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Citation:  Ron Roizen, "Dogpounds, Deviance and Drunks," The Drinking and Drug Practices Surveyor 7:21-25, 1973.

Danish translation by Anna Polonski, here; Hungarian tranlation by Zsolt Boros, here; Portuguese translation by Artur Weber, here


Dogpounds, Deviance and Drunks

Ron Roizen

The study of alcoholism seems ever suspended between two behavioral science perspectives, one which concentrates on individuals and one which concentrates on sociocultural variables.  This conceptual split has raised many fundamental issues about the nature of the behavioral sciences and the relationship between these sciences and public policy. Any definition of deviant drinking seems to necessitate at least two variables: on the one hand, there must be a (drinking) behavior; on the other hand, there must be a social context within which that behavior is inappropriate.  Thus the idea of deviant drinking should be state as a mismatch between drinking behavior and social context. For many years, students of alcoholism have studied the array of possible causes for the excessive consumption (the "behavior"); more recently, some of us have become more interested in the variation in social contexts as an explanation of deviant drinking.  When the behavior is the subject, there is often an implicit assumption that a general standard of normal drinking exists from which the alcoholic is clearly deviant.  Thus, the study of alcoholics in clinics, for example, has often implicitly implied a common and homogeneous drinking norm and set of drinking practices for non-alcoholics.  The study of contexts, on the other hand, has tended to deflate the importance of the drinking behavior and concentrate on the variations in customary and acceptable patterns of drinking in different social contexts. This difference of perspective is heavy with scientific and policy implications and consequences. A little analogy may help to sharpen some of these divergent implications:

Suppose that one were interested in understanding the "problem" of stray dogs in a typical community. An individualistic approach might begin with the idea that dogs vary with regard to their propensity to stray, some dogs being very prone to straying. The central problem for the individualistic researcher, therefore is discovering the causes of a high-straying propensity. Or, put differently, what is different about high-straying dogs as opposed to "normal" dogs. This approach might further posit that high-straying is a disease-like phenomenon that some dogs have and others do not. The investigation of high-straying might proceed "clinically," or in this case in the community animal shelter. Therein are dogs which have been captured for straying and by extension a sample which may reveal commonalities that both diverge from those of "normal" dogs and are symptomatic or implicative of the etiology of high-straying.  Not all stray dogs, of course, are incarcerated at once.  But as long as high-straying is imputed to have entity-like qualities, the problem of a bad sample is not particularly important. Any one stray properly understood would reveal the necessary clinical data, in much the same way that a sample of one is adequate for the investigation of infectious diseases if that is all that one has to work with.  With luck, the clinician may discover a set of commonalities among high-strayers which, linked to a theory of high-straying, offer an explanation. Within a "clinical" context, it is likely that this theory will be tested out by means of the success of the therapy it suggests. In many cases, however, therapy and theory may be remarkably detached from each other. In any case, if drugs or didactic methods or (in severe cases) cranial or locomotive surgery is used, the test of the model will be the failure of these dogs to return to the shelter or (at least) return less frequently or for lesser episodes of deviance.

There is buried deep in this approach the assumption that the phenomenon of high-straying is relatively rare. This rarity is assumed from both practical and logical grounds: logically, high-straying is identifiable only if the vast majority of dogs are not high-strayers. Were they also high-strayers, the clinical approach would be much threatened: we would be dealing with a quality of dogs (all dogs or most dogs) rather than a pathology identifiable in a few. Secondly, few communities would undertake the expense of applying corrective therapy to a majority of dogs within its boundaries. Hence, the clinical approach contains the goal of "putting itself out of business" once the limited number of high-straying dogs has been rehabilitated.

Some sociologists, however, would view the "problem" of stray dogs in a way rather different from that of the individualistic researcher. The sociologists might begin with the assumption that most dogs will sometimes stray. Differences in an inherent propensity to stray are neither very great nor very important conceptually.  Rather what is important is the relationship between stray dogs and the community.  Along this line, the sociologist might begin by asking: "Why are stray dogs a problem in the first place?"

Like the individualistic researcher, the sociologist might be drawn to the animal shelter, but the nature of his observations there would be quite different.  Working from the idea that many dogs have episodes of straying but few are captured and kept at the pound, the sociologist might begin his inquiry into the "problem" of strays by investigating the circumstances surrounding the capture of dogs.  He might discover for example that outlying areas of the community contribute few or no dogs to the shelter, suggesting that straying per se is not the cause of community concern (i.e., capture).  Dogs in outlying areas, after all, probably get let out more than downtown dogs. The implications of the circumstances surrounding the capture of the dogs in the pound may suggest to the sociologist that the problem of strays is not straying but social context: wandering dogs only create a problem in certain kinds of situations.  Thus, the question that confronts the sociologist is one of the variation in contexts with regard to the threat or disruption posed by stray dogs in each. Instead of typing dogs, if you will, the sociologist is concerned with typing contexts in order to get to the conceptual root of the presenting social problem. Say, for example, that most dogs were captured when they congregated together in packs, when they defecated on the properties of sensitive observers, when they became troublesome in heavily trafficked intersections, when they passed through the zone of the normal circuit of dogcatcher rounds, when they were in heat, when they were diseased or incapacitated, when they looked starved or crazed when they were largish, when they had bitten someone or become involved in a fight with another dog, or when they had failed to be sufficiently familiar with the dogcatcher to attempt to elude his capturing efforts.

The "problem" of strays, therefore, is that in some situations they threaten the safety, standards of cleanliness, flow of commerce, concepts of public morality, peace and quiet, or excite humanitarian impulses in human observers. Some dogs, of course, may be differentially likely to become embroiled in these kinds of situations:  dogs whose masters live downtown or let them out frequently or inhabit areas with few attractive lawns or where both husband and wife work or whatever may have differential opportunity structures.  But these factors explain only the recurrence or recidivism of dogs rather than the core social problems at hand. Even more sophisticated determinants of capture may be discovered:  if, for example, the officials of the dog-catching enterprise are evaluated in terms of the revenues from fines that they produce, dogcatching efforts may be concentrated in wealthy rather than poor neighborhoods in order to maximize both the amount of the fines or compensations and in order to maximize the likelihood that owners will pay them in order to retrieve their dogs.  In any case, the product of the sociologist's analysis will be dramatically different from that of the individualistic researcher. At bottom, the sociologist's report will stress that certain problems are presented by the dogs and these problems rather than the general concept of strays pose the central issues for public policy. He may suggest that few measures can meaningfully change the behaviors of dogs, and that efforts or sanctions directed at owners serve to maintain the level of canine transgressions at an acceptable level. Hence, one concern for the sociologist is that he was called in at all, that is to say, he will be predisposed to examine the situation in terms that illuminate or pinpoint (so much as is possible) what has changed such that his services were requisitioned at all. Proceeding from the idea of a homeostasis or equilibrium in social systems, he may muse at the disequilibrium which occasioned his services.  Here then is the presenting problem of the sociological analysis of deviance.  It may be that the fecundity of dogs has created an enlarged population of dogs; or maybe the growing resistance to dogs is occasioned by a change in the development of the community or the disappearance of lawns around town.

Obviously the policy recommendations that spring from individualistic and sociological analyses will be quite different. An individualistic approach might suggest that the "only" way to solve the problem is to actively solicit all dogs who are strays (or identify them in the community somehow) and benefit them with the treatment or treatments that prove to be the most successful in suppressing high-straying. The sociologist, on the other hand, might suggest that certain changes in the community or the population of dogs has occasioned the disequilibrium with regard to strays.  Once these changes were identified the community could choose to respond to themselves, and in several different ways.  They could perhaps attempt to change themselves in order to convert what was a threatening situation into a nonthreatening one.  Canine copulation, for example, could be redefined as extraneous to the purview of human norms of public conduct if that phenomenon were to be linked somehow to the increased visibility of strays.  If the problem originated in increasing canine population, the sterilization of private pets (gratis) might be initiated.

This analogy rather oversimplifies some of the differences between the two perspectives.  Nevertheless, it should be clear that widely divergent assumptions and implications spring from either mode of study. In the case of stray dogs we might assume that both individualistic and sociocultural factors play some part in the determination of straying and capture, and both kinds of perspectives are not so much contradictory as they are incommensurable, that is to say, logically detached from each other.  One studies the phenomenon of straying, the other capture, one studies determinants located within the individual, the other social structures at the aggregate level; one highlights the behavior and the other the context in which the behavior poses problems; one would speak to the problem of changing behavior while the other to the vagaries of changing social structure and responses.

It is useful to point out that the stray dog analogy "makes sense" within social structural terms while human examples (alcoholism, mental illness, mental retardation, crime, and so forth) are often difficult to interpret in the same terms.  Perhaps because of a deep current of individualistic thinking in our culture, it is often hard to avoid asking questions like:  why is he an alcoholic?  The social structural perspective, however, is not centrally concerned with the genesis or etiology of alcoholic behavior.  Rather, that perspective concentrates on the meanings and problems created by drinking within social contexts in which drinking is negatively normed.  We will explore this difference more thoroughly later.  One question worth thinking about at this point is why a social structural account of stray dogs makes sense while a social structural account of alcoholism is difficult to maintain. There are several important reasons for this phenomenon.  First of all, it may be said that dogs are not always wise to the ways of the men in whose communities they live. Hence, it is an easy matter to accept the fact that dogs are largely ignorant of human culture and, in fact, impose the regularities of their own species' behaviors on what space is available in human communities. In a sense we are saying that the palatability of the social structural account of stray dogs rests in part on our capacity to accept a cultural gap between dogs and men.  This same gap, however, is more difficult  to extend to men who inhabit (at least geographically) the same community. Our  laws, for example, "apply equally" to all citizens of the community, we speak the same language, we share in many of the same institutions if from different vantage points.  That is to say, we have a broad underlying presumption of the uniformity and homogeneity of our culture and norms.  When the anthropologist reports that things are different or mean different things in cultures A and B, we can see that discrepancy comfortably.  But the differences in subcultural and normative realities for neighbors and crosstown folk may often seem to be stretching a point. Thus, the social structural account of a phenomenon like alcoholism is intimately connected to the demonstration of differences in the perceived worlds of "rights and wrongs" among (ostensibly) the members of the same community. But even the demonstration of these differences, of course, may be reinterpreted in individualistic terms:  one may find himself asking why certain individuals have failed to learn or internalize the everyday rules of public conduct as we see them. Here, again, our inquiry may slip back into issues surrounding the capacities of individuals to make themselves susceptible or unsusceptible to the norms of the core culture.  In short, a social structural account of deviance depends upon a diversity of subcultures in which there are discrete and different norms for selected behaviors and walls among subcultures which are sufficiently high to make it difficult for subcultural minorities to "see" the operation of the core-cultural standards and sanctions.

On the question of high subcultural walls, there are at least two ways of looking at their genesis and maintenance.  On the one hand we may have subcultural entities which exist "in the wild" as it were within our communities: the ethnic-or educational or occupational or stratificational or sex or race diversity of a given city, say, provides us with natural bases for anticipating differences in common norms. On the other hand, a growing number of students of deviance have drawn attention to the fact that our modes of dealing with deviance may--by foreshortening life alternatives, affixing more or less permanent labels, subjecting capturees to similar and solidarity-making experiences, and so forth--create argot ["erstatz" was the intended word, R.R.] styles of life which take on certain aspects of a new and foreign cultural world. In either case ("wild" or "deviant" subcultures the sociologist is needful of a sufficient degree of normative or subcultural diversity to provide for the appearance of deviance.

There is yet another level of analysis from which the sociologist may find natural sources of apparently deviant behavior: the cultural world is divided up into subcultures and the social system is divided up into institutions. Thus the everyday lives of system members may take them through a series of institutions in which divergent performances are expected or required.  These performances are typically isolated in time and space, which eases potential conflicts. But the insulation of roles and statuses is not always complete, and carryover or insulative breakdowns may provide a spring of untoward behavior on which the agencies of social control operate.

A second ingredient in the palatability of the social structural argument is the commonplaceness of the offending behavior.  On this matter, again, there Is difficulty when we attempt to extend the case to human subjects. Depending on how we define alcoholism, for example, a prevalence may be associated with that label which may extend from a relatively small to a very large number indeed.

A third ingredient is our sensitivity to distinctions between the behavior (of the alcoholic, say) and the specific difficulties which this behavior creates for defined social situations.  Human thinking is inevitably categorical, and the power of the categories (labels) should not be underestimated. Hence, we may often have difficulty shading out, for the moment, the problem "alcoholism" and examining in some phenomenological detail the specific difficulties that cause rubs between drinking and the sociocultural system.

Fourthly, dogs perhaps learn little from their stays in the dogpounds; men, on the other hand, can be expected to change and have others around them change consequent to and subsequent to a sanctioning experience.  For some the institution of social control may offer something akin to an argot ["ersatz," R.R.] career in which the social environmental matrix of that institution becomes the frame of reference of the deviant's subsequent actions.  In any case, human behavior is adaptive and anticipative.  We may have difficulty distinguishing between those behaviors which pre-existed institutionalization and were instrumental in causing institutionalization and those behaviors which were picked up in the process of institutionalization.  This poses several methodological dilemmas for the researcher interested in establishing the social structural realities of deviance. The well-worn institutional paths of deviants may be grooves of action into which some persons are forced and which others actively seek.