Deviant Behavior

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Deviant Behavior

Social disorganization


Both “deviant behavior” and “social disorganization” have been variously defined, but there have been few efforts to distinguish between the two concepts. In fact, it has been suggested that they are not different, that along with “social problems*’ and the somewhat outmoded “social pathology,” they signify only a potpourri of conditions that are considered undesirable from the standpoint of the observer’s values, conditions that vary at different times and with different observers. According to this view, these terms have no scientific value and no legitimate status as sociological concepts.

Such nihilism and counsel of despair are not justified. True, there is no consensus on the meaning of these terms, and they are, indeed, burdened with value connotations. However, they point to a number of distinctions that sociology must take into account.

Concept of deviance. Turning first to the concept of deviant behavior, we must distinguish among the several definitions of the term, which are discussed below.

Behavior that violates norms. Deviant behavior is behavior that violates the normative rules, understandings, or expectations of social systems. This is the most common usage of the term and the sense in which it will be used here. Crime is the prototype of deviance in this sense, and theory and research in deviant behavior have been concerned overwhelmingly with crime. However, normative rules are inherent in the nature of all social systems, whether they be friendship groups, engaged couples, families, work teams, factories, or national societies. Legal norms are then but one type of norm whose violation constitutes deviant behavior. It is important to note that although deviance, in this sense, and conformity are “opposites,” they represent the poles within the same dimension of variation; therefore, a general theory of the one must comprehend the other.

Statistical abnormality. There is fair consensus that “deviant behavior” does not mean departure from some statistical norm. However various the definitions and usages, they seem to have in common the notion of something that is, from some point of view, less “good” or “desirable,” and not merely less frequent.

Psychopathology. For sociological purposes deviance is seldom defined exclusively in terms of psychopathology, mental illness, or personality dis-organization, although it is commonly assumed that these phenomena are at least included within the scope of deviance. However, behavior is deviant in the first, or normative, sense because it departs from the normative rules of some social system, whereas behavior is pathological because it proceeds from a sick, damaged, or defective personality. It is probable that most deviant behavior in the normative sense is produced by personalities that are clinically normal and that most behavior that is symptomatic of personality defect or mental illness does not violate normative expectations. In short, the two are independently defined, and the relationship between them is a matter for empirical investigation. It seems preferable to keep them conceptually distinct, retaining for the one the term “deviant behavior” and for the other the established terminology of psychopathology.

It should be made clear that the distinction just drawn is not that between the psychological and the sociological levels of investigation. In viewing any human behavior we can ask, on the one hand, how it depends upon the history and structure of the personality that authors it. On the other hand, we can ask how it depends on the history and structure of the social system in which it is an event. Such questions can be asked about both mental illness and deviant behavior. However, inquiry on the psychological and sociological levels cannot proceed altogether independently, for each must make some assumptions about the other. Durkheim (1897), in his classic treatment of suicide, made clear the analytical independence of the sociological level by demonstrating that variations in rates of a given class of behavior within and between systems are a reality sui generis that cannot be explained simply in terms of the psychological properties of human beings but rather depend on the properties of the social system itself. However, he overstated his case and left the impression, whether it was his intention or not, that psychology has little to contribute to the understanding of suicide. In fact, Durkheim’s own treatment of the sociology of suicide is interlarded with assumptions about human motivation and other considerations that are ordinarily considered “psychological” [seeSuicide, article onSocial aspects].

Socially disvalued behavior and states. Deviant behavior may also be defined as socially disvalued behavior and states in general. This definition includes mental retardation, blindness, ugliness, other physical defects and handicaps, illness of all sorts, beggary, membership in ritually unclean castes and occupations, mental illness, criminality, and a “shameful past.” What all these have in common is that, if known, they assign one to a socially disparaged role and constitute a blemish in the self. This blemish, or stigma, is an important constituent of all social encounters in which it is present. It poses problems to the stigmatized actor and his alters and has consequences for the development of personality and for social interaction. Goffman (1963) has demonstrated that it is possible to generalize about the phenomenon of stigma and its consequences on a level that abstracts from the diversity of its concrete manifestations.

Clearly, stigma is a legitimate and important object of investigation in its own right. Furthermore, it is ordinarily an attribute of normatively deviant behavior; it may play a part in its genesis and control. It must therefore figure in a theory of deviant behavior. However, the fact that behavior is stigmatized or disvalued is one thing; the fact that it violates normative rules is another. Not all disvalued behavior violates normative rules; nor is it certain that all behavior that violates normative rules is disvalued. Explaining stigma is not the same as explaining why people violate normative rules. In keeping with the more traditional and better established usage, it seems preferable to limit the reference of “deviant behavior” to the violation of normative rules.

Deviant behavior and deviant roles. It is necessary to distinguish between what a person has done and how he is publicly defined and categorized by members of his social world. It is mainly the latter—the social role attributed to him—that determines how others will respond to him. To steal is not necessarily to be defined as “a thief”; to have sexual relationships with one of the same sex is not necessarily to be defined as “a homosexual” (Reiss 1961). Behavior that violates social rules may or may not become visible and, if visible, may or may not result in attribution of a deviant role. Furthermore, deviant roles may be attributed even in the absence of violations of normative rules.

This distinction mirrors one of the perennial dilemmas of criminology. Is criminology concerned with all violations of criminal law or only with those violations that result in a legal adjudication of criminality? The former are infinitely more numerous than the latter, and data on their frequency and distribution are difficult to come by. The processes whereby some fraction of all violators come to be selected for legal stigmatization as “criminals” bear only a tenuous relationship to actual histories of criminal law violation. Furthermore, even legal attributions of criminality do not necessarily result in attributions of criminal roles in the world of everyday life. So, for example, “white-collar criminals” and income tax evaders, even if legally convicted, are not Likely to be defined as criminals in the world outside the courts and to experience the consequences of such definitions (Sutherland 1949).

The distinction between violating normative rules and being socially assigned to a deviant role is important. To explain one is not necessarily to explain the other. On the other hand, they interact in such ways that each must be taken into account in explaining the other. For example, to be adjudicated as an offender or even to be legally processed short of adjudication may have important effects on actual careers in criminal behavior (Tannenbaum 1938). It seems best to think of the field of deviant behavior as concerned with deviance in both these senses and with their interaction.

The relativity of deviant behavior. It is commonplace that normative rules vary enormously from one social system to another. It follows that no behavior is deviant in itself but only insofar as it violates the norms of some social system. This implies that the sociology of deviant behavior is not concerned with the encyclopedic study of prostitution, drug addiction, etc., but rather with the question: “How do we account for the occurrence of these and other behaviors in situations where they are interdicted or disvalued by normative rules?”

In fact, practical judgments of deviance in the world of everyday life take into account the collectivity membership of the actor. In general, a person comes under the jurisdiction of a system of normative rules when he is ascribed or successfully claims the role of member of a collectivity. This is equally true of subcollectivities—associations, cliques, academic institutions—within a larger collectivity. Indeed, to be subject to the normative rules of a collectivity comes very close to defining the social meaning of “membership” in a collectivity.

More generally, the same may be said of any role, not of collectivity roles alone. The expectations attaching to a role differentiate it from other roles and define the terms on which a person can be deviant. That this is true for such roles as husband and wife, doctor and patient, child and adult is elementary. It is equally true, but not so obvious, for such transient roles as those of the sick and the bereaved. To occupy either of these roles is to be exempted from some rules otherwise applicable, to be subjected to other rules, and to create special obligations for others in the role set of the sick or bereaved person. What it takes to be “sick” or “bereaved,” that is, the criteria of the roles, depends on the culture of the system. In any case, however, membership in those roles must be validated in terms of those criteria. To successfully claim membership and then, in some manner, to betray oneself as “not really sick” or “not really bereaved,” as these are defined in one’s culture, is to lose the exemptions that go with that role, as well as to incur the special contumely of falsely claiming membership in a role for which one lacks the true credentials.

In speaking of deviance one must specify the system of reference. The same behavior may be both deviant and nondeviant, relative to different systems in which the actor is implicated. However, we are still left with the question: “For any given system, who is to say what is deviant? Whose notions of right and wrong define the rules of the system?” This has been one of the most troublesome issues in deviance theory. It is not entirely satisfactory to say that the rules of the system are those which are institutionalized—that is, agreed upon, internalized, and sanctioned (Johnson 1960, p. 20). This definition provides no criterion for a “cut-off point” defining the degree of institutionalization necessary to determine deviance; in fact, the criteria of institutionalization are themselves multiple, and to some degree they vary independently.

Alternative responses to normative rules. The difficulty may arise partly from a failure to recognize the importantly different ways in which people may be oriented to normative rules. People sometimes seem to violate rules without guilt and without even the necessity for some mechanism for neutralizing guilt. The inference is typically drawn that such people do not recognize the rules, that—as far as they are concerned—these are not the rules of the system, except, perhaps, in the sense of a probability that others will react in a hostile way to certain behavior. Then the question does indeed arise: “Who is to say what is deviant?” We have perhaps been too quick to assume that to “accept,” “recognize,” “internalize,” “approve,” and “feel bound by” normative rules all mean the same thing. We suggest, on the contrary, that one may recognize a rule and even insist upon its propriety and necessity; one may accept the legitimacy of efforts to enforce the rule, even against oneself; and one may appraise the “goodness” of people in terms of conformity to the rule—but see the job of securing compliance with the rule as essentially somebody else’s job. One takes one’s chances and either “wins” or “loses.” It may be, for example, that “delinquent cultures” do not, in general, either “repudiate” (Cohen 1955) the rules of the “larger society,” “deny their legitimacy” (Cloward & Ohlin 1960), or “neutralize” (Sykes & Matza 1957) them, but somehow institutionalize this “gamester” attitude toward the rules.

Furthermore, it is necessary to distinguish between what may be called the attribution of “validity” to a rule and what might be called its “goodness” or “propriety.” One may consider a rule stupid or unreasonable and yet recognize that it is the rule and therefore that it properly may or even ought to be enforced until it is changed. This would indicate that, within a given social system, there are criteria of what constitute the rules of the system that transcend individual differences about what the rule ought to be or differences with respect to depth of “internalization” of the rule. This distinction suggests a distinction made by Merton ([1949] 1957, pp. 359–368) with respect to two kinds of deviants: those who violate rules for any of a number of reasons but do not question the rules themselves; and those who violate rules in order to activate certain processes that, in that system, are necessary to effect “repeal” of a rule or to replace it with another. However, not all who would change a rule necessarily feel justified in doing so by violating it. In fact, it could be argued that the basis of social order is not consensus on what ought to be the rules, indeed that dissensus in this regard is the normal state, especially in modern society. Rather, the basis of order is agreement on the criteria of what the rules are and on the mechanisms for changing them. The intention of this discussion is to suggest that if we take account of these different ways of orienting to normative rules, disagreement on what the rules are is not so great as is commonly assumed.

The sociology of normative rules. Acts are deviant by virtue of normative rules that make them so. Therefore, the forms and rates of deviance change as the rules themselves change. In consequence of such changes, acts may move from normatively approved to forbidden; from one deviant category to another; from some category of deviance to the category of “sickness” or in the other direction. And some categories of deviance, such as “heresy,” may become virtually extinct as part of the functioning conceptual equipment of a society. The study of such changes has been severely neglected, with some noteworthy exceptions in the sociology of law (Hall 1935). It should be stressed that changes in normative rules cannot be fruitfully investigated apart from the study of behavior oriented toward these normative rules. On the one hand, normative rules shape behavior; on the other hand, behavior is always testing, probing, and challenging normative rules, and in response to such behavior normative rules are continually being redefined, shored up, or abandoned (Mills 1959; Cohen 1965). The study of this interaction process is an integral part of the sociology of deviance.

Deviant behavior of collectivities. Whatever may be the metaphysical status of collectivities, for sociological purposes they are actors. They are social objects having names, public images, reputations, and statuses. They are publicly identified as authors of acts, and they are subject to rules. From the perspective of everyday life, collectivities, such as governments, corporations, fraternities, armies, labor unions, and churches, do things, and some of these things violate laws or other normative rules. Little is known about the cultural understandings on the basis of which acts (deviant and otherwise) are imputed to collectivities as distinct from their members severally, because the matter has received practically no systematic study except in the field of corporation law. It is true that the status of an event as the act of a collectivity is a definition imposed upon the situation by some public and depends upon a set of culturally given criteria for attributing acts to authors. However, this is equally true of the attribution of acts to individuals, and much of the law is concerned precisely with specifying and making explicit the criteria for such attribution.

All social acts are the outcomes of interaction processes. Whether they will be attributed to this concrete individual or that, or to a concrete individual or a collectivity, always depends on some culturally given schema through which action is viewed. Therefore, the neglect of deviant behavior of collectivities cannot be justified on sociological grounds. However, only in the area of “white-collar crime” (Sutherland 1949) has the subject even been approached.

Theories of deviant behavior. We will make no attempt here to inventory the theories bearing upon one or another variety of deviance, but will limit ourselves to identifying the main features of the two traditions that most closely approach a generalized theory of deviance. The discussion will deal with contrasting emphases. It does not intend to offer a rounded picture of either tradition or to suggest that they are incompatible.

The anomie tradition. The anomie tradition stems from the work of Durkheim (1897), especially his analysis of suicide. Its emphasis is structural and comparative, that is, it is concerned with explaining how variations in deviant behavior within and between societies depend on social structure. It is typically concerned with accounting for rates in contrast to individual differences. In Durkheim’s work the system properties that figured most prominently were the degree of social integration (variations in this respect accounting for suicide altruiste and suicide egoiste) and system changes that create discrepancies between men’s aspirations and the means for realizing them. The latter results in deregulation, or anomie, that is, a breakdown in the power of social norms to regulate and discipline men’s actions (variations in this respect accounting for suicide anomique). The elaboration of the anomie concept and the development of its implications constitute the anomie tradition.

Merton ([1949] 1957, pp. 131–194), in his seminal paper, “Social Structure and Anomie,” made formal and explicit, and generalized to the field of deviant behavior, the model that was only partly explicit in Durkheim’s analysis of suicide anomique. He emphasized the independent variability of both the culture goals and the accessibility of institutionalized means (i.e., means that are compatible with the regulative norms). The disjunction between goals and means, leading to strain and to anomie, depends on the values of both these variables. Adaptations to such strain involve either accepting or rejecting the culture goals and either accepting or rejecting the institutionalized means. Each adaptation therefore involves two dichotomous choices; the logically possible combinations of such choices yield a set of adaptations, one of which is conformity, and the others, varieties of deviance. This typology specifies the values of the dependent variable of the sociology of deviance-conformity. However, Merton’s work is only a modest beginning toward specifying the conditions that determine choice among the logical possibilities.

The Chicago tradition. The other tradition, which may fittingly be called the Chicago tradition, begins with the work of Thomas and Znaniecki, especially in The Polish Peasant (1920). This remarkable work is strikingly similar to Durkheim’s writings in many respects, especially in its concern with the breakdown in the regulative power of social norms. As the tradition has developed, however, it has taken on certain distinctive emphases. It has tended to focus not so much on deviance as an adaptation to strain as on deviance as culturally patterned behavior in its own right. It has emphasized the social-psychological problem of the process of socialization into deviant cultural patterns. This approach has been most systematically formulated by Clifford Shaw and Henry D. McKay (1942), by Edwin H. Sutherland in his theory of differential association (1942–1947), and most recently by Donald R. Cressey (1964).

Another development in the Chicago tradition stems from George Herbert Mead’s (1934) conception of the self as an internalized object built up, in a process of communicative interaction, out of the social categories, or roles, available in the culture milieu. According to this conception, behavior, deviant or otherwise, is supportive or expressive of a social role. It is a way of validating one’s claim to such a role by behavior that is culturally significant of membership in such a role. This approach has been most developed by Erving Goffman (1956; 1963) and Howard Becker (1963). In general, the Chicago tradition emphasizes the learned nature of deviant behavior, the role of association with others and of cultural models, the role of symbolism attaching to deviant behavior, and the gradual development of, and commitment to, deviant behavior in an extended interaction process (Short & Strodtbeck 1965).

Development of comprehensive theories. The most comprehensive single formulation in current theory of deviant behavior is that of Talcott Parsons (1951, chapter 7), which cannot be adequately subsumed under either tradition. It shares with the anomie tradition a stress on taxonomy, the concept “strain,” and the structural sources of deviance. It shares with the Chicago tradition a deep concern with interaction process and a conception of deviance and conformity as commitments that develop in the course of such interaction. To a unique degree it integrates deviance theory with a more general theory of social systems.

Two recent developments point toward a fusion of the Chicago and anomie traditions. Cohen (1955), starting with the conception of socially structured strain, has emphasized the role of interaction process in the creation, as well as the transmission, of culturally supported deviant solutions or deviant subcultures. Cloward and Ohlin (1960), addressing themselves also to the determinants of choice among possible adaptations to strain, have emphasized the role of the availability, at the points of strain, of illegitimate or deviant opportunities, with special emphasis on the opportunity to learn and to perform deviant roles. However, the reconciliation or integration of the conception of deviant behavior as a way of dealing with a problem of ends and means, on the one hand, and as a way of communicating and validating a claim to a role, on the other, has not yet been achieved (Cohen 1965).

Social disorganization

When we say that a game, a plan, a committee, a family, an army, or a society has been “disorganized,” we mean a number of closely related things: that it has been interrupted; that its identity is crumbling away; that its parts, although perhaps still recognizable, no longer hang together to constitute one thing; that it has disintegrated. In every case there is implied some criterion of sameness, wholeness, continuity, or organization. This criterion is the correspondence of something “out there” to some pattern, model, or cognitive map in the mind of the observer. It defines the essential attributes or “boundary conditions” of a given type of object; the term “disorganization” refers to a break in the correspondence of what is “out there” to such a pattern.

A social object, for example, a society or a family, is constructed of action. The pattern that defines such an object is a course of action or order of events. The same scene of action may be seen as containing several patterns: patterns that intersect and patterns within patterns. Whether a given object is disorganized depends on the pattern in terms of which it is defined.

It will be useful to distinguish several special senses of the term “disorganization” that are compatible with this more general definition.

From the perspectives of everyday life. This discussion will focus on the meanings of social events to the people who participate in them; in-deed, this is the starting point of all sociological analysis. Crap games, corporations, political parties, and parades enter the sociologist’s lexicon because the conceptual schemes of everyday life make it possible for people to envisage them as possibilities, to recognize their existence and demise, to orient their action toward them, to take part in them, and to wreck them.

One class of social objects may be called “activities”: cleaning a rifle, preparing for battle, accomplishing a mission, carrying out the Normandy campaign. Each of these is a sequence of action that, from the standpoint of the actors, “hangs together” and constitutes “one thing.” Each, in turn, is part of a larger, more extended activity. The sameness or continuity of an activity may depend, for the actor, on the correspondence of the flow of events to some set of conventional rules (Cohen 1959). The model here is the “game”; its constitutive order is defined by the rules of the game. There may be an infinite number of ways of continuing a game without “breaching its boundaries”; however, the set of possible events (“moves” or “plays”) that will, at any juncture in the game, continue the game, are given in the rules. Many of the nongame activities of everyday life (for example, a party, a religious service, a judicial proceeding), or at least some of their essential components, are likewise defined by conventional rules. The sameness of the activity may also depend, for the actor, on the continued orientation of action toward some goal. Although the concrete action that goes into it may vary from moment to moment as the situation changes and although the act is literally built up out of bits of diverse action, it is seen and felt to be the same act so long as it is oriented to the same goal. Building a house would be an example. In either case, what has been going on, whether it is still going on, and the conditions that would constitute an interruption or disorganization of the activity depend on the pattern that defines that kind of activity for its participants.

Another class of social objects may be called “collectivities.” Such are families, teams, corporations, nations, gangs. A collectivity exists when both a common identity and a capacity for action are attributed to the incumbents of a set of roles. In other words, the pragmatic tests of a collectivity are whether it has a socially defined membership and whether it is socially defined as an actor. The collectivity ceases to be a “going concern” and is destroyed or “disorganized” when the common identity is extinguished and it is no longer treated as an actor.

We have little systematic knowledge about the patterns to which structures of interaction must correspond in order to constitute collectivities in the world of everyday social life. However, if we are to talk about the “disorganization of collectivities,” we must know what constitutes a breach of their boundaries; to do this we must determine what order of events defines a collectivity of a given sort for members of the society in question.

From the social scientist’s perspective. Structures of action may exist as objects for the social scientist that are not social objects from the perspective of the “man in the street.” A “market structure,” a “substructure of goal attainment,” a “homeostatic process,” and an “ecological equilibrium”—all are orderings of events in terms of some pattern that is part of the conceptual equipment of the social scientist. If these patterns are precisely defined, they also imply a set of criteria for defining “disorganization” of the respective objects.

Disorganization as the spread of deviance. The definition of disorganization in terms of the spread of deviance has a long history in sociology. Thomas and Znaniecki defined social disorganization as a “decrease of the influence of existing social rules of behavior upon individual members of the group” and went on to say that “this decrease may present innumerable degrees, ranging from a single break of some particular rule by one individual up to a general decay of all the institutions of the group” (1920, vol. 4, p. 20). The principal subject matter of most textbooks entitled “social disorganization” is deviant behavior. According to this view, disorganization may be reduced and the integrity of the system restored either by strengthening social controls or by redefining norms so that behavior defined as deviant becomes normatively acceptable (Thomas & Znaniecki 1920, vol. 4, p. 4; Mills 1959).

Whatever the merits of this conception of disorganization, it cannot provide a general definition of disorganization. Certainly there are many structures, visible from the specialized perspectives of the social scientist, that cannot be defined in terms of the conformity of action to normative rules. From the standpoint of the perspectives of everyday life as well, it seems important to distinguish between deviance and disorganization. “The rules of the game” define an activity or collectivity, that is, the pattern to whicn action must correspond if it is to constitute a certain sort of thing. The normative rules, departure from which is deviance, specify how people ought to behave; they are criteria for judging the moral status of an act. For example, there are “dirty” ways of playing a game, unethical ways of carrying on a business, and “inhuman” ways of fighting a war. Still, they are unequivocally recognizable as integral to the respective activities, as “moves” in the respective games; and the rules of the game typically define the “next moves” that would constitute the continuity of the game.

Precisely because deviance is so intimately related to disorganization but is not in general identical with it, it is necessary to distinguish them and treat the relationship between them as a problem for theory and empirical investigation.

One of the conditions of the survival of any social activity or collectivity is that people be motivated to “play the game,” to take up their positions in the structure of interaction and contribute the moves that maintain the continuity of the structure in question. One of the general conditions of disorganization, then, is breakdown of motivation, and anything that undermines motivation contributes to disorganization. It is elementary that conformity to normative rules—to some degree that cannot be stated in general terms—is fundamental to the maintenance of motivation. When people elect to participate in any social structure, they subject themselves to a certain discipline; they commit resources; and they forgo alternatives. In other words, they pay a price. Whatever the several reasons for which they join, their ends are attainable only if others “play the game,” and play it according to certain restrictions defined by the normative rules. Violations of the normative understandings tend to erode trust and undermine motivation. A certain amount of deviance is expected. Although disappointing, it is not surprising; it is allowed for in advance, and does not seriously impair motivation. However, at some point the spread of deviance and the consequent erosion of trust will destroy motivation and precipitate disorganization.

On the other hand, deviance may contribute to stability and preservation of the common enterprise. Normative rules are usually adapted to typical, recurring situations and tend to produce results that enhance the viability of the enterprise. however, rules are categorical, and situations often arise in which conformity to the normative rules will thwart the attainment of the common objective and weaken or destroy the structure. In short, there are times when someone must violate the normative rules if the enterprise is to succeed and thrive. Sometimes there are implicit rules (patterns of “institutionalized evasion”) that give flexibility to the normative rules so that the deviance is deviance only in an equivocal sense (Williams 1951). But this is not always so, and therefore the relationship between deviance and disorganization is rendered still more problematic.

Finally, it is probably true that some kinds of deviance, even if not motivated by collectivity concerns, create the conditions necessary for the stability of other substructures of the same system or of the system as a whole. Kingsley Davis (1937), for example, has made this argument relative to prostitution.

Disorganization theory. There has been relatively little attention to the explicit development of disorganization theory, as compared with deviance theory. However, the beginnings of such theory are implied in more general theories and conceptions of social systems, such as general systems theory, interaction process analysis, structural–functional theory, and the input–output, homeostatic, equilibrium, and cybernetic models. They tend to share the following ideas.

A social system is, from one point of view, a mechanism that operates for its own perpetuation. It is what it is because the participants are motivated to behave in certain ways characteristic of the system and because the situation of action makes possible these ways and restricts the alternatives. In order to preserve its structure (or so much of that structure as is constitutive of its identity) that motivation and situation must somehow be reconstituted, or other motivations and situations must be created that will generate behavior coresponding to the same pattern. However, the system, as a product of its own functioning, tends to thwart the creation or re-creation of the conditions of its own survival. For example, it tends to transform the environment to which it has become adapted; to use up or to lose its own human and nonhuman resources; to generate distance and distrust, resentment and alienation among its members; and to create new situations for which its culture provides no definitions or instructions. Various lists have been drawn up of conditions that must be met or tasks that must be performed if the system is not to fly apart in consequence of its own functioning (for example, see Aberle et al. 1950; Bales 1950; Parsons 1951, pp. 26–36).

Most systems do manage to preserve their identity. Therefore, the functioning of the system must also produce effects that correct or compensate for the centrifugal tendencies it produces. In particular, the structure of such systems must include mechanisms for picking up information about threatening changes in the environment or in the system itself and for communicating that information to positions in the system that are capable of taking corrective action. Such action, in turn, may consist of responses tending to reduce or eliminate the change or further modifications elsewhere in the system, enabling the system as a whole to maintain its boundaries or identity in the face of the change.

Systems do not always succeed. Some are wholly extinguished; others suffer radical disorganization of various substructures but cling to those minimal attributes that define their identity. Some have standby mechanisms that can be activated in time to do the job of some injured organ or to get about the work of reconstruction before the damage proves lethal to the system; and others do not. These differences have been most systematically studied in connection with disasters (Baker & Chapman 1962). In general, it is the task of a theory of social disorganization to account for variations in the ability of social structures to preserve their identity.

Albert K. Cohen

[Directly related are the entriesCrime; Norms; Social problems. Other relevant material may be found inDisasters; Drugs, article ondrug addiction: social aspects; Social control; and in the biography ofSutherland.]


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