthe smaller details and therefore the main point and argument continue to standstrong.

Followingthe discussion on the dated nature of the terminology used, it could also bestated that the deviant groups discussed are also not particularly relevant. Inthe US specifically, marijuana has been legalised and while there is stillstigma attached to being a drug user, which then leads to drug users being seenas deviant, this deviation is now usually associated with drugs other than weed.Public acceptance of marijuana usage in particular has increased to the pointwhere the majority of the public were in favour of legalisation (Swift, 2013). For the time in which thetext was written, the use of marijuana amongst deviant subcultures may havebeen a lot more prevalent than it is today – and it would not be entirelyinaccurate to say that this aspect of the subject material of ‘Outsiders’ issimply no longer relevant at all. Regardless of the fact that the ‘othering’ ofmarijuana users is no longer a contemporary issue, the exploration of theseissues when looked at from a historical perspective does give valuable insightin to the way that social attitudes have changed since the 1960’s. The observations madeabout dance musicians are also largely irrelevant now; like marijuana users, musiciansare now no longer considered to be part a deviant group. There are someelements of musical style that are associated with deviant behaviour, forexample hip hop and rap, and their link to urban subcultures associated withviolence and poverty (North, Desborough and Skarstein, 2005), but as a generalrule the ability to create music does not equate to deviance.

It is more of a correlationthan a causal phenomenon. In the modern era, music is something that is celebratedand valued rather than looked down upon; music of all types is now firmlyestablished with in popular culture. At the time that ‘Outsiders’was written, Erikson (1964) reviewed it as such: “any person who wishes tobecome better acquainted with the major trends in contemporary sociology willprofit from studying this new book” (pg. 417) – labelling theory is still a majorpart of the study of criminology, and is likely less able to be described as a ‘trend’nowadays and more accurately as a foundation. Obviously, being that it waswritten more than half a century ago, the book is no longer new – but the factthat it is still very much at the forefront of criminology syllabuses istestament to the fact that it was revolutionary for its time and thereforecarries significant historical value.However, contrary to theopinion that Becker’s work on deviance was ground-breaking and profound, areview from the time that ‘Outsiders’ was published offers a scathing critiquethat suggests that both marijuana use and ‘dance musicians’ were considered tobe ‘mild forms of deviance’ even in the 1960’s:”The problem in brief is that Becker has usedas his major examples two extremely mild forms of deviance. Neither smoking marijuananor being a dance musician is individually debilitating; nor is either a socialthreat (notwithstanding, in the case of marijuana smokers, official policy,some members of the far right, and middle-class critics of Lenny Bruce). Thenon-causal approach he has taken in analyzing these types of deviance and thegeneral conclusions he has drawn are hardly adequate to more severe forms ofwaywardness, to juvenile delinquency, say, or drug addiction” (Dienstfrey, pg.

411). This criticism isespecially poignant when considering the fact that Becker does mention drug addictionmore than once (as an aside from his study in to marijuana users) in theinitial chapter when discussing his definitions of deviance. This then begs thequestion of whether or not ‘Outsiders’ is truly worthy of its status, if thematerial covered was considered tame even at the time.


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