Archive for the ‘Deviance’ Category


The Criminal Justice System: Maintaining Social Order or Enforcing Norms?

March 23, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

badge-closeup by davidsonscott15

Within every society there are institutions whose job it is to maintain social order.  These may be religious institutions, they may be family or kinship structures, or they may be the system of government and law enforcement.  All of these institutions exist at their core to ensure that society keeps running smoothly.

They are also viewed as institutions of authority, though, with the power to enforce norms upon members of society.  One such institution is, of course, the criminal justice system.  In the 21st century United States, the criminal justice system is seen as holding a fair amount of power, and the popular perception of this social institution is more as an enforcer of norms than as the maintainer of social order.  You would think that training as a sociologist, that the habit of looking at the world through a social lens, would incline me to frame my interactions with law enforcement in terms of social order rather than in terms of law enforcement.

As it turns out, you would be wrong.  Last week, I received a very strange piece of mail in my campus mailbox.  It was addressed to “P.O. S. Ford” and was actually addressed to the building in which our Campus Police department is located.  The envelope contained a summons to testify at a hearing for an arrestee who had apparently refused a breathalyzer test.  Last I checked, I was not a police officer (and I feel fairly safe in assuming that that’s what the “P.O.” in the name stood for).  My immediate reaction, though, was one of concern.  “What did I do wrong?  Why am I being summoned to a hearing?”  Then I noticed that there was a date of 3/1/10 on the summons, and my thoughts turned to “Oh great, not only am I in trouble for something that I don’t remember doing, but I MISSED THE HEARING!”

Now, two seconds’ critical reflection made it perfectly clear that this mail had been misdirected.  And, occasional loose interpretation of speed limits aside, I am the very model of a law-abiding citizen.  What does it say about the relationship of the criminal justice system to the population it is intended to keep in line that my immediate reaction is one of fear?  Is it in the best interests of the criminal justice system that this is our reaction to such a summons?  Are there other ways that social order could be enforced, ones that did not play on fear?


Durkheim and Anomie

March 4, 2010
Posted by: Chad M. Gesser
Twitter: @profgesser
Anomie is one of those concepts in the field of Sociology that can be applied in a variety of ways.  Coined by French Sociologist Emile Durkheim in his 1897 study “Suicide”, anomie refers to a sense of normlessness, resulting in individual detachment and disconnection from other members of a group or society at large.

Sociologists see society as an organism, much the way the human body is an organism.  Society, just like the human body, is a sum of its parts.

Staying with the human anatomy and physiology theme, I like to think of the above image as the “skeleton” of society.  Below you’ll find the makeup of the “central nervous system”.  These are the fundamental elements of culture.

Keep in mind that norms are the guidelines and expectations in society.  They are not right or wrong, but we as members of society determine at any given moment in time or history the makeup of norms.  For example, it once was the norm for males to hold the door open for females.  That is a particular folkway that seems to not carry as much importance in relationships anymore.  Norms, just like culture, change.  The “skeleton” of society, and the “central nervous system”, remain the same.

This is the stuff that theory is made of, and precisely the insight that Durkheim was seeking to provide in his study on suicide, and his coining of the term anomie.  Individuals that feel connected to the prevailing cultural norms, to groups, to society as a whole, engage in conventional behavior and have more in common with others in the group or community.  Some would suggest that those that feel more connected also have a more positive sense of self or self concept.  When people feel detached, when they feel that they do not belong, this is anomie.  What groups or individuals in society are seen as detached or disconnected?

In order to understand anomie one has to understand not only how society and culture is organized, but also the subjective nature of society and culture.  Therefore anomie, just like society and culture, changes.  This poses a challenge to members of society; the need to change, to adapt, to fit in.  Structural functionalists would say that social institutions play an important role in this regard of keeping society organized and efficient, that members of society feel included.  Social conflict theorists may suggest that anomie is a byproduct of society; that varied access to resources inherently breeds anomie in society, thereby leading to constant inequality and social change.

Can you think of other examples of anomie?  Do you feel that you are connected to the prevailing social norms?  Do you feel that most people in your community have a sense of anomie or feel like they belong in the community?  How does sense of connection change over the life span?  What can members of social institutions and organizations do to make sure people feel included and connected?