Until the 1960s, sociologists had asserted that a willingness to identify deviance, or what constitutes appropriate behavior, was indispensable to the process of generating and sustaining cultural values, clarifying moral boundaries, and promoting social solidarity. Yet today, after three decades of lacerating debate, shifts in values and social relations, and questioning social authority, the subject has virtually disappeared from sociology’s radar screen. Deviance, in the famous phrase of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been “dumbed down.”
In The Politics of Deviance, Anne Hendershott, a leading sociologist herself, tries to understand how this major change in the way we see our world occurred. How did we adopt such different views of human nature and personal responsibility? How did we “medicalize” what was once proscribed behavior? While in the past there was a moral consensus that conditioned our attitudes toward teenage sex, suicide, substance abuse, and other questionable behaviors, Hendershott points out that today it is pressure groups that define and redefine deviance. (“As I write these words,” she says at one point in the narrative, “the advocacy of the North American Man-Boy Love Association is invisibly changing the way we see pedophilia.”) As they succeed in redefining our attitudes toward their “clients,” these groups significantly altered our view of each other and of our world.
Arguing against the grain of her own discipline, Anne Hendershott asserts the value and strength of the most important of all determinants of behavior—social norms and the commitment to accept them. The Politics of Deviance maintains that definitions of deviance that rely upon reason, and not emotion or political advocacy, are indispensable to the process of generating and sustaining cultural values and reaffirming the moral ties that bind us together.