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Does the Death oft he Sociology of Deviance

Claim Make Sense?1


Colin Sumner (1994) argued that the sociologyof deviance "died" in 1975. This paper critically
examines Sumner's argument and finds that it does not mean what it he claims it means. In fact, it
is about a decline in the supposed ideological function of the field for the ruling elite and not its
decliningintellectualvitality.Miller,Wright, and Dannels (2001) claim to test Sumner'sargument and
find some empiricalsupport for it. This paper findsWright et al.'s tests flawedand suggests alternative
explanations for their findings. Some implications of this issue for the current state of the field are
discussed. While the sociologyof deviancehas declined in theoretical vitality since the 1960s and
1970s, it leaves a legacyof influence in other fields, it remains an ongoing academic enterprise, it
still attracts a fair number of students, and its textbooks ate cited in the field of sociology.
In the humanities and social sciences, academic fashion is a most ficMe beast. Fad and
fashion have characterized attention to subject matter, concepts, theories--even entire
fields. Topics drift in and out of a discipline's focus of attention, and every few decades,
theories once regarded as cutting edge come to be seen as pass& In sociology, alienation,
"mass society," and collective behavior have fallen victim to the fickleness o f intellectual fad.
In psychiatry and clinical psychology, Freudian psychoanalysis gives way to psychopharmacology, but resurfaces in the humanities. In the empirical social sciences, Marxism deflates,
but is retrofitted to serve in less data-relevant venues. In the humanities, postmodernism
becomes ascendant. In criminology and deviance studies, social disorganization theory, preeminent before the Second World War, all but disappears by the late 1940s, but in the late
1980s, makes a comeback (Bursik and Grasmick 1993). Anomie or strain theory, the leading
approach in the late 1950s and early 1960s, soon comes to be regarded as discredited, but
within a quarter century, experiences a renaissance (Messner and Rosenfeld 1997).
The social sciences, Michel Foucault reminds us, are discursive disciplines. This means
both that discredited theories are rarely completely abandoned, and that fad and fashion will determine their fate. In the natural sciences, theories are o v e r t u r n e d or absorbed by later developments. Newton's theories tell us exactly how and under what
conditions physical bodies move. If they had failed to predict, they would have been o f
Address for correspondence: Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742. I would like to thank Barbara Weinstein, Nachman Ben-Yehuda, William J. Goode,
Alex Thio, Craig Forsyth, Carolyn Henderson Meier, Sabra Horne, Robert K. Merton, Alphonse Sallett, and
the office of the American SociologicalAssociation for their comments and assistance. Joel Best generously
made available to me the manuscript of his forthcoming book on the topic of this paper. We don't agree on all
points, but my reading of his book strengthened this paper's arguments,



interest only to the antiquarian. In contrast, the work of Marx and Freud transcends the
accumulation of disconfirming empirical data. Their writings never quite go away, despite twists and turns in intellectual fad and fashion, because they supply "a paradigmatic set of terms, images, and concepts which organize thinking and experience about
the past, present, and future of society" (Rabinow 1984: 15). Marx and Freud, along
with Foucault--as well as the best representatives of our craft--do not quite fail to
predict because they do more than simply predict. They offer a vision, more literary
than scientific, of how society is put together, how it works, and what its dynamics are.
They organize our discourse and thinking about the social world (Goode 2001: 1).
I intend to make six points here, some of which will be argued in more detail than
others. One, a preliminary statement: Deviance is a universal, trans-historic, cross-cultural analytic concept, no different from gender, stratification, interaction, and culture;
everyone, including the man and woman on the street, including even advocates of the
"deviance is dead" thesis, uses the concept implicitly in their understanding and explication of how social relations operate. The sociology of deviance is the study of deviance-an entirely different matter altogether. Two, many of the same charges leveled at the
sociology of deviance have also been lodged against the entire field of sociology; we must
understand the former within the context of the latter. Three, Colin Sumner's "obituary" for the sociology of deviance (1994) is misleading and disingenuous in that it does
not say what it pretends to say. Four, Miller, Wright, and Dannels' "tests" of the "death"
of the sociology of deviance (2001) are flawed. Five, in spite of the fact that it is less
likely to generate "big," influential theoretical ideas, the sociology of deviance is an
ongoing (albeit relatively small) enterprise with respect to research, textbook production and sales, and undergraduate enrollments. 2 And six, like sociology in general, the
sociology of deviance has been guilty of what Joel Best (2001) refers to as "giving it
away" for free, that is, the field has generated ideas that have influenced other fields in
ways that have remained unacknowledged.
First, my preliminary point: Deviance is an analytic concept, much like gender, stratification, race, crime, and socialization. It is a palpable, though constructed, real-world
phenomenon that can be located and analyzed. In contrast, the sociology of deviance is a
field of study. The "sociology of deviance"--the sociological study of real or supposed
violations of normative expectations--may be an increasingly unfashionable or decreasingly innovative area of study, but deviance will always be with us. Even if sociologists
stop studying deviance, the real or supposed violations of norms and reactions to actual
and potential violations of normative expectations will eternally remain as a fundamental element in the dynamics of societies everywhere. Norms are universal, and they are
violated in every institutional sphere in every society that has ever existed, throughout
the entire stretch of human existence. And reactions to these normative violations, real
or supposed, take place everywhere. Actors may not call what they do when they punish, shun, or condemn whom they regard as wrongdoers, but "deviance" seems an appropriate sociological term for behavior that calls forth such reactions. And if it is not
called "deviance," what should it be called? To imagine that "deviance" will disappear
when sociologists stop studying it represents a form of magical, wishful thinking.

Is Sociology Dead?
As a prelude to this discussion, consider the debate over the supposed intellectual
decline of the parent of the sociology of deviance--sociology itself. It is no secret that


The American Sociologist / Fall 2002

the entire field of sociology is not as fashionable as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Joel
Best (2001) argues that sociology's academic prestige has always been low, in part because it has been guilty of "giving it away," that is, generating subfields and major
concepts that have been reconstituted as, or incorporated into, other fields. One need
only cite demography and criminology, Best says, to name entire fields that owe their
origin to sociology, not to mention public opinion polling and concepts such as social
mobility, charisma, the self-fulfilling prophecy, status symbol, role model, peer group,
and significant other, to appreciate the fact that sociology has been a "wellspring for
ideas that have spread widely and have proven to have considerable utility" for practitioners in other fields (111). In this respect, the field of sociology has triumphed over the
fickleness of academic fad and fashion by spawning influential intellectual progeny.
Contrary to what many observers might predict, with respect to student enrollments,
surprisingly, the field of sociology seems to be holding its own. The number of bachelor's
degrees granted each year in sociology in the United States has been roughly 25,000 for
a half-dozen years, a bit below the 1970-1975 peak, which was in the 30-35,000
range, but a substantial comeback from the mid-1980s, when it was only 12,000 to
13,000. The production of Ph.D.s climbed from 260 in 1966 to 734 a decade later,
and has bounced around somewhere between 632 (1979) and 448 (1990) for nearly a
quarter-century; in 2000, 615 Ph.D.s were awarded in sociology in the United States.
Still, the field has not been thought of as "where it's at" for more than a generation.
Pundits by the score have offered diagnoses to explain the field's shrinking intellectual appeal. Sociology: no longer "thinks big" (Patterson 2002); is guilty, as we saw, of
giving away its best ideas to other fields (Best 2001); isn't scientific enough (Cole 2001);
is too scientific, that is, attempts to ape the natural sciences and in so doing, refuses to
accept a "postmodernist" turn (Ellis and Bochner 2001); is insufficiently multicultural
(Henry 2001) ; has become so fragmented and specialized within subfields that it lacks
a disciplinary core (Becker and Rau 1992). There are nearly as many views on the
matter as critics, and some of these diagnoses directly contradict one another.
The fact remains, many observers believe, the field of sociology is a shadow of its
former self in intellectual vitality and in the richness of its research endeavors. At one
time, most of the articles appearing in nearly every issue of the field's flagship journal,
the American Sociological Review, could be read with interest and profit by most sociologists. Today, this is no longer true. Most articles appearing in a given issue of the ASR
are of interest only to a tiny coterie of specialists. (Specialization or stagnation? The
answer depends on whom one asks.) As a former editor of a major sociology journal told
me recently, most of the articles published in sociology journals were accepted "because
readers couldn't find anything wrong with them." An exploration of the decline of the
vitality of the sociology of deviance must be contextualized within the framework of the
decline of sociology generally.
What Exactly Was Sumner's Claim?
Colin Sumner (1994) claims that the sociology of deviance has died. It is no longer a
vital or viable field, he argues, and has not been for close to a generation. For the most
part, its practitioners have abandoned the intellectual territory and research program
once laid out by its pioneers. Researchers still work in the field, he admits, textbooks are
still written and published under its rubric, and students still enroll in courses with the
title "deviance" or some such equivalent, but the field is a "corpse rather than a corpus of



knowledge" (ix). Over the years, "combatants...have completely demolished the terrain," which, he says, is now "barren, fruitless, full of empty trenches and craters, littered with unexploded mines and eerily silent....It is now time to drop arms and show
respect for the dead" (ix).
What do these eloquent but overwrought and fanciful metaphors refer to? What
exactly is the nature of Sumner's claim? A close reading of Sumner's thesis reveals that he
does not mean what he claims. In fact, his argument is not about the death of an
academic field at all. Instead, it is a theory about the origin and function of that field,
and the argument that the field no longer serves the supposed function it once served.
Its collapse, says Sumner, was brought on by its inability to serve its prior ideological
function. In other words, Sumner is not putting forth an empirically testable hypothesis.
Instead, he is guilty of a bait-and-switch scheme in which metaphor and rhetoric substitute
for data and analysis.
Here is Sumner's argument. It starts with the assumption that the ruling elite follows
the ideas and research of the academy very closely and makes use of those ideas to
maintain hegemony. Social control, Sumner argues, is buttressed by theories generated
by intellectuals and academics. Until the late nineteenth century, the powers that be
made use of the concept of "degeneracy" to keep troublemakers in line and maintain
control over the masses. But with the dawn of the modern age and a correspondingly
more sophisticated and diverse public, a simple characterization of wrongdoers as degenerates became less and less plausible and, therefore, less effective as an instrument of
social control. "Degeneracy" came to lack the ring of truth; moral absolutism no longer
worked. The masters and rulers needed a more flexible instrument.
Conveniently, along came Durkheim, who argued that we should tolerate milder
forms of deviation and repress more serious forms--which is to say, crimes. In this
conceptualization, says Sumner, a field of study was born--the sociology of deviance. In
other words, the field of deviance was born to serve as "ideology." The sociology of
deviance, he argues, "was a rational, liberal-minded attempt to make the society of the
powerful more economic, more predictable, more humane and less chaotic" (301).
From the end of the nineteenth century, when Durkheim developed his notion of
deviance--in effect, to serve society's masters and rulers so that they could control,
repress, and establish hegemony over the wrongdoers and troublemakers of the world-to roughly 1975, the field of deviance was a going concern. But then, Sumner claims,
something happened. The field was no longer able to serve its original ideological function. It is important to note that, in Sumner's argument, what "died," supposedly, was
his characterization of the field--that is, the sociology of deviance no longer served its
original purpose. It is this putative Durkheimian conception of deviance--an instrument in the hands of the powerful to control the unruly masses--that died. (A case
could be made for the argument that Sumner's analysis is a grotesque misreading of
Durkheim, who yearned for a return to the charms of pre-industrial society, but I'll
leave that for the theorists to debate, if such topic interests them.) Or so Sumner claims.
Sumner is not clear on exactly what killed off the field. Sometimes he argues that it
was the critiques of the "new" criminologists that demolished the field of the sociology
of deviance (vii). Radicals, Marxists, critical theorists, and the "new" criminologists
annihilated it, critiqued it to death (Gouldner 1968; Liazos 1972; Taylor, Walton, and
Young 1973), and all that remained was a corpse. In other places, he argues that the
field died because society itself has changed. Beginning in the 1960s, Sumner claims, it
became clear (to whom is not explained) that the world "was falling apart at the seams ....


The American Sociologist / Fall 2002

revealing the ugly, unconscious repressions of centuries" (301). Once "the accumulated
wounds, scars and violations of an epoch...burst through in the late sixties, social deviance became meaningless" (301). Sumner does not explain how or why this supposed
realization rendered social deviance "meaningless"--nor even what the statement means
in the first place--but that is Sumner's argument.
Sumner's claim that the sociology of deviance "died" is akin to a disappointed
millenarian claiming that Christianity had died because his or her apocalyptic prediction of the end of the world did not come to pass in the year 1000 or 2000. In Sumner's
scheme of things, entire fields are saturated with their own inner yet contradictory
logic; everything is "pregnant with its contrary" (62). In the 1930s, he says, both
the United States and Germany "yearned to defeat the forces of degeneracy." The
United States, he explains, "was to find its solution in social nationalism," while Germany found its solution in National Socialism (75). In 1939, a book entitled Social
Deviation was published. Its author was named John Ford. How appropriate, says Sumner,
since both deviation and cars are mass-produced (129-130). As I say in my review of
Sumner's book (1995: 1630), with parallel word plays such as these, one could prove
almost anything.
Sumner claims that a new field of study, the sociology of censure, has now replaced
what was once the sociology of deviance. He does not explain what makes the study of
censure radically different from the study of deviance which concept, if we read deviance research carefully, was always an aspect of what the sociology of deviance was all
about anyway. The two are two sides of the same coin. "Censure" sounds very much like
"condemnation," which, to the interactionist sociologist, constitutes deviance. The careful reader suspects that Sumner is playing a shell game here, substituting one term for
another, then pretending the terms refer to radically different p h e n o m e n a - - w h e n in
fact, they are variations on a theme.
In Sumner's scheme of things, the death of the sociology of deviance is not about
numbers; it is not about citations or enrollments or publications. Sumner's argument is
about the ideological role of the field and its collapse as a justification for and a rationalization of social control. The study of deviance was about maintaining hegemony, not
about investigating a particular social phenomenon. Any attempt to grapple with the
Sumner thesis must address his argument, not some imagined version of it.
Miller, Wright, and Danneis' Tests o f the Sumner Claim 3
Miller, Wright, and Dannels (2001) subjected Sumner's argument to what they refer
to as an "empirical test TM and "found some support" for his claims. They do not test
what I describe above as the Sumner thesis--fortunately, for that thesis may very well
be untestable. Instead, they look at the intellectual and theoretical vitality of the field,
which they measure by the citations in works on deviance to scholars who are known
primarily as deviance specialists. Are most of these citations from within the field? And
are the citations in the most influential works in the field recent? Miller, Wright, and
Dannels answer both questions in the negative. The scholars who are most frequently
cited between 1993 and 1999 in works on deviance are "not primarily known for studies in
the sociology of deviance," but are mainly criminologists. And of the field's most frequently
cited works, only two that are clearly locatable as falling within the tradition of deviance
were published after 1975. "These findings seem to show the declining influence of
scholarship in the sociology of deviance," they argue (43).



O f Miller, Wright, and Dannels' two "tests," surely the former, citations to works
outside of deviance studies per se, is fatally flawed, and for two reasons. First, Miller et
al. base their argument on a time line, that is, that the sociology of deviance is declining
in vitality. However, the number of references to studies in this field to the work of
criminologists does not refer to changes over time at all. It is entirely possible that in the
decades prior to the 1990s, more than half the references in the sociology of deviance
were also to works by non-deviance specialists. In fact, it is even possible that the percentage was higher in earlier decades because the community of deviance specialists was
smaller then and, consequently, the body of work from which its members could draw
was correspondingly smaller. But in fact, the authors never explore the issue they claim
to have tested.
Which brings us to the second fatal flaw in Miller, Wright, and Dannels' test of the
vitality of the sociology of deviance: the number of its practitioners, especially in comparison to the field of criminology. In addition to being a field that has delineated a
particular conceptual and theoretical arena, criminology is a profession, and huge field
at that--a development that has taken place only within the past quarter-century. And
it happens that taking the introductory criminology course is now a stepping-stone to a
desirable, attractive career. In contrast, conceptual and theoretical scope aside, the sociology of deviance is quite a small field, and taking a course in it is not a path to a
profession of any kind. Here are three indicators of this size difference of these two
fields: number of subscribers to the leading journal of each field; the number of textbooks published in each field; and the number of students enrolled in the courses
offered by each field.
In 2002, there were 4,181 paid subscribers to the flagship journal of the American
Society of Criminology, Criminology. In addition, there are dozens of other criminology
and criminal justice journals. The only journal devoted more or less exclusively to deviance, Deviant Behavior, has only 632 paid subscribers, a number less than one-sixth the
size of the subscribership of Criminology. It is true that Deviant Behavior is not allied
with any professional association, while Criminology is--but that field is the field of
criminology itself, which emphasizes my point.
Among the 3,700 titles listed under Amazon's "criminology" entry, I counted over
100 basic, full-length criminology and criminal justice textbooks. In contrast, Miller,
Wright, and Dannels cite only seven standard deviance textbooks, of which two, Ward,
Carter, and Perrin (1994), and Curra (1994), are out of print. Miller et al., also do not
mention several standard texts (Heitzig 1996 and Little 1995), and the fact that two
deviance readers are billed as "text-readers" and are used as textbooks (Adler and Adler
2003; Rubington and Weinberg 2002). No matter; the number of texts in the field of
criminology is massively greater than that in deviance.
One estimate by a college textbook editor (Carolyn Henderson Meier at McGrawHill) has it that the yearly enrollment in introductory criminology is 255,000, while
the number of enrollments in deviance is 100,000. Another estimate (Sabra Horne of
Wadsworth) holds that 180,000 students take criminology at the introductory level
and 80,000 enroll in deviance. The discrepancies between these two estimates are fairly
small, and for them, the ratio between deviance and criminology is almost identical. It
is important to note that, first, these estimates do not include criminal justice, a subject
that draws even more students than criminology, especially at the community and fouryear college level, and second, colleges and universities offer a large array of courses
beyond the introductory criminology level, at both the undergraduate and graduate


The American Sociologist / Fall 2002

levels, whereas there are almost none in deviance. (A very few, such as Duke and Maryland, offer two deviance courses--one introductory and the second, more advanced.) It
is possible that five times as many students enroll in criminology and criminal justice
courses than in deviance courses)
The fact remains that, in comparison with criminology, deviance is a relatively small,
orphan field. Hence, it is not surprising that roughly half of its citations originate from
outside its ranks. By the fact of size alone, statistically speaking, this could have been
predicted, just as in-group versus out-group interactions, friendships, and marriages are
determined in large part by group size. It would be truly startling if this were otherwise;
it would, in fact, be a violation of predictable statistical patterns. Add to that the fact
that deviance and criminology overlap in theoretical underpinnings and subject matter,
any finding other than what Miller et al. found would be anomalous and lacking in
credibility. But the fact is, by their first test, the evidence simply does not say what the
authors claim it says. In fact, conceptually and theoretically, criminology can be thought
of as a subfield of the sociology of deviance, since both deal with infractions of the norms
and reactions to infractions of the norms, "deviance" studies the infraction of informal
norms and reactions to such infractions, while "criminology" studies the infraction of
formal norms and reactions to such infractions. It is an accident of the job market and
differing theoretical orientations and research methodologies that separates t h e m - - n o t
dissimilar or contradictory conceptual or theoretical foundations.
At first glance, Miller, Wright, and Dannels' second "test" of the declining theoretical
and intellectual vitality of the sociology of deviance--the fact that the most-often cited
works under its rubric tend to have been written more than a generation ago---seems to
have more relevance to their argument than their first test. Indeed, the fact that only
two of thirty-one of the field's most often cited works were published later than 1975
would appear to be convincing evidence that the sociology of deviance is theoretically
dormant. Upon closer inspection, however, this measure founders, once again, on the
shoals of the brute force of numbers. With the exception of the natural sciences, where
genuine discoveries are made and old paradigms are demolished, never to return, in
practically any field, a small number of foundational works are routinely cited in a
substantial proportion of its publications. It is extremely difficult for any recent work to
break into the charmed circle of the thirty-one most-often cited works in the field. (As
I said above, this is especially the case for a field, like deviance, that stands next to a
much larger field whose works attract close to half of the citations in its publications.)
The fact is, it is much more difficult for a single work to become as influential or as
foundational as was once the case. Because of the number and variety of publications in
the field, over time, citations become increasingly dispersed to a wider and wider range
of works. In the field of deviance studies, in the 1960s and 1970s--and before--it was
possible to publish work that was regarded as innovative and original, work that came to be
cited by a substantial number of practitioners. Into the 1980s and 1990s, that became
increasingly difficult.
Today, it is virtually impossible to become another Becker--let alone another
Durkheim--in the sociology of deviance. If he were working today i~ the sociology of
deviance, even Howard S. Becker could not be another Becket. This has virtually nothing to do with the decreasing intellectual vitality of the sociology of deviance. The fact
is, it is increasingly difficult to produce a work that is regarded as making an original
contribution to the field. I am not arguing that the theoretical work produced during



the 1960s and 1970s was not original, or was less original than work produced today.
Indeed, that earlier work was enormously innovative in that it represented a sharp break
from established, traditional perspectives, and, if we are to judge by citations, in its
time, produced an powerful impact on the field. But originality is relative, bound by
time and place, as these pioneers would agree. Nonetheless, today, it is more difficult to
conceive of ideas that would both represent a sharp break with current approaches and
would be embraced by a major sector of the field in the same way that the earlier
writings did.
Has the Sociology o f Deviance Declined in Intellectual Vitality?
I am convinced that the field of the sociology of deviance is not as theoretically
innovative as it once was, but Miller et al. have not made a convincing case. Their first
"test" is fatally flawed and their second is far from impeccable. In their second test, they
never answer the nagging question: Is the tendency of the field to cite early, pioneering
works more true for the sociology of deviance than for most other fields? We do not
know, because Miller, Wright, and Dannels do not make any comparisons. It is entirely
possible that the sociology o f deviance has declined in theoretical originality,
innovativeness, and the production of foundational works that chart new territory and
attract new adherents. But as compared with what other disciplines? And disciplines of
what size? It would have been more convincing had Miller et al. compared deviance
with fields such as the sociology of education, medicine, and occupations. Has deviance
been less innovative over time than they have? If so, why? What are the factors, variables,
or conditions that produced this stagnation? Miller et al. never explain. Randall Collins
argues that the social sciences generally "won't become high-consensus, rapid-discovery
science" (2001)--thereby simultaneously affirming Miller, Wright, and Dannels' finding and dismissing its relevance for the sociology of deviance. In this respect, the sociology of deviance is no different from all the social sciences, a point that is glossed over in
Miller et al.'s argument.
Miller, Wright, and Dannels are correct in their assessment that deviance is no longer
the intellectually and theoretically dynamic, innovative field it was in the 1960s and
1970s. Fewer influential "big" ideas are being generated within its ranks. This has
nothing to do with Sumner's fanciful theory about how the field once justified the
status quo and no longer does. My speculation is that there are at least two reasons for
The first is that, like sociology generally, the field of deviance studies is far less likely
to pursue "big" ideas. Perhaps a demarcation of the field helps explain why this is the
case. In Outsiders, Becket argues that there are two ways of looking at deviance; although
he does not use these terms, they are the essentialistic/positivistic and the constructionist/experiential perspectives.
Positivism assumes that deviant behavior is a pregiven entity with a coherent common thread; hence, people who engage in such behavior, or social structures in which
such behavior is common, possess characteristics or traits in common that can be identified and used to explain deviance, that is, to answer the question, "Why do they do
it?" (1963: 3-4). This perspective encompasses social disorganization, anomie or strain,
learning, social bonding or control, and self-control theories.
Constructionist theories are not as interested in questions of etiology, or the causation of deviant behavior as a pregiven entity. Instead, they are concerned with the cir-


The American Sociologist / Fall 2002

cumstances under which certain behaviors, or people, become labeled as deviant. After
all, definitions of and reactions to behavior vary over time, from one society, social
situation, and social context to another. In addition, some people labeled as deviant
have not violated a norm, that is, they are "falsely accused" and thus, for them, the
"Why do they do it?" question is meaningless and misleading. Hence, to the constructionist, the dynamics of the labeling process--the construction of the categories, the
application of the labels, the reactions of conventional society, the interaction between
labelers and labelees, and the reactions and experiences of persons so labeled--are far
more interesting than the "Why do they do it?" question (Becker 1963: 8-18).
This distinction between the essentialist/positivist and the constructionist positions
serves to distinguish fundamentally different and distinct enterprises. One major portion of the researchers in the field engage in an enterprise not essentially different from
that of positivistic criminologists; hence, the reliance on citations from that field. In this
first or positivist mode, the "deviance" of a given form of behavior is assumed, taken for
granted, or in the background. What is sought is an explanation for why some people
engage in it, or why it is more c o m m o n under certain conditions than others. This
enterprise is criminology's domain. Given that field's greater size and prestige, as well as
the greater clarity in the etiology of higher-consensus street crimes than for most forms
of deviance, it should come as no surprise that positivistic theories of nonnormative
behavior are more likely to grow out of criminology than deviance studies. Hence, it is
unlikely that a deviance specialist will generate a theoretical framework accounting for
nonnormative behavior that will be cited by a major proportion of the field's researchers
and authors. In fact, nearly all of Miller, Wright, and Dannels' most often cited works
that are in the positivistic vein were written by criminologists.
A second major portion of the field engages in close-up, detailed, "thick-descriptive,"
ethnographic studies of micro-scenes whose members and participants define and experience the world in ways that are revealing and instructive. In this constructionist/
experiential mode, we find studies of exotic dancers, homosexual bathhouses, outlaw
motorcycle clubs, rodeo groupies, tattoo parlors, cock fighters, deer poachers, and
pedophiles. The point, these constructionist researchers argue, is not to study rare and
exotic specimens of humanity for their own sake, but to understand the dynamics of
processes that transcend the particulars of the local situation--such as culture and subculture, stigma, deviance neutralization, deviant socialization, deviant identity, stereotyping, formal and informal social control, and the role of power in defining and maintaining definitions of deviance (Rubington and Weinberg 2002; Adler and Adler 2003;
articles in the journal Deviant Behavior). The enormous productivity of these researchers, as well as the diversity of their work, means that no single work is likely to stand
head and shoulders above the others; hence, enter the charmed circle of the two or three
dozen most-frequently cited works. It is in this second, more ethnographic and constructionist mode that criminology has made very few inroads. In fact, scholars who
work in this domain ask and pursue questions that criminologists rarely ask. 6
The second reason for the decreasing creativity in the sociology of deviance is that, as
Best says with sociology generally, deviance specialists are guilty of "giving it away" for
free. In his discussion of citation patterns, Robert Merton refers to "obliteration by
incorporation" (1979). In a given field, or in related fields, some ideas, once innovative,
have become so taken-for-granted that it is no longer appreciated how original they
once were; hence, an "obliteration of the source of ideas, methods, or findings by their
incorporation in currently accepted knowledge." At a certain period in its history, the



sociology of deviance generated or highlighted a host of interesting ideas, concepts, and

theories that seeped out into and influenced allied fields, eventually becoming incorporated into their practitioners' thinking about how the social world works. (The same
could be said about a number of theoretical approaches, such as Marxism, that could be
said to have "died," yet their best ideas became "obliterated" by being incorporated into
the way practitioners of other disciplines conceptualize social reality.) A few of these
concepts include: stigma (which has influenced disability and transgender studies);
anomie (social theory and sociology generally); the contingencies of labeling (ethnic
studies); social disorganization (criminology); the social construction of non-hegemonic
definitions of reality (postmodernism); the sociology of the underdog (queer theory);
t h e outsider or "the other" (postcolonialist studies); the medicalization of deviance (the
sociology of medicine); deviance neutralization (autoethnography and narrative studies); moral panics (collective behavior, criminology, social problems, and communication studies). 7 The sociology of deviance did not necessarily originate these concepts,
but it did help catapult them onto the academic and intellectual map, and whether
directly or indirectly, its discussions served to plant seeds that bore fruit in other disciplines.

It is likely that much the same fate that befell sociology generally has befallen the
sociology of deviance. The field lacks a central theoretical core, there are no intellectual
assumptions that tie its practitioners into a coherent community, and the disagreements among researchers concerning its legitimate subject matter are profound. In fact,
for the sociology of deviance, the positivist-constructionist split may very well have been
fatal to the coherence of the discipline. And just as in the academy generally, sociology
lacks prestige; among sociologists, deviance specialists lack prestige. It's possible our low
prestige is a "courtesy stigma," that is, it stems in part from the fact that we are tainted
by the stigma of our subjects. Consider Liazos' contemptuous subtitle (1972)--"nuts,
sluts, and preverts," an obvious aspersion on some of the people we study and, therefore, the researchers who study them. But an enormous amount of research continues to
be conducted under the banner of the sociology of deviance, undergraduates continue
to take and be interested in the course, and textbooks on the subject continue to be
published and continue to sell at least modestly well.
It is true that no new earth-shattering theoretical breakthroughs have been made
from within the field for some time, and that much of the field's impetus stems from a
field that used to be conjoined with the sociology of deviance, that is, criminology. It is
possible that this is inherent in the very nature of the deviance concept, that is, once the
insight is made that stigma and labeling take place, no further major theoretical development is possible. Or it is possible that the field has simply fallen victim to the vagaries of fad and fashion. None of this, however, adds up to the bumper-sticker slogan "the
sociology of deviance is dead." As small, underfunded, marginal fields go, the health of
the sociology of deviance is surprisingly good. Its representatives say, with Mark Twain,
that the reports of its death are "greatly exaggerated."



It might be tempting to dismissthe argument of this article as the reaction of a scholarwho discoversthat
he is a medium-sizedfrog in a shrinkingpond. Let me assure the reader that before I read Miller, Wright,

The American Sociologist / Fall 2002







and Dannels (2001), I was aware of my subfield's diminishing vitality. I have been discussing the matter
with colleagues for at least a decade. I also wrote an extremely unflattering review of Sumner's "death of
sociology" tract in a major journal more than a half-dozen years ago (Goode 1995). As for my ranking in
Miller et al.'s table of the "67 Most-Cited Scholars" in 263 representative publications in the sociology
of deviance (49), frankly, I am flattered to be included in such distinguished company.
Best (2003) refers to these indicators as "minimal signs of life." I disagree. For instance, in the decade
between 1986 and 1995, several of the field's textbooks received a substantial number of citations in the
Social Science Citation Index (Goode 1997). As I say, "this sounds like the field makes substantial use of
textbooks in its scholarly production" (3).
The title of Miller, Wright, and Dannels' article is: "Is Deviance 'Dead'?" As I say above, "deviance" will
and can never be dead, because deviance is an essential and ineradicable component of human behavior.
What they mean is, "Is the Sociology of Deviance Dead?"
In a private communication, Nachman Ben-Yehuda suggests I ask why do we not find Sumner's, Miller's,
Wright's, and Dannels' names among the sixty-seven most often cited scholars in the field. And why don't
one or more of these most-often cited scholars launch the kinds of"the death of the sociology of deviance"
critiques that are offered by the less-often (or not-at-all) cited scholars? Three possible explanations: One,
insiders rarely question why they rank high on a particular positively-valued dimension; two, outsiders
resent their position in a field and, therefore, question the viability and validity of that field; three,
outsiders are simply more numerically common than insiders and are more likely to do everything and
anything, including question the vitality of that field.
Hendershott (2002, 1) claims that, as chair at the University of San Diego, she could not convince a single
faculty member in her department to teach a course on deviance because "No one wants to teach about
a discipline that died a generation ago." I checked the course listings of the twenty-five most prestigious
universities in the country, and sixteen (just under two-thirds) listed a course on deviance. In addition, I
checked the enrollments of deviance courses from the 1970s to today in a dozen or so colleges and
universities around the country and found no decline in the number of students taking this course. (I
intend to publish my findings in a forthcoming paper.) It's not clear how Hendershott's colleagues came
to their conclusion, but quite obviously it is not shared by the sociology faculty at most of the country's
best universities. To be plain about the matter, someone's teaching these courses and someone's taking
Best (2003) makes an overlapping point by arguing that one reason for the decline of the field is the fact
that historically, its scholars and researchers have been unable to agree on a definition and a delineation
of its subject matter.
I have not addressed the possible impact of those twin 1960s and 1970s bugaboos--the supposed
pejorative connotations of the term "deviance" and the fact that the field does not deal with the evil deeds
of the top dogs and fat cats (Gouldner 1968; Liazos 1972) because these points were not a central point
in Sumner or Miller et al. Hence, a critique of them here would take this discussion outside the issues
engaged by these authors. Nonetheless, however misinformed, these two beliefs are strongly held in some
academic circles, and they may have contributed to the field's decline. Moreover, accepting these two
fanciful beliefs predisposes one to the view that the sociology of deviance is "dead." But that is the topic
of another paper.

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