Sociological Viewpoints on Deviance and Social Control
Part 3. The Relativistic Perspective on Deviance

Deviance as a social definition

The relativistic perspective approaches the study of deviant phenomena with quite a different conception of the nature of social life than does the normative perspective. For sociologists within the relativistic perspective, diversity, not consensus, is the central fact of social life. Emphasizing the great complexity and diversity of people and behavior in modern industrialized societies, these sociologists argue that it is unrealistic to assume that social organization is based on a general normative consensus. People and groups often have competing or conflicting interests rather than shared interests and goals. Instead of being a product of consensus, organized social behavior may be an outcome of self-interested bargaining between opposing parties or of coercion of some people by others who are more powerful.

In addition, the relativistic perspective emphasizes that existing social arrangements are always subject to change. These sociologists argue that the static concept of "norm" tends to overlook dynamic aspects of social life. Most sociologists within the relativistic perspective do not deny that social rules and expectations guide behavior in many situations, but they view these behavioral guidelines as arrangements that have been created or worked out through dynamic social processes. On a micro level, social relationships are not rigidly determined by stable normative expectations. Rather, social relationships are formed and changed through interactional processes that have a spontaneous and dynamic character. Similarly, on a macro level, the class structure of society is not viewed as a fixed entity. The relativistic perspective analyzes society as an arena where conflict processes, shifting class relationships, and struggles for power are played out over time.

The relativistic perspective, with this dynamic and diversified conception of social life, is highly critical of the usefulness of the concept of social norm as a standard for defining deviance. If organized patterns of behavior are not based on widely shared, stable norms, then it becomes misleading to define behavior that departs from those patterns as "norm violations." In other words, the concept of norm is not useful in distinguishing deviant behavior from nondeviant behavior. Furthermore, if rules and guidelines for behavior are created in interpersonal or historical situations by dynamic social processes, then it is difficult, if not impossible, to specify beforehand the particular behaviors that will be appropriate or inappropriate in those situations. Finally, since persons or groups in society are often in competition or conflict with one another, they may likewise have competing or conflicting views about deviance. Therefore, answers to the question "what is deviant?" will depend very much on who you ask. This is precisely the point of Simmons' (1965) study that was discussed earlier. The diversity of the answers he received to his question reflects the diversity of social audiences in a complex and changing society.

In short, the relativistic perspective reaches the conclusion that neither the concept of social norm nor any other supposedly "objective" criterion is useful for defining deviance. This is an unsettling conclusion for it seems to leave us with no abstract standard-no common benchmark for deciding what is deviant and what is not. Fortunately, you already know the relativistic solution to this dilemma: deviance is simply whatever is defined as deviant by social audiences. This definition intentionally shies away from the "objective" viewpoint of sociologists looking at society from the outside and places the burden of defining deviance on the subjective viewpoints of social audiences within society. Instead of treating deviance as objectively given by the inherent nature of certain acts and actors, the relativistic definition treats deviance as subjectively problematic, as a phenomenon that is completely dependent on how social audiences define acts and actors (Rubington & Weinberg, 1978).

The relativistic definition calls attention to quite a different set of "deviant phenomena" and research problems than does the normative definition of deviance. Whereas the normative perspective attempts to describe the distinguishing characteristics of deviants, the relativistic perspective focuses on the social processes involved in audience definitions of deviance and reactions to persons who have been so defined. Rather than attempting to explain the kinds of environments that cause deviant behavior, the relativistic perspective attempts to understand the implications of audience reactions, both for persons who have been defined as deviant and for society in general. In other words, the relativistic perspective shifts the focus of the field of deviance from deviants and deviant behavior to social audiences and definitional processes.

Describing the nature of definitional processes

Since the central concept of the relativistic perspective is based on audience definitions of persons and behaviors as deviant, a major task for these sociologists is the description of the general processes involved in these definitional phenomena. In describing social processes, the relativistic perspective tends to avoid such terms as characteristics or variables that imply a certain state or condition of a phenomenon at a single point in time and refer instead to "stages" or "contingencies" involved in a process over time. One of the clearest examples of this style of description is John I. Kitsuse's (1962: 248) conception of deviance as an interactional process:

deviance may be conceived as a process by which the members of a group, community, or society (1) interpret behavior as deviant, (2) define persons who so behave as a certain kind of deviant, and (3) accord them the treatment considered appropriate to such deviants.

Here, Kitsuse defines deviance relativistically as an audience definition and breaks this definitional process down into three sequential stages. Deviance researchers can and do attempt to describe important events and contingencies occurring at each separate stage of a process. For example, under what conditions will a certain act be interpreted as deviant? Are we as likely to define a close friend as deviant as we would be to define a stranger as deviant? However, the central problem for research in the relativistic perspective is to determine how these separate stages fit together as a single dynamic process over time. Using Kitsuse's process as an example, how does interaction between a deviant and a social audience progress from the stage of interpreting an act, through the stage of defining the deviant person, to the final stage of treating the person as a deviant?

Official records and survey research techniques are usually inappropriate for relativistic research on definitional processes. These sources of data can, at best, provide only very indirect measures of dynamic processes that occur in social situations. Therefore, descriptions of definitional processes are typically based on direct observation of social interaction between social audiences and the people they define as deviant. The sociologist who is present in such social situations can observe and record definitional processes as they unfold.

A study of police encounters with juveniles by Piliavin and Briar (1964) provides a good illustration of direct observational techniques. The researchers rode in police cars with juvenile officers during their regular patrol shifts. Whenever an officer stopped to question a juvenile on the street, the observers would record on a form such details of the encounter as the race and general appearance of the juvenile, the behavior of the juvenile toward the officer (e.g., cooperative versus uncooperative), and the way the officer treated the juvenile (e.g., arrest, reprimand, release, etc.). One of the major findings of this study was that juveniles who were uncooperative and disrespectful toward the officers were more likely to receive a severe reaction from the officer, such as arrest, than were cooperative juveniles. Piliavin and Briar were able to describe an interactional process where juveniles who were uncooperative were defined as "bad kids" by the officers, which, in turn, resulted in a severe outcome to the encounter. Using direct observation, this study provides an empirical description of Kitsuse's three-stage interactional process: interpretation of behavior as deviant, definition of the actor as deviant, and treatment considered appropriate to such deviants.

Whereas work such as Kitsuse's and Piliavin and Briar's focuses on micro-level interactional processes involved in audience definitions of deviance, other sociologists within the relativistic perspective are interested in the description of macro-level processes. Macro-level descriptive research by these sociologists usually focuses on long-term patterns of change in definitions of deviance as reflected in historical documents. Such documents might include legal codes, trial transcripts, or magazine articles written at various points in the past that shed light on historical trends in the definition and treatment of deviants. Relativistic sociologists also make use of accounts written by historians of specific incidents that reveal how societies have reacted to deviance at certain points in time. Unlike many historians, however, sociologists are less interested in the specific details of events recorded in historical documents than they are in describing general, macro-level patterns of change in the definition of deviance. From these patterns, sociologists seek insights into how reactions to deviance are related to conflict processes that operate over long periods of time. The vantage point of history makes it possible for sociologists to see how struggles for economic and political power or shifting conflicts between classes and cultural groups shape the way societies define and deal with deviance over time.

The description of definitional processes, whether based on direct observation or on historical documents, is a difficult task. Although sociologists have developed a variety of methods for describing relationships between variables, their ability to describe complex, dynamic social processes is much more limited. As a consequence, the relativistic perspective has been slow in developing a well-researched body of empirical generalizations that describes definitional processes. Nonetheless, crucial insights from observational and historical studies have contributed to theoretical work on the sources and implications of audience reactions to deviance.

Understanding the sources and implications of reactions to deviance

Differences between the relativistic perspective and the normative perspective are nowhere more apparent than in their contrasting approaches to deviance theory. We have already noted some important differences in the kinds of phenomena that are of theoretical interest in the two perspectives. Normative theories focus on deviants and deviant behavior; relativistic theories focus on audience definitions and reactions to deviance. However, even more basic differences can be found in the respective ways these perspectives deal with fundamental questions about the nature and goals of theoretical knowledge.

As we have seen, the normative perspective stresses an objective, scientific approach to theory. Above all, the normative perspective strives for "value-free" explanations of deviant phenomena-theories that are untainted by the personal values or political beliefs of the social scientist. In contrast, most relativistic sociologists take the position that deviance theory cannot and should not be value free. They argue that the normative perspective is far from value free in its theorizing about deviant behavior. By basing its research on official records and by taking official definitions of deviance as given, the normative perspective uncritically adopts the conservative values of the established agencies of social control. Taking this argument a step further, relativistic sociologists point out that all theories of deviance, either intentionally or unintentionally, are based on social values that influence the selection and conceptualization of theoretical problems.

Therefore, most sociologists in the relativistic perspective have no qualms about taking a "value-engaged" approach to theoretical work on deviance (Thio, 1973). If deviance theories are inevitably based on value positions, these sociologists feel it is best to make one's values explicit rather than hiding them behind the facade of value-free science. Thus, Howard Becker (1967), one of the major relativistic theorists, has phrased an explicit question for the field of deviance: "whose side are we on?" Becker answers this question by arguing that sociologists should side with the "underdogs" in society, persons who have been singled out and labeled as deviant by social control agencies.

Becker and many other relativistic sociologists who agree with his position believe that deviance theory should be oriented by humanistic values. Developing a theoretical tradition that is known as labeling theory, these sociologists have attempted to advance a sympathetic view of deviant persons by analyzing the dehumanizing impact of audience reactions upon them. Labeling theory can be classified as a micro-relativistic approach to deviance since it focuses primarily on the small-scale interactional processes through which individuals are labeled and punished as deviants.

Labeling theorists have been particularly interested in the implications of formal reactions to deviance, social control administered by law enforcement agencies or mental health professionals. Although persons may be brought to the attention of formal social control agencies by informal reactions in such groups as the family or co-workers, official labels applied by judges and psychiatrists are thought to have an especially profound impact on the deviant. Official labeling of a person as criminal or psychotic can lead to confinement in dehumanizing institutions such as prisons and asylums. Labeling theorists also point out that official, public labels stigmatize deviants by defining them as morally inferior beings who should be avoided and rejected by members of conventional society. Labeled as deviant by powerful agents of social control and treated as outcasts by conventional society, deviants may actually come to see themselves as the thing they have been labeled. By accepting society's definition of them as criminal or crazy, deviants may begin to engage in the criminal or crazy behaviors that are expected of someone who carries those labels. Ironically, the labeling process itself becomes a cause of deviant behavior. By identifying humanistically with labeled deviants and tracing the oppressive consequences of social control processes, micro-relativistic theories have attempted to understand these and other implications of audience reactions to deviance.

The other major theoretical tradition within the relativistic perspective, conflict theory, basically agrees with the humanistic orientation of labeling theory. Conflict theorists also side with the underdogs and are highly critical of official agencies of social control. However, these sociologists argue that deviance theory should not stop at the point of sympathizing with deviants and understanding the human implications of social control. Many conflict theorists believe that deviance theory should be oriented by activist values and should be used as a tool for changing the systems of social control that oppress deviants and other underdogs.

As a first step in bringing about radical social change, conflict theorists attempt to analyze and understand the underlying sources of society's definitions and reactions to deviance. Deviance theory must look beyond the micro-level interactional processes through which individual deviants are labeled and attempt to analyze the macro-level processes of class or cultural conflict through which labels are created. Therefore, conflict theorists have attempted to show how powerful interest groups influence the passage of laws that define as deviant the activities of opposing groups. For instance, laws against the organizing of labor unions can be seen as definitions of deviance that have been created to protect the economic interests of industrialists. Conflict theorists also analyze how conflict processes affect the enforcement of existing laws. To use another example from labor-industrial conflict, in the years immediately following the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, which was designed to limit the growth of industrial monopolies, this law was more frequently enforced against labor organizations than it was against big business (McCormick, 1977).

In general, conflict theory is a macro-relativistic approach that focuses on the definition and reaction to deviance as a political phenomenon. Looking to historical patterns of change in the law and social control for insights into conflict processes, these sociologists use large-scale concepts to analyze the structure of power in entire societies. Inspired by activist values, conflict theorists see a macro-level approach as necessary for understanding and changing the systems of political domination that shape a society's reactions to deviance.

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