Postmodernist Perspectives on Deviance

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Postmodernist Perspectives on Deviance 

Departing from other theoretical perspectives on deviance, some postmodern theorists emphasize that the study of deviance reveals how the powerful exert control over the powerless by taking away their free will to think and act as they might choose. From this approach, institutions such as schools, prisons, and mental hospitals use knowledge, norms, and values to categorize people into "deviant" subgroups such as slow learners, convicted felons, or criminally insane individuals, and then to control them through specific patterns of discipline.
An example of this idea is found in social theorist Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1979), in which Foucault examines the intertwining nature of power, knowledge, and social control. In this study of prisons from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, Foucault found that many penal institutions ceased torturing prisoners who disobeyed the rules and began using new surveillance techniques to maintain social control.

Although the prisons appeared to be more humane in the post-torture era. Foucault contends that the new means of surveillance impinged more on prisoners and brought greater power to prison officials. To explain. he described the Panopticon structure that gives prison officials the possibility of complete observation of criminals at all times. Typically. the Panoptican was a tower located in the center of a circular prison from which guards could see all the cells. Although the prisoners knew they could be observed at any time. they did not actually know when their behavior was being scrutinized. As a result. prison officials were able to use their knowledge as a form of power over the inmates.

Eventually. the guards: did not even have to be present all the time because prisoners believed that they were under constant scrutiny by officials in the observation post.If we think of this in contemporary times. we can see how cameras. computers. and other devices have made continual surveillance quite easy in virtually all institutions. In such cases. social control and discipline are based on the use of knowledge. power. and technology. Foucault's view on deviance and social control has inlluenced other social analysts. including Shoshana Zuboff (1988). who views the computer as a modern Panoptican that gives workplace supervisors virtually unlimited capabilities for surveillance over subordinates. Today. cell phones and the Internet provide new opportunities for surveillance by government officials and others who arc not visible to the individuals who are being watched. We have examined functionalist. conflict, interventionist, and postmodernist perspectives on social control. deviance. and crime (see the Concept Quick Review). All often explanations contribute to our understanding of the causes and consequences of deviant behavior; however. we now turn to the subject of crime itself