Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
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Kurt Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron, and an Introduction to Deviance and Social Control

Kenneth Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of North Carolina Wilmington

This article describes a method used to introduce the concepts of deviance and social control in an introductory criminal justice course. This teaching method uses a science fiction short story to provide a quick introduction to these topics. This introductory class also provides a framework for subsequent discussion. Introductory criminal justice courses are often limited in efforts to introduce the sociological concepts of deviance and social control. 

Many 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.

The 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.

Kurt 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 control.

Students 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.


Literature 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.

C. 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).

Vonnegut 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.


Kurt 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 stories.

Harrison 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).

Harrison 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.


Introductory 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.

In 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.

We 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.

In 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.


Developing 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.

Vonnegut 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 deviance.

If 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?

If 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 1988:11).

In 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.


Deviant 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.

If 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.

Vonnegut 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.

Harrison 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.

The 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 today's society.


Vonnegut 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. 

This 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.

Thomas 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 controlled. 

We 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 thoughts. 

Must 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.

Social 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.

Another 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 society.

Deterrence 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 story?

Harrison'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?


A 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.

Vonnegut 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. 

Block 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 enhanced.

When 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 learning.


Block, Walter E. and Michael A. Walker, eds.  1982.  Discrimination, Affirmative Action, and Equal Opportunity.  Vancouver, BC: The Frazier Institute.

Bonomo, Thomas A.  1987.  "Humanistic Application of Network News."  Teaching Sociology, 15:33-37.

Coser, Lewis A. ed.  1972.  Sociology Through Literature .  2nd ed.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Coser, Lewis A. ed.  1963.  Sociology Through Literature: An Introductory Reader.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hegtvedt, Karen A.  1991.  "Teaching the Sociology of Literature Through Literature." Teaching Sociology,  19:1-12.

Hendershott, Anne and Sheila Wright.  1993.  "Bringing the Sociological Perspective into the Interdisciplinary Classroom Through Literature."  Teaching Sociology , 21:325-331.

Inciardi, J. 1996.  Criminal Justice, 5th ed.  Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Liazos, Alexander.  1972.  "The poverty of the sociology of deviance: Nuts, Sluts, and Preverts." Social Problems.  20:103-120.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959.  The Sociological Imagination.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Milstead, John W., Martin Harry Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, and Patricia Warrick.  1974.  Sociology Through Science Fiction.  New York: St. Martin's Press.

Parrot, Andrea and Joan Ormondroyd.  1992.  "Can a Woman Really Be Pregnant for Twelve Years? Or is Scholarly Learning Possible From Reading the Tabloids?" Teaching Sociology, 20:158-164.

Sullivan, Teresa A.  1982.  "Introducing Sociology Through Literature." Teaching Sociology, 10:109-116.

Szasz, Thomas S.  1989.  "Power and Psychiatry." Pp. 53-60 in Deviance and American Life edited by James M. Henslin.  New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Vonnegut, Kurt.  1988. Welcome to the Monkey House.  New York: Laurel.

Walker, Samuel. 1994.  Sense and nonsense about crime and drugs: a policy guide, 3d ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


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