Chris Uggen's Blog: post on outlaws at <i>times</i>/freakonomics blog

Thursday, October 16, 2008

post on outlaws at times/freakonomics blog

the fine folks at the new york times freakonomics desk gave me a few hours to respond to the following question:

Does America still have an outlaw group? If so, why do you consider them outlaws? Does society need outlaws?

hmm. you know i didn't want to take even a minute to reply, but outlaws? first i thought of waylon, then i thought of hughie, then i figured that a sociologist like me really can't resist this sort of invitation. so i condensed a couple weeks of my deviance lectures into about 400 words -- and i dared them to print the words badass and bloody snot.

my reply is below, but check the full freakonomics quorum for responses by economist peter leeson, historian stephen mihm, and folklorist graham seal. our analysis is necessarily quick n' dirty, but the combination of responses might be a decent classroom conversation-starter.

here's my li'l essay:

Oh, hell yes, there are outlaws in America — and everywhere else, for that matter. Anyone who breaks rules is in some sense an outlaw, subject to social or legal sanctions if their outlawry is detected. These penalties operate on a sliding scale, depending on whether the outlaw smokes cigarettes or meth, pirates DVD’s or ships, or violates college hate-speech codes or state hate-crime laws.

But our standards for outlaws are relative, not absolute; they change over time and social space.

Societies are constantly raising or lowering the bar, outlawing formerly accepted behaviors — like smoking — and legalizing former crimes, like lotteries.

In any group, those with greater power tend to control the rule-making process. And they sometimes go to great lengths to make outlaws out of those who might threaten their power, by restricting their ability to vote or work or have children. Regardless of who holds power, societies operate with a basic set of rules that necessarily beget a basic set of rule violators.

Just imagine, as sociologist Emile Durkheim did, a society of saints made up of exemplary citizens. Would there be no outlaws in such a group? No! They’d pick at each other for minor peccadilloes and trivial misdeeds. In that crowd, even a burp or blemish could mark one as a real bada–.

Nobody is arguing that contemporary America is a society of saints. To the contrary, it often seems as though we’re “defining deviancy down,” as senator and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it.

Cultural critics of the hell-in-a-handbasket school worry that our blasé attitudes toward once-shocking behavior –- network telecasts of ultimate fighters beating the bloody snot out of one another, for example — diminish us all. But don’t forget that we’re simultaneously outlawing other nasty conduct that shocks our collective conscience, such as date rape or sexual harassment.

Whether you view our culture’s current constellation of outlaws as ennobling or diminishing is largely a matter of value preferences.

And remember that outlaws put in some important work for a society. When they expose their bodies at the Super Bowl, our reactions — the extent to which we freak out — tell us something about the current boundaries between proper and improper public conduct. When outlaws are arrested at a political convention, we get a heads-up that change is in the wind. When outlaws sell sex or drugs, we get a safety valve to release pent-up frustrations.

Even when outlaws commit consensus crimes like murder, we get a needed opportunity to publicly condemn them and reaffirm our shared values with our fellow citizens.

While society needs outlaws, it doesn’t need a permanent outlaw class. We’d do well to remember that today’s outlaws are tomorrow’s good citizens; and there’s no citizen more zealous than an outlaw redeemed.


At 8:38 AM, Blogger Bret Bucklen said...

I read this post on outlaws and posted my own response on the freaknomics blog. I also posted my response on my own brand spanking new blog, "bloggingcriminology": But I figured what the heck, I might as well post it again here. Here's what I posted:
"I’m writing in response to Chris Uggen’s section in this piece on “outlaws”. As a Ph.D. student in Criminology at the University of Maryland, I’m obviously familiar with Uggen’s work and was both excited to see him writing here on this blog and interested to see what he had to say. His answer clearly demonstrates an affinity to the “status characteristic” hypothesis of labeling theory (e.g., the writings of Tannenbaum, Erickson, Becker, etc.). The part of his response that piqued my curiosity was his statement that “our standards for outlaws are relative, not absolute; they change over time and social space”. I agree that this is the case. However I’m more interested in the “should”. In other words, should this be the case? Is there a definitive standard outside of our time and space from which to we should define deviancy, where does this standard come from, and should we as a society move from our current relativistic definitions of deviancy to such an absolute standard if it exists? The problem with our relativistic definitions of deviancy (or outlaws), as I believe Uggen hints around, is that some are considered deviants (or outlaws) in their own time but are viewed down the corridors of history as heroes and saints. Some of my own personal heroes were considered outlaws during their own time. I do believe that there is an absolute standard of deviancy that separates from our human, relativistic definitions of deviancy and would be interested in engaging in discussion with anyone interested in the topic. I also believe, as Durkheim did, that deviancy is normal to a society. I believe that human nature is towards deviancy as opposed to conformity. In true “social control” fashion, I believe the question to be answered by theorists/researchers is why we’re not all deviants (or delinquents/criminals, as is the question most often addressed by social control theorists in the field of criminology).
The second concept that I believe is a natural extension of a discussion of “outlaws” (or deviancy) is the concept of redemption. Uggen makes a brief mention of redemption in his last paragraph. This is a concept that is making a come-up in our field, especially in the area of what is referred to as restorative justice and prisoner reentry. I believe we as a society need to better understand and embrace the concept of redemption. As Thomas Hill put it, how can we as a society promote moving one from “hell-raiser to family man”? Some of my mentors in the field discuss this in terms of “desistance” from delinquency/criminal behavior. I wonder, can one go through a process of desistance from deviancy and what does that look like? This is a topic that I’m fairly certain Uggen would be interested in based on his publications. Again, I’d enjoy engaging in a discussion on the topic."

At 2:34 PM, Blogger John Archer said...

Here's my take on the whole situation. Being of a criminal background,I believe the focus on ones criminal background makes a person less likely to survive the
real world. Recidivism should be the focus rather than the person that comitted the crime and their background.The prejudice that the community is allowed by law to hold against a person fresh out of prison that just wants to get on with there life is a grim reality that we as a community should want to change. It drives the felon to a survival mode and criminal activity is how they have to survive.They have paid their debt to society and it should not be thrown in their face at every turn.


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