deviance amplification

deviance amplification

a process in which the extent and seriousness of deviance is distorted and exaggerated, with the effect that social control agencies take a greater interest in the purported existence of the phenomenon and thus uncover, but actually ‘construct’, more examples of it, giving the impression that the initial distortion was actually a true representation.

The typical pattern of an ‘amplification spiral’ is as follows. For whatever reason, some issue is taken up by the MASS MEDIA OF COMMUNICATION – this may be glue sniffing, FOOTBALL HOOLIGANISM, the activities of ‘lager louts’, child abuse, or anything else which makes ‘news’. The sensationalized representation of the event makes it appear that there is a new and dangerous problem which must be taken seriously. In practice, the problem, however dangerous or socially threatening, will not be new, but some dramatic example will have caught the attention of the media. Their distorted and sensationalized coverage creates a MORAL PANIC which also leads to increased police action and to more arrests of offenders. The higher arrest rate is seen as a confirmation of the growth of the problem. Judges and magistrates give exemplary sentences, to show 'S ociety’s’ disapproval of this supposedly new problem. These sentences make news in themselves, and serve to keep the issue public. The police respond to this evidence of public concern with yet more arrests, and so on. In this process, a further dimension of amplification is that those persons newly labelled as deviant, become newly conscious of their ‘difference’, become part of new deviant networks, and may be driven to defensive action, all of which further ratchets the amplification.

Wilkins (1965) made the important point that minorities were the object of this exaggeration and distortion. Other major British studies of amplification have looked at MODS AND ROCKERS (Cohen, 1971,1973), ‘muggers’ (Hall et al., 1978), drug users (J. Young, 1971) and similar groups. The concept has also been used to discuss issues like the criminalization of black communities, the presentation of gay men and women, and the AIDS panic.

More generally, it raises the issues of manipulation of public perceptions of minorities, and the powerlessness of minority groups to define their own images or control social reactions to them. See also HIERARCHY OF CREDIBILITY, BECKER, LABELLING THEORY.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000