Today was Emile Durkheim in my Classical Social Theory class, and I was again reminded of the beauty of Durkheim’s “Crime is Necessary” thesis. Basically his thesis points out that for there to be something “normal,” there must be something deviant. Or in the context of a state, this means that for something to be legal and creditable, there must be something illegal and punishable. This happens so that the normal nice people to be a group, there needs to be someone who is hung out to dry. Here is how Durkheim himself explained why society needs criminals:
Crime brings together upright consciences and concentrates them. We have only to notice what happens, particularly in a small town, when some moral scandal has been committed. They stop each other on the street, they visit each other, they seek to come together to talk of the event and to wax indignant in common. From all the similar impressions which are exchanged, for all the temper that gets itself expressed, there emerges a unique temper…which is everybody’s without being anybody’s in particular. That is the public temper. From The Division of Labor in Society
In speculating about the implications of this principle, Durkheim did a thought experiment, and imagined what a “perfect cloister of exemplary individuals might look like. The idea being that if you got rid of all the weirdos and whackos, then you would be a perfect society. Or so the society might be think. But Durkheim was ever the curmudgeon, and pointed out that even in such a society, something described as scandalous might occur—and it didn’t even have to be something defined as “bad” previously.
Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes, properly so called, will there be unknown; but faults which appear venial to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousness. If, then, this society has the power to judge and punish, it will define these acts as criminal and will treat them as such. The Rules of Sociological Method.
This is what Abi Yoyo by Pete Seeger was about. Ostracising the boy and his father brought together the “upright consciences.” There were new crimes in the village and they were bad ukulele playing and magic. Such crimes brought together the upright consciences and concentrated them. The offenders were accordingly ostracized! Watch the clip from Reading Rainbow, and see how this happened, and how it was resolved….
If you can’t take seriously the role the crimes of bad ukulele playing and magic played in a fictional South African village, listen to how Kris Kristofferson describes how other societies dealt with major moral crises. Things like drunks on the sidewalk, long-haired hippies, and riddle speaking prophets. Them folks is a real problem!
As the headline says. Thank your local criminal next time you see him. Your local criminal is the one who is deviant so that you can be normal and righteous!
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.