Erickson’s Deviance in Wayward Puritans

Deviance is about communities

Deviance is relative to the community within which it happens. And communities are based on boundaries. Physical boundaries as well as cultural or social psychological boundaries. It is even possible to have a community that doesn’t actually have a physical space that exists only in people’s headspace. This notion of non-physical space is a little challenging and we will be coming back to it throughout the semester, but it can range from an individual psychology, to the psychology of a group (we might call that culture, or mythology). For now we will call these symbolic boundaries.

In or Out

The next important thing is that communities are groups of people (obviously right!?). But they are not random groups of people, they are groups of people which share some identification with the community, and one is either a member or one is not. The whole debate about illegal immigration is whether or not those people should be members of the US citizenry. When a church excommunicates someone, they are saying ‘you are no longer a member.’ When the military dishonorably discharges someone, they have no claim on military privileges.

Community membership goes both ways though. One can be a US citizen after following the requite procedures, taking the oath and signing the papers. Someone is either baptized into a church or converts into the church, and once in, they are members just like everyone else. After making it through basic, and keeping your nose clean during your time served, a military vet enjoys the privileges of military membership his or her whole life.


Membership in a community can therefore be thought of as defined by these symbolic boundaries mentioned above. You are either in or out defined by some set of rules (some groups and hence their rules are more formal than others). Follow these rules and you can be one of us, break these rules and you are not one of us.

These boundaries, these rules are policed by the community. Recognizing that communities span from small informal friend groups to large formal bureaucratic states (like the US), therefore means that the ways those boundaries are maintained range from small and informal to large and formal. The police do the job formally, along with the legal structure that writes laws and the courts and corrections structure that enforces them. For smaller groups, gossip, insults, disagreements do the job informally.

There are formal and informal ceremonies for defining who is in or out. Court is one of those formal ceremonies, after the ritual decision you are either allowed in our put out to jail. Being shunned by the Mean girls for not wearing pink on Monday is an informal but very effective way of doing the same thing

One of my favorite realizations follows from this. Some (most?) culture and media is about defining and maintaining those boundaries. News, gossip, crime shows, radio preachers — much of this stuff is an ongoing discussion about what is ok in our community and what is not. I can’t imagine how much quieter our media would be if this boundary discussion were filtered out.

That leads to the most important point of all of this, and it is a defining point in understanding deviance sociologically. And anyone who didn’t read this far is going to be frustrated. Deviance is not some malfunction of society, but rather a necessary part of society.

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