Deviant Careers Essay

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The concept of career has its origin in the sociology of professions, where it has been used since the 1950s with different meanings. The common frame of the career concept is the construction of a related sequence of stages and positions that have to be passed through one after the other. Preceding stages and positions constitute specific preconditions for succeeding stages or positions, but changes of positions as ”turning points” or ”transitions” between stages have to be explained each by stage-specific social conditions and processes.

The sociology of deviance first adopted a perspective of career within analyses of deviant biographies in the context of the Chicago School of sociology and in the perspective of the ”theory of differential association.” Also, the multifactor approach of Eleanor and Sheldon Gluck used the concept of career, but only to order variables in a temporal sequence. Synonymous with the career concept, very often the term ”natural history” has been employed. Individual developments in deviant behavior normally do not follow institutionalized or organized sequences. Nevertheless, in a retrospective view there can be constructed typical patterns and sequences of development, organized around the deviant behavior itself, by patterns of problematic social conditions in the life course seen as causes of the deviant behavior, or by a sequence of consecutive institutions that have reacted to the deviant behavior.

As a critique of etiological theories looking for uniform causes of deviant behavior within the person, the labeling approach in the 1960s demands explicit analyses of the dynamic processes by which the labels of deviant behavior are constructed, applied to specific persons, and adopted by them. Classical works from this perspective include Becker’s analyses of the learning processes of ”Becoming a marihuana smoker” (1953), Erving Goffman’s (1961) description of individual adaptations and processes of identity development in the context of the total institution, and Scheff’s (1966) theory of psychic disorders. Since then the notion of deviant career has spread into everyday meaning in different connections, such as drug career, criminal career, illness career, and poverty career.


  1. Becker, H.   (1953) Becoming a marihuana user. American Journal of Sociology 59 (2): 235—12.
  2. Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums. Doubleday, New York.
  3. Scheff, T. J. (1966) Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological Theory. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

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