“Octomom”, Labeling Theory, Power and Deviance

I have already blogged about the "Octomom" and it just so happens that I was discussing deviance with my students today and her case, of course, came into the discussion and that gave me the opportunity to make a few sociological points regarding the labeling process, moral entrepreneurs and power. My first question to the students was to make a list of the norms that Suleman had broken that got her so labeled. They came up with the following:

  • 8 / 14 kids is too many (which I countered with the 18-kid family with a TV show and by asking how many would the norm be?)

  • You’re supposed to have children sequentially (so, I asked that if she had had them one after the other, would that have been ok?)

  • She’s single (I asked why being married was so important. They said because one receives help from the partner. Then I asked whether several husbands would be better with such a large number, no?… polyandry)

  • She’s going to be on welfare and therefore we’re going to pay for her brood (Then I asked why this is so upsetting since we’re paying WAY more for the banks and their CEOs’s bonuses… could social class have something to do with it? I also added that withdrawing support would hurt the children, is that fair?)

  • She had plastic surgery and spent money on fluff stuff (I asked how that was different than bailed out banks spending money on bonuses and perks)

  • She’s weird and creepy and disgusting (I asked whether having children should be limited to non-creepy, non-disgusting people and who gets to define what’s creepy and disgusting – in light of having asked them how many thought they had at least one disgusting habit that, if done in public, would bring about a stigma and many of them had raised their hands)

When all these individual factors are put to the foreground, what remains in the background is the institutional realities such as the social organization of reproductive technologies, the fact of high failure rate and multiple implantations and selective reduction.

Also, once Suleman was labeled, as a society, we allowed ourselves to scrutinize all aspects of her life and promulgate prescriptions as to how she should live it. Her body and her very existence become public domain, open to all, something common to stigmatized and deviant-labeled individuals.

At the same time, similar deviance (such as not being financially independent and costing the taxpayer money) is more likely to be noticed and questioned for people low on the social ladder, and largely ignored, and if noticed, not really sanctioned when done by people high on the social ladder even if the infraction is greater with greater consequences.

And I also mentioned the economy as a factor, mentioned as well in a Newsweek article (hat tip to Jay Livingston, with thanks)

Then, we compared this case to that of the Westboro Baptist Church, Michael Vick and Michael Phelps and noted the obvious gender difference and the fact that Suleman’s case deals with reproduction and feminine sexuality. Also, wealth and status may allow certain individuals to fight back against the label and to reclaim a non-stigmatized identity whereas individuals with low power and status will have a harder time getting rid of it.

I also ask my students to note the role of the media in spreading socially-prescribed emotions and discourse and the selective role of that institution as moral entrepreneur and enforcer.

Bottom line, when something triggers such intense societal reaction, analytically, we should ask ourselves what cultural / social nerve was hit and take it from there rather than give in to the socially-prescribed feelings and discourse.

And I finished by telling the guys who had admitted to smoking and spitting on the sidewalk that, considering how gross and disgusting a habit this is, they should not be allowed to have children. Class over. 🙂

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