research examines the relationship between authoritarian personality
traits and perceptions of the seriousness of a variety of acts. In
particular, this research examines attitudes toward those acts that
might be placed along the border separating "criminal" from "deviant" acts.
As we know, all crime is potentially defined as deviant, but all
deviance is certainly not criminal. Social and legal codifications
of deviance vary over time. The "deviantizing" of behavior that was
previously not considered overly deviant, or perhaps even "normal," is
essentially a political process (Schur, 1980; Pfohl, 1994) which
may be triggered by sudden increases in political power among certain
types of people.
power is needed to effectively "deviantize" certain behaviors. This
power is often coupled with a general societal reaction which allows,
or perhaps requires, that sanctions, either formal or informal, be
applied in an effort to minimize the occurrence of the offending
behavior. In effect, groups that lack social dominance or influence
are more likely to have their behaviors and/or appearances labeled
as deviant. These sanctions are intended to act as deterrents, yet
they also define and confirm the deviant status of the targeted person
and Kitsuse (1977) and Best (1987) discuss "claims making," which
is much like Schur's "deviantizing." In political arenas it may be
suggested that a particular group of individuals or a collection
of behaviors is "unacceptably deviant" and in urgent need of increased
official surveillance and control. This suggestion may start a process
through which "moral entrepreneurs" (Becker, 1963:147) define and
enforce deviant subcategories. Political power differentials between
the claims makers and the target population (those perceived as socially
harmful) are usually quite wide. This differential translates into
the power to label (Pfohl, 1994: 360). These deviant labels are created
and attached in the context of political conflict. The more organized
and powerful the claims makers, the more successful they will be.
Likewise, the more politically helpless and disorganized the target
population, the more successful the claims makers, or deviantizers,
will be in attaching the stigma (Becker, 1963)
a particular type of behavior as deviant is very subjective. Along
with the obvious impact of political power, certain personality traits
may also predispose an individual to condemn and censure various
acts as unacceptably deviant. A personality based predisposition,
when combined with the power to deviantize, may lead the individual
to suggest or endorse the need for increased official repression
and control. In effect, political power, social dominance, personality
characteristics, and the perceived seriousness of certain behaviors
may interact in a process which leads to prohibitive attitudes or
sanctions toward certain types of conduct.
Wing Authoritarianism is a personality characteristic with the potential
to be a powerful variable in such a process. Arguably, the desire
to legally restrict conduct which occurs somewhat often in the form
of adult, consensual behavior with no clear resultant aggrieved or
victimized person, may be considered an act of authoritarianism.
For example, an individual may state that "a hideous act (often related
to certain fashion, sexual or recreational drug use lifestyles) needs
to be legally condemned in any community that I'm going to live in!" Such
moralistic zeal and attempt at community-wide paternalistic control
is the logical opposite of Libertarian ideology (Schur, 1965; Morris & Hawkins,
1970; Smith & Pollack, 1975; McWilliams, 1993), yet is consistent
with descriptions of the authoritarian personality (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik,
Levinson, & Sanford, 1950; Altemeyer, 1981; Christie, 1991; Meleon,
Lederer, and Christie (1993) describe authoritarians as conventional,
with aggressive feelings toward "legitimate" targets (e.g., homosexuals,
unwed mothers, welfare recipients), and submissive to authoritative
or strong leadership. The current research attempts to demonstrate
that authoritarianism, when combined with political and/or economic
power, may result in the deviantizing of certain behaviors. Deviantizing
will be especially prevalent in relation the behaviors engaged in
by those with less political and/or social power.
research is somewhat exploratory. There is a rich tradition of research
on authoritarianism (Adorno, et al., 1950; Scodel & Mussen, 1953;
Christi & Jahoda 1954; Jackson, Messick, & Solley, 1957;
Eysenck, 1962; Altemeyer, 1981; Altemeyer, 1988; Christie, 1993;
Stone, 1993). There have also been seminal surveys on the perceived
seriousness of crime (Sellin & Wolfgang, 1964; Rossi, Waite,
Bose, & Berk, 1974; Wolfgang, Figlio, Tracy, & Singer, 1985).
This paper combines ideas from each of these areas. Additionally,
the present research addresses the broader concept of deviance, as
opposed to the strictly legalistic idea of crime. This project represents
an effort to develop a clearer conception of opinions regarding the
relative seriousness of conduct deemed deviant. The research also
constitutes an attempt to identify potential predictors of opinion
regarding the relative seriousness of deviant behaviors.
survey used in this research included a scale developed to assess
individual opinions about the relative seriousness of a variety of
acts. The 9-point seriousness scale was anchored at each end by "most
serious" and "least serious." The survey also included a measure
of authoritarianism, assessed on a six point Likert scale, with three
items indicating varying degrees of agreement and three items indicating
disagreement. Demographic variables were also included, along with
a measure of church attendance and a single item measuring political
ideology. The scales used to measure seriousness perceptions and
authoritarianism are briefly described below.
researchers have attempted to obtain consensus on the relative seriousness
of criminal behaviors. An early seriousness scale, which included
one sentence descriptions of criminal acts, was developed by Sellin
and Wolfgang (1964). Rossi, et al. (1974) developed a similar scale,
again with brief descriptions of criminal acts. Building on this
research, Wolfgang, et al. (1985) conducted an extensive survey of
crime seriousness. This scale included more precise descriptions
than those used in previous scales. Variables including intent, relationship,
gender, and severity of injury were included in the description of
each act. Strong societal consensus regarding crime seriousness was
found in each of these studies.
scale used in the present research evolved from a crime seriousness
scale developed for previous research by Mentor (1996). In Mentor's
research, which was also related to authoritarianism, a number of
non-criminal items were included in a scale (similar to that used
by Rossi, 1974) rating the seriousness of crimes. The strongest reactions
occurred in relation to non-criminal items. This unusual result motivated
the development of a second scale, including a wider range of deviant,
non-criminal activities, which was used in the present research.
the present research the term "deviant" is used in a very general
way. While defining certain behaviors as deviant may be presumptuous,
and even offensive to some, others have suggested that sociologists
have been too restrictive in their efforts to categorize and understand
deviance (Mills, 1943; Lofland, 1969; Szasz, 1970; Liazos, 1972).
Nonetheless, decisions had to be made about the acts to be included
in this study. While a wide range of deviant behavior was included,
a number of items were left out. White collar crime, institutional
deviance, deviance that has been defined as criminal, and other acts
that may logically be defined as deviant were not included. With
few exceptions, acts about which there has been a general consensus
in terms of criminalization were excluded. Exceptions to this limitation
exist so that some relatively serious acts could be measured for
effort was made to include a variety of behaviors that might quickly
come to mind when asked to provide an example of a deviant act. The
researchers saw a bias toward behaviors that could be categorized
as "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." Drug related items, many of which
are illegal, were not included. Sex related acts were included, but
an effort was made to expand the items to include legal, yet arguably
deviant, acts (e.g., calling 1-900-hot-love for phone sex, participating
in phone sex with lover, and using internet for explicit sexual conversations
with strangers). The researchers also attempted to include less stereotypical
forms of "deviance" (e.g., cleaning house in the nude, excessive
use of profanity, and wearing clothes at a nudist camp). Acts included
in the scale include behaviors as well as status differences. For
example, suicide related items include a 15-year-old, a healthy adult,
a sick adult, and a 75-year-old in good health. Several items related
to sexual activity were worded the same, except for gender. Other
questions were worded similarly except for the addition of a status
difference related to income. In effect, the survey examined deviance
as well as deviants, behavior as well as status.
the survey was administered, respondents were asked to read the first
ten descriptions in order to develop an idea of the range of issues
before indicating their perceptions of the seriousness of the deviant
behaviors. Respondents were asked to "rate the seriousness of the
acts based on your opinion. In other words, rate these acts without
consideration of any punishment prescribed by law."
in authoritarianism began with efforts to understand the origins
for mass support of the Nazis. These efforts evolved into fascism,
or F scales, which included measures of anti-Semitic attitudes (Adorno,
et al. 1950). A link between fascism and authoritarianism was proposed
in the 1940's as researchers began to move from general ideas about
a culture to specific ideas about the personalities of individuals
in that culture. (See Stone et al., 1993.)
survey developed for the present research includes Altemeyer's (1981)
Right Wing Authoritarianism scale (RWA). This 24-item scale "has
the virtues of focusing on the core of authoritarianism, being counterbalanced
so that agreement prone respondents are not combined with ideologically
consistent respondents, and having high reliability" (Christie, 1993:
97, see also Billings and Gaustello, 1993). Altemeyer's scale measures
an orientation toward acceptance of established authority and law,
acceptance of law as a basis for morality, and punitiveness toward
legitimate targets (Christie, 1991). Each of these variables has
a clear impact on efforts to control certain behaviors. For example,
high authoritarian individuals may support increased governmental
authority, and increased punitive measures, to limit behavior that
has been defined as deviant. This may be especially true if the definition
is motivated by a desire to define "immoral" acts as deviance.
the present research, the RWA scale was adopted in its entirety,
with one minor alteration. One question was reworded in light of
changes in drug policy over the last decade. "The courts are right
in being easy on drug offenders" was changed to "The courts should
be easy on drug offenders." This change was made after a pretest
with a 400 level criminal justice course. Students who had studied
mandatory sentencing laws were understandably confused by a question
that defined the courts as lenient in drug cases.
students enrolled in a public policy program served as respondents.
This sample was chosen for obvious reasons of accessibility. Although
a convenient sample, many of these students were enrolled in criminal
justice classes as they pursue management careers in criminal justice
and other bureaucratic agencies functioning in social control capacities.
This was a politically active group with the potential to serve in
key policy making roles.
were completed by 157 students. Respondent age ranged from 18 to
50, with 24.2 as the mean age. Thirty-two percent of the respondents
were freshmen. The remaining respondents were evenly split between
sophomore, junior, and senior classes. Eighty percent of the respondents
classified themselves as European American/White, 11 percent as African
American/Black. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents were men.
High authoritarians, when compared to those scoring lower on the
RWA scale, will provide higher seriousness scores for individual
RWA scores will significantly predict perceived seriousness scores
for the entire scale.
When deviant behavior is categorized into subgroups, authoritarianism
scores will remain a significant predictor of perceived seriousness
first research hypothesis was supported by the data. The relationship
between RWA and the perceived seriousness of individual acts was
tested through a least significant differences analysis of variance.
This analysis tested the significance of differences between low,
high, and medium (those scoring within +/- one standard deviation
from the mean) authoritarians when each of the 50 items was treated
as a dependent variable. There was a significant difference (p<.05)
between the mean seriousness scores on 36 of the 50 items. On 11
items, there was a significant difference between each of the three
possible pairings (high/med, med/low, high/low). On 14 items, there
was a significant difference between two pairings (high/low, med/low).
There was a significant difference between high and low authoritarians
on 7 items. The final 4 items also had significant differences between
the groups, but the order of the relationship was unexpected. In
these items the middle score was either high or low authoritarian.
second and third hypotheses were also supported by the data. The
second hypothesis examines the effect RWA has on seriousness scores
for the entire scale. Seriousness scores for all items were summed
to create mean seriousness scores. Mean seriousness scores for those
scoring highest (over one standard deviation above the RWA mean)
on the RWA scale were 5.01, while those scoring lowest (less than
one standard deviation below the RWA mean) on the RWA scale were
3.25. The mean seriousness score for all respondents was 4.31.
third hypothesis is related to seriousness scores on several subcategories
of deviant behavior. These subgroups included illegal consensual
sex, body mutilation, and homosexuality. Bivariate correlations for
each of these variables, as well as several demographic variables,
are listed in Table 1. The subgroups, as would be expected, are each
significantly correlated with each other as well as with scores for
the scale as a whole. RWA scores are significantly correlated with
scores for the "all acts" group as well as each subgroup. Age and
church attendance are positively correlated with RWA scores. Women
score higher on the RWA scale, and there is a significant correlation
of RWA and political ideology, with conservatives more likely to
be high authoritarians. RWA score is the strongest correlate for
each subgroup, with the exception of body mutilation (used for lack
of better term, includes various piercings and tattoos), where age
and political ideology result in higher correlation scores.
1 - Correlations of Variables
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
All Acts 1.00
Illegal Sex .698** 1.00
Body Mutilation .776** .363** 1.00
Homosexuality .787** .612** .532** 1.00
RWA Score .389** .337** .274** .461** 1.00
Age .232** .029 .334** .037 -.091 1.00
Gender -.111 .044 -.079 -.183* -.273** .121 1.00
Church Attendance .132 .050 .069 .188* .150 -.065 .029 1.00
Political Ideology .313** .186* .326** .296** .424** .132 -.147 .034
relationship of RWA scores and perceived seriousness was also tested
through several regression analyses. These analyses were performed
in order to control for the covariate effects of age, gender, church
attendance, and ideology. Regression analyses were run with the perceived
seriousness of all acts, as well as the seriousness of subgroups,
as dependent variables. The results of two of these analyses are
shown in Table 2.
the first analysis, with "all acts" as the dependent variable, both
age and RWA are significant predictors of perceived seriousness.
In the second analysis, with homosexuality (includes male, female,
and proposing homosexual acts) as the dependent variable, only RWA
is statistically significant. Other analyses used the same model,
the only change was relative to the dependent variable. These analyses,
which are not listed in Table 2, yielded similar results. RWA was
the only significant predictor of the perceived seriousness of illegal
consensual sex (includes prostitution and solicitation, adjusted
R sq.=.109, Sig.F=.0006). When body mutilation is the dependent variable,
RWA is a significant predictor, yet so are age and political ideology
(adjusted R. sq.=.191, Sig.F=.0000).
2 - Regression Analysis of Seriousness Scores
Seriousness - All Acts Perceived Seriousness - Homosexuality
SE B Sig. T B SE B Sig. T
Score .698 .174 .0001 1.493 .319 .0000
Ideology .191 .124 .1260 .287 .227 .2079
Attendance .055 .047 .2400 .160 .086 .0638
.051 .015 .0011 .029 .028 .2915
-.090 .212 .6717 -.341 .388 .3808
-.307 .847 .7175 -2.901 1.549 .0631
R sq. .212* .228**
F=9.09, Sig. F= .0000; ** F=9.79, Sig.F= .0000.
scores were statistically significant predictors of seriousness for
each of the subscales. The predictive value of authoritarianism remained
even after the effects of covariates were controlled in multiple
regression analyses. The second and third hypotheses are supported
in this research. The predictive value of RWA is especially strong
for homosexuality and illegal consensual sex. The effect of RWA,
independent of covariates, is less strong for the body mutilation
of the more interesting results of this research became apparent
when individual variables were examined. For example, seriousness
scores were rank ordered dependent on authoritarianism score. While
the rank ordering of variables was similar, on a few items there
was a great deal of disagreement depending on RWA score. As we would
expect from the result of the previous analyses, the greatest amount
of disagreement was related to items that include descriptions of
homosexual acts. For example, the item "proposing homosexual practices
to an adult" was the 5th most serious act for those scoring highest
on the RWA scale. This item was ranked 27th out of 50 for those scoring
lowest on the RWA scale. Other major differences were related to
items that individual "deviance" related to health issues. For example,
the item "29, homeless, schizophrenic" was ranked 36th by high authoritarians,
12th by low authoritarians. Similarly, the item "bulimic college
junior, weighs 90 pounds" was ranked 28th by high authoritarians,
6th by low authoritarians. High authoritarians may look at these
acts from a societal "law and order" standpoint, while low authoritarians
appear to view the acts with a certain degree of compassion for the
scores were not significantly correlated with several items. Several
of the items were so serious that all respondents, regardless of
RWA score, scored the item near the extreme end of the scale. These
items included "HIV positive individual has sex with many unsuspecting
partners" and "making sexual advances to young children." These items,
included as control variables, were expected to be scored as among
the most serious. Other items were scored very low on the scale,
independent of RWA score. For example, there was general agreement
about the relative "seriousness" two items, each related to 28-year-old
virgins (either male or female), which were scored at the lower end
of the scale. It was only slightly more deviant for a male to be
a virgin at that age. Neither "bungee jumping" or "cleaning house
in the nude" were significantly related to RWA scores. Again, these
items were scored very low on the seriousness scale. These items
may have fallen into a "who cares" category in which everyone agreed
the item was trivial.
research examined deviant statuses as well as deviant behaviors.
The results are not surprising. For example, being an 18-year-old
woman with three children became considerably more serious when the
family was on welfare. Stealing a candy bar was seen as far more
serious if the individual was 32 than if he or she was 12 years old.
Status differences were also evident in an examination of suicide
related acts. Seriousness of the act declined as the age of the individual
increased. The lowest suicide score was provided for an individual
with a terminal disease.
interesting issue was related to the least significant differences
analysis reported above. On 14 items, there was a significant difference
between two pairings (high/low, med/low). There was not a significant
difference between the third pairing (high/med). There appear to
be differences between low authoritarians and others. The small size
of the current sample may limit the significance of between group
differences. Yet even with a larger sample, the size of the low and
high authoritarian groups may not change relative to the medium authoritarian
group. The impact that low authoritarians can have on the process
of "deviantizing" may be limited by their numbers. This impact may
also be limited to the extent that medium and high authoritarians
are more likely to agree with each other than with the low authoritarians.
Further research may more clearly describe differences between these
groups, as well as the possibility for a coalition between high and
is interesting to note that the interaction of authoritarianism and
perceived seriousness held true for a wide variety of behaviors.
The researchers expected a strong association between RWA and seriousness
perceptions when referring to behaviors that are often condemned
with arguments steeped in morality. The relationship in reference
to body mutilation, a group of acts that do not generally provoke
morally charged arguments, was somewhat surprising. The strongest
relationship between RWA and perceived seriousness occurred in the
homosexuality subgroup. It is interesting to note that an increase
in homophobic attitudes (e.g. negative reactions to same sex marriage
and gays in the military) has paralleled the increased political
power of, and support for, politicians that may be defined as authoritarian.
relationship of authoritarian attitudes to deviance seriousness was
evaluated in this research. A clear relationship was demonstrated.
Seriousness scores are higher for high authoritarians. The relationship
of authoritarianism and deviance scores can have major implications
for criminal justice policy. We can look at deviance, and the includable
concept of crime, as a spectrum of activity, anchored at one end
as more serious (e.g., mass murder) and at the other end by less
serious (e.g., nipple piercing). Through legislation we have drawn
a line, at times somewhat arbitrarily, on this spectrum. Lines have
also been drawn to appease certain political constituencies. Items
on one side of the line are illegal, items on the other side of the
line are legal and are not officially controlled or reacted to by
the criminal justice system. The line may shift as a result of pressure
on either side. If the pressure on one side is reduced in relation
to the other, the line may shift. The result of this shift could
be legislation directed toward activity that has suddenly ended up
on the other side of the line.
(1893) would indicate that society is getting the amount of deviance
that it deserves as increased amounts of deviance are actually created
by the enactment of more and more prohibitions. Such legislation
is functional in solidifying the conformist identities of citizens
on the "normative side" of the shifting line between socially acceptable
and unacceptable conduct (also see Lukes & Scull, 1983). If high
authoritarians become more active in the political process, either
as actors or supporters of other actors, we can expect changing pressures
on either side of this line. Behaviors that are just barely legal,
in the minds of the high authoritarians, may suddenly become criminalized.
For example, as indicated in the present research, homosexual behavior
may be the target for this change. Conversely, prostitution, a behavior
that is seen as less serious by low authoritarians, is not likely
to decriminalized unless low authoritarians take a more active role
in policy making.
research has important implications for the ubiquitous "culture wars" played
out in legislative, judicial, mass media, academic, and organized
religious arenas (Hunter, 1991). Major questions raised here include
the potential for policy changes as the result of increased participation
and support for a particular type of policy maker. Results of this
research suggest that more behavior may well be criminalized. Future
research could specifically address questions regarding crime and
punishment. For example, are high authoritarians more likely to increase
sanctions for illegal drug use? Would punishment for criminal behaviors
become more severe as the result of increased political participation
of high authoritarians? Is gender, which was correlated with RWA,
an important moderator of the association of RWA and perceptions
of seriousness? What impact would status differences, such as income
or employment, have on the perceptions scores? What about behaviors
or statuses that are traditionally debated in terms of morality?
is often the case, this research raises more questions than answers.
Each of these questions should be addressed in future research. Future
research could rely on an expanded research sample, or focus on individuals
running for public office or occupying high administrative positions
in agencies of social control. It is the researchers' hope that this
methodology is extended to apply to crucial issues related to conceptions
of deviance and the public policy ramifications of the interaction
of authoritarianism and definitions of deviance.
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