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Sociology of Deviance and Difference

Camperdown Memorial Rest Park, Church St Newtown, Sydney. (14th, June,2017)
Alex Page and I are coordinating a Unit for Winter School, the Sociology of Deviance and Difference, and we wrote a brief note for the Unit of Study to convey the ethos and importance of such a topic. Here it is:

A Brief Note From Your Course Coordinators:

We would both like to formally welcome you to the Winter School version of Sociology of Deviance and Difference for 2017! In this intensive unit over the next two and half weeks we – Mathew Toll and Alex Page – will be working with you to unpack the nature of deviance and difference and ask questions like:  what is deviance? Is it socially constructed? And if so, how and why is it constructed in certain ways? Who gets to set the rules? Who gets to label someone a deviant? How is deviance and difference experienced? And, what are the relations of power at play that determine constructions of normalcy? Why this way and not another? These questions will inform the discussion of various social fields of practice to see who wins and who is deemed bad/mad/different and in need of sanction, disciplining, or exclusion.

From the outset, we want you to understand the direction this course through three kinds of stories:
  • Kinds of People Stories: deviance as rooted in the biological and psychological attributes of people.     
  • Kinds of Society Stories: deviance as norm-breaking, labelling processes, and the social construction of deviance and difference.  
  • Kinds of Power Stories: deviance and difference as an operation of power and struggle over who is considered normal.
Durkheim established a sociological understanding of deviance, kinds of society stories, and argues that norm-breaking rather than being a pathological aspect of society serve a set of key functions, not least norm-making. We always need to think about how the construction of deviance and difference are integral to a society, because even in a society of stains there are deviants: 

“Imagine a community of saints in an exemplary and perfect monastery. In it crime as such will be unknown, but faults that appear venial to the ordinary person will arouse the same scandal as does normal crime in ordinary consciences. If therefore that the community has the power to judge and punish, it will term such acts criminal and deal with them as such. It is for the same reason that the completely honourable man judges his slightest moral failings with a severity that the mass of people reserves for acts that are truly criminal. In former times acts of violence against the person were more frequent than they are today because respect for individual dignity was weaker. As it has increased, such crimes have become less frequent, but many acts which offended against that sentiment have been incorporated into the penal code, which did not previously include them.” 
- Emile Durkheim (1983, 100), Rules for a Sociological Method.
Foucault takes us further and argues that the disciplinary powers that act on people who are deviant or different are found in many institutions in modern society beyond formally punitive institutions.   He makes us think about how disciplinary and normalizing power spreads throughout the social body and impacts everyone: power is in all relations, forming and reforming people’s bodies and souls:

“The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements. The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modem society, of the normalizing power.”

 – Michel Foucault (1995, 304), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Our final quote comes from Vaneigem, who pushes us beyond the textbooks and into the reality of our own worlds:

“People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints - such people have a corpse in their mouth.”

- Raoul Vaneigem (2001, 26), The Revolution of Everyday Life.

This sentiment is vital for the Sociology of Deviance and Difference – vital for sociology. Vaneigem demands of us to connect theoretical tools and frameworks down to the social realities of lived experience. Not only is this a good use of your sociological imagination, we strive to do this because it also means you develop the skills to pull apart complex social phenomena in your own day-to-day lives! We believe is this the very foundation of a good sociological education. Maintaining norms and sectioning ‘deviants’ is a key way we ourselves exert power over others and this course aims to make us conscious of our own use of power.  

We would like to acknowledge Prof Karl Maton, Dr Nadine Ehlers, and Fadi Baghdadi for their help in constructing this course. Finally, we wish you the best throughout Winter School 2017, and are here to assist you in any way we can.

Mathew Toll and Alex Page


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