introductory texts devote less than 10 pages to sociological
theories related to deviance and crime. One popular text
devotes just two pages to the concepts of deviance and social
control (Inciardi, 1996). This does not pose a problem
for many students who are less interested in theory than in
specific information about the criminal justice system.
Many are bored by, perhaps even hostile to, an extended
discussion of theory. In spite of the difficulties, many
professors believe a grounding in theory is required before
the student can begin to critically analyze important issues
in criminal justice.
criminal justice professor with an interest in expanding the
student's knowledge of theory needs to balance this interest
with the necessity of covering other areas more commonly
included in an introductory course. Most introductory criminal
justice courses are already crowded with information on
police, courts, corrections, and related topics. As a
result, the professor who wishes to introduce theoretical
concepts must be efficient in his or her use of class time.
The challenge is to provide this information, within a limited
amount of time, and within a framework that can be referred to
throughout the semester.
Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" offers an
opportunity to introduce a variety of concepts in a way that
is efficient, yet not threatening or obvious. This
article presents a teaching method used to introduce concepts
related to deviant behavior. This method has been
successfully used during the first few weeks of an
introduction to criminal justice course. A broad
introductory lecture is used to define certain sociological
concepts by referring to examples provided in Harrison
Bergeron. The goal is to provide a general understanding
rather than an in depth analysis of deviance and social
prepare for this lecture by reading Harrison Bergeron.
It is short, full of interesting ideas, and students report
that they enjoy the story. Following the reading, the
professor leads a class discussion regarding the story.
The professor's role is to raise points discussed in the story
and connect these points with generally accepted theories
related to deviant behavior and social control. This
introductory lecture becomes a base upon which a broader
understanding of sociological theory can be developed.
provides many opportunities for teaching sociology.
Coser writes that fiction "provides the social scientist with
a wealth of sociologically relevant material, with manifold
clues and points of departure for sociological theory and
research" (Coser 1936:3, see also Coser 1972).
Hegtvedt (1991) describes a method for teaching sociology of
literature through the use of literature. Parrot and
Ormondroyd (1992) discuss a teaching application of a unique
form of fiction, sensationalized tabloid newspapers.
Bonomo (1987) uses news segments of a more traditional variety
to create intellectual interest in applying sociological
theory and analysis to contemporary social issues. Sullivan
(1982) describes a teaching method in which students learn to
identify sociological concepts in literature. Her method
is especially applicable in diverse student populations.
Hendershott and Wright (1993) also discuss the advantages of
using literature in the interdisciplinary classroom.
Wright Mills writes that social science is about "the human
variety, which consists of all the social worlds in which men
have lived, are living, and might live" (Mills
1959:132.) The "sociological imagination" described by
Mills can be developed through exposure to science fiction.
The questions raised by science fiction writers "are not about
one social world, but about countless social worlds. As
models, the societies described in science fiction can
generate serious inquiry into the nature of contemporary
social reality" (Milstead et al.1974).
has created an imaginary social world that may be more similar
to present society than we care to admit. Students are
able to learn about the justice system by considering the
alternative reality described in Harrison Bergeron.
Analysis and understanding of this alternative reality can be
used to break down narrow minded and stereotypical thinking
about the current state of the justice system.
Vonnegut Jr. wrote Harrison Bergeron in 1961. The short
story was originally published in Fantasy and Science
Fiction Magazine. The story also appears in Welcome
to the Monkey House, a collection of Vonnegut short
Bergeron is a tale of equality. Extreme equality.
It is 2081 and everybody is equal. This equality is realized
due to "the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States
Handicapper General" (Vonnegut 1988:7). Equality is
maintained through the use of various handicapping
devices. An individual with above average intelligence
is forced to wear a "mental handicap radio" (Vonnegut 1988:7)
at all times. This radio sends sharp noises intended to
keep people "from taking unfair advantage of their brains"
(Vonnegut 1988:7). Those with above average physical agility
are forced to wear weighted "handicap bags." The bags
are intended to reduce an unusual and unacceptable amount of
agility and grace. Individuals with attractive facial
features are required to wear other "handicaps." The
handicaps are required "so that no one, seeing a free and
graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something
the cat drug in" (Vonnegut 1988:8).
Bergeron is an exceptional individual. He is heavily
handicapped as a result of actions of the Handicapper
General. While wearing nearly every handicapping device
available, he still has the drive to rise to the highest level
his talents will take him. In Vonnegut's story Harrison
is severely sanctioned for efforts to rise to his potential.
deviance lectures often include discussion of the functions of
deviance and introduction to theories of social control.
Early deviant behavior lectures also include the always
interesting effort to define deviance. Each of these
concepts is discussed below, along with the application of
specific ideas presented in Vonnegut's short story.
1996 we have general agreement regarding behaviors we may
define as deviant. This agreement is determined in part
by what we study in the field of "deviant behavior" (Liazos,
1972). This general agreement allows us to place
behavior on a spectrum of deviance. At one end we have
behavior that is disvalued, but may invoke little or no
negative sanction. Further up the scale we have behavior
that is likely to trigger a negative social reaction. At
the far end of the scale we place behaviors that are clearly
illegal, as well as harmful to society.
draw a line on this spectrum, somewhat arbitrarily.
Everything on one side of the line is illegal.
Everything on the other side is legal according to law, but
may be normatively unacceptable. While all behaviors on this
spectrum may be considered deviant, we may only define
non-criminal behavior as deviant. The other behaviors
are crimes. We separate deviance into categories and
sanction the behavior accordingly. State power is used
to react to the illegal behavior. Informal sanctions occur in
reaction to behavior on the legal side of the line.
Vonnegut's fictional future all difference is deviant. In
fact, it is illegal. In 2081 all deviance is reacted to with
the authority of the state. Considering this fictional
definition of deviance and social control, and contrasting it
with society, as we know it today, provides valuable insight
into our efforts to define and understand deviance.
a definition of deviance can be challenging and
instructive. Students struggle with suggestions that
statistically unusual behaviors or traits may be deviant,
although not reacted to as such. These students are also
uncomfortable with definitions of deviance that are purely
reactive. Students are quick to point out that some
behavior is deviant even if secret. Eventually, students
develop a definition of deviance. This definition
invariably includes statistical deviance and a reaction,
either real or potential.
describes a society in which all difference is deviant.
Behaviors and traits that are held in high regard in today's
society are sanctioned as deviant in Vonnegut's lowest common
denominator society. Even today these behaviors and
traits may be statistically unusual, yet we do not define them
as deviant. Without the negative reaction there is no
we limit reaction to individuals, the reactive element in our
definition of deviance is absent in Harrison Bergeron.
There is little or no negative reaction to "deviant" traits or
behaviors. In fact, there is a positive reaction to, or
at least a curiosity about, those who are deviant. For
example, it is easy to determine who is strong, graceful, or
intelligent. Easier than in today's society. A
ballerina is clearly "the strongest and most graceful of the
dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by
two-hundred-pound men" (Vonnegut 1988:10). If a negative
reaction to behavior is an important variable in our
definition of deviance, how have the behavior and traits that
are sanctioned in Harrison Bergeron been defined as deviant?
we expand the reaction to include official agents of social
control, it is obvious that there is a severe reaction to
certain traits or behaviors. This opens the door to a
discussion about the power to punish deviance being
intertwined with the power to define deviance. Vonnegut
provides an example of governmental power to define deviance
as he describes the government's initial reaction to the
prison escape of Harrison Bergeron. Harrison does not
fit the image, however inaccurate, that we have of today's
prison escapee. When he escapes from prison the
newsflash does not warn the public of a heavily armed
psychopath. Instead, the public is warned that the
fourteen-year-old Harrison is "a genius and an athlete, is
under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely
dangerous" (Vonnegut 1988:10). "If you see this boy, do
not - repeat, do not - try to reason with him" (Vonnegut
Vonnegut's society individuals do not fear difference.
The government does. The government has defined certain
traits or behaviors as deviant, in fact criminal, and warns
the populace accordingly. The general population seems
more likely to react to Harrison as a curiosity rather than as
a threat. Students may be reluctant to apply this
example to today's society, until prompted with examples of
homosexuality, nude sunbathing, recreational drug use, and
other behaviors the government has at one time or another
defined as illegal.
behavior appears to have been severely restricted in
Vonnegut's future society. Differences have been
minimized and deviance, if it occurs, is dealt with very
quickly. It is easy to argue that without deviance, this
future society is not healthy. The idea that deviance is
necessary in a healthy society can be difficult for students
to understand. Students may believe that the ultimate
goal is to end all crime. They accept that this is not
possible, but believe that if we could, we would stop all
crime and negative deviance.
our goal is to eliminate crime, why do we wish Harrison had
succeeded in challenge to the status quo? Harrison dared
to be his best. He encouraged others to do so as
well. Harrison's principled challenge to the norms was
exactly what this fictional society needed. Students are
able to challenge their own value structures through
identification with Harrison's actions.
writes that when Harrison and the Ballerina began to dance
"(n)ot only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law
of gravity and the laws of motion as well" (Vonnegut
1988:12). Students can be asked to consider whether all
laws are to be accepted without challenge. Are the laws
of the land as difficult to challenge as the laws of gravity
and motion? If there is no opportunity or willingness to
challenge and refine law, is it possible that we may lose all
semblance of freedom? This discussion can be a fruitful
examination of the need to provide access to the law, for
challenging as well as protecting the status quo.
Bergeron challenged social norms. In today's society we
see these challenges as a way to reassess and redefine the
legitimacy of norms and boundaries for behavior.
However, we may be reluctant to respect those who challenge
the norms. Students may be able to identify individuals
who were severely sanctioned for stands taken in opposition to
the status quo.
individual who challenges the law accepts the potential
sanctions resulting from his or her actions. In
Vonnegut's society such martyrdom is nearly impossible.
Harrison's actions were quickly forgotten as loud noises went
off in the ears of intelligent people throughout the
land. Changing the status quo can be extremely difficult
in today's society. It seems impossible in Harrison
Bergeron's time. Consideration of the difficulties faced
by groups or individuals who attempt to make change from
within the system provides the learner with insights into
functions of deviance, the legal system, and deviance in
describes a society in which the government exercises,
apparently with the consent of the people, a great deal of
control over the lives of the people. This control
extends to thoughts, actions, and appearance. Issues related
to the power granted to, or taken by, government are
applicable here. Is Vonnegut's odd society a result of
the will of the people, or is this society the result of the
wishes and decisions of a powerful ruler or ruling
elite? We have just opened a "consensus" or "conflict"
discussion that could continue, and of course has continued,
for many years.
introductory discussion provides an opportunity to describe
the difference between conflict and consensus perspectives of
the role of law in society. Vonnegut provides little
information about which perspective is most accurately applied
to his fictional society. Students often assume that the
conflict perspective is most applicable. This assumption
may be based on the belief that the people would never do such
a thing to themselves. This belief can be
challenged. This provides an opportunity for discussion
of the rules we are willing to create, endure, and allow.
Szasz writes that "whether a particular form of social control
is good or bad depends on what sort of society we want or
like" (Szasz 1989:55). Vonnegut has illustrated a
society in which law is a tool for social engineering. A
variety of issues are raised by discussing the effectiveness
of law as a tool for designing society. This discussion
raises the question of the amount of social control we are
willing to accept and why we are willing to be
accept a great amount of governmental control over our daily
activities. But is this control agreed to without
reservation? The creation and enforcement of law are
areas for fertile discussion. For example, are all laws
necessary? Harrison Bergeron's father, George, briefly
considers the idea that maybe dancers shouldn't be
handicapped. His thoughts on this subject were
brief. A loud noise in his ear scattered his
all laws be followed? George Bergeron asks "what do you
think happens to society" when people start cheating on laws
(Vonnegut 1988:9). How is social control best
accomplished? Is it possible to enforce all laws?
What is the role of government? How many police are too
many? Why would a society need to resort to such
repressive means to control the masses? Each of these
questions can be addressed in the initial class
discussion. Discussion of these topics will occur
throughout the semester. By returning to Vonnegut's
story the professor is able to provide clear examples of the
difficulties faced when considering these issues.
Control is often divided into categories of "formal" and
"informal." Vonnegut provides examples of each.
The formal controls are obvious. The penalty for
removing lead balls from a handicap bag is two years in prison
and a two thousand-dollar fine for every ball
removed. Informal controls are less obvious. George
discusses his belief that if he tried to get away with
removing the balls others would also get away with it.
This would force society back into "the dark ages again, with
everybody competing against everybody else" (Vonnegut
1988:9). The real reason for George's reluctance to
break the law could be his belief in the validity and
necessity of the laws. His reluctance may also be a
result of the fear of formal sanction.
example of informal social control is apparent as a woman
reads a news clip. She begins to read, stops
immediately, and apologizes for her voice. When she
starts to read again, she has changed her warm, luminous,
melodic voice to one that is "absolutely uncompetitive"
(Vonnegut 1988:10). As we know, acceptance of social
norms can be an extremely powerful tool for social
control. This seems to have occurred in Vonnegut's
is a method of social control that is interesting to discuss
in an introductory class. Harrison Bergeron provides
several examples of deterrence. As discussed above,
George Bergeron chooses not to remove balls from his handicap
bags. This choice is made following consideration of the
penalties for such behavior. Near the end of the story,
Harrison decides to fight the controls placed on himself and
others in this society. As a result, he is quickly
executed. His execution provides an example of swift,
certain, and severe punishment. In comparison, society
in 1995 has yet to completely master this concept. Do we
want justice to become as efficient as it is in Vonnegut's
death is an example of specific deterrence. Since his
execution happens to occur on national television, we could
also expect a certain degree of general deterrence. Yet
deterrence theory is based on the assumption that we all make
rational choices before choosing to act. Can general
deterrence occur in a society where rational thought is
prevented by loud noises emitted from handicapping radios?
variety of topics are introduced through the use of Harrison
Bergeron. This story is a very robust teaching
tool. Each class assigned this reading will see things
that others have missed. The usefulness of this story is
limited only by the imaginations of the professor and
students. Stimulating the imagination of the student
through stories, insight, analysis, and relevant application
keeps the subject matter vibrant. This vibrancy
encourages the professor and students to think and express
rather than regurgitate information.
has provided an opportunity to examine a variety of issues in
a politically neutral way. Deviance theories often have
ideological biases that can prevent students from considering
the potential contribution of a particular theory.
Deviance and criminology texts often exploit these ideological
differences (for example, Walker, 1994). In today's
environment of increased ideological polarization it is
helpful to present a scenario that all students, regardless of
the ideological niche they believe they fit into, accept as a
society gone mad.
and Walker (1982) include Harrison Bergeron as "a literary
treatment of equality." The story is well suited for that use
as well as an introduction to deviance. The amount of
difference, or lack of conformity, we are willing to accept is
brought to the surface through this Vonnegut inspired
discussion of equality, deviance, and social control.
The student's understanding of theory, ideas, and values is
teaching an introduction to criminal justice course, one
objective is to provide information. We may choose to
explain a number of theories related to deviant behavior and
social control. Providing this information is
easy. Motivating students to feel the information, to
consider the results of the application of various theories,
ideas, and values is a much more difficult task. By
providing an example of a society and legal order we do not
want, this teaching method provides an opportunity for
personal evaluation as well as application of theory. It
can create an opportunity for the learner to challenge and
understand his or her assumptions, goals, ideas, and
values. This challenge can be the basis for real
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