Monday, July 25, 2011

Assimilation: It Ain't a Bad Thing, Sociologically

by Laura Bickle

In my previous life, I taught classes on deviance. And it taught me that assimilation can be a very good thing.

Yup. Deviance is actually a field in sociology. It focuses on how society's norms are defined and how people wander outside of them. It's a favorite area for criminologists to study. As a graduate student, I was a teaching assistant for an undergrad deviance class for a few quarters. Criminology was my bailiwick, and deviance is a pretty fascinating field. Deviance, in the sociological sense, occurs when people behave in a way that violates formal rules (laws) and social norms (like societal expectations). For an act to be deviant, it's gotta be something that most people disapprove of. Like...murder. Murder's a good example. Stealing is another one. So is wandering around in public nekkid. Alcoholism and drug abuse. You get the picture.

There's a large, overarching theory in sociology called Social Control Theory. It's part of the Structural-Functionalist school of thought. At the time that I went to school, the Structural-Functionalists were not as sexy as, say, the Conflict theorists (because Marx was a Conflict theorist, and you know how people in college love to argue about Marx). But, despite their unsexiness, the Structural Functionalists had some interesting ideas on how deviance and criminal behavior works.

One of those ideas is the "stake in conformity." People who are invested in social structures are less likely to become criminals. The idea was initially posited by Jackson Toby in the 1950's, to explain why some kids were delinquents and why others stayed out of trouble. Those who were more involved with school, families, jobs, community activities, etc., were less likely to be involved in gangs.

The underlying idea is one of commitment. If one has responsibilities and duties outside of oneself, one tends to stay out of trouble. One is, in effect, assimilated into one's community in a desirable way.

The idea was later revisited by Travis Hirschi and others as part of an the concept of crime as stemming from rational choice. Hirschi argued that people make decisions to offend or not offend, and part of that calculation is whether or not you've got something to lose by being deviant.

If you have nothing to lose, a Rational Choice theorist would suggest that you're more likely to be deviant. This is all about the stake in conformity. Stakes in conformity are things you're afraid of losing if you screw up and go to jail. Stuff like jobs, marriages, material assets, strong family ties, home ownership...stuff that means we have things to lose by acting out. The stake in conformity has also been used to explain why many criminals mellow or "age out" of criminal activity - you develop more ties to your community and a larger stake in community and conformity as you get older. People, by and large, settle down as they age and find a permanent place to live, create family units, and get jobs. When they do, the risk of offending goes way down, as compared, to say, offending rates for the early-twenties demographic. Most people in society do tend to chill out, get things they're afraid of losing, and become assimilated. They have stuff they want and act to protect it by staying out of trouble.

And, according to this school of thought, that's why grown-ups are boring and go to bed early. A trip to the pokey will hurt your bank account - you gotta pay bond and get a lawyer. The ride in the police car with embarrass the hell out of you in front of your neighbors. Who's gonna watch the kids while you're in jail? Your wife might decide to divorce you if what you did is really bad. And if your boss sees what you did in the police blotter section of the newspaper, you just might lose your job. And how on earth are you gonna make the mortgage and the car payment THEN? Never mind about your insurance and getting your car out of the impound lot...

Right about now, your American Dream is pretty well trashed. So it's probably best to stay assimilated and keep outta trouble.

Image: Graeme Weatherston /


  1. Ooo, Deviant Studies sounds like way more fun than Technical Writing. I wonder if comma abusers would fall into the former area of research. ~rubs chin~

  2. Thanks, KAK and Sullivan!

    I confess to being a serial comma offender, KAK. Love 'em.

  3. You can never have too many commas!

  4. Interesting post - I'm mulling it in terms of my experiences with the jail crowd. By and large most of those I see are younger, but we certainly do see repeat offenders with a lot to lose. Lots of tears about family and kids and lost jobs. Even those who got in bad with a prison gang the last go round and are pretty sure they'll end up dead if they go back show up again. Maybe they've been assimilated by the deviant culture?