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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018

Critically assess the main arguments in Outsiders

“Arguing that social deviance is a more common phenomenon than perceived and that conventional wisdom that social deviants are pathological is incorrect”

Howard S. Becker, born April 18th 1928, is a well known renowned American Sociologist. Of all his many writings, ‘Outsiders’, which was written in 1963, is one of his most imperative and prominent works, regarded as critical classical study within the discipline of sociology and deviance. It can be said that it is one of Becker’s most famous pieces of work which offered one of the first and clearest explanations for the ‘labelling theory’. ‘Outsiders’ continues to be a seminal text on the Interactionist’s approach to deviance in society today. He states that “the outsider – the deviant from group rules – has been the subject of much speculation, theorizing, and scientific study” (Becker 1997: 3). Howard Becker elaborates the study of deviance specifically from a social perspective, and considers the processes by which people or different types of acts come to be labelled as deviant. His ideas and arguments are based upon his notion that deviance is not a quality of a bad person but it is the result of someone characterizing and labelling someone’s activity as bad.

This essay asks one to critically assess the main arguments Becker puts forward in Outsiders. Becker sets the foundations for his ideas on ‘labelling theory’ in his book and furthers the notions of other Sociologists such as Edwin Lemert. Lemert has been commonly credited with being the founder and one of the firsts to discuss what has been called the “Societal Reaction” theory. In Lemert’s book ‘Social Pathology’ written in 1951, Lemert summarized an approach which has been regarded and considered to be an original version of the ‘labelling theory’. In his book he focuses on the social construction of deviance and explained deviance to be the product of society’s reaction to an act and the attachment of the deviant label to the individual. The book explains the notion of primary and secondary deviance. Lemert believed that primary deviance is the initial incidence of an act causing someone of authority to label the actor as deviant. This initial labelling of an act deemed deviant would stay primary for as long as the actor can rationalize the process as a function of a socially acceptable role (Lemert 1951). As well as discussing the theory of labelling, Becker appraises the process in where users of marihuana become labelled as deviants and talks about jazz music. The main objective is to attempt to critically evaluate and analyse the notion, themes and ideas embedded within the book and to assess his arguments.

The book was written in the 60s and as a consequence it is quite outdated, and although some of his ideas and theories are relevant in today’s society, some of them can not in context. In addition he uses the term `Negros’ rather than African American to describe black people and he puts homosexuality into the same deviant group such as alcoholics, gamblers and people who are on drugs.

In Becker’s book he coins and furthers the term labelling theory. It explains that “if individuals or groups are defined as deviant, there will be important and often unanticipated consequences at the level of behaviour” (Abercrombie et al. 1988: 132).

Chapter one explains and discusses what deviance is and Becker argues the limitations of existing attempts to define deviance. He explained for behaviour to be deemed deviant, the behaviour first has to be recognised and then ascertained as deviant. Becker held that “social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance; and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them outsiders” (Becker 1997: 9). Still, “When a rule is enforced, the person who is supposed to have broken it may be seen as a special kind of person, one cannot be trusted to live by the tiles agreed on by the group. He is regarded as an outsider” (Becker 1997: 3). Furthermore, Becker points out that what one may define as a deviant; another perhaps in a different society would not. In addition “the person who is thus labelled an outsider may have a different view of the matter” and may believe that those that have judged them not to be “legitimately entitled to do so” so then the rule breakers may see those that judged as outsiders (Becker 1997). Becker stated that different social groups shaped deviance by making the rules whose contravention constituted deviance and by applying those rules to specific people and labelling them as “outsiders”. Becker stated that after one has been ascribed as a deviant, they then lead the life of a deviant and have a ‘deviant career’ as that is what they have been labelled as. This then becomes hard to get rid of. Becker claimed though that when we are studying people who are deviant we should not take their deviance for granted due to the fact we cannot presuppose that these people have essentially committed a deviant act or broken some rule, since the process of labelling theory may not be watertight. (Becker 1997). Furthermore, an individual who has been labelled as a deviant may not have committed the act intentionally believing that it was in fact deviant. In addition, this does not mean that the individual was even a deviant in the past which is a critical point of the book. When a person is labelled as such by society, they then accept this label so because they now seem themselves as criminals they then are likely to continue on their deviant behaviour (Becker 1997). Deviant becomes a master status, it becomes the key definition in the eyes of the wider society of who and what you are. An indivifual may perhaps be labelled as a deviant due to their status and class.

In chapter two Becker points outs and states that he is not “here to argue that only acts which are regarded as deviant by others are “really” deviant (Becker 1997: 19). If we look at this in relation to homosexuality, in the 60s it was deemed as a criminal offence but too those who were homosexual it was who they were. Becker explains two different models of deviance; the simultaneous and sequential models. The simultaneous claims that particular behaviours occur as a result of a number of variables arising at the same time and the sequential model contends that meticulous behaviours are caused by sequence of occurrences. Becker criticises the implicit theoretical assumption in standard which attempts to explain deviancy; that all factor operate simultaneously and seek to “predict” behaviour.

Becker studied and reflected on marihuana users in “Outsiders” and used it as an example to explain the labelling theory and different deviant groups. He declared that “by studying marihuana use, we can study the way people learn through social interaction to interpret their own physical experience” (Becker 1953, 1997: 181). Becker observed that the deviant behaviour associated with marihuana is based on the given kind of behaviour as an end product of a sequence of social experiences during which the person acquires a comprehension of the meaning of the behaviour. One would only be able to use marihuana for pleasure if they go through a process of learning to conceive of it as an object where they are able to recognise the effects and connect them with drug use. This includes inhaling it in such a way that produces real upshot and learning to enjoy the sensation they receive from this. The individual will continue to use marihuana once the ability to achieve enjoyment is acquired. Thus, continuing to use marihuana becomes the secondary deviant.

Becker used juvenile delinquency as an example and explained and argued that coming from a broken home or in an environment with negative influences will not necessarily lead to juvenile delinquency but rather would be one of a series of sequential events or circumstances. The sequential model in addition is too apparent in the following two chapters which detail and explain how one learns the techniques of how to use marihuana and this in the process assists the formation of an individual identity. This could include joining a social group in which the drug is available and learning their techniques on how to smoke. There are particular ways to smoke and Becker noted that it would usually take numerous attempts to get high if one is a novice. (Becker 1997). For instance, “most users agree that it cannot be smoked like tobacco if one is to get high” (Becker 1997: 46). In addition “without the use of some such technique the drug will produce no effects and the user will be unable to get high”.

“The musician…views himself and his colleagues as people with a special gift which makes them different from no musicians and not subject to their control, either in musical performance or in ordinary social behaviour” (Becker 1997: 89). In relation to a musician’s career, which is one of the topics Becker discusses, he stated that members of the musician’s demographic go from being `normal’ family men to dance musicians, catering as they do so to the needs of that particular sub-culture. For example, a musician may feel pressurized and forced into playing commercialized music to meet perceived demand, even if that is not the type of music they wanted to play or produce. Musicians in general continuously adapt and cater their music to the needs of their listeners or market; who are their sub-culture, even if it resulted in compromising the quality of their music. As a result they may have been seen to be “selling out”, loosing their “integrity” and in addition they would have lost the respect from their musical counterparts. In today’s society this may be apparent in hip hop, with many people complaining that the integrity of the genre has gone with record labels interested on what sells more, rather than good music. In relation to deviance, Becker linked it and explained that the processes through which dance musicians find work was deviant. Even though their culture may have differed in comparison to that of an ordinary job, what they did appeared no where different to what occurred in the music industry today. A popular quote used in show business is “it is not about what you know, it is all about who you know” and it is just as imperative and important today as it was back in the 1960s. Nevertheless there is a contradiction when Becker talks about the loss of respect from the other dance musicians. It leads to the question though that how can respect be lost if all dance musicians are to be acting in the same way and manner. Thus the question is can it be then seemed as deviant.

In the last final chapters of “Outsiders”, Becker looks at problems within the study of deviance, and notices and describes a lack of substance in the theory that exists, believing them to be inadequate. Moreover “the most persistent difficulty in the scientific study of deviant behaviour is a lack of solid data, a paucity of facts and information on which to base our theories” (Becker 1997: 165). Not much has been written on deviant groups such as homosexuals Becker supposed, and fundamentally that there gaps in the research not only with homosexuals but other deviant groups too. In relation to juveniles he states that “very few tell us in detail what a juvenile delinquent does in his daily round of activity and what he thinks about himself, society and his activities”. He continues “when we theorize about juvenile delinquency, we are therefore in the position of having to infer the way of life of the delinquent boy from fragmentary studies and journalistic accounts” rather that receiving the right knowledge and information (Becker 1997: 166).

“Deviant phenomena have long provided one of the focus of sociological thought… our theoretical interest in the nature of social order combines with practical interest in actions thought harmful to individuals and society to direct your attention to the broad arena of behaviour variously called crime, vice, nonconformity, aberration, eccentricity, or madness” (Becker 1997: 178). Becker conveys how deviance is shaped through the enforcement of rules b those who define what deviance is and then search for the offender or criminal. It is form of institutional violence ratified on the powerless outer groups to create an inner sense of solidarity.

Becker discusses a few criticisms of labelling theory. A further criticism mentioned is that interactionist theories of deviance openly or covertly attack conventional morality. Becker (1997) recognized that his labelling theory was merely a theoretical approach, not a true theory “with all the achievements and obligations that go with the title, nor focused so exclusively on the act of labelling as some have thought” (Becker 1997: 181). In addition, Becker suggests that sociologists should attempt at establishing empirical tests for his approach. As well, Becker (1997) maintains that there are not enough studies and research on deviant behaviour (Becker 1997). Furthermore it is implied and suggested that there are not enough studies of different kinds of deviant behaviour. Becker (1997) also discusses the difficulty involving secrecy. Numerous cases have shown deviant individuals to perform deviant acts in secrecy and fundamentally they do not wish or want for their behaviour to be known universally. This may be apparent when we look at cases involving homosexuality, with men in homosexual partnerships yet married as the society this book was written in did not approve of it.

In its entirety, the labelling theory has been imperative within the discipline of Sociology. What is more, after extensive critical analysis it appears to be evident that the theory has been verified to be extremely significant in establishing a relative body of empirical research evidence on the sociological study of crime and deviance, and it is explained thoroughly in “Outsiders”. After an individual has been labelled a deviant they then lead a life of crime and become deviants which is the main focus Becker stressed. They uphold for example their deviant identification – the Organised Deviant Group – which is effectively a deviant subculture in which the common aspect is the shared commitment to a deviant identity.

Additionally Becker put forward that when analysing and researching those who are deviant, one should not take their deviance for granted. This is due to the fact we cannot presuppose that they had actually committed a deviant or criminal act thus for the reason that the process of labelling theory may not be foolproof and reliable.

Some sociologists dispute the labelling theory and insist it is not really a theory. Becker stressed the need for more empirical research on his study of it as he concluded Outsiders and many sociologists today have furthered his ideas and explanations. Nevertheless, the labelling theory will forever remain useful as long as deviant behaviour exists in society. Critically, Becker focused on the way society reacted to those that were labelled as “criminals”. He insisted that this label became an individual’s master status, which meant that this it was now a constant label, affecting and over-riding their presentation and how others viewed them. No matter what other social status the individual may have, they will always be deemed as deviant. Critically studying the book, this was Becker’s main focus point. He declared that one may be from the upper class, perhaps a sibling, parent or spouse, a doctor. Regardless of this the first and major status that everyone would focus on was the criminal and deviant label (Becker 1997). 

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