“All kind of person, one who cannot be


“All social groups make rules and attempt, at
some times and under some circumstances, to enforce them. Social rules define
situations and the kinds of behaviour appropriate to them, specifying some
actions as ‘right’ and forbidding others as ‘wrong’. When a rule is enforced,
the person who is supposed to have broken it may be seen as a special kind of
person, one who cannot be trusted to live by the rules agreed on by the group.
He is regarded as an outsider.”
(Becker, pg. 1).

it has been over half a century since Howard Becker’s ‘Outsiders: Studies in
the Sociology of Deviance’ was published, its relevance amongst criminological
and sociological circles endures, with it remaining a key text when teaching or
learning about criminology. As is written by Hartung (1965), “Outsiders is a
valuable contribution to the analysis and understanding of deviant behaviour”.

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Indeed, Becker’s analysis
of deviance encompasses a clear majority, if not all, of the content of ‘Outsiders’;
his discussion on deviance and further exploration of labelling theory could be
described as the hallmark of Becker’s work. ‘Outsiders’ is one of the most
well-known pieces of criminological and sociological literature – and Becker is
well-known to have played an important role in the development of the study of
deviance and labelling theory. Interestingly, this is in despite of the fact
that Becker himself stated that he “never really did work on deviance as such”
(Plummer, pg. 22) and that at the same time as he was “writing the marijuana
stuff up” he “sat down and wrote 90 pages about deviance” (Plummer, pg. 22). The
thought that such an influential piece of literature was written on a whim is
almost mindboggling, and goes to show how a random sequence of events can have
unanticipated results.

Oxford Dictionary defines deviance as being “the fact or state of diverging
from usual or accepted standards, especially in social or sexual behaviour”;
however, Becker’s analysis regards the topic of deviance as being rather more
complicated than a simple divergence from the norm. It is presented as being a
multi-faceted, unpredictable and almost hypocritical phenomenon. Dienstfrey (1963)
notes that “deviance is neither absolute nor patently recognizable. Nor, Becker
argues, is it easily achieved”.

As is stated in the text
itself, “whether an act is deviant, then, depends on how other people react to
it” (Becker, pg. 11). The chain of events that leads to a person being labelled
as deviant or not follows a process that appears to be largely subjective. It
is complicated further by the assertion that the person that is labelled may
turn the tables and, in fact, decide that those that labelled them are the
deviants. As Hartung (1965) summarises, “individuals and groups classified as
deviant may, and sometimes do, reject that classification. It is their
condemners who, they may assert, are in fact deviant” (pg. 230).

Becker’s explanation of how
one may come to acquire a deviant label is somewhat hard to follow due to the
multitude of examples given; it required more than one reading to be able to
sort through the different forms of deviancy and separate them, as it seemed as
though one topic immediately ran on to the next. In a way it was almost akin to
reading an internal thought process, rather than a structured piece of academic

“Becker begins his argument by noting that
definitions of deviancy vary widely as we range across the various groups and
classes which make up social life. Since no single criterion can be used to
decide what forms of conduct are deviant and what forms are not, we can only
develop a reasonable grasp of the problem by studying the setting in which one
group of persons confers a deviant label on another” (Erikson, 1964, pg.

 By paying attention to the smaller circumstances
in which the label of ‘deviant’ may be transferred, Becker offers a more
personalised understanding of the way in which labelling may affect an
individual. Granted, this exposure rests solely on a very small group of people
that would likely not even be considered relevant today – though this also
demonstrates perfectly the point of the text. Dismissing marijuana users and
dance musicians as being an irrelevant deviant group is, effectively, labelling
them as being unimportant in the same way that they would have been labelled as
deviant in the past. Therefore, even though society has moved on, the assertions
that Becker put forward can still be applied.

not particularly pertinent to what the primary focus of ‘Outsiders’ is supposed
to be, one intriguing observation that was noticed when reading the text is
that there are certain elements of society that have remained static. For
example, that “boys from middle-class areas do not get as far in the legal
process when they are apprehended as do boys from slum areas” (Becker, pg. 13).
Even today, “the rich get richer and the poor get prison” (Reiman and Leighton,
2012) – which denotes the fact that society has not, perhaps, evolved as much
as it should have done in half a century. This is not the only social commentary
that stands; although he was discussing the work of another, Becker’s mention
of the stigmatisation of women in extramarital pregnancies is also relevant:

“Vincent points out that illicit sexual
relations seldom result in severe punishment or social censure for the
offenders. If, however, a girl becomes pregnant as a result of such activities,
the reaction of others is likely to be severe. (The illicit pregnancy is also
an interesting example of differential enforcement of rules on different
categories of people. Vincent notes that unmarried fathers escape the severe
censure visited on the mother)” (pg. 13).

Whilst becoming a single
mother is now more socially acceptable than it was in the 1960’s, there is
still some stigma attached. It was reported in 2014 that 3 out of 4 single
parents had “personally experienced social stigma due to their lack of
parenting partner” (Moss, 2014), with the same article stating that 92% of
single parents are mothers.

Stigma and deviance are
arguably different things (it could also be stated that stigma is an umbrella
term under which deviance falls), and yet there is a certain amount of overlap
between the two that ensures that Becker’s description of the emotional implication
of labelling can still be applied: “a person may feel he is being judged
according to rules he had no hand in making and does not accept, rules forced
on him by outsiders” (pg. 16).

in participant observation is another factor that sets ‘Outsiders’ apart from
the crowd. However, whether or not this can be described as a good thing is
debatable; Becker’s personal attachments to both marijuana usage and dance musicians
lead to a certain sense of bias, whereas typically one of the goals of social research
is that the researcher should be objective and able to produce impartial




This is not to say,
however, that the text does not contain some content that would be regarded as
problematic if it were to be published today. Whilst the themes and theories
presented throughout the work continue to maintain a strong and frontal
position in the study of criminology, it is worth noting that certain elements
of the text have not weathered the passage of time. Becker’s use of terminology,
for example, is one of the more noticeably outdated elements of the text. The
continued use of the word ‘negro’ could be used as one illustration of something
that would not be acceptable if the text were to be published today, as ‘negro’
is now generally regarded as being a derogatory term – regardless of whether it
was written with any semblance of ill-will toward people of colour.

“From our vantage point at the beginning of
the twenty-first century it is worth noting Becker’s use of language. His
unproblematic description of the sociologist/criminologist as a scientist is
outdated, and his use of the pronoun ‘he’ and generic term for black people is
now unacceptable” (Jewkes & Letherby, 2002, pg. 36).

Another example is the
use of the word ‘homosexuals’ when referring to gay individuals; whilst this label
is not necessarily considered to be derogatory, it is certainly outdated
terminology. Additionally, the portrayal of ‘homosexuals’ as criminally deviant,
viewed from a criminological perspective in terms of the police attention that
was placed on them at that time, is no longer something that is relevant. While
there could be an argument made for the fact that LGBT individuals do deviate
from the mainstream social norms to some extent, the matter is no longer a
criminal one in the Western world and homosexuality has been largely normalised.

In defence of the text, keeping
up with modern labels can be something of an arduous task. Social evolution is
constant, especially with the introduction of social media platforms that give
a voice to social justice warriors; while it is good that people are becoming
more socially aware, it is now possible more than ever to be offensive without
meaning to be. For example, referring to a black person as ‘coloured’ may be
offensive to some and acceptable to others. Addressing the gay community can
also be extremely confusing; LGBT is not a static label, with different
acronyms accumulating regularly, and changing depending on context. For
example, going from LGBT to LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,
transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual) (Betgevargiz,
2015). It could be argued, then, that the issue of outdated terminology is one
that is impossible to win. The constant shift in attitude towards certain
words, and introduction of new ones could potentially leave any work that is
more than a few years old appearing dated and out of place as society moves on.

Additionally, the
comparison of gay people and drug addicts is a clear demonstration of an
archaic mindset; “some deviants (homosexuals and drug addicts are good
examples) develop full-blown ideologies explaining why they are right and why
those who disapprove and punish them are wrong” (Becker, pg. 3), and “the
behaviour of a homosexual or drug addict is regarded as the symptom of a mental
disease” (Becker, pg. 6). This attitude is understandable when considering the
fact that:

“In the fairly recent past male homosexuality
has been variously seen as a sickness, a deviance and an evil. Today, some
individuals and groups retain these views, even though homosexuality is, no
longer a crime.” (Giddens and Sutton, pg. 187).

But just because
something is understandable does not mean that it would be acceptable if the
same work was to be published today.

Therefore, the content
discussed within the text could be considered outdated and largely irrelevant,
although redeemable in that the theories presented remain extremely relevant. Both
the use of the word ‘negro’ to describe black people and the representation of
homosexuals as being criminally deviant are not particularly pertinent to what
Becker’s main points are, and yet upon reading the text, these dated/derogatory
descriptions of minority groups did stand out in a way that was impossible not
to notice.

However, being that the
main focus of the text rests on the deviancy/othering of marijuana users and
dance musicians rather than terminology, in this instance there is a case to be
made for the point that the bigger picture overrides the relevancy of some of
the smaller details and therefore the main point and argument continue to stand

the discussion on the dated nature of the terminology used, it could also be
stated that the deviant groups discussed are also not particularly relevant. In
the US specifically, marijuana has been legalised and while there is still
stigma attached to being a drug user, which then leads to drug users being seen
as deviant, this deviation is now usually associated with drugs other than weed.
Public acceptance of marijuana usage in particular has increased to the point
where the majority of the public were in favour of legalisation (Swift, 2013).

For the time in which the
text was written, the use of marijuana amongst deviant subcultures may have
been a lot more prevalent than it is today – and it would not be entirely
inaccurate to say that this aspect of the subject material of ‘Outsiders’ is
simply no longer relevant at all. Regardless of the fact that the ‘othering’ of
marijuana users is no longer a contemporary issue, the exploration of these
issues when looked at from a historical perspective does give valuable insight
in to the way that social attitudes have changed since the 1960’s.

The observations made
about dance musicians are also largely irrelevant now; like marijuana users, musicians
are now no longer considered to be part a deviant group. There are some
elements of musical style that are associated with deviant behaviour, for
example hip hop and rap, and their link to urban subcultures associated with
violence and poverty (North, Desborough and Skarstein, 2005), but as a general
rule the ability to create music does not equate to deviance. It is more of a correlation
than a causal phenomenon. In the modern era, music is something that is celebrated
and valued rather than looked down upon; music of all types is now firmly
established with in popular culture.

At the time that ‘Outsiders’
was written, Erikson (1964) reviewed it as such: “any person who wishes to
become better acquainted with the major trends in contemporary sociology will
profit from studying this new book” (pg. 417) – labelling theory is still a major
part of the study of criminology, and is likely less able to be described as a ‘trend’
nowadays and more accurately as a foundation. Obviously, being that it was
written more than half a century ago, the book is no longer new – but the fact
that it is still very much at the forefront of criminology syllabuses is
testament to the fact that it was revolutionary for its time and therefore
carries significant historical value.

However, contrary to the
opinion that Becker’s work on deviance was ground-breaking and profound, a
review from the time that ‘Outsiders’ was published offers a scathing critique
that suggests that both marijuana use and ‘dance musicians’ were considered to
be ‘mild forms of deviance’ even in the 1960’s:

“The problem in brief is that Becker has used
as his major examples two extremely mild forms of deviance. Neither smoking marijuana
nor being a dance musician is individually debilitating; nor is either a social
threat (notwithstanding, in the case of marijuana smokers, official policy,
some members of the far right, and middle-class critics of Lenny Bruce). The
non-causal approach he has taken in analyzing these types of deviance and the
general conclusions he has drawn are hardly adequate to more severe forms of
waywardness, to juvenile delinquency, say, or drug addiction” (Dienstfrey, pg.

This criticism is
especially poignant when considering the fact that Becker does mention drug addiction
more than once (as an aside from his study in to marijuana users) in the
initial chapter when discussing his definitions of deviance. This then begs the
question of whether or not ‘Outsiders’ is truly worthy of its status, if the
material covered was considered tame even at the time.