Sliding scale of social deviance and conundrum

deviance refers to behaviors that are considered wrong or undesirable within a particular cultural context. Deviance is all over society — from the minor etiquette breaches that engender frowns or gossip to behaviors that require legal or psychological interference. However, what seems to be the real essence of deviance is that it elicits somewhat of a varying degree of negative response from a part of the dominant cultural group (audience), which then, in turn, elicits social control from that group to the individual. What is interesting is how much culture causes variation in deviance. Some people regularly deviate and are never punished, other mildly chastised, some given therapy, others are incarcerated. In the examples we review below, we will see that clearly a form of deviance exists — but to what degree, and to what circumstance society has chosen to punish and control are quite difference.

Our first example surrounds the broad concept of theft. Theft has been anathema in society from the beginnings of civilization because it does engender cooperation and positive feelings between members of society. But, as Victor Hugo was so apt to point out in Les Miserables, there are different degrees of theft. In Hugo’s case, the crime was stealing food for a starving child — nonetheless, punishment at the time was swift and severe — stealing was stealing; whether premeditated robbery of a store or an estate, or taking a cooling loaf of bread to avail starvation. In legal terms, theft is taking another person’s property without their permission or consent. Some countries see this as more serious than others, and have degrees to which theft is deviant. In much of the Western World, for instance, the idea of theft is based on intent (e.g. did one accidentally take a scarf from a coatroom at a restaurant instead of one’s own vs. The month long planning and execution of a bank robbery). Similarly, the Courts tend to look differently at theft depending on the degree to which it deprives someone of something valuable, needed, or unique and coveted, for example, in the Bernie Madoff Affair, in which thousands of dollars were stolen from individual retirement and investment account, thus depriving those individuals the ability to pay their bills. Now, in the age of the Internet, we are very concerned with such things as Identity theft and the use of our personal information for spurious reasons (Hoffman,, 2009).

In our first answer of examples of modern deviance, we deal with a special type of theft called plagiarism. By definition, plagiarism is defined as the use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and submitting as an example of one’s own, original work (Random House Dictionary of the English Lanauge, 1995). Within the academic profession, plagiarism is considered academic theft, and therefore fraud and dishonesty. In journalism, it is considered a breach of ethic. However, most especially in this new information age of the Internet, plagiarism has become far easier to incorporate, and to check, and has enhanced the complexity of defining the problem (Clarke, 2006). However, our issue is even more complex because the alleged perpetrator is now dead.

Stephen Ambrose was an American historian most famous for his biographies of U.S. Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. He was a professor of history at the University of New Orleans, but held numerous other academic positions. In 1998 he received the National Humanities Medial, in 2000 the Department of Defense medal for Distinguished Public Service, in 2001 the Theodore Roosevelt Medal for Distinguished Service, and an Emmy for helping to produce Band of Brothers (Historian Steven Ambrose, 2002).

Ambrose’s deviance arises from allegations that he had plagiarized certain passages from his books and fabricated stories of his involvement with famous political figures that aided his tenure and the publication of his books. The controversy is dichotomous: Ambrose acknowledged that, at time, he failed to quote certain material, but did cite it properly; and who is to say definitively, how much personal contact he had with dead political figures that was not in the form of letters or written controversies. Ambrose’s scholarly (journal, and peer-to-peer) works are not being questioned in the manner in which his popular accounts are, and in this words:

I tell stories. I don’t discuss my documents. I discuss the story. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take? I am not writing a Ph.D. dissertation. I wish I had put the quotation marks in, but I didn’t. I am not out there stealing other people’s writings. If I am writing up a passage and it is a story I went to tell and this story fits and a part of it is from other people’s writing, I just type it up that way and put it in a footnote. I just want to know where the hell it came from (Kirkpatrick, 2002).

The conundrum for the layperson is that much of the controversy is hearsay. There are clearly passages lifted from other materials, but there are also footnotes indicating where those passages arose. When an author reads thousands of pages prior to telling a story it is difficult to completely ensure originality, which is what editors and plagiarism checkers are for. Was Ambrose deviant, or was his editor sloppy? Now that he cannot defend himself certainly the camps are dichotomous — and a great example of purported deviance for one group (the strict academics) and a yawn, if that from the regular person interested in history who wants a great story but never reads the footnotes. Indeed, what changes about the gist of the novels — extreme patriotism and a desire to bring lesser known stories to the popular press (Plotz, 2002).

On the other hand, Stephen Glass (born 1972) was a rising star reporter at The New Republic from 1995-98, when it was found that he fabricated quotations, sources, and events for a number of his stories — some of them-based entirely from his own brand of fiction. His story became part of a movie, Shattered Glass, and he now works for a California Law Firm as a Paralegal (Miller, 2011). Glass’ story is quite different than that of Ambrose. Where Ambrose cited his sources, but did not always properly quote them, Glass lied to his readers by fabricating stories that were not even close to reality. What they clearly share in common, though, is not just their own stretching of the complete veracity of prose, but bad editing.

Once caught, Glass had no compunction about admitting his lying. “My life was one very long process of lying and lying again, to figure out how to cover those other lies” in which he faked interviews, notes, voicemails, faxes, even Websites- simply whatever it took to pass the weekly staff meeting and get published. (Leung, 2009). His stories were insightful, timely, and almost too perfect for the publication to pass up — which is the likely reason it took so long to fact-check every detail in his tremendous volume of work.

Both authors certainly had a profit motive. Ambrose became one of the most prolific writers of American history in the later 20th century, turning out a book every other year and employing his family as full-time research assistants. Glass was a rising star and believed that he could only succeed if he continued to produce star-studded, unique material for his publication — and he loved the limelight.

These two issues are, at their heart, great examples of both the sliding scale of social deviance and the conundrum one faces when passing judgment. Are all lies? Did Ambrose lie, or did he typographically miss some materials unintentionally that his editors did not find? Was Glass on the path towards sociopathy? Were his editors, too, culpable in fact checking?

Clearly, while plagiarism is at the heart of both issues, the concurrent subject matter is not the same. Ambrose was telling stories of history and war in the popular press designed to be entertaining, while still including scholarly sources and giving credit to other scholars, which he did. Glass, while not really “hurting” anyone, did not, until he was caught, acknowledge that he was telling falsehoods. Yet, the two are considered deviant in the mind of journalists and scholars because they both “technically” plagiarized. One might submit, however, that intent was different between the two, as was the audience, the finished product, and the degree of deviance. One might also ask if the deviance spreads to the editors for both, and just how far we might carry the requirement of originality and presumption. One also might ask about the layers of audience and checks and balances. The public purchased Ambrose’s books not as doctoral dissertations with peer-reviewed credentials, but likely because they were history buffs who wanted another side of the story. With a cadre of research assistants, Ambrose was indeed responsible for his prose, but had others finding facts for him. Glass, on the other hand, worked for a publication that had trust with its readers that it would find the alternative story — the comments beyond the comments on sensitive topics. Yet instead, Glass had the savvy of knowing which way opinion was sliding, and simply say what most of the readers were already thinking. Had his pieces been billed OpEd, the discussion would be over. Instead, he mistakenly purposed his facts as just that, and thus moved from unbiased journalism to political and social pundit — certainly no guiltier of lying that most High School Paper editors, but certainly at a higher profile.

Both were, by the letter of the law, guilty as charged. Ethically, Glass deserves a solid slap for his sloppiness and laziness, thinking he actually needed to double quote certain sources rather than using his intellect and power of persuasion to document the ‘truth.” Or, does he deserve to be chastised for being sloppy, an even more egregious charge. For Ambrose, however, let the Bard tell a story, take the notes with a grain of salt if you wish to read them, and if you truly want verifiable facts, stock up on the No-Doze and read doctoral dissertations


Historian Stephen Ambrose Dead at 66. (15 October 2002). National Geographic News.

Retrieved from:

Clarke, R. (2006, 7-1). Plagiarism by Academics: More Complex Than It Seems. Retrieved from Journal of the Association for Information Systems:

Hoffman, S. And McGinley, T. (2009). Identity Theft: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing ABC/CLIO.

Kirkpatrick, D. (11 January 2002). As Historian’s Fame Grows, So Do Questions on Methods.

The New York Times. Retrieved from:

Leung, R. (11 February 2009). Stephen Glass: I lied for Esteem. CBSNews.Com. Retrieved from:

Plotz, D. (14 October 2002). Should Stephen Ambrose Be Pardoned? Slate. Retrieved from:

Random House Dictionary of the English Lanauge. (1995). New York: Random House.

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