Early Conceptions of Social Problems and Deviance


Adapted from pp. 31-42 of Analyzing Deviance, Dorsey Press, 1983.
©James D. Orcutt, 2006  
Robert E. Park Ernest W. Burgess

The historical development of sociological work on social problems and deviance can be broken down into four relatively distinct periods: (1) the social pathology period, (2) the social disorganization period, (3) the normative or functionalist period, and (4) the relativistic or constructionist period (cf. Rubington & Weinberg, 1981). A distinct, specialized field of deviance did not exist in American sociology during the social pathology and social disorganization periods, which date from the turn of the 20th century to World War I and from the early 1920s to the middle 1930s, respectively. Instead, deviant phenomena were studied as only part of a more general area of sociological interest in urban social problems. The early conceptions of pathology and disorganization were applied to broad social issues such as urban poverty and community instability as well as to various forms of deviant behavior. Nonetheless, particularly during the social disorganization period, some important contributions by early sociologists set the stage for later, more specialized approaches to deviance.

The Social Pathology Period

Early American sociologists were preoccupied with solving the pressing social problems resulting from industrialization and immigration to urban areas around the turn of the century. In fact, sociology was founded on the hope that it could contribute to the amelioration or improvement of social problems. This value-engaged, amelioristic orientation of early sociologists in the United States was due as much to their social backgrounds as it was to the scholarly ideas on which they based their new discipline.

The first departments of sociology established in American universities during the 1890s were staffed by individuals who came from rural, religious backgrounds (Hinkle & Hinkle, 1954; Mills, 1942). Many early sociologists had begun their careers in the Protestant ministry. Persons from such backgrounds could not have been expected to adopt a neutral, detached view of the tragic social conditions that existed in the industrializing urban areas of the United States at the turn of the century. Taking academic positions at schools like the University of Chicago or Columbia University in New York City, they were directly confronted with an urban way of life that clashed drastically with the values and outlook of their rural, middle-class origins. Although appalled by the poverty, slums, and criminality they saw about them, these early sociologists also had a religious commitment to moral reform that gave them faith that these conditions could be changed. For them, sociology was to be a science dedicated to human progress and to the amelioration of the degrading conditions of urban life.

The personal views of these sociologists were reinforced and given direction by a variety of 19th-century philosophical and scientific ideas The writings of Auguste Comte, a French philosopher who first coined the term sociology, had been influential in the United States throughout the latter half of the 1800s (Davis, 1980). Comte's conceptions of social science and society were an important source of intellectual inspiration for sociologists during the social pathology period.

Comte argued that civilization was constantly evolving in a progressive direction, a pattern of change that was especially apparent in the forward advance of scientific knowledge. He believed that knowledge in the physical and natural sciences had reached a stage of development where it would be possible to apply the combined resources of all the sciences to the study of society itself. This task would be carried out by sociology, the "Queen of the Sciences" as Comte grandly described it. By using scientific methods to discover the "natural laws" that determine the development of society, sociology would provide useful knowledge for increasing the rate of human progress. Although Comte's doctrine of positivism—that the laws of social science could be discovered by the same investigative methods used in the physical and natural sciences—would become a controversial issue among sociologists at a later date, it found a receptive audience in American sociology during the social pathology period.

Comte's conception of society as an organism also had some impact on early American sociologists. Using what is known as an organismic analogy, Comte proposed that society, like a biological organism, is an ordered, harmonious system of interrelated and interdependent parts He emphasized that this social organism is more than merely the sum of its individual parts and must be studied as a whole (Coser, 1971:9).

Although American sociologists during the social pathology period adopted an organismic conception of society, they rejected Comte's emphasis on macro-level analysis of the whole social organism. Instead, taking the progressive and generally harmonious organization of society for granted, they tended to concentrate their attention on the adjustment and adaptation of individuals within this organismic system. In this respect, these sociologists were more directly influenced by the ideas of Herbert Spencer, a 19th-century English social theorist, than they were by Comte (Hinkle & Hinkle, 1954: 4-7). Even though Spencer, like Comte, used the organismic analogy to describe social life, he argued that society is not greater than the sum of its individual members. For Spencer, the progressive evolutionary development of society is accomplished by the improvement and successful adaptation of individuals. Another implication of this argument, of course, is that social problems and disruptions of progress are due to the failure of individuals to adapt to organized social life.

From these personal and intellectual sources, early American sociologists fashioned their conception of social problems and deviance as social pathology. With the methods of positive science as their model for sociology and the organismic analogy as their model for society, these sociologists developed a clear and optimistic vision for their attack on the social problems of urban America. The following passage from an early textbook titled Social Pathology gives a glimpse of the lofty goals which inspired the advocates of this approach (Smith, 1911, cited in Rubington & Weinberg, 1981: 22-23):

Pathology in social science has a certain parallel to pathology in medical science. As the study of physical disease is essential to the maintenance of physical health, so social health can never be securely grounded without a wider and more definite knowledge of social disease…. Social pathology would be a gloomy study indeed if its accurate knowledge of facts and principles did not indicate pathways out of social difficulties leading to a discovery of the means by which the social causes of disease can be removed, the weak individual be socially reinforced so that finally ... the social body shall exist . . . radiant with health, in which there is not a living being which does not share in the general glow of wholesomeness and power.

While social pathologists such as Smith recognized the pathological influences of the undesirable environmental conditions of urban slums and poverty, the primary focus of these sociologists was on individual pathology and maladjustment. Viewing deviant behavior and social problems as products of individual defects, the theoretical speculations of the social pathologists amounted to a hodgepodge of biological, psychological, moral, and environmental factors that were held accountable for personal maladjustment. Similarly, the principal research technique used by these sociologists was case studies of deviant or impoverished individuals, which documented the influence of various pathological factors in their personal lives.

Whether due to the intellectual impact of Herbert Spencer or to the individualistic world view of the rural, Protestant background of the social pathologists, the sociological study of deviance in the United States began on a distinctly microscopic level of analysis. In contrast, early European sociologists tended to follow Comte's macroscopic approach to social organization and social problems. This tendency of American sociologists to focus on the causes and characteristics of individual deviants continues to be an important and controversial issue in the contemporary field of deviance.

The faith in progress and reform that inspired sociologists during the social pathology period was severely shaken by the violence and irrationality of World War I, which to them "symbolized a primitive stage of social evolution which modern man was believed to have passed long ago" (Hinkle & Hinkle, 1954: 21). The value-engaged, ameliorative emphasis in American sociology was soon replaced by a more neutral, scientific approach during the social disorganization period. Although the social pathologists were successful in promoting the idea that the study of social problems and deviance should be a scientific enterprise, they themselves did little to carry out this objective in practice.

The notion of social pathology was found by later sociologists to have limited utility for conceptualizing social problems. The question of what conditions or behaviors are "pathological" depends on the values of the investigator rather than on any objective, empirically identifiable criteria. In the case of these early sociologists, the conditions of urban society at the turn of the century that contrasted or conflicted with their idealized image of rural, Protestant, middle-class life tended to be defined as pathological (Mills, 1942). Put in contemporary, relativistic terms, the concept of social pathology amounted to a negative label that was applied to anything or anyone the pathologists viewed as undesirable.

Much of the theoretical writing of the social pathologists was moralistic in its tone even though their works were filled with impressive scientific jargon borrowed from such disciplines as physics, biology, and medicine. Although their use of analogies drawn from more established sciences added prestige to the young discipline of sociology, it also restricted the ability of the social pathologists to formulate distinctly sociological theories of social problems and deviance. Even their main research tool was borrowed—the case study technique developed by social workers.

In short, the end of the social pathology period left sociological theory and research of deviance in an undeveloped state. However, the central issues in the sociology of deviance developed rapidly and became much clearer in the work of sociologists who followed them during the social disorganization period.

The Social Disorganization Period

This next chapter in the history of the sociology of deviance and, indeed, of American sociology in general was written mainly by sociologists who taught and studied at the University of Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s. The Chicago School of sociology, a phrase referring both to these sociologists and to the tradition of theory and research they developed, laid much of the foundation for the contemporary field of deviance. Making a sharp break with the moralistic orientation of the social pathologists, the Chicago School shifted the sociological study of social problems and deviance in a scientific direction (Finestone, 1976; Carey, 1975).

The Chicago School shared with the social pathologists an interest in urban problems and deviance. But there the similarities ended. Whereas earlier sociologists attacked the city as the ultimate symbol of pathology, the Chicago sociologists were fascinated by their urban environment. They viewed the rapidly changing, diverse city of Chicago as an ideal natural laboratory for scientific research on important sociological questions (Faris, 1967). In contrast to the speculative, armchair sociology of the social pathologists, the Chicago sociologists were concerned, above all, with developing a social science that was firmly grounded in empirical research.

Among the major goals of research by the Chicago School was its attempt to describe the nature and consequences of social disorganization in urban areas. This concept was introduced by one of the major figures in Chicago sociology, W. I. Thomas, and his collaborator, Florian Znaniecki, in their important early study, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, Thomas and Znaniecki concisely defined social disorganization as a "decrease of the influence of existing social rules of behavior upon individual members of the group" (Traub & Little, 1980: 44). Although Thomas and Znaniecki were careful to distinguish social disorganization from their more individualistic conception of personal disorganization ("a decrease of the individual's ability to organize his whole life"), this distinction became blurred in later work by other Chicago sociologists (Winslow, 1970: 46-66). More often than not, community social problems and individual deviance, crime rates and individual criminal careers were all lumped together as indicators or manifestations of the general phenomenon of social disorganization.

Although the micro and macro levels of analysis were only loosely and inconsistently distinguished in most conceptual discussions of social disorganization, a clear division between these levels of analysis emerged in the research conducted by the Chicago School. Empirical work on deviance and social problems by these sociologists tended to fall into two general categories: micro-level case studies of individual deviants and macro-level ecological studies of rates of social problems and deviance in different parts of the city. The case study technique, of course, had been used by the social pathologists; but at the hands of the Chicago sociologists, this methodological approach was developed into a fine art. The method of studying rates of deviance and social problems through an ecological approach, on the other hand, was a unique contribution of the Chicago School.

Two varieties of the case study technique were used by the Chicago sociologists. Some case studies took the form of life histories, where the impact of social disorganization upon individuals was documented autobiographically. In their early work, The Polish Peasant, Thomas and Znaniecki used life histories (as well as other materials) to trace the declining influence of conventional norms and social controls upon rural Polish immigrants when they moved to urban slums in the United States. Another classic example of a life history case study is Clifford Shaw's The Jack-Roller (1930). Based on intensive interviews with a young man who made his living by robbing skid-row drunks (jack-rolling), Shaw vividly depicted the process by which this individual's ties to conventional society became increasingly unstable and disorganized as he drifted into his unconventional way of life on the street in the skid-row district.

The urban ethnography was the second form of case study employed by the Chicago sociologists. In contrast to life histories, ethnographic techniques involved direct observation of individuals in their natural settings, a method that continues to be used by contemporary sociologists in the labeling tradition. In such ethnographic studies as Anderson's The Hobo (1923) or Cressey's The Taxi-Dance Hall (1932), sociologists observed and recorded in rich detail the daily existence of persons living in "disorganized" areas or engaged in unconventional occupations.

These two case study techniques were designed to obtain a close-up view of the effects of social disorganization on the lives of individuals in the urban setting. However, particularly in the ethnographic studies, these detailed portraits also revealed a good deal of organization and social patterning in the life worlds of deviant, unconventional individuals (Matza, 1969). Rather than confirming the disorganizing influences of urban life, these case studies tended to reflect the diversity of urban life by depicting deviant activity as an alternative form of organized behavior. A similar insight was to emerge from the second, macro-level research tradition of the Chicago School—the ecological studies.

The ecological research of the Chicago School was mainly inspired by the teaching and theoretical writings of Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess, the most influential sociologists at the University of Chicago during the social disorganization period. Although the organismic model of society and other biological analogies were taken less seriously by the Chicago sociologists than they were by the social pathologists, Park, particularly, made extensive use of ideas adapted from the biological field of plant and animal ecology in his theoretical work on the structure and change of urban communities (1952). Without denying the importance of social and cultural aspects of urban life, Park argued that community organization was additionally based on nonsocial processes, such as the competition for space in urban areas. Patterns of land use and the distribution of populations in the urban community were shaped by an ecological struggle for existence as well as by cultural factors.

Burgess, Park's close colleague, proposed a systematic application of this general ecological theorizing in his concentric zone model of urban growth (Burgess, 1925). Burgess used the city of Chicago as a concrete illustration of his graphic model, which is shown below. This model divides urban areas into five concentric zones based on typical patterns of land use for commercial or residential purposes. Zone I, the central business district or Loop in Chicago, is restricted to commercial uses, whereas Zones III-V are residential areas, ranging from a Zone of Workingmen's Homes to the suburban Commuters' Zone. Zone II, the Zone in Transition, is a mixed area, where low-rent, slum residences are being replaced by businesses and factories.

While Burgess' model was, in part, an attempt to describe the typical patterns of urban land use at a given point in time, he believed that it was most useful for understanding the process of ecological change in the city. As the central business district (Zone I) expands, commercial uses increasingly invade the residential areas in the Zone in Transition (Zone II). Because residential properties in Zone II will eventually be sold for commercial purposes, landlords allow them to deteriorate. This, in turn, leads to an expansion of the transitional, slum area into Zone III and so on. As a result of the ecological competition for space which originates in Zone I, all of the zones in Burgess' model steadily expand outward over time.

Although the ecological change suggested by Burgess' model rippled throughout the entire urban area, the impact of ecological competition and change was most marked in Zone II, the Zone in Transition. In addition to the residential deterioration in Zone II, Burgess and other Chicago sociologists emphasized that this zone was also characterized by rapid social change and severe social disorganization. Because of low rents, this area tended to attract a diverse assortment of immigrants, transients, and impoverished persons who could not afford to live elsewhere. Thus, the population of Zone II was constantly changing and extremely heterogeneous in composition. People from radically different backgrounds lived side by side in this impersonal slum environment. With these and other factors at work in Zone II to produce an absence of close interpersonal relationships and a breakdown of informal social controls, the Chicago sociologists viewed it as inevitable that this area would experience a high degree of social disorganization and high rates of social problems and deviance.

The life histories and ethnographic studies of people living in various parts of the Zone in Transition provided some important pieces of evidence in support of these hypotheses. However, the broad, macro-level focus of ecological theorizing demanded a more comprehensive empirical approach that could give an overview of the effects of social disorganization (or lack thereof) across the entire urban area. The ecological research techniques developed by the Chicago School were designed to meet this need. Generally, the ecological studies analyzed how population rates of various indicators of social disorganization, such as crime, divorce, or mental disorder, were distributed geographically throughout an urban area. The official records of law enforcement agencies and other governmental sources were used to obtain information on the residential locations of persons who had been arrested, divorced or committed to an institution. Combining this information with population data from urban census tracts, the ecological researchers were able to plot on maps the different rates at which deviance and social problems occurred in various sections of the city.

Using this statistical approach, faculty and students at the University of Chicago conducted extensive investigations of the ecological distributions of crime, delinquency, suicide, mental disorder, divorce, and other indicators of social disorganization in their city. The results of these studies were impressively consistent. With only a few exceptions, the highest rates of these various forms of deviance and social problems were found in the areas designated as Zone I and, particularly, Zone II of Burgess' model. Furthermore, these studies found that as the distance of a zone from the center of the city increased, the rates of deviance and social problems steadily decreased with the lowest rates for the entire city appearing in Zone V. These consistent, repeated findings from the ecological research by the Chicago School provided the sociology of deviance with its first well-supported empirical generalizations about the environmental characteristics of deviants.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, these results were typically interpreted as evidence of variation in the severity of social disorganization throughout the urban area as represented by Burgess' concentric zone model. However, here, as in the case studies by the Chicago sociologists, another interpretation of how persistently high rates of deviance were maintained in slum areas was possible: that deviant behavior is a product of organized, rather than disorganized, social conditions. Some Chicago sociologists recognized this possibility For instance, in a 1929 ecological study of juvenile delinquency rates Shaw and his colleagues suggested the following interpretation of how a stable pattern of crime and delinquency becomes established in the slum communities of the Zone in Transition (1929: 205-206):

When business and industry invade a community, the community thus invaded ceases to function effectively as a means of social control. Traditional norms and standards of the conventional community weaken and disappear. Resistance on the part of the community to delinquent and criminal behavior is low, and such behavior is tolerated and may even become accepted and approved. . . . Delinquent and criminal patterns arise and are transmitted socially just as any other cultural and social pattern is transmitted. In time these delinquent patterns may become dominant and shape the attitudes and behavior of persons living in the area.

In other words, traditional norms and values do not simply break down in slum communities; they are replaced by an alternative set of norms and values that may be no less organized than is the culture of the "conventional" community.

This idea heralded the beginning of the end for the social disorganization period and its oversimplified conception of deviant behavior. By 1942, in a more extensive ecological study of delinquency, Shaw and McKay had completely dropped the social disorganization interpretation in favor of the argument that delinquent behavior is culturally transmitted in slum areas. The following passage from Shaw and McKay's conclusion (1942: 436) shows how this changing interpretation of the slum environment carried with it a new conception of the deviant actor:

From the point of view of the delinquent's immediate social world, he is not necessarily disorganized, maladjusted or antisocial. Within the limits of his social world and in terms of its norms and expectations, he may be a highly organized and well-adjusted person.

This image of the deviant as normal rather than disorganized reveals that ecological research, in particular, and the sociology of deviance, in general, had moved beyond the social disorganization period by the early 1940s.

During the social disorganization period, the Chicago sociologists did not succeed in overcoming the simplistic formula for the study of deviance that had been introduced by the social pathologists: "Bad things result from bad conditions" (Matza, 1969: 21). In spite of their conscious effort to avoid the moralistic stance of the social pathologists toward the city and its changing environment, the Chicago sociologists still tended to equate the "good life" of an organized society with a stereotyped image of the stable, rural community. Against such an idealized standard of organization, it was natural for the Chicago sociologists to assume that the urban slum, with its ecological instability and social diversity, was disorganized. Since they also assumed that personal disorganization and deviance were the result of social disorganization, the Chicago sociologists did not seriously entertain alternative explanations of the high rates of deviant behavior they found in slum areas. As a consequence, the Chicago School was locked into a circular argument in their theorizing about social disorganization and deviance. Why does deviant behavior occur in the urban slum? Because the slum area is disorganized. But, how do we know the slum is disorganized? Because it has high rates of deviant behavior. And so it goes with no way of distinguishing the cause from its effects (see Clinard & Meier, 1979: 63-67).

While failing to develop an explicit, systematic theory of deviance, the Chicago sociologists did prepare the way for the emergence of the normative perspective in the late 1930s. For all its weaknesses, the concept of social disorganization was a more strictly sociological notion than was the earlier concept of social pathology with its medical and biological overtones. By viewing deviance as a social phenomenon that has its roots in the normative structure of the community as well as in the nature of the individual, the Chicago sociologists also began to move away from the micro level of analysis which had preoccupied the social pathologists.

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