Deviance as a Property of Social Systems

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Deviance as a Property of Social Systems

Numerous sociological perspectives view deviance as a property of the social system. The functional theories already examined illustrate this principle. We will now examine violence as a property of social systems. Four patterns of violence will be examined: violent gangs, police brutality, mass murder, and prison violence. Contrasts between individualistic or psychological explanations and sociological explanations of violence will be explored in order to illustrate the sociological imagination as applied to the study of deviance.
1. Gang violence has often been accounted for in our society in individualistic terms and sometimes explained as a consequence of some flaw of either (a) the individual gang members, or (b) the failure of law and order and the criminal justice system.

Individualistic Approach: This approach locates the violence in the flawed nature of the individual gang member. (a) If the gang members had only been loved more in the family, supervised better, punished more consistently, less harshly, or adults spent more time with them, etc., there would be fewer troubled youth on our streets to create the violent gangs.

Or alternatively, it may locate the problem in the flawed and perhaps permissive nature of the criminal justice system. (b) if there were more laws or they were harsher, there were more police on the streets to enforce the laws, if courts handed out stiffer sentences, and institutions did not coddle offenders there would also be fewer violent gang members. Another popular solution to gang violence is to halt immigration and deport immigrants on the assumption that immigrants bring their troubles and patterns of violence to the U.S. from foreign shores.

Sociological Approach: In contrast to psychological explanations and the breakdown of law and order, are social system analyses that suggest should all delinquents be arrested today; new gang members would take their place tomorrow. If the social forces that bring violent gangs into existence are not altered, they will keep producing new gang members as fast as they are incarcerated. The gangs are products of the organization of society and are believed to be symptoms of underlying problems in society.

If we look back over time, gangs a century ago were commonly found among certain neighborhoods and ethnic groups. The gangs most often did not exist in their countries of origin and so it was not a result of immigrants’ problems brought to our shores. Where did these violent gangs come from and where did they go? The answer can be found in an historical analysis of gangs. Early last century, gangs formed among the Italians, Irish, Germans and Swedes, who were recent immigrants who arrived in this country with few resources, were poor, uneducated, lacked fluency in English, and had few good job opportunities. They were disenfranchised from the larger society and lived in the poorest areas and found difficulty finding adequate employment. However, over time, as the ethnic group became assimilated, were upwardly mobile and absorbed into the mainstream of American society, the gangs disappeared on their own without benefit of social workers or increased policing.

Ecological analysis shows currently gangs are not randomly distributed in the community. They are found most commonly among Blacks, Latinos, and some recent Asian immigrants because these groups are currently disenfranchised from the rewards of society.

The emergence of the violent gangs, therefore, is a symptom of an underlying problem of poverty, inequality, discrimination and disenfranchisement in society. The gangs emerge out of these specific social conditions. Levels of violence increase with levels of unemployment and inequality in the community.

Gang members do not necessarily recognize this as they have little political consciousness. As a result, they turn their aggression towards others in their same situation that they see themselves as in competition with or threatened by. Thus the problem of violent gangs won't be solved until the underlying problem and injustice in society is rectified, as the emergence of gangs is a consequence of the way society is organized. In this sense violent gangs are a property of the social system. Their existence reflects a problem in society, and they will not disappear unless the underlying problem in society is solved.

2. Police brutality remains a contentious and continual problem in most urban communities. It has been responsible for numerous deaths, riots and tensions in most large cities. Common sense understandings and officials in the community often view police brutality in individualistic terms as a consequence of a few rotten apples or violence prone individuals in the police force. Blue ribbon panels charged with rectifying police brutality, offer such recommendations as hiring candidates with college educations, more minorities and females, better psychiatric screening, higher wages, and more adequate training of officers as solutions to the problems. These are individualistic explanations suggesting the violence is a property of the type of person who comes to work as a police officer. If we can change the kind of person who comes to work as a police officer, we can eliminate the problem, because the violence is believed to be in the nature of the person who comes to the job.

A social system analysis would suggest that the role of police officer might cause any person who occupied the role, over time, to become more cynical, hostile or brutal which would be a consequence of the nature of the work and role the individual occupies. In addition, informal organization among officers, described as the police subculture, has also been identified as a systemic source of police violence. Reiss' (1968) study of police brutality suggests it was largely a consequence of the informal code of the police subculture.

Their code requires violence be exercised toward suspects who are disrespectful in order to establish control over the streets and coerce respect from a reluctant public. Examination of the Rodney King beating showed much outrage in the community, but most officers involved showed little surprise and regarded this as “business as usual.” When a Highway Patrol officer tried to stop the other officers who were administering the beating, they were told to mind their business, that it was L.A.P.D. business, which reflected their informal code as part of the police subculture. Some of the officers involved had prior histories of violence toward citizens in the community, yet they still remained on the force. Supervisors were seemingly tolerant of such behavior and few serious punishments were administered, reflecting the larger bureaucracy’s acceptance of such behavior. Administrators have themselves often been a part of that subculture. Thus the violence is tacitly condoned by the structure of authority and the police bureaucracy, which is closely tied to the informal organization and police subculture.

Therefore it is the whole system, which needs to be changed in order to reduce police brutality. Since the brutality is system related, lodged in the organization and subculture of the police, no change will occur as a result of changes in personnel. Only the names of the players change, if the game remains unchanged. Hiring college graduates or minorities without changing the sub-cultural norms will result in college graduates and minorities beating the heads of citizens in the community. Replacing the chief of police rarely solves the problem as many cities learn the hard way. Perhaps a restructuring of police control away from the bureaucracy to some form of community control could alter the nature of the system and reduce police brutality.

3. Mass Murder has been investigated by Milgram (1963) who was concerned with the question of who would be capable of murder on a large scale, perhaps even millions of persons such as in Nazi Germany, Armenia, Rwanda, etc. Atrocities in Viet Nam and Iraq stain the character of nations and often shock the world. Individualistic explanations suggest only deranged, pathological, or inhuman monsters are capable of such brutal acts.

Milgram raised the question whether Nazis were inhuman monsters or insane or were just ordinary people capable of such brutal acts? He set up a now classic experiment to see if ordinary persons, if directed by someone in authority, would be capable of administrating electrical torture to another person. He found the majority of Americans, 66%, did so when requested by an authority figure. In that experiment the authority had little real power over the subjects, and yet they followed his orders to harm others.

The power of authority and social forces is very great and not only causes conformity but can cause deviance as well. Milgram concluded that to protect democracy; it is the responsibility of each citizen to "question authority." In any case, this social context was sufficient to elicit violent responses from most individuals exposed to it.

4. Prison violence. Prisons are established to isolate and control individuals who are considered dangerous to society. Yet prisons, despite the high walls, guns, and electronic monitoring, are one of the most violent places in society. Two explanations have been offered for prison violence. An individualistic explanation is reflected in the "importation" theory, which suggests violence prone individuals are increasingly incarcerated and continue the violent behavior they manifested in the streets inside the prison. That is, they import the pre-existing violent behavior into the prison. This explains the violence by the nature of the persons incarcerated in prison.

An alternative more sociological explanation suggests that despite the individual's prior history of violence, the prison itself makes individuals more prone to violence. This has been labeled the "emergence" theory.

Zimbardo (1973) conducted the classic Stanford Prison Experiment where he created a mock prison and placed volunteers who were screened for prior histories of violence and mental instability, in it. If the importation is correct, then the well-behaved persons should continue their pro-social behavior in that context. And if the emergence theory were correct, one would expect violence to emerge. What he found was that violence erupted in the mock prison within a few days and was so disruptive the experiment had to be halted. This lent strong support to the emergence theory, which asserted that the violence was a response to and a property of the social system of the prison.

Thus all the above examples suggest these different forms of violence were properties of the social systems and the roles and social contexts in which individuals were embedded.

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