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Deviant Behavior In the Movie Instinct

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For my study on deviance, I will consult the fictional motion picture “Instinct”. Using Labeling Theory as my central perspective, I plan to identify just what is defined as deviant about the film’s main character, Dr. Ethan Powell (played by Anthony Hopkins), as well as how the individual’s society controls and perpetuates this perceived deviance. Finally, I plan to discuss the overtly presented cause of deviance in Dr. Powell’s unique case, which is ultimately unearthed by his psychologist, Dr. Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding).

Before attempting to discuss or explain Dr. Powell’s deviance, I will briefly discuss just what it means to adhere to a Labeling Theory of deviance. This theory is a classic example of the broader school of thought: constructionism. In essence, constructionism focuses its queries on reactions to certain behaviors rather than the actual behaviors themselves. For example, a constructionist would deny that certain behaviors are inherently deviant; pointing to research that indicates that oftentimes deviance in one culture is defined as the norm in another. “(Constructionism) represented social life in terms of a dialectic between social action and social structure”¦” (Craib 3). Therefore, a key distinction of this approach is its perspective on what phenomena needs to be explained. While traditional social theories have focused their energies on explaining why an individual engages in deviant behavior, constructionism asks why the society has come to define his or her behavior as deviant.

Within this constructionist framework, Labeling Theory focuses on the stigmatizing labels that society attaches to some of its members, and how these labels have an effect on the individuals’ subsequent interactions. From a micro sociological perspective, this theoretical orientation asserts that condemnation of certain behaviors likely generates additional deviance. Those individuals who are stigmatized by a group are prone to act in accordance with their social labels in a self- fulfilling prophecy. The subjective experience of the actor (the labeled deviant) is a dimension that positivists fail to address, and which appeals to me as an important aspect of explaining deviance.

The socially defined deviant in the film “Instinct” is Dr. Powell. The former anthropology professor had disappeared into a Rwandan jungle to live among mountain gorillas so that he may conduct research on this species in their natural environment. Upon becoming immersed in his study, he acquired an admiration for the subjects’ lifestyle that he describes as if he “was coming back to something that (he) had lost a long time ago.” In essence, the survival skills and emotional bonds that he had formed during the two years of coexistence with the gorillas (combined with a lack of human interaction) led him to believe that he was a gorilla. His primal behavior and unkempt appearance reflected this apparition, and his delusions were only reaffirmed by society’s inhumane treatment. For example, upon his capture and return to America he was imprisoned for a retaliation attack on a Rwandan who had killed a gorilla. He was caged and treated like a beast- subdued with tasers, heavily medicated, and brutalized by prison guards.

Other inmates referred to him as “ape man”, and even the psychologist assigned to assess his mental condition described the case of Dr. Powell as an opportunity to understand man in its most primitive, ungoverned state. “Indeed, institutional actors may require notions of a “type’ in order to execute their work, may draw upon these notions in responding to and treating these subjects, and in turn, may interpret subjects’ behaviors in accordance with the typification” (Fox 436). The surrounding social environment labeled Dr. Powell as a deviant- a kook who behaved and acted like a wild beast, and in response he demonstrated continuing acts of deviance. He physically attacked prison guards and became socially inept by refusing to talk and displaying contempt for human beings. The self- fulfilling prophecy phase of the Labeling Theory was complete. While there is no doubt that it is statistically deviant for a civilized human to adopt the mindset of a wild animal, much of Dr. Powell’s deviant behavior following his capture was a direct result of the stigma that society had attached to his name.

Already described were some methods of social control- the prison administered medication, and threatened with tasers- but one of the most significant methods of manipulation is symbolized by a playing card. Since only one inmate is allowed outdoor recreation time per day, guards would distribute a playing card to each prisoner. On any given day, the inmate who was fortunate enough to receive the ace of hearts card had earned himself a half an hour in a courtyard. While the prison staff had deemed this a fair method of privilege distribution, it chose to ignore the fights that would inevitably break out amongst the prisoners over this particular card. As long as Dr. Powell and his fellow prisoners sought freedom- if even for a half hour each day- the ace of hearts was the prison’s asset for social control over these labeled deviants.

The true cause of Dr. Powell’s behavioral change is revealed to Dr. Caulder after he is able to persuade his case study to speak for the first time in years. The underlying theme of Dr. Powell’s explanation for his cognitive makeover is his admiration of the “simpler” life offered by the primal existence. In this African forest, he claimed to have found peace of mind and kinship among the species. In an ironic twist, despite spending his entire life as a member of the academic community he slowly began to reject conventional schooling, instead choosing to master the ability to achieve harmony with the natural world. When asked why he insisted on leading a life among gorillas instead of human civilization, he responds that humans are the fool: one day in an American city poses more danger than a lifetime in the jungle. He refers to humans as “takers”, and all but implies that the gorillas that he had encountered were a superior form of being.

Human beings are fools because they “take more food than they need, take more land than they could use”, he reasons, and live with the illusion that they are owners of the earth. “According to one general theory of deviant behavior, where the “deviant’ behavior is not learned as appropriate within the context of one’s membership groups, the deviant behavior (including social protest activities) is motivated, and under certain conditions is performed as a self- enhancing response to self- derogation resulting from previous experiences of failure and rejection in conventional membership group” (Kaplan and Liu 596). After experiencing life among the gorillas, Dr. Powell came to understand that in attempting to achieve pure happiness among the membership group that is human beings, failure was imminent. However, American societal convention dictates that such sentiments of helplessness reflect a textbook example of cognitive deviance, and he is labeled

It is clear that Dr. Ethan Powell had found happiness and an inner peace among the gorillas of the African jungle. His uninhibited behavior was a direct result of the spiritual enlightenment that he had gained from these wild beasts, but unfortunately it had also cost him dearly. It was not until he was captured and re- socialized into American culture that he had felt despair. He had been labeled a deviant simply for attempting to achieve what every human being seeks: a chance at pure, unfettered happiness.

Works Cited

Craib, Ian (1997). Social Constructionism as a Social Psychosis.

Sociology Volume 31 No. 1 1-15.

Goode, Erich (2001). Deviant Behavior (Sixth Edition) Prentice Hall, Inc.

Fox, Kathryn J. (1999). Reproducing Criminal Types: Cognitive Treatment for Violent Offenders in Prison.

Sociological Quarterly Volume 40 No. 3-4 435-453.

Kaplan, H.B. and Liu, X. (2000). Social Protest and Self- Enhacement: A Conditional Relationship.

Sociological Forum Volume 15 No. 4 595-616.

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