Inspirations: The National Deviancy Conference

Stan Cohen's  1971 book became a centre piece of the National Deviancy Conference

Stan Cohen’s 1971 book became a centre piece of the National Deviancy Conference

THe Young Radical but Scholarly Mary

THe Young Radical but Scholarly Mary

The younger Stan - who taught me in 1966

The younger Stan – who taught me in 1966

Paul Rock and David Downes were key figures in this early group. Paul Rock and David Downes were key figures in this early group.


Jock Young and Laurie  Taylor were also prominent in this critical sociology group

Jock Young and Laurie Taylor were also prominent in this critical sociology group

Inspirations: The National Deviancy Conference (NDC)circa 1968

As the sad news of Stanley Cohen and Mary McIntosh dying within a few days of each other moves into our memories,  I was left reflecting on the group and the time that they both pioneered and which attracted  me so much to sociology in the late 1960’s. Each generation gets excited by the ‘hot news’ of their day. Mine was The National Deviancy Conference. And Mary and Stan, and a few others, were my inspirations.

In July 1968 a few young sociologists met to discuss their disillusionment with criminology and the orthodoxies of sociological approaches to it. Subsequently, termly conferences were organised at the University of York between September 1998 and 1973 attracting some 1,300 people.( A list of all the papers at the first twelve conferences can be found in Ian Taylor and Laurie Taylor’s Politics and Deviance (1973). These were the conferences of young radicals: youthful, exhuberant, fun loving and intellectually alive. (One critic- Sir Leon Radzinowicz, Director of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology -called them ‘naughty schoolboys’).Everything was under challenge. A radical deconstruction was in the air: this was the intellectual moment which claimed the need for  decriminalization (Schur), decarceration (Goffman, Barton), deprofessionalization (Illich), de-labelling (Becker), decatgeorisation…… It was the time to celebrate ‘Outsiders’( Becker), ‘Crimes without victims’ (Schur) and Becoming Deviant (Matza). It was the moment of the anti-psychiatry movement of Laing, Szasz and Scheff.

The founding seven were Stan Cohen, Paul Rock, Kit Carson, David Downes, Ian Taylor, Jock Young and one woman: Mary McIntosh. All went on to good careers, most as Professors of Sociology! Mary was the only one who did not het a chair – and that just say something about  the gender discrimination of that time? At the heart of their concerns were the issues of analysing the social reactions to crime and deviance,  taking seriously the meaning worlds of the deviants, highlighting the ubiquitous nature of deviance and crime as changing features of societies, and linking all this to public understanding and political actions. Howard Becker’s Oustiders and Erving Goffman’s Asylums constituted the biblical text; but theoretically it was ecumenical- phenomenologists happily rubbed shoulders with Marxists. Politically, it negotiated a path between radical anarchistic libertarianism and hard line leftism.  Personally, it celebrated marginality and any activism that promoted the emerging new age of……. There were papers on druggies and soccer hooligans,  blackmail and rent boys, prisons and the disabled, hippies and youth cultures, psychitary and and anti-psychiatry, the weathermen, heroin and alcoholics, transvestism and gay couples, and the prison movement, the squatter movement,…

A number of manifestos and textbooks were produced – amongst them Laurie Taylor’s Deviance and Society (197?),  Paul Rock’s Deviant Behaviour, Mike Phillipson’s The sociology of Crime and Deviance, Steve Box’s Deviance Reality and Society and ultimately in 1973 Jock Young, Paul Walton and Ian Taylor’s enormously influential The New Criminology. Texts that are identified with this period would be Stan Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Jock Young’s The Drugtakers,
The group produced inter alia Images of Deviance ( ed by Stan Cohen, 1971), Politics and Deviance (ed by Ian Taylor and Laurie Taylor), and Contemporary Social Problems (ed by Roy Bailey and Jock ouing , 1973). The trail end of it saw  Capitalism and the Rule of Law (Bob Fine et al 1979)and Permissiveness and Control (1980), as well as Geoff Pearson’s The Deviant Imagination .

In some ways, the arrival of Stuart Hall’s Collection Resistance Through Ritual, and the NDC’s development into  the European Group of Social Control marked its diffusion. By the mid 1970’s most of its key participants had become institutionalised into universities and its ideas had become the new taught orthodoxy of ‘The Sociology of Deviance’. It had also generated or scattered widely into a range of sociologies. A subterranean moment became public, embraced and rendered orthodox. However ‘bohemian’ and subterranean’ this felt at the time (and for me at any rate it surely did), it must be remembered that much of this was before feminism had become prominent (Carol Smart’s landmark Women, Crime and Criminology was published in 1976) and it was all just at the cusp of the gay, black and post colonial movements. Nor had postmodernism ever been heard of! Yet in many ways it was the precousros of much of this next generation  thinking.

Oddly, the NDC is largely forgotten now. Indeed, is given just a half line reference in Jennifer Platt’s The British Sociological Association: A Sociological History (2003), and absolutely no mention in A.H.  Halsey’s extraordinarily orthodox History of Sociology in Britain(2004). Yet for around five years it was the liveliest group of sociologists to be found in the UK. History is always from a point of view, and both Platt and Halsey speak for orthodoxies and tradition. I am speaking for the lively  undergrounds of sociology.Radicalism in sociology has a way of being co-opted, and all the radicalism of this turning pont has now become rather conventional sounding…….

Nevertheless, the NDC – and Mary, and Stan, and Jock,  and Paul and the rest – taught me not to keep, to the straight and narrow path of sociological orthodoxy. I like to think that I have strayed quite a bit since , though probably not enough…..

I gave three papers at these conferences. One , my first, on Rent Boys and Bent Boys with late Mike Brake seems irrevocably lost. The other two can be accessed on this site.

Men in Love was given in York around 1971; odd as it now looks, it was an early paper on the nature and possibility of ‘gay couples’ and even ‘gay marriage’.  My how things have changed!

Misunderstanding Labelling Perspectives was given at Cardiff around 1976 – at the fag end of the  conferences. I have also recently re-evaluated this argument in Labelling Theory Forty Years On

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