1

CrimeTalk

An educational resource at the heart of criminological teaching, debate, and research

The Sociology of Deviance: an Obituary by Colin Sumner

First published in 1994 by the Open University Press and Continuum (USA).

Now published as a pdf in 2012 and in paperback in 2013 with CrimeTalk Books, xi and 340pp. £3.95 or €5 and £15 or €18 respectively, plus postage and packing.

To buy, contact Colin directly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

"...remarkably well written and informative……very well done indeed." [the late Edwin M. Lemert]

"...quite simply, a classic - a must read for any serious student of criminology, one that has stood, and will continue to stand, the test of time." [Steve Tombs, Open University]

"...an erudite, engaging and provocative history of sociological ideas... an outstanding piece of sociology." [Ian Loader, The Sociological Review]

“…an excellent essay that should be required reading for scholars engaged in deviance research….. an excellent example of the insights that can be gained by widening one’s theoretical and methodological horizon.” [Sudhir Venkatesh, American Journal of Sociology]

"Seldom have I been so impressed; the breadth and depth of scholarship in this work is awesome." [Charles E. Marske, St Louis U.]

“…a work of impressive scope, imagination and originality….. a distinctive contribution… essential reading for all students of criminology….” [Paul Roberts, Modern Law Review]

"What was meant and praised as a necessary, courageous and successful step of liberating and emancipating the discipline of criminology from the narrow boundaries of the penal law turns out to be another scientific blind alley - now at the level of society. This is the central message of Colin Sumner's fine and scholarly study on the conceptual career of 'deviance' - a literary journey that covers a century long period of theoretical reflection and analysis." [Fritz Sack, Hamburg University]

“…a brisk and quite outstanding tour… incisive and potent… penetrative and timely... deserves a wide readership” [International Journal of the Sociology of Law]

In this obituary to a branch of sociology whose central idea no longer exhibits any vitality, Colin Sumner charts the rise and fall of both the field of enquiry and the concept that were important to Western modernist thinking about morality in the twentieth century. The analysis is a thoroughgoing autopsy. The corpse is examined in detail, its features documented and set in their historical and cultural context, and the flaws that weakened it are revealed. This a critique that recovers the full meaning of its object in its own time and respectfully appreciates its virtues and justifications. In an unusual addition, the concept of deviance and its study in sociology are also judged against contemporary approaches that see deviance as not so much a scientific descriptor as another moral censure for the same old targets.

To do full justice to this very twentieth century liberal idea that contradicted and teased the old absolutist ideas of normality and moral health, the development of the sociology of deviance is paralleled to the history of modern art with its major doubts in the validity of flat perspective and the possibility of capturing a world beyond our subjective and emotional impressions.

The first part traces the beginnings in relativism and the 'roaring twenties', before documenting the formation of the concept of social deviation in late 1930's America - in a world where class, racial divisions and social structure seemed recalcitrant, immune to the New Deal and underpinning yet undercutting all ideas of unhealthy or anti-social behaviour. The second part looks at the heyday of the field and the concept in the early 1960's as arguably the most dynamic field in sociology at that time. In its pomp, the sociology of deviance seemed to show that the world of the deviant, whether that of the bohemian, the cool cat, the homosexual or the mobster, was a coherent, rational sub-culture formed in part in reaction to mainstream culture with all its censorious pompousness and hypocrisy.

In the third and final part, the author documents the radical criticism of conventional social control that emerged in this field in the late 1960's as Cliff's 'we're all going on a summer holiday' was replaced by Mick's 'street-fightin' man'. Not only could the control efforts of the parental generation be seen to make things worse and amplify deviance, but they could be linked directly to certain unwholesome vested interests within corporate capitalism and the military-industrial complex of Western imperialism. The caring 1930's anthropology of 'other cultures' had been spurned by an empire striking back. The cultures of 'others' have long since ceased to be in a mood to be censured for their authentic responses to a world that is not of their making. Deviance stands naked, exposed as the suppressed world of those who think they are normal.

Colin Sumner is creator and editor of CrimeTalk. He is also a professor of sociology and Head of the School of Sociology and Philosophy, UCC. Cork, Ireland. For many years he was a sociology lecturer at Cambridge University, at its Institute of Criminology, before becoming the Head of the Law School he established at the University of East London. 

Latest to Register Interest

  • Garrypn
  • GregorySuix
  • nwkkyjid
  • Gordon94
  • JamesDuh
  • Albertogoags
  • EdmundMOF
  • BoberPerty
  • Igniciva
  • ajuxosaz
Text Size

CrimeTalk app now available

Access CrimeTalk articles and materials in two clicks!

Click on the icon below to download the app.

Available on most Android devices.