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 Duke University

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Volume 8, Number 2

Fall/Winter 2010

Book Review of:

Higgins, Paul, and Mitch Mackinem. Thinking About Deviance: A Realistic Perspective, 2nd Edition. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press, 2008.
ISBN-10: 0-7425-6199-2

Reviewed by: 
O. Alexander Miller and Nicole Jones

    Thinking About Deviance reflects the perspectives of two established scholars: Higgins, who has accumulated years of research experience, and Mackinem, who has had direct contact with people legally classified as deviant. The authors have taken a constructivist approach to explaining deviance, and as such, the book argues against an absolutist perspective, and encourages readers to see deviance as an impression that is constructed when individuals try to meet the challenges of daily living in shifting circumstances. The text uses a wealth of real-life examples to broaden understanding of deviance and its role in society. After a careful examination of ways to look at deviance, the authors conclude each chapter with a list of activities, some of which require readers to list their own deviant activities, conduct interviews and examine secondary data. 

    Some of the more interesting points covered are in: Chapter 2 discussing a common error of using codified laws as the sole basis for deciding who and what is deviant. The authors make the case that all people are deviant by degrees, but most do not overtly break the law. "Ninety-nine percent of adults who were surveyed in New York City more than fifty years ago, admitted to committing at least one of the forty-nine offenses listed on the survey. At the time of the survey, subjects did not have a criminal record!" (p25). Chapter 3 states the authors' definition of deviance as "… that to which people react negatively or would do so if they knew about it." Using this definition, readers are asked to consider how they produce standards which are used to determine deviance (for example, through voting) and how much people rely on secondary data to set standards of what is acceptable.

    Chapter 5 focuses on controversial examples of deviance such as infanticide, homosexual encounters, and cannibalism. It's safe to say that a good portion of readers would take issue with these acts. For example, in some African tribes it is customary for boys to engage in homosexual activity as rites of passage to puberty. But as the authors quickly point out, "those behaviors that people find loathsome have been permitted, even encouraged or required, in some societies" (p56). 

    Chapter 10 explores answers to the question: what causes people to commit deviance? This chapter reviews literature arguing that deviance is related to character fault and people's social circumstances. For the authors, however, people's actions are rarely caused and neither is deviance always the result of premeditation. At times people unwittingly commit deviance when they discover gaps between their concerns and present conditions. At other times people willfully seduce themselves by creating powerful feelings which make it necessary to commit deviant acts.

    In Chapter 12, various scenarios are presented, all involving behavior that could be considered deviant. Reader are asked to construct what happened and judge whether each instance was punished fairly. These judgment calls are important to consider as they illustrate cases of deviance, such as alleged child abuse, which are difficult to punish because of a lack of concrete evidence. In such cases, witnesses play major roles in the legal classification of events as criminal, or harmless. The point driven home is that, individuals have agency in "… transforming experiences of events into what those events become" (p134). 

    Chapter 15 provides an intriguing description of deviance at the national level by describing the role which British, American and Chinese governments played in criminalizing opium and other drugs. As further evidence for the credibility of their argumentation, readers only review California's most recent consideration to legalize marijuana for the purposes of raising needed taxes.

    Chapter 16 deals with discrimination and if deviance can be addressed without discrimination. The authors review the examples of Nixon who was pardoned for his Watergate activities but others received jail sentences. Also, teachers try to address deviance but add to the problem by tending to pardon good looking students but punish others.

    Readers who embrace a moral philosophy may take issue with the authors’ liberal views and with the huge range of behaviors which can be defined as “
"deviant"—acts such as wearing unfashionable clothing could be defined as deviant, though few people would label it as such. However, a broad definition is necessary when examining deviance throughout history and among different cultures.  When deviance is defined using absolute terminology it is very difficult to explain how specific behaviors can be accepted in one culture and not in another. 

    In sum, the text thoroughly explores tricky questions associated with deviance—what is it, who commits it and why, what causes it, and how can deviance be dealt with or punished? Readers should come away with a widened view of what deviance is and can be. Higgins and Mackinem make a convincing argument that definitions of deviance are constructed, and these definitions are useful in coercing people to act within a narrow bandwidth. The manuscript appears written for exposing an audience of sheltered undergraduate students to the realities of social life. In this regard, the authors have done a good job of using emblematic examples from secondary data to represent different perspectives while encouraging readers to collect and analyze their own primary data. 

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