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Marxist Theories of Deviance and Teleology: A Critique of Spitzer

Author(s): Allan Horwitz

Source: Social Problems, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Feb., 1977), pp. 362-363
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/800087
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In "Toward a Marxian Theory of Deviance" (Social Problems, June, 1975) Steven
Spitzer has attempted to develop a generalMarxiantheory of devianceprocessing.However,
like other attempts to develop "conflict" or "Marxian"theories of devianceprocessing(cf.
Chambliss,1973; Quinney, 1974) Spitzer'sanalysislacks the basis of a true theory: that it
be demonstrable.Since Spitzer states his "theory" in teleological form, it is unclear what
evidencecould refute his assertions.
For Spitzer, "deviantsare culled from groupswho create specific problemsfor those who
rule" and "their problematic quality ultimately resides in their challenge to the basis and
form of class rule"(640). The forms and functions of the devianceprocessingsystems which
arise to control problem populations stem from the "needs" of the rulersof the capitalist
system to preservehegemonic, orderly control over the rest of the population. Whenone
form of devianceprocessingno longer serves the "needs" of the rulers,anothermore effective form will arise. For example, Spitzerstates that segregativecontrols such as prisonsand
mental hospitals lead to high costs and the overproductionof deviants(648). Since these
segregativecontrols cannot resolve the problemsof surpluspopulation and surplusproduction, the major problems faced by monopoly capitalism, alternativedeviance processing
systems such as "normalization,""conversion,""containment," and "supportof criminal
enterprise,"are developed.
Spitzer's analysisis a classicexample of teleologicalreasoning:a social structureis caused
by the needs of the social order that the fact fulfills (Turner, 1973: 19). The cause of
devianceprocessingsystems (such as their conscious developmentby the rulingclass,pressure
from middle-classinterestgroups,the interestsof law enforcementand treatmentpersonnel),
is not distinguishedfrom the function of these systems for the capitalist economy. The
"cause"of virtuallyany form of devianceprocessing-communitytreatmentcenters,halfway
houses, old age homes-is found in the "needs" of the capitalistsystem whichthese structures
fulfill. Since Spitzer uses this form of teleological reasoning,his "theory" generates no
testable propositions but provides only a frameworkto interpret reality after the fact. If
repressivecontrol systems are adopted it is because they are most effective in maintaining
the dominanceof the rulingclass. If, however,integrativecontrolsreplacerepressivecontrols,
they are evidently better suited to solving the needs of the rulingclass. Whichevercontrol
system is adopted must, be definition, fit the needs of the rulingclass. There is no set of
circumstancesto falsify the theory: hence it is untestable.
Teleological explanationssuch as Spitzer'sneed not be immune from dispute. (Cf. Stinchcombe, 1968: Chapter Three). If Spitzer would specify a range of deviance processing
systems a society might adopt and specify the type most effectively meeting a defined set
of "needs" of the ruling class, the theory would be testable. The analyst would predict
that one devianceprocessingsystem would be adopted becauseit most effectively stabilizes
the rule of the capitalist class. If this system is not adopted, the theory is false. Without
1 This critique will consider only one of the problems in Spitzer's theory, that of teleology. A number
of other problems are present in the theory including the failure to consider alternative explanations of
the same phenomena, the lack of definitions of key phenomena such as "ruling class" and "problem
behaviors," and the model of class structure used in the theory.

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such a procedure, whicheversocial control system is adopted becomes the one which best
stabilizes ruling class dominance. The results of the analysis are known in advance-control
systems are functional for the capitalist system-and the analysis becomes an ingenious
attempt to show how control systems actually fit the needs of the capitalist system. As
Spitzer's theory is presented, nothing gives us a hint of what could be a refutation of a
Marxiantheory of deviance.
Marxiantheories of deviance and social control may be as demonstrableas any other
theory as long as the theorist is willing to construct propositions that are susceptible of
proof. I hope Spitzer will do so in his attempts to test his theory. In addition, these
criticismsof Spitzerare not uniqueto Marxiantheories. The same problemsof teleology and
proof apply to Parsoniantheories of law (cf. Black, 1970; Mayhew, 1970). Until we are
willing to cast theories, of whateverphilosophicalpersuasion,in testable form and consider
evidence which might disprove them, it is unlikely that the field of deviance and social
control will move beyond the stage of social philosophyinto one of scientific development.
Black, Donald
1970 "On law and institutionalization." Sociological Inquiry 40 (Winter): 179-182.
Chambliss, William
1973 "Functional and conflict theories of crime." MSS Modular Publications, Module 17.
Mayhew, Leon
1970 "Teleology and values in the social system: reply to Donald J. Black." Sociological Inquiry
40 (Winter): 182-185.
Quinney, Richard
1974 Critique of the Legal Order. Boston: Little Brown.
Spitzer, Steven
1975 "Toward a marxian theory of deviance." Social Problems 22 (June): 638-651.
Stinchcombe, Arthur
1969 Constructing Social Theories. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.
Turner, Jonathan
1974 The Structure of Sociological Theory. New York: Dorsey.

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