Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Deviant behaviour will only be deviant if social norms go against it

Abnormal Behaviour is Normal in an Abnormal Society: Socialisation as a Means to Usher in Ethical Voting Practice

Psychologists and biologists try to explain deviant behaviour in terms of psychological and biological abnormality. They consider that the person who is deviant is either biologically and psychologically abnormal. So they regard deviants as abnormal behaviour in a normal society. But sociologists locate the sources of deviants in the society. They believe that a person who engages in deviant behaviour is a normal person in an abnormal society. So, they hold the society responsible for deviance.

Every society has a body of norms to regulate the conduct of its members. And knowledge of these norms is inculcated in the minds of the members of the society through the socialisation process. And when a person in society consciously orients his or her behaviour towards the norms prescribed by society, such a behaviour is called conformity. Most often, people tend to be conformist. However, total or perfect conformity is not possible. As long as the degree of deviation from the norm is within the tolerance limit of society then it is considered conformist behaviour. But if the deviation is high and goes beyond the tolerance limit of society then it is called deviant behaviour. But deviance is relative and nothing is deviant by itself. And it is the norm of the society which decides whether the behaviour is conformist or deviant. So deviance is relative to the norm, and we know norms do change over time. Hence, what is deviant today may not be considered so tomorrow and what was deviant yesterday may not be deviant today and what is not deviant today may come to be considered deviant tomorrow if the norms defining deviance undergo changes.

For instance, earlier homosexuality is considered as deviant behaviour but now most of the societies of the world have change their norms and homosexual behaviour conducted in private between consenting adult is no longer considered deviant. In traditional societies, compulsory domesticity of women in family life governed by the rulebook of patriarchy and traditionally determine gender norm was actually seen as desirable, but today it would be equal to slavery.

With respect to electoral practice in Manipur, so far, the unfair voting behaviour has become so institutionalised that it has developed as a culture implicitly held by average members of society and ethical voting seems like this is atypical behaviour. A person who can manipulate people and get as much as “cash” for votes from different sources has become a sign of witty skill.

With Manipur civil society disengaging from electoral participation and unlikely to launch any movement to bring about change, responsible citizens are obliged to find other ways to seek change.  A few days after the election result were announced, I went to a local hotel in the morning for a cup of tea. One woman said, we voted the MLA for minimum cash arguably we’ve voted for free with a hint of guilt on her face. She’s not really proud of her voting. In fact many say every other constituency has received a lot of cash, only we are left behind. These shows that social norms depend not only on realistic motives alone nor upon these motives plus possible rewards or punishment for violation. If certain norms are beneficial to a group of people, they are more likely to support these norms than the disadvantages they have. But shouldn’t we be proud of our ethical voting behaviour?

If we adjust to this electoral culture, most of us in our family will probably encourage our kids to vote for cash, and if the kids are smart enough to manipulate people and get as much as money as possible from various sources, then he or she may even be considered witty.  Otherwise, they may be subjected to stupidity and bad comments. This is how culture is instilled in our environment starting from the family system so that they become part of each individual personality. The individual starts to voluntarily follow the norms because he (or she) starts to think of these norms as “just” norms so much so that he might even feel a strong sense of guilt if he ever missed the “cash” by accident. Hence conformity to social norm results. This we call as socialisation.

How an individual’s behaviour is controlled in society depends to a large extent on the social values we have in society. But if our values in the family system encourage behaviour that violates established legal social standards set by society, then each unit of this family will begin to promote a culture that is unhelpful for society in medium to long term consequences and eventually it will become an informal societal norm held by the average member of society. And this shared consensus of values will ultimately rule our conscience.

American sociologist Charles Cooley, stated that social control can work instinctively at an unconscious level.  Certain values become so institutionalised in our mind in the form of thoughts and ideas that they become a part of our automatic response and we do not have to think consciously of those values and norms. This is a case of unconscious social control which works in an informal way. For instance, one time we spit when we had to micturate in certain spots and places. It wasn’t a pre-planned conscious act, but was instinctively part of the culture. A person with unconscious social control will automatically apply brakes on seeing the red light without deliberate planning for it. But sadly, it appears that both the conscious (formal control) and unconscious control are absolute failures in Manipur society.

In every society, there is a built-in system for reward and punishment. But unfortunately, we have contradictory value systems where deviant behaviour is rewarded and normal behaviour is punished. We can see this manifesting in recent election results.

Someone who can buy voters will have many followers, like bees and will be appreciated. This person will be rewarded for having the ability to buy voters by the people, the rewards translated in the forms of election victory. And those who have longed serve the society but don’t have the money to buy voters will not be counted. And the society will give them a penalty translated in the form of an election defeat. But interestingly it is the poor who support the affluent candidates and make them win. If the poor support the affluent person knowing that someone with a similar fate to him or her is contesting the election in the neighbourhood, then this reflects the poor’s unconscious self-denial. Perhaps all the qualities a poor man aspires to be, he sees in the rich contender, but is unconsciously afraid to face his own image, and his own image is reflected in those he shuns whom he finds uncomfortable. Until the person recognizes his or her own weakness and volunteers to face things that make him/her uncomfortable, maybe we won’t be able to produce another class of people who can stand up to the current political class.

No society can exist without a framework for group social regulation where individual behaviour is regulated to suit the condition of group life. This social adjustment mechanism is called social control. It is necessary to save society from one individual from another and even to protect the individual himself or herself. It is the mechanism by which social order is sustained. It is essential because of the very human nature and it is said that human by nature is restless, aggressive, aspiring and there is also a vicious streak in human mind which makes him deviate from socially accepted behaviour. In the words of Talcott Parsons, social controls help in nipping deviant tendencies in the bud.

As regard to voting behaviour, we need both direct and indirect (form) or movement for social control. Direct social control does not affect its efficacy but is informally controlled by parents, friends, teachers or neighbours. Such social control comes in the forms of ridicule, praise, ostracism and other informal rewards.  Parents in the family and teachers in educational institutes need to socialised and inculcates thought and knowledge which makes ashamed to exchange votes for “cash” in the hearts of the young people until the larger member of the group circle get to the point where they start to demean those who deviate from licit social standard set by societal norm.

On the other hand, indirect social control exercised by social institutions through formal ways particularly government law enforcement agencies need to play their bid effectively. Law is the most specialised agency of social control employed as a deterrent to people in society. This is particularly important in this day and age because of the increasing inadequacy of customs and folkways to regulate social life in a changing society.

Another important agent of social controls includes public opinion. Public opinion constitutes the public sentiment regarding an act , the judgement that the public pronounces upon an act and also any action which the public might take to affect conduct. Perhaps this has been operative for decades.  Public opinion is an all-pervading force that sometimes proves to be even more powerful than formal rules. Public censures can be more potent a punishment than any physical punishment devised by law. But quite often those who hold power can manipulate public opinion to their advantage through the mass media. But if we truly are genuine and eager for change, we must make sure we don’t fall into such a trap.

In the paradigm of anomie, American sociologist Robert K Merton talks about various kinds of adaptation on the part of the individual. That is, the various ways in which individuals adapt to their situation, which itself is based on their structural location. The instances of various drug dealers/smugglers caught every now and then, the growing poverty and inequality, and the seeming involvement of power mongers in illicit trade point to a bleak future.

For those people who are located in the middle class or upper class, legitimate means are easily available to attain the culturally defined goals. This is essentially a “conformist behaviour” where a person is seeking culturally defined goals and using structurally available means.

But if a person whose parents are manual workers develop a commitment to achieve culturally prescribed goals but the legitimate means are beyond their reach. Then how would such a person achieve the goal? According to Merton, the only way they can achieve the goal is by resorting to illegitimate means. So such a person would deviate from the means. He may become a contract killer, extortionist, smuggler, drug peddler etc. Merton called such a response “innovator”. They want to achieve culturally prescribed goals but take recourse to illegitimate means.

Another possible adaptation to the anomic situation is that a person abandons both the goal and means and would not even take recourse to illegitimate activity; rather he may become a drunkard and drug addict. Or he may just commit suicide. Such adaptation or response to the situation where the person rejects both the goals and means, has been called by Merton as “retreatist”. But it can happen in any class.

There is still another possibility. A person abandons cultural goals and also abandons legitimate means prescribed by society but creates new goals for himself and also wants new goals to be accepted by society. This kind of response has been labelled by Merton as “rebel” which is likely to develop in the “rising class”. A newly emerging class who considered the existing structure and culture as undesirable and wants to change both and they create new goals for themselves and suggest new means.

Hence these are the adaptations an individual can have with regards to goals and means in the face of rising inequality, lower per capita income and poverty in Manipur. The anomic (normative deregulation) situation in society exerts pressure to become deviant and anomie is a structural condition. Merton states that it is the society which is responsible for deviance. So these people are normal human beings in abnormal society. For instance, society puts a pressure on people ‘s minds that they should earn money and become rich but does not give them means.

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