To the Editor:
In concluding his otherwise favorable review of Howard S. Becker’s Outsiders [November' 63], Harris Dienstfrey finds the author’s analysis of deviants inadequate because it avoids “any investigation of the reasons they come to behave as they do.” It seems to me that in imputing to Becker the assumption that deviance “needs no causal explanation,” Mr. Dienstfrey falls into a trap the author is at great pains to expose—the belief that the real “explanation” or “cause” of deviance can be found in the personality or social background characteristics of individual deviants. Obviously deviance is “caused,” but is it not a mistake to try to consider precipitating (or, the psychiatrist would say, predisposing) factors in individuals as operating outside of (or without relation to) the social definition of and reaction to such deviance?
Mr. Dienstfrey asserts that the argument of Outsiders is inapplicable to “more severe forms of waywardness,” and cites juvenile delinquency and drug addiction as examples. Yet, as many students, including Paul Goodman, have stressed, dealing with individual “causes” can hardly be expected to solve or even to explain delinquency. Indeed, one can argue that much of what we label “delinquency” is simply working-class behavior proscribed by middle-class values. As to the more overtly anti-social delinquent acts, case histories are replete with evidence of earlier societal reactions which have defined the youth as “delinquent” and helped “cause” his more serious delicts. As I tried to suggest in an earlier piece in COMMENTARY [“Drug Addiction in America and England” September 1960], whatever precipitates the drug habit in individual instances, society’s reaction to the condition of addiction, and specific public policies toward that condition, significantly shape addict behavior. . . . Mr. Dienstfrey may be correct in seeing Becker’s analysis as best applying to the milder forms of deviance, but he greatly exaggerates its limitations. True, we would probably all agree that the cold-blooded killer is so “different” that society must consider him deviant, and that professional theft is not simply an “unusual” occupation. However, there are vast gray areas of possibly alternative reactions. . . .
As Mr. Dienstfrey properly notes, deviant behavior is often socially dangerous or personally destructive. Yet for each type of deviance we need to distinguish between “primary” elements (those universally inhering in the basic deviant act or pattern) and “secondary deviation” (to use Edwin Lemert’s term)—whose elements are largely attributable to the way a particular society reacts to and deals with such behavior. Though sometimes a deviant individual may be “objectively unlike almost anyone else” (as Mr. Dienstfrey puts it), frequently it is in the deviance-defining conformist that we can locate a large measure of the responsibility for (and the explanation of) whatever torment or alienation the deviant may feel and even antisocial acts he may commit.
Edwin M. Schur
Mr. Dienstfrey writes:
Mr. Schur is right to call attention to the fuzziness of my closing remarks about Howard Becker’s Outsiders. I lost the sense of what I wanted to say amid two examples that inadvertently fit Becker’s general argument as neatly as the two examples he himself used (smoking marijuana and playing jazz). But the troubling aspects of Outsiders remain.
The book argues that deviancy is the name some men give to the behavior of others, and that a man becomes a deviant through his social experience, exactly as he might become anything else—a conformist, say. As Mr. Schur’s letter correctly indicates, this argument makes very good sense about the social processes that lead men to behave as they do, and its perspective is common to an important group of contemporary sociologists. The problem with Outsiders lies in the fact that Becker does not confront the cluster of complexities that surround its thesis. If the decision as to what is deviant is often the result of “who is in power,” does this mean that society never has legitimate reasons for stigmatizing certain behavior? Because deviants and conformists are “produced” in the same way, does this mean they are entirely interchangeable? I am troubled that Becker does not ask these questions, which speak to the most serious implications of his argument, and leaves Outsiders in a blurring mist of relativism because they are not faced.