What makes deviance?

Cresswell claims that deviance “is created through reactions . . . [and] when we concentrate on this aspect of deviance, the analysis of the process of labelling becomes more important than the characteristics of those who are so labelled.” Taking the witch as an example, to what extent do you agree with this contention?

Historians, such as Cresswell, have asserted that the concept of deviance exists only through the reactions of those who label it as such, therefore, in order to understand deviance it is more appropriate to analyse this ‘process of labelling’ than the nature of those who are labelled. This contention is particularly appropriate in the case of the ‘witch’. In analysing the witch, as with many other deviants, it is especially fitting to understand the background and nature of the accusers more than that of the witch. This offers a more substantial and developed understanding of the nature of deviancy as it attempts to address both the cause and process of labelling someone as fundamentally different. However, historically, deviance has been associated with hereditary and genetic faults, such as in the study of the ‘Jukes’. In accordance with Nicole Rafter’s assertion that this study relies ‘on purely biologistic explanations’, it is also possible that Cresswell’s argument is only appropriate to a certain extent or within certain boundaries.

Cresswell defines deviance as synonymous with terms such as abnormality; this suggests that any act which is outside of normal and expected behaviour can also be described as deviant. Assuming Cresswell’s definition of normality is a pattern followed by the majority, it is correct to assert that deviance is ‘created through reactions’ since visions of normality will fluctuate naturally with changing societal norms. Since the concept of abnormality must exist concurrently with the concept of normality, it is acceptable to suggest that in order to fully understand either concept one must understand the other. This is also true of deviance; deviance must exist through the manifestation of orthodoxy. Howard S. Becker explains that if social groups are responsible for the creation of deviance as punishable opposition to expected behaviours, it is the actions and agendas of those belonging to the non-deviant group that require more extensive analysis. This is because deviance, under these terms, is not an ‘act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions’.

Cresswell also finds deviancy synonymous with dysfunctionality, arguing that it may be considered ‘actions that fail to function in a way that leads to some goal’. This interpretation would suggest that society’s perception of normality – and, hence, creation of deviant characters – stems from achieving success or failure in performing culturally and socially assigned tasks. Under these terms, it is essential that the ‘labellers’ are held accountable and scrutinised in the process of labelling because, as Cresswell argues, ‘the delineation of appropriate goals is often a political act’. This becomes evident in the case of the witch. The conflict that arises between the political power of the Church in the medieval world and the existence of magic, which brings into question Christianity’s core beliefs and entitlements, suggest that any intense periods of witch hunting and the historical demonization of the witch are largely political struggles.

Historian Keith Thomas has written extensively on these conflicts, arguing that, despite the possible assimilations of religion and magic throughout the early medieval period, the existence of magic becomes a great issue for Christians because it can be seen as  a miraculous ability to manipulate God’s will.[1] Thomas asserts that the title of witchcraft was associated, in Reformation England, with only some forms of magic. In providing a specific title to one type of magic, whilst allowing variant forms – such as that used by the clergy – to continue in practice, the labellers were able to more effectively penalise the offensive group, which undermined the practices of the Church.[2] In accordance with Cresswell’s theory of political functionality, magic crafts such as astrology and witchcraft become acts of deviancy throughout the cleansing purge of the Reformation. In that, any person performing witchcraft was removed from the label of ‘normality’ and was not able to obstruct the common political goal of the promotion of a new church in England. Stephen Pfohl states that it is a common theme that deviants would be labelled as a form of social control; this maintained order through ostracisation. It is certain that, in the case of the witch, it is more appropriate to analyse the actions of the group which labels this craft as deviancy, than the actions of the accused; this is because it is evident that the purpose of creating this label was to categorise and marginalise this group in order to more easily penalise them.

On the other hand, historically, the idea of deviance and criminality has been associated with physical attributes such as genetic defects or deformities. Richard Dugdale states that ‘the first observation of hereditary transmission is as old as antiquity’. Nicole Rafter asserts that certain nineteenth century studies, such as the study of the ‘Juke’ family, determined that the cause of crime and feeble-mindedness was often ‘inferior heredity’. In this case, it is possible that deviancy is not a label created for a purpose, but is one that it is possible to observe scientifically. If this were the case, it would be the actions and nature of the deviant that would require more rigorous analysis because deviancy would not be ‘created through reactions’. However, to use the witch as a case study, historian Robin Briggs argues that despite popular opinion there was no such thing as a set of definitive ‘witch’ traits; Briggs especially discounts any references to an overwhelming female or significantly older population.[3] In the absence of a consistent set of physical traits to act as a clear determinant of deviancy, it is essential that the historian closely studies the accusers.

To conclude, it is clear that ‘analysis of the process of labelling’ is significant in most cases of historical deviancy. It is often the case that deviants are labelled as such in order to fulfil a communal political goal, such as to ensure the prosperity of the new Church in England. As such, the concept of the witch developed as a negative stereotype for those who performed magic outside the boundaries that the Church permitted. This categorisation was to allow for easy penalisation of the witch so that they could not hinder the progress of this new Church, free from magic which could deny or control the power of God. Whilst, historically, deviance has been associated with visible bodily attributes and malformations, it is evident that this is not always a suitable line of analysis. Therefore, whilst it may be relevant to study the deviants in order to understand deviancy, it is frequently more appropriate to understand the ‘process of labelling’ in order to access a more complete and in depth comprehension.

[1] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp.27-58.

[2] Ibid.

[3] R. Briggs, Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), pp.257-261.