Dangerous knowledge? The self-subversion of social deviance theory

Terence Ball

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Some sociological theories yield self-subverting or ‘dangerous’ knowledge. The functionalist theory of social deviance provides a case in point. The theory, first formulated by Durkheim, maintains that ostensibly anti-social deviants perform a number of socially indispensable functions. But what would happen if everyone knew this? They would cease to regard deviants as malefactors and would indeed come to esteem them as public benefactors. In that case, however, deviants could no longer perform their proper function. If they are to play the part assigned to them by the theory, most people must remain unaware of their ‘true’ role in the drama of social life. This gives rise to the paradox of dangerous knowledge: The theory can be true only if its truths are not widely known; widespread ignorance is the precondition of its truth. But then, if its truths must not be publicly known, the theory is a piece of esoterica, not of science. I conclude by considering, and rejecting, several possible solutions to the ‘dangerous knowledge’ paradox.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)377-395
Number of pages19
JournalInquiry (United Kingdom)
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1980
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Health Policy


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