Synergies in Deviance: Revisiting the Positive Deviance Debate


Brad West Flinders University Australia

[email protected]


This article revisits the debate surrounding the concept of positive deviance, arguing that the term is strategic for understanding the mythological, narrative and sacred dimensions of deviant social phenomena. Studies of deviance have generally only thought of it in relation to negatively amplified reactions. This paper asserts that these deviant forms exist in synergy with types containing ‘positive’ characteristics. Drawing on the work of the classical sociologists Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel and Max Weber, it is argued that positive deviance can be thought to emerge as a consequence of the existence of enchantment, symbolic interaction and charisma in society. Under these conditions the distinctions between the pure and impure can become elusive.


The initial fiery debate over the viability of the concept of positive deviance (Ben-Yehuda 1990, Dodge 1985, Goode 1991, Heckert 1989, Sagarin 1985), as evident in a series of articles published between 1985 and 1991 in the journal of Deviant Behavior, can be understood in Geertz’ sense (1973) as both a ‘model for’ and ‘model of’ the field of deviance. As a ‘model for’ the field both sides attempted to re-establish its contours and direction. In this way it can be understood as part of a recent wider challenge to the established canon of deviance studies (Costello 1997; Matsueda 1997; Sumner 1994). While the controversy surrounding positive deviance, as will be detailed below, concluded with submissions which rejected the concept, arguing that scholarly focus should remain on negative reactions to deviance, the concept has since continued in the teaching and analysis of deviant behaviour (Heckert 1997,1998; Hillery 1992; Hughes and Coakley 1991; Jones 1998).

It is both the rejection of the concept in the original debate as well as its continuing use, following the structure outlined by advocates of the concept in the journal of Deviant Behavior, which prompts this reconsideration of the concept. While I will argue for the inclusion of the concept within deviance studies, and sociology more broadly, in considering the debate as a ’model of’ the field, this paper outlines the limitations on both sides of the debate in their conceiving of the possibilities of such a term for a theoretically informed understanding of deviance. In assessing the viability of the positive deviance concept, both its supporters and critics framed it within the core literature of the field. While the positive deviance concept sparked controversy and conflict, it also bore consensus which provides a vivid snapshot of the paradigm. In particular there was a theoretical assumption in both camps, as outlined below, that positive deviance could be clearly distinguished from negative deviance, rather than the desirability of the concept emerging from the synergies between them. Another shared characteristic highlighted in the review of the debate is the general lack of reference to classical theorists, what following Gans (1992) we can refer to as ‘sociological amnesia’. In creating a case for the inclusion of the positive deviance concept within the discipline I outline the relevant, but so far neglected, aspects of the classical works by Emile Durkheim (1915), Georg Simmel (1950,1971) and Max Weber (1963,1968). It is concluded that these theorists offer important insights into the shared symbolic form of, what in this debate has been labelled, positive and negative deviance.

Never Shall the Twain Meet? Revisiting the Debate

The debate about the viability of the concept of positive deviance divided key theorists in the field (Ben-Yehuda 1990, Goode 1991, Sagarin 1985). If Ben-Yehuda’s (1990:221) assessment is correct, the heat and passion in the dispute was related to the positive deviance concept representing the possibility of broader paradigmatic shifts in the study of deviance. Below I assess the foundational articles in this controversy.

What is positive deviance? Goode (1991:300) argues that in the debate it has been used to refer to a variety of phenomena, stating that it had been portrayed in at least nine different ways (Goode 1991:300). Recognising the loose manner in which the term has been previous defined, for the purposes of this review, I broadly take Dodge’s (1985) original explanation of the term, equating it to where deviation from normality brings about positive sanctions. Using deviance somewhat synonymous with deviation, Dodge (1985) initiated the positive deviance debate by urging scholars in the discipline to recognise its existence in “those persons and acts that are evaluated as superior because they surpass conventional expectations” (Dodge 1985:18). Positive deviance figures then include saints, traditional heroes, and geniuses. Dodge’s call for attention on positive deviance emerges from what he sees as the “unduly limited” concern with only the negative form of deviance, that which is “offensive, disgusting, contemptible, annoying or threatening” (Dodge 1985:17). Negative deviance consequentially can be defined as when different forms of behaviour are socially condemned. Positive and negative deviance then can be thought to exist on a continuum. As Goode noted, his first exposure to positive deviance was in the work of Leslie Wilkins (1964:46)

who drew a bell-shaped curve, with normal acts-those that conform to a norm-in the middle, acts that are regarded as extremely sinful or very serious crimes occupying its left-hand tail, and, those seen as extremely saintly acts occupying its right-hand tail (as quoted in Goode 1991:289).

In discussing the validity of the positive deviance concept, the critics gave considerable attention to the disparity between ‘positive’ and ‘deviance’. Both Sagarin (1985) and Goode (1991) argued that positive deviance was an oxymoron. For Sagarin (1985), deviance is defined by negative reactions to nonconformity. In the positive deviance conceptualisation, deviance becomes somewhat interchangeable with deviation. While deviance certainly is a form of deviation, for Sagarin (1985) the two terms should not be used interchangeably.

While the labelling of positive deviance was an important element of the debate, it certainly was not its core. Debate surrounded its wording, however, there was never a rejection of Dodge’s central proposition that deviation at times brings about positive sanctions. What was central was whether the integration of positive deviance into the discipline’s traditional concern with the negative would dilute and weaken or broaden and develop the study of deviance. This debate came to rest on a quite different, though less acknowledged, question: whether negative and positive deviance share similar qualities and therefore need to be thought of in reference to each other. As such it was the similarity not the distinctiveness of positive and negative deviance that was central to the editorial rejection of the concept, and I would argue the advocates’ failure in creating a convincing argument for its adoption, in the original debate. As with any challenge to identity, all theorists in the debate sought validation in the more secure and seeming objective past. In this case we witnessed a rush to the established works and theorists of the field. Let me briefly review the articles of the debate in light of these concerns.

Central to Dodge’s initial paper was his review of supporting calls for the appreciation of positive deviance in the respected work of Clinard (1974:15) and Lemert (1951:23-24), as well as a few less renowned scholars (Scarpitti and McFarlane 1975:5-6; Thio 1978:3-8; Wilkins 1965:45) from the same era. In the final paragraphs of his article Dodge also very briefly notes Jack Katz’s examination of deviance and charisma (1975). Katz argues that deviance and charisma are “two sides of the one moral coin in which responsibility allocations are transacted” (Katz 1975:1384).

In the same volume, Sagarin (1985) replied to Dodge’s ambitious reconceptualisation of the discipline. As noted above, Sagarin argued that positive deviance was an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. However, again, it was not simply a matter of grammatical clarification of the concept. Central to Sagarin’s dismissal of positive deviance is his denial of any connection between these two deviations. He argues that positive deviance should remain self-contradicting as it “would obfuscate rather than clarify, would collapse into one group two ends of continua that have nothing in common” (Sagarin 1985:169) (emphasis added). Directly countering many of Dodge’s points, Sagarin also sought reinforcement for his logic in Lemert (1951) and Clinard (1968,1974), in addition to a review of the definitions of deviance in social scientific literature which included the work of Cohen (1966), Parsons (1951), Donald Black and Albert Reiss (1970). A brief distinction is also made between Dodge’s (1985) understanding of positive deviance and Durkheim’s view that (negative) deviance has positive functions for societal integration (1951), the latter being able to be clearly conceptualised without any expansion to the traditional association between deviance and negative sanctions.

Over six years, three articles followed Sagarin’s reply to Dodge (Ben-Yehuda 1990, Goode 1991, Heckert 1989). The first by Heckert (1989) attempted to justify positive deviance by directly linking it with labelling theory. While making little reference to Dodge’s original paper (Ben-Yehuda 1990:222), Heckert contributed to the debate in two ways. She provided a level of thick description, applying positive deviance to the case of the French Impressionists, documenting their transition from negative deviants to positive deviant status. Heckert’s more distinct contribution to the debate, though, was broadening the positive deviance literature review to mainstream social theory (Becker 1978, Merton 1968:238, Sorokin 1950, Warner 1959). What would later become a central point of debate, she attempts to highlight the interdependence of positive and negative deviance by relating the former to Robert Merton’s observation that the criminal of one era is the hero of the next (Merton 1968:238).

Without any further published detraction of positive deviance, Nachman Ben-Yehuda (1990) seized upon the debate arguing for a paradigmatic shift towards a more theoretically informed study of deviance, seeing that the rejection of the concept was related to the field’s “resistance to innovation” (1990:221). Ben-Yehuda (1990) again widened the literature review for positive deviance (Ben-Yehuda 1985; Coser 1962; Erikson 1966; Parsons 1951:250) though here the concept was not only conceptualised as deviation that is positively sanctioned, but linked to the neofunctionalist emphasis, following Durkheim (1915), that negative deviance has positive functions for social stability (Alexander 1985, 1997; Colomy 1990).

It was Ben-Yehuda’s broadening of the positive deviance concept that prompted Goode (1991) to reiterate Sagarin’s (1985) position that positive deviance is an oxymoron. As noted above, Goode dates his knowledge of the concept to Wilkins (1964) and recognises its basis in functionalism (Goode 1991:289). Goode argues that the question of the worth of positive deviance depends on whether you consider it from a reactive or normative definition of deviance, the reactive rejecting the notion, the normative viewing it as theoretically viable. Goode (1991), however, concludes that positive deviance is not a viable concept for the discipline. This is partly due to the “loose and sloppy” way that the concept had been defined, though importantly, like Sagarin (1985), he argues that there is little if no connection between positive and negative forms of deviance. Referring to Heckert’s (1989:137) use of Merton’s argument about the historical transformation of non-conformists (Merton 1968:238), Goode also argues that just because an actor is a deviant in one context and praiseworthy in another does not establish any relationship between positive and negative deviance, rather it is a matter of “historical, situational and cultural relativity” (Goode 1991:301). Following this line of argument Goode concludes the debate in Deviant Behavior by stating that:

we are asked to see commonalities in phenomena that lie at the opposite ends of a spectrum and deviance as something of a curvilinear affair. There may be similarities in some areas However, these dimensions are irrelevant to the issue of deviance (Goode 1991:305).

Catching up With Old Friends: Durkheim, Simmel and Weber

As argued earlier, the positive deviance debate, similar to other recent controversies in the field, can be understood as an academic ritual that re-establishes the boundaries of the discipline. While the concept of positive deviance continues to be used by scholars in a limited number of studies published outside of the journal of Deviant Behavior (Heckert 1997,1998; Hillery 1992; Hughes and Coakley 1991; Jones 1998), Goode’s detraction of the concept contributed closure to the initial controversy over the question of its viability. In this way it attempted to act as a ‘model for’ the study of deviance. The debate, however, can also be understood as a ‘model of’ the field. Such controversies bring about reference to the foundational theorists and articles of the paradigm.

What is significant is the character of this collective memory (Halbwachs 1980). The foundational references in the positive deviance debate lacked the kind of worship of the classical canon that Gans (1992) argues characterises general sociological amnesia (cf. Alexander 1987; Collins 1994). Of all classical sociologists, Durkheim is the only one cited, and only briefly discussed. Why is there a general lack of classical references? The answer is no doubt multi-dimensional and complex, though I would argue it has less to do with the role of positivism in the sociology of deviance and is more related to the (perhaps increasing) disciplinary isolation of the field of deviance. It is the classical theorists Durkheim (1915), Simmel (1950,1971) and Weber (1963,1968), though, which I will use to call for the inclusion of the concept of positive deviance into the discipline and in particular to rebuke the central argument in the rejection of the concept, that positive and negative deviance lie at differing ends of a spectrum of deviance and exist without significant and relevant shared symbolic form.

Emile Durkheim’s early works (1951,1958,1960) are highly recognised in the field of deviance for their observations on the functional qualities of (negative) deviance in reaffirming moral boundaries. Both a critic and a supporter of the positive deviance concept cited this aspect of Durkheim’s work in support their thesis (Sagarin 1985:180; Ben-Yehuda 1990:226). What is given less attention by scholars of deviance, however, is Durkheim’s later writing where he more directly addresses the duality of social forms (Smith and Alexander 1996). It is here that he understood the greater complexity of deviance, that the evil power and holy thing share a number of similarities in that both are differentiated as distinct from the profanity of the everyday world. For Durkheim:

[R]eligious forces are of two kinds. Some are benevolent, guardians of physical and moral order, as well as dispensers of life, health, and all the qualities that men valueOn the other hand, there are evil and impure powers, bringers of disorder, causes of death and sickness, instigators of sacrilege But although opposite to one another, these two aspects of religious life are at the same time closely akin. First, both have the same relation to profane beings. They must abstain from all contact with impure things and with very holy [saintes] things To be sure, the two do not provoke identical feelings. Disgust and horror are one thing and respect another. Nonetheless, for actions to be the same in both cases, the feelings expressed must not be different in kind. In fact, there actually is a certain horror in religious respect, especially when it is very intense; and the fear inspired by malignant powers is not without a certain reverential quality (1995:412-414).

Such reverential qualities of deviation from normality was, to some extent, recognised by both sides in the positive deviance debate. Durkheim, however, goes further pointing to the synergy between the two forces.

Indeed, the shades of difference between these two attitudes are sometimes so elusive that it is not always easy to say in just which state of mind the faithful are There is more: An impure thing or an evil power often becomes a holy thing or a tutelary power-and vice versa-without changing its nature, but simply through a change in external circumstances (1995:412-414).

The transformations Durkheim alludes to are not those that result due to historical relativity of the sinner emerging as a saint (Merton 1968:238), as Goode suggests (1991: 301). They are much more sudden, frequently occurring at times of heightened social effervescence, especially during warfare and revolutions. In indigenous societies, for example, great warriors normally hold a peripheral position amongst the group. During times of tribal warfare, though, they are allocated the highest ruling position. This role reversal as it relates to criminals is also clearly evident in the religious conflicts of medieval Europe. The ambiguity of the sacred is evident in Pope Urban II famous speech at the end of the 1095 council in Clermont France, where he called upon the nobility of Western Europe to go to the East and assist their Christian brothers against the attacking Muslim Turks. The response to Urban’s speech subsequently prompted the beginning of the Crusades. The Pope is recorded as saying:

[L]et those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward (Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095, according to Fulcher of Chartres) (Edwards 1971: 31).

These transformations between the pure and the impure can only occur, according to Durkheim, because the two are a variety of the same class that includes all sacred things (Durkheim 1915:458). These transitions can take place due to the shared symbolic nature of negative and positive deviance. The ambiguity of the sacred that facilitates this change in status, however, may also produce a level of confusion about whether at any particular time something is pure and impure. Durkheim notes that among certain Semitic peoples, pork is taboo, and while there is no question whether it is forbidden or not, there is an uncertainty if it is because it is an impure or a holy thing (1995:413).

It is possible to go further, however, and argue that the sacred is not only found symbolically on the periphery of society, but at times also outside of it. Georg Simmel has a markedly different conception of society from that of Durkheim. He rejected totalising social science and believed that the task of sociology was to concentrate on the social interactions of individuals that make up society and underlie political, economic and religious structures (Coser 1977:179). Despite these differences Simmel’s work also demonstrates the symmetry between seemingly oppositional and binary forces of the pure and the impure. His social type of ‘the stranger’ is a case in point (Simmel 1971). Far from detachment being a spatial relation that always alienates the other, it can also bring positive relations and respect. According to Simmel the stranger is a celebrated character in society. Their attractiveness does not lie in their conformity and homogeneity but rather the “union of closeness and remoteness” (Simmel 1971:143). That is we find ourselves attracted not only to what is like us, but also to what is different and unlike us (Simmel 1950:217).

Simmel talks of the stranger not in the typical or literal sense of the word. He is not talking about the stranger as in the relation of the Greeks to the Barbarians (Simmel 1971:148). The stranger in his sense is not a wanderer “who comes today and goes tomorrow” but rather a “person who comes today and stays tomorrow” (Simmel 1950: 402). Simmel’s stranger is from the outside and has no fixed commitment to the group, though, they are now located within the broader spatial boundaries of the community. In this way, however, the stranger is not all together different from those with negative relations to the social group. To quote Simmel:

The stranger is an element of the group itself, not unlike the poor and sundry “inner enemies”-an element whose membership within the group involves both being outside it and confronting it (Simmel 1971:144).

The celebration of the stranger though is certainly related to their “remoteness”, making them distinct from those indigenous to the social group. As Simmel argues the stranger is not a landowner, rather they bring qualities to the group “that are not, and cannot be, indigenous to it” (Simmel 1971:143).

‘The Stranger’ (1971) is representative of Simmel’s broader thesis that forms found in social reality are never pure. As Coser states, ‘[T]o Simmel every social phenomenon contains a multiplicity of formal elements. Cooperation and conflict, subordination and superordination, intimacy and distance all may operate in a marital relationship or in a bureaucratic structure (1977:181).

Max Weber was also fully aware of the power of ‘the stranger’ social type in noting the importance of “wandering handicraft apprentices” as missionaries of every mass congregational religion. In the case of Christianity, this was evident in its extraordinary rapid expansion “across the tremendous area from the orient to Rome in just a few decades” (Weber 1963:100). Weber’s more significant contribution, however, is found in his theory of charisma. I noted earlier that Dodge (1985:33) briefly references Katz’s (1975) argument that deviance and charisma are “two sides of the one moral coin” (Katz 1975:1384). This proposition emerges from the interactionist perspective that Katz utilises, where charisma and deviance are dualistically considered, deviance defined as inferior and charisma as superior (Katz 1975:1375). Charismatic authority, however, does not simply hold a positive relation to societal norms. Weber’s emphasis is on its oppositional nature, especially in relation to economic matters and legal-rational authority. Weber states:

[I]n contrast to all patriarchal forms of domination, pure charisma is opposed to all systematic economic activities, in fact, it is the strongest anti-economic force, even when it is after material possessions, as in the case of the charismatic warrior In order to live up to their mission the master as well as his disciples and immediate following must be free of the ordinary worldly attachments and duties of occupational and family life. Those who have a share in charisma must inevitably turn away from the world Whether it is more active or passive, this recognition derives from the surrender of the faithful to the extraordinary and unheard-of, to what is alien to all regulation and tradition and therefore is viewed as divine- surrender which arises from distress or enthusiasm It’s “objective” law flows from the highly personal experience of divine grace and God- like heroic strength and rejects all external order solely for the sake of glorifying genuine prophetic and heroic ethos. Hence, in a revolutionary and sovereign manner, charismatic domination transforms all values and breaks all traditional and rational norms: “It has been written, but I say unto you”. (1968: 1113-15) (emphasis added).

‘Charismatic authority’ of course, along with ‘traditional authority’ and ‘legal-rational authority’ constitutes Weber’s ‘ideal types’ of legitimate authority. For Weber charismatic authority is a property attributed to innovating and expansive personalities who through their own extraordinariness are attributed with possessing a divine grace. While Weber stresses the power of charisma and its ability to disrupt traditionally and rational legally legitimated systems of authority, he also outlined its fragility, that it is often short lived, plagued by problems of succession and instability which make it susceptible to be replaced by rational bureaucratic forms. It is these concessions though which have been seized upon and exaggerated by advocates of the ‘disenchantment of the world’ thesis to suggest the death of a meaningful life-world and charismatic authority in the modern world (eg. Habermas 1968). However, as Edward Shils notes:

Max Weber repeatedly emphasized that none of the three types of legitimate authority he set forth was ever found in its pure form. In his analysis of the structure of religious, monarchical, and feudal institutions, he dealt repeatedly with the coexistence of the charismatic and the other types of authority. In his analysis of modern parliamentary political – and to a lesser extent administrative and economic- institutions, he also dealt with a recurrent appearance of charismatic qualities imputed to a spectacular, extraordinary, disruptive exercise of authority by an individual (Shils 1975:256).

Following Shils (1975) a significant amount of recent literature has similarly noted how charismatic power is not only oppositional to legal-rational authority but is infused within and enchanted by it (Schwartz 1983, Smith 2000). While much of this literature, following Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and profane, contrasts the binary code of salvation and evil (Hunt 1986; Sahlins 1976), increasingly individuals and groups of ‘difficult reputations’ (Fine 2001) are being analysed, such as Hitler (Smith 2000), the incompetent United States President Warren Harding (Fine 1996), environmental activists (Douglas and Wildavsky 1982) and criminal personalities, heroes and celebrities (Jacobs 1996; Jenks and Lorentzen 1997; Kooistra 1989). This last grouping in particular illustrates the connections between negative and positive forms of deviance.

Chris Jenks and Justin J. Lorentzen (1997), for example, highlight this in their analysis of the remarkable events following the death of imprisoned murderer and notorious London organised crime figure Ronnie Kray, on 17 March 1995. The death was given significant attention by prime time television and made front page in national newspapers. The funeral in East End attracted crowds that were reported as more than a mile long. What is significant is not the extent of the public attention but its nature. Far from representing the negative amplification of deviance (Wilkins 1964), Jenks and Lorentzen (1997) argue that the commemoration of Ronnie Kray was part of a longer established “Kray fascination” the English public has had with Ronnie and his twin brother Reggie. It is the fascination with the forbidden, the underworld, “the interplay of the rational and the erotic” (1997:90). The Kray fascination they argue is “in the strength provided by their imagery in summoning up a better age, a time of stability and safety policed by their ‘brotherhood’” (Jenks and Lorentzen 1997:94). While certainly nostalgic such contemporary examples directly counter the belief that the celebration of the anti-hero is but a product of a prior age, strangled to death by rational bureaucratic and ‘civilised’ discourses of power (Foucault 1975:69).

Far from being unique, the Krays follow in a long line of antiheroes that have sparked excitement and ambivalent championing by national communities. The continuing championing of what Eric Hobsbawm (1959) over forty years ago termed ‘social bandits’ are clearly consistent with the crossing of the typical classification of the sacred and profane. According to Hobsbawm social bandits are much like the Robin Hood figure, “a man who took from the to give to the poor and never killed but in self-defence or just revenge” (1959:5). While this is the archetypical social bandit, it certainly wasn’t simply their actions that transformed them into folk heroes and continues their legendary status. As many scholars since Hobsbawm (cf. 1969:34) have noted, social bandits were often far from noble, often terrorising their own peasant communities (Blok 1972, Shaw 1984, White 1981). Yet the same basic narrative is applied to them, even though they lived at different times and in different places (Kooistra 1989, 1990). This heroic narrative is consistent, whether we examine the Antonio Silvino, Jesse James, Rob Roy or Ned Kelly (Seal 1996; West 2002).

These figures also cannot be simply accounted for by historical relativity with the sinner emerging as a saint in a different society (Goode 1991:301; Merton 1968:238), or that which is frequently referred to in the contemporary socio-political climate, that one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. While the persecuted and martyred hero provides a foundation myth for many societies, this is a genre where clear and explicit boundaries are established. By contrast, the charismatic anti-heroes, referred to above, “represent no break from a pre-existing order but are critical of it, alienated within it; yet celebrated by it” (West 2002:139). As such explanation of them, as with other similar forms, needs to be explained as a central part of the existing system where negative and positive deviance often share symbolic form.


Utilising the work of the classical sociologists Emile Durkheim (1915), Georg Simmel (1950, 1971) and Max Weber (1963, 1968), this paper has argued that deviance, as conventionally associated with actions that provoke negative reactions and sanctions, should be understood to exist in synergy with particular forms of acceptance and celebration of the Other. The concept of positive deviance can be used to account for this counter-point dynamic. While the focus of the field of deviance studies should remain on, what the positive deviance debate termed, negative deviance, to account for its complexity and associated consequences we must explore its multi-dimensional character.

The conceptualisation of positive deviance in this article argues against the original advocacy that it refer to “persons and acts that are evaluated as superior” due to a deviation of norms, in that “they surpass conventional expectations” (Dodge 1985:18). The critics of the positive deviance concept are correct in their judgement that use of the term in this way is oxymoronic and would take the field in directions that are inconsistent with deviance. By contrast, in outlining various examples from classical sociology, this paper has argued that the concept should be utilised to refer to and analyse categories and instances of social life where ‘positive’ dimensions are associated with deviant forms and as a consequence cannot easily be categorised according to the strict boundaries and definitions of deviant behaviour or understood as representing conformity or normality. As such, inclusion of the concept within the discipline aids in the development of a theoretically sophisticated understanding of deviance.


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