Module 1 & 2: Howard Becker’s Outsiders: Studies in The Sociology of Deviance

Posted on January 25, 2017



Howard Becker, Outsiders (online version)
Chapters 1, 2, 8 (Rules, outsiders, moral entrepreneurs)
Chapters: 3, 4, & 7 (the marihuana user) 


“All social groups make rules and attempt… to enforce them,” Howard S. Becker opens his book Outsiders with this statement that can provide the foundation for his theories on deviance (1). While we are accustomed to the dominant narrative around us, blaming the victims of social problems by arguing that they have somehow caused their own negative situation, Becker turns this argument around. The social structure itself—society—creates deviance through the process of defining a group of people as deviant in some way, and then casting a negative view on this particularity. For example, take a category of people that we are used to being categorized, but create an arbitrary category of people that we never think about as a deviant group, such as tall people v. short, or left handed versus right. What if we shifted the social power categories by new categories, such as these? Come up with your own list of arbitrary categories that could also provide distinction between groups. However a society comes to define their group of deviant members, these targeted people, label in a certain way—become outsiders. Becker’s theory has also been called “labeling theory,” because he argues that the deviant is one because they are so labeled (9).

isolated-girl-590x295The outsider or deviant has broken social rules. Think about all the categories of rules that govern our society. List some. What is their purpose? What is the difference between social rules and laws?

The deviant is not only just outside of the statistical norm of behavior. Think about ways in which you can behave in a less common fashion, but that it is not a behavior that is considered “deviant.” But deviant behavior is statistically less than normal types of behavior.

ACTIVITY: One of the assignments that Howard Becker would give his students would be to go to a certain social space of a group of people with whom you are not familiar, and observe, ask questions, and write up a detailed description of the grouping, their behaviors and subcultural rituals. You can try this activity this week and write down your description in the comments section below, and adding insights from Becker’s work.

Optional viewing

Audience is important for the concept of deviance, because it is the audience that judges and applies social pressures in order for the deviant to stop their deviant behavior and conform to social norms.

51z6r5trrll-_sx376_bo1204203200_Moral panics are a part of the degree of response given to a deviant act (12). When some behavior is blown up in the amplified voice of the media and condemned in an outraged manner, in much greater magnitude than the behavior itself, we can call this a moral panic. Examples of moral panics include stories about racialized criminality, teen pregnancy, or pedophiles. We will examine moral panics in the context of Cohen’s work in a later module, so please spend some time thinking about this concept and examples of moral panics that you have witnessed.

539wWho are these rule makers and what gives them the power to define deviant behavior? That’s just it: power. Rule makers are a minority group that has the power and social will to make their particular branch of reasoning to be imposed on the majority. If we empowered an opposing group, how would this new group change the rules and the target groups labeled as deviant? How do these rule makers get the masses to agree with their perspective? How are the institutions of education and media used? What force do they use?

screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-6-36-03-pmThe second chapter overviews the kinds of deviance. Be ready to provide examples of the different ways in which someone’s behavior relates to deviance: they may be perceived as deviance when they actually are or aren’t, they are falsely accused of deviance, they are a pure deviant, they are not perceived as deviant when they actually are, they are secretly deviant, or they are conforming in their behavior. Describe yourself in each of these different categories with different behaviors in which you may engage. Make something up if you can’t think of something. When someone is labeled with some kind of deviance, they become a member of a group in which all they have in common with the others is that particular behavior, and perhaps not much else. What is one deviant behavior group in which you are a member, but share little else with those people in the same category?

falwell-politicsxMoral entrepreneurs are the actors behind the initiative of creating a rule or enforcing a rule and gathering others in the enterprise. This “crusader is fervent and righteous, often self-righteous” (148). “Many moral crusaders have strong humanitarian overtones” (148). Come up with your own examples of contemporary moral entrepreneurs. What process do they use to conduct their campaign against a type of behavior? (emphasizing ends, or means, creating committees, creating laws, creating stereotypes of the group, social isolation, internalized hatred, establishing a bureaucracy). However, once the moral entrepreneur is successful in stamping out the behavior, they are out of a job, so they must argue that the behavior still exists, or more on to a new type of behavior (153).

Becoming a Marihuana User (41-58)

s3-amazonaws-comleafly-s3contentcannapics-7-stunning-images-of-cannabis-jointsqxrzyhz4qjcyhqlenakz_willjones-its420somewhereofficial-f86574ef633b9e987467ccf23fce9f09fe5af8d4Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug. While most people might ask why someone would smoke marijuana, Becker flips the question on its head and asks why wouldn’t someone smoke? And what is the process of becoming a smoker. While moral entrepreneurs put forth the image that drug dealers prey on people and trick them into using drugs so they are hooked, the actual process is a lot more self-directed. Drugs sell themselves. How does he describe the steps of the process? At each level of the process, people stop further use. Therefore, it takes an ongoing effort for someone to become a regular marijuana user. While many people, perhaps up to 40% of the population has tried smoking pot once, with each level of increased usage, there are dramatically fewer people, so that daily users are a tiny minority of people. In order to do his research on pot smokers, Becker interviewed 50 regular users and asked them about their history of usage.

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-6-54-35-pmLearning the Technique. For many illicit drug using, there are rituals that go along with the use that are enjoyable and meaningful to the user. With smoking pot, one must know how to roll the joint, take a bong hit, or ingest the proper dosage of edibles. Sometimes processes of ingestion can be complex: such as injection drug use or particular smoking methods, like those related to the types of pipes used for hard drugs, like crack or meth.  For pot smokers, they often tell each other to hold the smoke in longer for effect, although that is a falsehood (46).

Learning to Perceive the Effects. First, he states that the novice doesn’t necessarily get high on their first attempt, and may have to try a few times (46). The novice must be able to recognize the feeling, perhaps by discussing the effects with their friend, and they have to also decide they like the experience, as many people do not find it enjoyable and do not continue to experiment (48).

eb204b68-0acd-44ed-82f9-57e9396a9723Learning to Enjoy the Effects. It is one thing to understand how to perceive the effects, but one must also enjoy it in order to continue. For many people, the experience is more than they want, they may feel paranoid, or slowed down in their ability to do technical tasks. Their thinking may be less linear or they might be fully absorbed into an experience like listening to music or reading their comic book. They may not feel like talking with their friends whom they are with. So the novice must also decide that this is a fun experience that they would like to try agin.

4: Marihuana Use and Social Control (59-78)

Beside the experience of having access to, learning the technique, and enjoying the feeling, one must also contend with the prohibition apparatus of criminality that lurks on the fringes of illicit drug use, for some targeted groups more than others. Becker’s research question for this chapter is basically, how do people get away with smoking pot without getting arrested by the elaborate infrastructure of prohibition (60)? He outlines that control is on different levels: limiting supply and access, keeping people from learning about it, and defining the act as immoral (61). One of the topics you can write your final paper on is the control and policy around illicit drugs and the various approaches taken. A great deal of money and effort is put into eradicating a plant that can grow in nearly every country in the world and produces benign effects. Supply is limited through attempts to discover where it is grown and to destroy it, intercept it in route, or confiscate it once discovered. Therefore, secrecy surrounds the activity. The activity is also stigmatized through ideology, associated immorality with drug use, and shaming the users in an attempt to dissuade people from using. For some, this can have the opposite effect of making the act appealing because it is forbidden or devious.

7: Rules and Their Enforcement (121-146)

In this chapter, Becker takes a different perspective–that of the enforcers–and asks, when are rules made and enforced (121). In the beginning, some moral entrepreneur takes up the initiative to bring attention to some infraction and demonize it, saying something must be done (remember Cohen). Others must find the cause worthy. Becker outlines the stages of enforcement. As an example, he focuses on the Marihuana Tax Act, the first federal law taxing marijuana, which actually worked to outlaw the usage, as the tax was more of a trick to get someone to incriminate themselves under state law. Examining the origins of drug prohibition laws might be a topic some of you may consider to write about in your final report. Since marijuana users are not a powerful, organize group that can defend themselves, they have an uphill battle against the enforcers, who soon force through their perspective and tactics of control, even at substantial human cost.

Questions to Consider: (no, you do not need to write out answers, see syllabus for the only graded assignments. These questions may appear on later discussion board and exam assignments) 

  1. Examine in person a social grouping of a group with which you are unfamiliar and spend an hour observing them. Describe in detail the rituals used by this group, ask questions, and contrast this against what you know, and how you can see yourself as an outsider of this group.
  2. Provide contrasting examples of moral panics and other deviant acts that do not result in a moral panic.
  3. Pick one particular type of deviant behavior. Describe the social and institutional processes involved in labeling this type of behavior and stigmatizing the individuals involved. What are the different branches of social pressure and how does it manifest?
  4. Think about issues where you have acted in the role of an entrepreneur. What was the process of your behavior in this role of moral entrepreneur?
  5. Watch the movie The Outsiders (1983) by director Coppola. Apply Becker’s theories and concepts to the movie in as much detail as possible. How is this particular social world created by the language and concepts of the characters?

Key Words and Concepts:

Deviant careers, moral entrepreneurs, definitions of deviance, rules, enforcement of rules

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