In the United States, some of our favorite deviants have been homosexuals, women, prostitutes, people who have kinky sex, people who are poor, people who are disabled, and people with mental illnesses—especially when these people are nonwhite, don’t conform to expected gender roles, have “bad” manners, live in the “wrong” neighborhoods, and so on. Fields like sociology, anthropology, psychology, criminology, and legal and religious institutions played a central role in how these populations were pathologized as deviant. These disciplines’ beliefs that deviance and biology were fundamentally linked often extended the scientific racism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (which made false claims about the inherent and inescapable inferiority of nonwhites, nonmales, and non-Europeans) and shaped public opinion and policy to usually devastatingly violent effects. In the last half of the twentieth century, deviance became a more complex frame of analysis as scholars argued it is of course not biological and that our ideas of who and what is deviant are socially constructed, are historically situated, and change over time (Goffman 1963; Gagnon and Simon 1967, [1973] 2017; Goode [1978] 2016; Schur 1984; G. Rubin 2002; Worthen 2016; Love 2015; Dennis 2018). Scholars—especially feminists, queer theorists, and critical race theorists—reframed “deviance” not as an aberrance to a stable and unchanging norm but as evidence of how racism, misogyny, ableism, classism, xenophobia, and homophobia shape definitions and everyday understandings of norms and deviance alike (G. Rubin [1984] 2011; J. Butler [1990] 1999; R. Ferguson 2004; Prohaska and Jones 2017; Puar 2007).

People within and beyond the academy were, moreover, taking deviance up as a powerful position to be reclaimed and rallied around in order to specifically resist norms (de Lauretis 1991; Jagose 1996; Warner 1993; L. Edelman 1994; Berlant and Warner 1998; Muñoz 1999; Cohen 2004). Organizations across the demographic spectrum from Lavender Menace (lesbian feminist deviants from the women’s movement’s focus on heterosexuality) to Gay Shame (antiestablishment deviants within homonormative configurations of US capitalist imperialism) to (re)invigorations of Yellow Peril Supports Black Power (Asian and Asian American deviants within US racial formations) to dyke marches (gender deviants within corporate homonormative nationalism) staked claims to deviance as a platform and strategy for radical political action (R. Brown 1995; Taniwaki 2000; Sycamore 2004; Watkins 2012; Currans 2017). The work of these activists has been reflected in scholarship by and about Black women, femmes, and trans and gender nonconforming people that is especially pointed in illuminating how the label of deviance has been used to violently regulate ways of thinking, feeling, being, and moving. This scholarship showcases Black women, femmes, and trans and gender nonconforming people as skilled outlaws (Evans 1993) and saboteurs (Haley 2016) whose deviant practices press against normative conventions of racialized gender performance and desire, often while interrupting the smooth flow of capitalist extraction that depends on their bodies yet disavows their subjecthood: work slowdowns, redirecting conversation, stealing themselves away from plantations, cross-dressing, forming queer and lesbian bonds with one another, having sex (and filming it), causing disturbances on the chain gang, refusing to speak, and more (Hurston 1935; A. Y. Davis 1971; Hartman 1997; Miller-Young 2014; Cruz 2016; Snorton 2017; E. Johnson 2018).

These studies of deviance also enact a politics of deviance by centering the everyday practices of people who are among the most surveilled and disciplined, and they do this by assuming that people’s so-called deviance can tell us much about how they interact with and live otherwise to systems of power and control. In her landmark essay “Deviance as Resistance,” Cathy Cohen describes a politics of deviance grounded in Black people like unmarried mothers; LGBTQ youth; those who have been incarcerated, are on welfare, and/or have risky sex; people “whose everyday decisions challenge, or at least counter, the basic normative assumptions of a society intent on protecting structural and social inequalities under the guise of some normal and natural order to life” (2004, 32–33). Cohen is careful, however, to argue that deviant practices are valuable sites of radical possibility but that the links between deviance and resistance are not inherent or given; deviance does not always equal resistance. She explains, “Most acts labeled deviant or even defiant of power are not attempts to sway fundamentally the distribution of power in the country or even permanently change the allocation of power among individuals involved in an altercation” (40). Indeed, some forms of gender and sexual deviance are absorbed into normative popular culture, as happened with drag, a historically deviant practice by “deviant” Black and brown people that has been built into a lucrative global industry increasingly important to the mainstreaming of certain expressions of gay male identity and politics. The political neutering of deviance has also been staged in the academy as modes of inquiry (e.g., queer theory) that were once radically deviant from and antagonistic to academic disciplines have become de rigueur within them (J. Butler 1994; Jakobsen 1998).

It is tempting to ascribe political power to a person, gender expression, cultural practice, desire, race or ethnicity, academic discipline, belief, object, theory, or action because they deviate from a norm. But we cannot simply note that a deviant act has transpired or assume that people’s deviant acts are intentional, self-aware interrogations of systems of power. What we perceive as deviance is just as often the simple, though endlessly difficult, task of using our limited embodied, emotional, and material resources to make the best out of hard lives (Cohen 2004). Moreover, when we flatten the power and potential of deviance as a political strategy and critical analytic into tidy examples of resistance par excellence, we risk oversimplifying how the norms are themselves constructed and maintained (Wiegman and Wilson 2015; Amin 2017): complex descriptions of deviant acts must go hand in hand with complex descriptions of systemic power that frame and shape their possibilities. Blanket idealizations of deviance can, further, belie our unconscious beliefs in or attachments to the “fundamental” nonnormativity of racial, sexual, and gender minorities, especially women of color, people in the Global South, and queer people (E. Edwards 2015, 146–47). Not every body, life, or act can or should be recuperated into a heroic narrative of deviance; scholars of populations and subjects rendered pathological, different, or abnormal must interrogate whether the impulse to dramatize deviance as resistance is rooted in the materiality of the actions in question or rooted in deep-seated assumptions about the bodies, cultures, and locations of the populations and subjects in question.

An effective politics of deviance is not consumed with the novelty of deviance, or what Lila Abu-Lughod (1990) calls the “romance of resistance.” It shifts perspective to ask “not about the status of resistance itself but about what the forms of resistance indicate about the forms of power that they are up against” (47). Studying deviance thus requires a rigorous materialist analysis that tracks how norms transform over time and documents how people make conscious and intentional choices to engage and dismantle them. It is particularly urgent to understand how people sense and negotiate the dynamic forms of subjection that are fomented as political actors collude with corporations and militarized police forces to unevenly assert control over and extract resources from people and territories. Thinking more closely with people who self-consciously embody and theorize their own politics of deviance in these times can tell us much about how we commit to and move against diverse regimes of governance as they shape our sensoria and networks of connecting while also imagining new ways of being in the process.

Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay