Outsiders – Studies in the Sociology of Deviance by Howard S. Becker

“infobox Book “
name Outsiders – Studies in the Sociology of Deviance
orig title
author Howard S. Becker
language English


The author defines a deviant as one who deviates from the rules of some social group (and who therefore is an outsider to that group). An outsider is also defined from the point of view of the deviant as those from the social group who act as judges and arbiters of the rules.
The author explores deviant behaviour as a phenomenon of definition, as opposed to one of characteristics. That is to say that deviant behaviour is more a question of judgement by a group than a characteristic of the deviant person. Therefore accepting the label ‘deviant’ means implicitly accepting the values of the social group making the judgement.

Chapter 1 – Outsiders

Chapter 2 – Kinds of Deviance – A Sequential Model

In order to discuss models of deviance, the author introduces four types of deviant behaviour:

  • conforming;
  • pure deviant;
  • falsely accused (i.e. perceived as deviant but exhibiting obedient behaviour) and
  • secret deviant (i.e. exhibiting rule-breaking behaviour but not perceived as deviant).

The author examines two types of models that could be used to investigate what causes the deviant behaviours to develop:-

  • simultaneous – which assumes that the behaviour develops simultaneously through many causes
  • sequential – where patterns of behaviour develop according to an orderly sequence of stages
  • Simultaneous models are often used in investigations of pathology, to determine the combination of variables that may predict the behaviour and therefore explain the cause. The sequential model may better recognise that behaviour patterns change in a series of steps, and that each step needs to be explained independently of other steps. The causes of one step may have no effect at other steps and all the causes may not operate at the same time.
    Adopting the sequential model, the author introduces the idea of a deviant career, defining a career as a sequence of movements from one position to another in a system (a progression of occupations). Contingencies in such careers (i.e. movement along the sequence) can happen because of changes in social structure or changes in the perspective, motivation and desires of the individual.
    A deviant career consists of a set of a non-conforming acts, which may be committed either intentionally or unintentionally (e.g. through ignorance of the rule). Analysis of motivation for the intentional acts can look at why the deviance takes place (e.g. because of early years’ experiences, psychological drives or, social strain), but an alternative way is to look at why not commit them. The author posits that many people experience the impulse to behave deviantly but have some commitment to, or interested in, carrying our certain conventional behaviour that would be damaged by any deviance. So, how does delinquent escape such a commitment? Delinquents may feel an need to be law abiding and therefore justify their behaviour through some non-conventional technique or rule of conduct (neutralisation). Neutralisation behaviour includes denying responsibility; downplaying harm; relativism; condemning the condemners and putting the needs of the smaller social group (e.g. a clique or gang) ahead of those of wider society.

    Chapter 3 – Becoming a Marihuana User

    Chapter 4 – Marihuana Use and Social Control

    Chapter 5 – The Culture of a Deviant Group

    Chapter 6 – Careers in a Deviant Occupational Group

    Chapter 7 – Rules and their Enforcement

    This chapter discusses how rules are created and enforced and also discusses some attributes of people who create and enforce the rules.
    The author argues that rules often begin as abstract values and are then shaped into more specific rules as a response to some perceived trouble or threat. Such rules are drafted so as to avoid upsetting powerful vested interests. In creating the rule, someone must take the initative (‘moral enterprise’). Such initiatives often require swaying public opinion via the media and by enlisting supporting groups.
    Having been created, the rule may then be enforced, although there are rules that may be created but not automatically enforced – i.e. sometimes rule breaches go unenforced. Enforcement takes two stages:

    1. taking an initative (‘moral enterprise’) in enforcing the rule; and
    2. publicity, (i.e. bringing the breach to attention of others).

    The author argues that in order to undertake these actions, the enterprising enforcer (the ‘entrepreneur’) must perceive some personal advantage or interest in having the rule enforced.
    In situations where breaches go unenforced, the author suggests that there is some conflict between interests of enforcement and interests of refraining (‘reserve’). The author observes that this often happens in complex situations where there is a system of conflict between the power and interest of different groups. Sometimes this system reaches an equilibrium when the different groups hold differing interpretations of the rules, creating a tolerable ambiguity. Such ambiguity helps the groups to reach a compromise, where rule breaches are ignored or tolerated rather than enforced.

    Chapter 8 – Moral Entrepreneurs

    Chapter 9 – The Study of Deviance

    Chapter 10 – Labelling Theory Reconsidered