Agner Fog: Cultural selection © 1999

8. Sociology of deviance

Variation is a precondition for selection. If there is no variation in behavior then the cultural selection has nothing to choose between. Several scientists have found that variation is highest during periods of crisis where the population is experiencing stress. The variation in behavior is evidence of experimentation and inventiveness with the purpose of finding a solution to the problems that create the stress (Kirch 1980; Rosenberg, M. 1990; but contrast Russell & Russell 1982-1992).

If a variation in behavior goes against the established social norms or is regarded by the majority as wrong or undesirable then we may call it a deviation. Sociologist Jack Douglas (1977) thinks that a deviation can be a creative phenomenon necessary for social change and adaptation. He compares deviations with mutations and thus draws a parallel to Darwin's evolutionary theory.

Many sociologists have realized that there is a close connection between deviance and social control. Those in power exert control by defining unwanted behaviors as deviant and stigmatizing the persons associated with such behaviors (Lemert 1967, Foucault 1980).

In this chapter I will discuss theories about how norms are created, how deviations from the norm arise, and the importance of these processes for social evolution. I will focus mainly on such deviations which are claimed to be dangerous to society because these have a special importance to the cultural r/k-theory.


8.1 The fight over defining reality

In his later theories, sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda regards the phenomenon of deviancy as central to the explanation of social stability or change (Ben-Yehuda 1990). In a situation of deviancy, one person or group defines another person or group, or their actions, as deviant and dangerous to society. In Ben-Yehuda's terminology, any deviance is a social construct, and the concept of deviance is therefore always relative. A central concept in Ben-Yehuda's sociology is a symbolic-moral universe. Others call it a paradigm or a cognitive structure. A symbolic-moral universe is a theoretical tradition or a conception of reality that integrates symbols, meanings, values, motives and reasons into a coherent system which legitimizes a certain moral order. The symbolic-moral universe delineates the moral limits and hence the criteria for what is deviant. A deviant person often has a different symbolic-moral universe which legitimizes his actions to himself. Hence the deviancy situation represents a conflict between two symbolic-moral universes. Such conflicts take place constantly in every society. The conflicts imply negotiations over moral limits and social identities, and the outcome of such conflicts may be that symbolic-moral universes are changed or replaced by other universes (See also Klaus Eder's theory on the selection of cognitive structures mentioned in chapt. 2.4).

Since a symbolic-moral universe legitimizes power, then the consequence of a change in this universe may be that the distribution or power and resources is changed. A deviantization may thus have far-reaching political consequences, even if it is not defined as political (Ben-Yehuda 1990). Ben-Yehuda's sociology of deviance can profitably be combined with the cultural r/k-theory because it provides a functionalistic explanation of the distribution of power and resources.

A deviantization may be directed from the center of a society against its periphery or vise versa (Ben Yehuda 1990:59). In other words, this means that those in power and their subjects may reciprocally accuse each other of deviant and anti-social actions. If a man in power successfully accuses some of his subordinates of deviance, then the result is a reinforcement of his power and hence a regalization. The deviance demonstrates and legitimizes his power and gives occasion for corrective interference in the form of punishment or therapy. That this means of power can be effective is seen by the historical fact that the inquisition successfully upheld the threatened monopoly of power of the catholic church throughout five centuries by a systematic hunting of heretics and witches. The fact that in reality the witches did not have the dangerous capacities that were imputed on them did not make this regal means less effective as long as the imaginary danger legitimized the maintenance of a strong power structure.

If, on the other hand, the deviantizations and corrective actions towards critical deviants fail, then the position of those in power is weakened, in other words: a kalyptization occurs. The same is the case in situations where persons or groups with low social status successfully accuse those with high status and power of deviance. This is typically seen in the uncovering of corruption and the abuse of power.

If persons with an intermediate status successfully accuse somebody with the same status of deviance, then the result may be a redistribution of power and resources, but not necessarily a regalization or kalyptization.

The proclamation of deviants is a battlefield for the fight between those who define deviation and those who are deviantizised, between oppressors and oppressed, and for the trial of strength between regalizing and kalypticizing forces. The result of this tug-of-war depends on the stability of the symbolic-moral universe that defines the deviance.

An oppressed group will often be inclined to revolt and possibly kalypticize society - but only if they can uncover the mechanisms of oppression. If the power succeeds in dressing up the symbolic-moral universe that legitimizes the oppression as a commonly accepted religion, ideology, or science, then the oppressed people will often react in quite the opposite fashion. A person who feels his freedom of action restricted, but who cannot find any scapegoat to blame for his frustrations, will be inclined to turn his frustrations inwards and blame himself. He will feel insecure and helpless and will therefore consciously or unconsciously seek a strong leader who can solve the problems that he himself has given up solving. In other words: he will develop an authoritarian personality. Such a person may, paradoxical as it may seem, be inclined to join the regal forces and hence support the very same powers that have lead to his own oppression. A kalyptic revolt is only possible if the oppressed group together succeeds in understanding and penetrating the symbolic-moral universe that legitimizes their oppression and replaces it with a new one.


8.2 Defining reality in terms of science

Religion can no longer justify arbitrary suppression of deviance in the modern democratic society where freedom of religion is a generally accepted human right. But another symbolic-moral universe has replaced religion, namely science. What previously was labeled sin is now regarded as disease. This is called medicalization of the deviance. The deviantization has found its basis in the medical science which has become an anonymous ideology that only experts are allowed to criticize. These experts are the doctors and psychiatrists who find their raison d'ętre in the very same ideology in which they believe and will always defend. The medical scientists are unwittingly exerting a suppression of deviants by assuming that the cause of the deviance is to be found in the individual rather than in the society - an assumption which in some cases is more justified than in others. This kind of social control finds its expression in psychiatric diagnoses, behavior therapy, and cognitive therapy (Erchak & Rosenfeld 1989; Foucault 1976, 1980).

Another teaching which legitimizes oppression in the modern society is the science of economy. Millions of poor, homeless and unemployed people are unable to do anything effective about their own unhappy situation because it is framed as economic 'laws of nature'. Karl Marx attempted, with some success, to object against this paradigm and replace it with another one: the Marxist economy. Unfortunately this new science or ideology turned out in the end to lead to just as much oppression and poverty as the traditional capitalist economy.


8.3 Myth making

Any discourse or story is subject to selection. A story may be believed or doubted, and it may be passed on or forgotten. Certain stories have a peculiar tendency to be believed, reshaped, and passed on because they appeal to strong feelings in the human psyche - they push our buttons. Such a story is said to take on a life of its own. In other words, certain stories have a high cultural fitness which is largely independent of the truth of their content.

A good example is the migratory legends which are commonly known by the somewhat misleading term urban legends. The spreading of these modern legends has been well researched. Some legends are passed on over several decades and spread far and wide. In many cases the same legend can be found in Europe and the USA, and it is usually impossible to trace its origin (Klintberg 1986, Brednich 1993). The psychological functions of those legends which tend to spread have been studied by several folklorists, social psychologists, and meme theorists (Dundes 1971, Mullen 1972, Klintberg 1986, Gross 1996). Many stories have a certain psychological attraction because they appeal to feelings of revenge or wishful thinking (Dundes 1971, Klintberg 1984). Other stories are expressions of fear and prejudices, as for example the many myths about rat meat, dog food, or other unappetizing ingredients being served in chinese or italian fast food restaurants (Klintberg 1983). Some urban legends tell about dangers to children or other helpless victims, and thus appeal to our protective instincts, as for example the stories about wicked people at halloween who give children poisoned candy and apples with razor blades hidden inside (Best 1990). No matter how exaggerated or untrue, these stories are to a great extent believed and retold because they appeal to the protective instincts of the parents and the fear that disasters may happen when the children turn to strangers at halloween.

Many 'bogey stories' not only appeal to our fears, but also serve as negative identification models, i.e. as examples of how not to be. The most common themes of such atrocity tales are cruelty, murder, cannibalism, sexual perversion, and satanic worship, and often with women or children as the helpless victims. Occasionally, all these themes are combined in one and the same myth, as for example the recently invented myth that there are secret cults of satanists, who sexually abuse, kill, and eat babies in bizarre rituals. Despite its irrationality and lack of any physical evidence, this medieval legend in modern clothing has recently spread from the USA as far as to New Zealand and many european countries, and has had dramatic consequences for those accused as well as for the alleged victims (Nathan & Snedeker 1995, Best 1990, Jenkins 1992, Goodyear-Smith 1993, Hunter 1998).

Such psychological effects give migratory legends a high cultural fitness, i.e. a tendency to be believed, retold, and passed on. This psychological fitness is of course independent of whether the story is true or false, except in the rare cases where a convincing proof or disproof is possible.

The same applies to rumors, which can be divided into different categories according to their psychological functions (Rosnow & Fine 1976):

  1. The pipe-dream, or wish fulfillment, rumors which express people's hopes.
  2. The bogey rumors which mirror people's fears and anxieties.
  3. The wedge-driving, or aggressive, rumors which express prejudices against other subgroups of the population.

Contemporary scholars often describe the psychological mechanisms that make people tell and believe certain stories rather than others, although they do not make use of cultural selection theory, because this paradigm is currently out of fashion in the social sciences. But a few decades ago, when neo-evolutionism was still alive, a sociological study of rumor was published based explicitly on selection theory (Shibutani 1966)16. Shibutani found that rumors arise in a situation of cognitive crisis, or when the supply of factual information does not meet the demand. Various social actors propose their own interpretation of the situation according to their individual orientations and interests. A selection among the proposed ideas takes place in the spontaneous process of group communication until a standard version gains general acceptance. Ideas are selected according to their plausibility based on their compatibility with shared assumptions. An idea may gain wider acceptance if it provides relief from tension, if it justifies unacceptable emotions, or if it makes the world more intelligible and reduces cognitive dissonance.

If the unsatisfied demand for news and information is excessive, then the collective excitement is intensified into a situation where rumors are constructed and communicated through suggestibility and spontaneously formed informal channels. In such a situation of intense collective excitement people become more responsive to moods and behavioral contagion. Standards of judgment are temporarily transformed, and it becomes possible to seriously consider proposals that are alien to established beliefs and violate customary standards of credibility (Shibutani 1966).

As hinted above, not even scientists are unaffected by the fads produced by cultural selection. Neither are they immune to the psychological mechanisms which make people believe and retell certain stories. An excellent example is the myth of cannibalism. The belief that primitive peoples habitually eat one another for nutrition, leads to such a high degree of psychological excitation that this myth has been told and retold for centuries and until recently has been believed by even the most reputable scientists, despite the fact that no anthropologist or ethnographer ever has seen the alleged cannibalistic act. Most tales about cannibalism can be traced back to demonizing images that a people have created in order to bring disgrace upon their enemy, just like accusations of witchcraft, etc. These accusations have often been used for justifying war, slavery, and colonialism (Arens 1979)17.

The prohibition against cannibalism is one of the strongest taboos we know, and the very thought of eating somebody, as well as the thought of being eaten oneself, evokes extreme horror in every human being. The individual works through his fear of cannibalism by listening to and carrying on these stories. The imaginary cannibal is not only a bogey but also a perfect model for how not to behave - a prototype on barbarism and wickedness. Humans need such negative identification models, and therefore the myth is kept alive.

Horror stories about anti-social deviants may have a social function apart from being a means for working through personal fears. The most pronounced deviancies are those which are perceived as a threat against the established social order. A systematic collective fight against such deviancies is called a moral panic (S. Cohen 1972) or witch-hunt (Bergesen 1977, 1978).


8.4 Witch-hunts and moral panics

A witch-hunt may be defined as a systematic persecution of a group of people (real or imaginary) that are alleged to have capacities perilous to society. In most cases the 'witches' are members of the society which is persecuting them, i.e. internal enemies. There is often an extensive myth-making about the witches and their characteristics and activities. Typical of a witch-hunt is that the witches are often regarded as so dangerous that common principles of justice and rules of evidence are neglected for the sake of social safety. Less extreme cases of witch-hunts are called moral panics, which means a fierce and highly emotional collective reaction against certain perceived crimes or deviancies. The mass media often play a crucial role in the creation of a moral panic by stirring up the emotions, whereas a witch-hunt is usually controlled by political or religious leaders.

A society need not be plagued by dangerous criminals in order to start a witch-hunt or a moral panic. In most cases society creates the deviants. It is well known that a common enemy stimulates solidarity, and in the absence of such an enemy society may create solidarity by constructing a deviancy. Scapegoats are used as targets for a collective aggression which creates social solidarity (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1971). The situation may be planned, but in most cases it arises spontaneously. There are three ways in which a society can create deviants:

  1. The extent and dangerousness of an existing problem of deviance is exaggerated, and the search for deviants is intensified.
  2. New deviancies are created by moving the limits of normality.
  3. The deviancy is completely imaginary.

The first category can be exemplified by the persecution of communists by senator McCarthy in USA in the 1950's (Schoeneman 1975). An example where a previously disregarded phenomenon is redefined as deviant and injurious, is the fight against masturbation in victorian times (Ussel 1970). The third category, totally imaginary deviancies, is best illustrated by the persecution of witches in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Ben Yehuda 1980).

Anthropological studies of witchcraft have primarily been concentrated on primitive cultures where accusations of black magic are frequent. Such accusations may have various functions. When a group needs to strengthen its internal solidarity, it may achieve this by accusing persons (often unidentified) outside the group of having harmed the group by means of magic. When persons within the group are accused of witchcraft, the function may be to control deviants, to reinforce or redefine moral limits, or the accusation may be an instrument in a fight between rival fractions or an attempt to redefine the hierarchy (Douglas, M. 1970).

It would be unwise to generalize from such isolated cases of witchcraft accusations to large organized witch-hunts as we have seen in larger societies. Isolated accusations are often expressions of everyday social conflicts or attempts to explain the misfortune of individual persons, whereas organized witch-hunts are frequently phenomena of long duration involving a large number of people, often an entire country (Schoeneman 1975). I will concentrate my study on the extensive or organized witch-hunts and moral panics because these have a special importance in the theory of cultural selection.

The greatest witch-hunt in history - the one that gave the phenomenon its name - took place in Europe in the late middle ages and early modern time. The power of the catholic church was threatened in the tenth and eleventh century by several new sects which did not accept the dogma and tyranny of the established church. The inquisition was created in order to defend the power of the church and root out the infidels. By the thirteenth century the heretics were effectively wiped out, but the power of the church was still threatened by considerable social upheavals that took place in this period. The church needed new scapegoats in order to explain the social crisis and legitimize its power. The soil was therefore fertile for the conception of a secret sect of witches who worshipped the Devil and caused all manner of evil. The persons who were accused of witchcraft were tortured until they confessed and they were forced to inform against other witches whereby the process could continue. The rituals that the witches allegedly participated in are described by Ben Yehuda (1980) as an inverted mirror image of the rituals of the church. The witches function as negative identification models for the orthodox, as a prototype of how not to be. The witch trials threw the so-called true faith in sharp relief by demonizing its antithesis.

The witch-hunt may be seen as a negative reaction to the substantial social changes that took place in the period around the renaissance. The increases in urbanization, industry, trade and the resulting specialization and division of labor all enhanced the influence of the new middle class and created new economic and political structures that were independent of the control and guidance of the clergy. These changes threatened to weaken the power of the church and create a new image of the world which no longer was dominated by theology. The witch-hunts were an attempt to counteract these changes and re-establish the traditional authority of the church (Ben Yehuda 1980).

Psychologist Thomas Schoeneman (1975) regards this reaction as a regressive innovation. His model is a further development of the sociology of Anthony Wallace. Social changes can take place either by a gradual adaptation (moving equilibrium processes) or by revitalization, which means a sudden change as the result of a conscious effort, according to this theory. The latter process happens as a reaction to a cultural crisis. The reaction to a cultural crisis can either go backwards, in an attempt to re-establish the previous order, or it may go in the direction of a more radical change in the worldview of the population whereby a new order is created. Schoeneman explains the witch-hunt phenomenon as a conservative reaction to a cultural crisis and an attempt to re-establish the previously existing power structures. The witch-hunt is a self-perpetuating process. Psychological stress and cultural crisis are made worse by the witch-hunt at the same time as the process is struggling to maintain the very same structures that caused the crisis. A demonology is created which makes the witches responsible for the crisis, makes it possible to identify ever more witches, and force confessions which confirm the very same demonology.

Nobody dares to criticize the witch-hunt because doing so they would themselves be declared witches. Witch-hunts may be very prolonged due to these self-amplifying effects. Despite the fact that the witch-hunt amplifies the social crisis in the long run, it also has some immediate cultural and psychological advantages: It is a substantial and visible action in a time of uncertainty and fear. It allows people the possibility of believing that their misfortune is somebody else's fault and not their own. It provides an outlet for the anger, aggression, and feelings of guilt that have accumulated during the cultural crisis. The witch-hunt does not end until the accumulated nuisances it creates offset these immediate psychological advantages. What happens next is a radical change in the population's worldview, a paradigm change, which enables the construction of a new social structure (Schoeneman 1975).

Bergesen (1978) interprets political as well as religious witch-hunts as magic rituals. He sees the dichotomy between deviant and normal as parallel to the dichotomy between sacred and profane. He has noticed that those actions which are regarded as dangerous to society and give occasion for persecution of the culprit are of a rather trivial and everyday nature. The witch-hunt ideology makes the transcendent purpose immanent in everyday life by attributing a transcendent meaning to trivial everyday actions. The superior political or religious goal is made immanent in daily life by the ritual construction of its symbolic opposite based on everyday phenomena. Society may define and structure itself as a corporate actor in this way. Questions of guilt and justice are irrelevant in this context because the crimes of which the witches are accused are not of this world. Anybody can be accused of witchcraft and have little chance of defense. Bergesen mentions as examples of political witch-hunts the purges during the chinese cultural revolution, the terror regime during the french revolution, the stalinist show trials, and McCarthy's persecution of communists in the USA. In accordance with this theory, Bergesen finds that witch-hunts are most common in one-party states where the ideology is most immanent in everyday life (Bergesen 1977, 1978).

The witch-hunt as a means of power is used in two different contexts: to maintain an existing ideology, or to create a new ideology. The renaissance witch trials and mc-carthyism are examples of the first category. When the ideological basis of society is falling apart and an old established social structure is threatened by the beginning of kalyptization, then the existing rulers may, for want of more effective means, attempt to preserve the status quo by uniting the population in a joint fight against an imaginary enemy. The lack of enemy gives rise to kalyptization, and the imaginary enemy is constructed so as to counteract this process and preserve the regal power structure.

On the other hand, witch-hunts are also used for spreading a new ideology. This typically happens during and after a revolution where the old ideology is being replaced by a new one, and where the success of the revolution depends on the willingness of the population to convert to the new ideology in the shortest possible time.


8.5 The role of the mass media

The news media often play an important role in the creation of moral panics. In a pioneering study of this phenomenon, Stanley Cohen has described an example from Britain where the press played a crucial role in the creation of a moral panic over a group of young people, the so-called mods (modernists) and rockers. In this case the press had not only created the moral panic, but had also played a major role in the construction of the categories mods and rockers with which the young people gradually began to identify. The newspapers created a sensation by deliberately exaggerating the violent behavior of the young people and by giving them a common identity. The result of this wave of moral panic was mass-arrests and a considerable abuse of power by the authorities. At the same time, public opinion was mobilized into demanding more powers to the police, more control, and more severe punishments (Cohen, S. 1972). This is the typical reaction to a moral panic wave and the reason why it has such a strong regalizing effect.

The motivation behind the exaggerations of the newspapers is presumably economic rather than political. Economic competition between the news media has probably been an important selective force in this process (see chapter 9). The main motive may have been economic, but the effect was highly political: more control and more use of power against the young people, in other words, a regalization. It would be wrong to claim, however, that the cause of the moral panic was only economic. A moral panic is not only created by the news media but also by the readers. There can be no moral panic unless there is a strong emotional reaction in the readers. This emotional reaction could not possibly have appeared unless there was already a widespread fear of juvenile delinquency and a desire for more strict control of young people. There is therefore reason to assume that the newspapers had capitalized on a pre-existing fear of juvenile delinquency in the population.

Other social actors who may have an interest in creating moral panics are the police, political leaders, political and religious interest groups, and 'demonologists' who claim to have expertise in the detection and control of the deviance.


8.6 The objects of witch-hunts

Who or what a witch-hunt or moral panic attacks may seem rather random, but not all kinds of deviancies are suitable objects for a moral panic.

Obviously it has to be something that pushes the most sensitive psychological buttons and evokes feelings of horror in the public, such as supernatural dangers, crime, dangers to children, sexual deviations, disease epidemics, or poisoned food. The moral panic is often fueled by an existing psychological conflict or cognitive dissonance that threatens the moral status quo.

The target of a moral panic is preferably an easy enemy whom it is uncontroversial to condemn, and who has few resources with which to defend himself. Suspected criminals in custody, for example, have hardly any possibility of defending themselves against accusations in the news media, no matter how exaggerated these accusations may be. The deviant phenomenon is defined in ever broader and more undifferentiated terms, whereby the moral panic is constantly able to find new points of attack, should a previous tactic fail.

The witch-hunt or moral panic is supported by extensive myth making. Often 'experts' arise who scare the population with an elaborate demonology and demand more resources for the fighting of the evil (including more money for themselves). The myths cannot live very long, however, if they are easy to disprove. The most persistent myths therefore often concern invisible phenomena or phenomena that most of the population have no possibility of observing, such as food poisoning or organized crime. Religion obviously provides a rich breeding ground for moral panics because all religions involve conceptions of invisible phenomena and because these conceptions are hard to disprove.

But with the increasing secularization of modern times, the witch-hunts have found new targets, such as political deviations, drug abuse, organized crime, and sexual behavior. Sexual crimes, especially, have gained increasing importance in recent moral panics because sexual behavior is an area that is largely hidden from the public and because it is connected with strong irrational feelings and taboos. The fear of satanism is nevertheless still alive, even in the modern industrial society (Bromley 1991, see also chapt. 11.4), as is the belief that sex-criminals have a connection with the Devil, just as it was in the middle ages (see chapt. 10 note 18).

Furthermore, the psychoanalytic theory of repression has made possible the belief that children may have been subjected to horrific torments committed by satanists and sex criminals, even though they do not have the slightest memory of such events. The demonologists then claim that the repressed memories of these atrocities can be recovered by special hypnotic or suggestive therapeutic techniques (Lotto 1994, Loftus & Ketcham 1994). Such a moral panic is particularly powerful because it pushes several of the most sensitive psychological buttons: sex, danger, religion, and protection of children.


16. Facing the fact that evolutionary thinking was unpopular in the social sciences, Shibutani found it necessary in his book to explicitly defend himself against the expected criticism (Shibutani 1966:183).

17. Arens' debunking of the cannibalism myth is still controversial, as many anthropologists are reluctant to change their old views.