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Transgression: the essence of order?

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We do not talk about transgression enough. We do not ask enough questions, and we certainly do not have all the answers…

(When) is it a “crime”?

Transgression is at the limits of the discussions on normativity. We think of transgression as the limit of the norms. For example, our attitudes to transgression are embodied in the rejection of the degenerate criminal monster. There is no similarity between us and the “transgressor” - the monster. We push the crime outside of our normative system, and devalue the one who crossed the line. In other words, we become aware of the norm once it has been violated, and we are quick to punish that transgression.

We are then “worried” and question both the norm and the transgression, and by criminalizing the transgressor we often reinforce the norm.  At the same time, when the transgression led to some positive outcomes, thinking and acting outside the box is not criminalized… So, norms can be transgressed when it comes to scientific invention and valuable reform, and sometimes even entrenched beliefs and norms are overturned.  “I protest not serve” has different meanings dependent on the context and particularly the outcome of the transgression.

The “good”, the “bad” or the “ugly uncertainty”?

But how can we differentiate between a positive and a negative outcome of a transgression? Normativity is often taken to be permanent, norms are not. Some say that “good and right never falters”. For most of us, our own normative horizon is the “normal”, the “taken for granted”, the “good” that does not and should not be swayed. In order to keep things as we know them, transgressions of the norms are crucial. For the consolidation of the norms, we need transgressors to make explicit what is otherwise implicit.

In everyday life, we engage in continual rule testing, in a monitoring of potential transgressive acts precisely to find the reassurance that our moral horizon is safe and protected. What is good about a transgression is the reassurance it brings that our previous norms should prevail. What is potentially bad is when transgressions bring to light inherent problems in the normative system, leading to a destabilizing threat and need of a “revolution”… 

In some situations, some groups are constantly placed outside of the normative order, precisely as reminders of what we cherish in the in-group that the particular out-group does not share. Specific characteristics are imputed to marginal groups to help “us” define ourselves as “normal”. For example, defining the Roma or Travellers as “dirty” makes “us” feel “cleaner”. Attributing immorality and inability to lower status groups establishes the moral order, in which the dominant group norms are promoted as superior. What is “good” belongs to us, the “bad” belongs to the others. 

In other situations, the instinctive unsophisticated and emotional reactions to transgressions are themselves the denominators of “good” or “bad”. On one hand, we have little to doubt: driving a plane into the World Trade Centre is wrong, advocating political change with ballot paper in one hand and gun in the other is wrong. On the other hand, political revolution may feel good in the moment: in Tahrir square, there was a sense of suspension of order, where the future outcome was unknown and the potentialities open.  The reactions in the moment are loaded with positive emotions that typically emerge in collective action, and with the power of numbers. But, after a while, these moments of crisis/revolution are followed by reflection and judgement on what norms changed or what should not change. In the moment when the transgression is taking place, we react to it without reflexive understanding. And yet, it is the memory and interpretation of the transgressive event that becomes key to the establishment of the new order, and to the final labelling of that transgression as “good” or “bad”.


So we need transgressions to reinforce our moral superiority. We often achieve this in a particular intergroup setting by scapegoating particular groups, or by criminalizing the transgressor and pushing him out of our own ordered worlds. The “good” and the “bad” of transgressions is situated and negotiated in specific group or individual interactions. There is also a time and timing dimension to those interactions: the uncertainty of the nature of a transgression is replaced by either a positive or a negative appraisal of the event, based on the interpretation and consequences of the transgression. What is clear, above the “good” and the “bad” or the “uncertain”, is that transgression is most likely a permanent condition of our world, as permanent as normativity is often taken to be.

If transgression is “certain” why do we unequivocally condemn it as taboo? 

How does transgression work? Do we need new norms to deal with transgression in the moment, and after the moment? While normativity allows for interpretation and permits ambiguity within the safety of stable norms, transgression banishes ambiguity, does it not? It seems critical and extreme, black and white. Or is it? Maybe its own very existence is also impermanent, for many reasons – and not just because today’s radicals sometimes might be tomorrow’s conservatives – such is the uncertainty inherent in many rules.

Reflecting on the impact of the transgression opens up the space for ambiguity to be renegotiated. Transgressions create cognitive ambiguity and a space of disagreement, an “in between” the previous order of things and the potentiality of a new order.  

Critique opens up a space for another critique: by reflecting on the act of transgression, we generate new interpretations for the transgression. Do we accept the change, or do we protect the previous order of things? When a new normative order is established, it is now permissible to discuss the past transgression. But the act of transgression in itself is forgotten, and transgression is just condemned as taboo and wrong. Even terrorism in a just cause loses its lustre when the so-called terrorists become the new rulers and find themselves under threat from yesterday’s ‘conservatives’.

Focusing on transgression opens up possibilities, and keeps the “system” fluid. But, a conservative normative paradigm dominates our thinking: the hero and the perpetrator consolidate each other’s identities. The winner makes the rules: the debate on whether a movement is a “revolution” or not,is defined by the rules of the current normative order. Yet, we don’t talk enough about the positive role of transgressions, and we don’t question the criminalization of transgressors or how it actually benefits the social system.

It’s an antique gem, framed by Durkheim amongst others, but when today do we talk about the social progressiveness of breaking taboos or challenging the law?  What happened to the sixties and seventies? How often do our present media celebrate the creativity of the deviant?

Transcending into making transgressions normative?

Transgression as a process, and crucially as a thinking paradigm, makes categories open to challenge. Undermining taboos allows the discussion of the positive role of transgression, and provides an escape or relief for those who are otherwise condemned to be thrown and actively kept in the dungeon of marginality. Making transgression a “normative” practice allows us to include it in the “normal” state of affairs. But is it too dangerous to have transgression included in the normative order? Does transgressive thinking necessarily lead to a loss of social or even individual cohesion and security? If transgression becomes a norm, will it lose its function of protecting our normative horizon?

At TAPSS, we did not have the answers, so we applied the well-known dictum of Claude Lévi-Strauss: “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he's one who asks the right questions.” This way we can retain the innocence of the intellectual’s need for continuous mental transgression.

This piece is a product of an experimental collective writing session on 31 May 2013 as part of the week-long Theory and Philosophy Summer School (TAPSS) hosted by University College Cork at Blackwater Castle, County Cork. The session was steered by, and the product edited by, Colin Sumner, sociology professor at UCC and editor of CrimeTalk.


Anca MinescuDepartment of Psychology and Centre for Social Issues Research, University of Limerick, Ireland.

Lorcan Byrne is finishing his doctorate and is a part-time lecturer in the Department of Sociology at UCC.

Tristan Laing is based in the Philosophy department at York University, Ontario, Canada, and is a philosopher, musician, political
organizer, and traveller.

Tony O’Connor now retired, formerly a Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, University College Cork.

Lukasz Dabkowski is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology, University College Cork.



is currently a research student at Boğazici University’s Philosophy Ph.D. Program in Istanbul, Turkey.

William Brady, Planning and Sustainable Development, Centre for Planning Education, UCC.

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