Deviant Leverage and Fashion Regulation

Fashion is both a normative information of the Zeitgeist as well as an escape route from the same: a deviation from the norm that is fashion. Similar to Bateson’s definition of information as “a difference that makes a difference” (Bateson 1972). Fashion is a “to look like everyone else, but before everyone else” to use Susanne Pagold’s (2000) words, that is, fashion breaks with the norm just the right amount to become what people desire as the new difference, the latest difference.

These times of social media and image culture suggests that “image is everything” and many studies in fashion highlights how the basic social psychologic instinct is that of differentiation. But as Blanton and Burkley posits, there is a basic paradox in how this difference is discussed in popular media, the messages clash drastically: there are highly contradictory forms of difference.

“Pages that focus on teen fashion, for instance, tend to assume that the driving identity concern for most teens is to be different, to find a unique identity. Interestingly, however; many of the other pages assume exactly the opposite. Pages that focus on adolescent health, for instance, tend to emphasize the pressures that teens feel to fit in, and these pages counsel teens with such slogans as, “it is okay to be different.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 94)

Even in times of aesthetic multitudes and overlapping cultures and subcultures, not all aesthetically deviance is good and acceptable, and definitely not imbued with high status. As Blanton and Burkley posits, much theory on social psychology has concerned how to fit into groups, or the basic standpoint has been to emphasize the individuals’ desires to conform to others and their actions, such as the work of Asch’s (1956) demonstration how “college students (and members of the general population) often are willing to answer questions incorrectly to avoid the disapproval of their peers.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 95) This has been set into contrast to the individual’s desire to stand out, especially during adolescence, such as in the works of Erik Erikson (1950) and Abraham Maslow (1968).

The idea has been that a healthy individual must be independent of the social environment, that is, the “humanistic principles assert that every person must realize his or her full potential by achieving a unique and authentic self that is not contingent on the approval of others.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 96) But in this tension between distinction and uniformity, the question of how much deviance is good or bad still remains unanswered, and is something Blanton and Burkley approaches in their Deviance Regulation Theory (DRT; Blanton & Christie 2003). “According to DRT, people do not choose actions so much out of a desire to feel more similar or more different, per se. Instead, they simply act out of a desire to have positive self-image.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 98f)

To Blanton & Burkley, deviant behaviors are twofold. Firstly they are “behaviors that cause one to stand out in relation to social norms.” and by this, they “generate stronger reactions from observers than nondeviant behaviors.” (99) Secondly, “certain behaviors are more meaningful than others,” that is, they “generate strong reactions from important reference others.” Firstly, the context and timing matters, and secondly, difference is sought to generate response with “reference others”; we seek the reaction of certain groups to leverage this response into status. From a distance we may be our norm, or the groups “behavioral base rate,” but individually, we are our difference: “in our own eyes and in others’ eyes, we are that which makes us different.” (100)

Blanton & Burkley (103) further suggest there are “ought norms”, norms that are the base-line or “default” rules of the group, the foundational rules, “not just desired by a reference group but also required by them of all group members if they wish to be ‘members in good standing.’” These ought rules, shape conformity, and “pressure will typically take the form of a ‘negative incentive system.’ This system reminds members of the negative consequences of deviating, not the positive consequences of conforming.” (104)

“In this type of environment, where there is conformity pressure on members to engage in risky behaviors, the power of the group is not its ability to reward those who go along with the norms of the group. The power of the group is in its ability to punish those who deviate.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 105)

There are also “ideal norms” and aspirational deviance were subjects can chose “between positive alternatives, between different sources of pride. These outcomes could only be framed in this way if the actors have internalized the positive opinions of important referent others; others who have reinforced accomplishments in these domains.” (105) This is a “positive incentive system” which “reminds members of the positive consequences of deviating, not the negative consequences of conforming.” (106) We admire those who are considered “worthy” and our shared positivity acts as an incentive to imitate their behavior.

“Whereas ought norms promote conformity toward a shared way of acting, ideal norms promote diversity and a multitude of actions. Thus, two people who internalize the values of the same reference groups generally would share all of the same definitions of morality and conform in their moral actions, but they may differ considerably in the sorts of achievements they value or choose to pursue.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 106)

Robert Stebbins (2011: 24) defines deviance as “behavior judged as violating one or more of the community’s moral norms,” that is, collective judgments which “emerge from the community’s definition of right and wrong behavior and activity in certain emotionally charged areas of everyday life.” These are in turn regulated through passive tolerance, or active forms of social regulation such as scorn or embracement. Stebbins differs between tolerable, intolerable, acceptable and positive deviance and posits how subject’s relationships to deviance is often ambigious, as “many people are ambivalent about one or more of the activities falling under the heading of tolerable deviance. They know they ought to refrain from engaging in them, yet they find it difficult to escape their magnetic pull.” (25) Indeed, as Stebbins highlights, leisure often pulls towards deviant activities;

“This is the type of deviance Becker (1963: 26) had in mind when he observed that “it is much more likely that most people experience deviant impulses frequently. At least in fantasy, people are much more deviant than they appear.” Little wonder that tolerable deviance is the classificatory home of most forms of deviant leisure” (Stebbins 2011: 25)

“To be fashionable is to ve acceptably deviant,” Stebbins argues, “Personal good taste keeps the fashionable individual safe, from going beyond acceptability to forms of dress regarded as serious aberrations. The latter is ‘outrageous’ fashion.” (27f) “One may bend rules to the extent that the individual appears to have control over them, but not to the point that s/he poses a threat to the social order” (Harman 1985: 2–3). Echoing Simmel’s discussion on the conflicting pulls between community and individuality, Stebbins points out,

“Increases in society’s individuality and creativity are encouraged. Still the existence of society as a collection of rule-governed individuals interested in the common goal of social order requires members to share basic conceptions about what it is that makes them a group. These two demands of conformity and deviation are contradictory.” (Stebbins 2011: 27)

Drawing from Harman’s study, Stebbins compares fashion to the use of slang, where,

“If a few members begin using the new word or phrase, its outrageousness declines, drifting toward fashionableness. If the trend continues, the new term becomes increasingly common in the group’s vocabulary, its use becoming a mark of membership there.[…] Members of the group who use such terms display an appropriate sense of being fashionable. Being in fashion through introduction and use of new slang is also a mark of the user’s distinctive identity.” (Stebbins 2011: 28)

As the example of introduction of slang shows, the moral norms and boundaries around deviance are not fixed but in a continuous flux or “drift.”

“Some forms of intolerable deviance may gradually become tolerable, as is presently evident to a greater or lesser degree for abortion, use of marijuana, and production and consumption of pornography. Meanwhile, tolerable forms may drift toward intolerability, which appears to be happening today for smoking and has already happened, in a way, for use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport.” (Stebbins 2011: 26)

This type of deviance drift thus overlaps well with Paul Fussell’s (1983) discussion on “proletarian drift” (or “prole drift”). This status drift of products and expressions denote “the tendency for originally upscale products and services to become popular with the working class” (Jaffe 2008). As Fussell points out, its is an unintentional stinking of status as the once upward moving classed are being “bumped down” and in “a process of class sinking” as everything becomes proletarianized. With the availability of mass production of status goods, with a reduction in price and quality, the proliferation of status objects undermines their value, as also argued of luxury fashion by Thomas (2007). Yet this does not mean norms and deviance disappears, no, deviance is still regulated as the status and values of deviance shifts and the previous transgressions lose their status (together with the people connected to these behaviors.)

As we have seen earlier, fashion has a long tradition of challenging moral and social norms, pushing the boundaries for what is considered acceptable or positive deviations, transgressing taboos and turning expressions of cultural rebellion and seduction into new signs of the times. Sumptuary laws tried in vain to control the social and moral norms around dress and its significations. The boundaries of deviance drift together with the norms and often switch places. This is not least noticeable today, in a culture saturated by seduction, porn and sugar powdered BDSM in the tradition of best selling EL James 50 Shades of Grey, where certain forms of sexualized violence is no longer considered deviant (together with the fashion expressions of the scene) – while simultaneously the norms around power are moved towards expressive consent. As highlighted by Byung-Chul Han (2017), the challenging and unknown “other” of Eros is erased to become a predictive sameness. “Post-fetish jewelry” of Zana Bayne is the mainstream, or a new wave of a recurrent theme (as noted in Steele’s classic Fetish: fashion, sex, and power.)

As the norms and boundaries of deviance drift, so does our desires. We are oriented by our desires, and how deviance pays off. As Blanton and Burkley (100) shows, if a subject “thinks she will gain from smoking, then she will be oriented towards smoking.” We are what makes us different, and if we play the game of deviance we know the rules and continually try to find leverage for new status. That is where fashion comes in: deviant leverage in the realm of dress.



Asch, S. E. (1956) “Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority.” Psychological Monographs, 70(9, Whole No. 416).

Bateson, Gregory (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York: Ballantine

Blanton, Hart & Christie, C. (2003) “Deviance regulation: A theory of action and identity.” Review of General Psychology, 7, 115-149.

Blanton, Hart & Melissa Burkley (2008) “Deviance Regulation Theory” in Mitchell Prinstein & Kenneth Dodge (eds) Understanding peer influence in children and adolescents, New York: Guilford Press

Erikson, Erik (1950) Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Fussell, Paul (1983) Class: a guide through the American status system, New York: Summit Books

Han, Byung-Chul (2017) The Agony of Eros, Cambridge: MIT Press

Harman, L. D. (1985) “Acceptable deviance as social control: the cases of fashion and slang,” Deviant Behavior, 6: 1–15.

Jaffe, Miles (2008) The Hamptons Dictionary: The Essential Guide to Class Warfare, New York: Disinformation Company

Maslow, Abraham (1968) Toward a psychology of being. Princeton: Van Nostrand.

Pagold, Suzanne (2000) De Långas Sammansvärjning. Stockholm: Bonniers

Stebbins, Robert (2011) “Tolerable, Acceptable and Positive Deviance” in Bryant (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Deviant Behavior, New York: Routledge, pp.24-30

Thomas, Dana (2007) Deluxe: how luxury lost its luster, New York: Penguin Press


Social regulation and the Preos of fashion violence

Fashion is an aesthetic signifier of social hierarchies and belonging, but also an opening for emotional affects and connections between people. As clothes are used to mark out distinctions, they also open passages for emotional signaling and connection. On an abstract level, my branded shirt may signify an identification with certain values of the brand, but the shirt may also be used to draw attention to certain aspects of my emotional and affective self I want to open towards others. That is, the shirt may be used for emotional signification also: for seduction, flirting, celebration, or mourning. Dress opens an emotional window between people.

This double aspect of clothing, signifying qualities, but also its emotional and affective connection to the aspirations and desires of our “soul” is what makes fashion so powerful – but also makes us so vulnerable for attacks. Rather than risking upsetting the order, it is just so much safer escaping into jeans and t-shirt or formal office wear.

Using the word “violence” in the realm of everyday dress may sound a bit too strong as very few people get attacked and killed primarily because of their clothes (at least in a place like NYC). But if we start opening the interactions traced through dress practices, we may come to see more of it; a robber may select a victim by their expensive looking clothes, a police officer may stop-and-frisk a person in hoodie, a trans-person may get attacked because of not conforming to gendered outfits. These may be instances of violations of personal integrity, which most of us would agree could fit under the term violence.

But if we also think of fashion as an emotional window between people, how it opens a passage towards our feelings, aspirations and deeper personal lives, who we want to be seen as, who we wish to be with, and much more, then even “soft” attacks on our clothes may be seen as a form of violence. A nasty comment which on purpose attacks my aspirations can not only hurt me emotionally and mentally, but it may scar these aspirations beyond repair. Even if it happens only once it may still cause lasting emotional damage, even if the occasion may be something very banal. A child not having the right sports outfit on the first day of trying out a new sport (and meeting new peers) may effectively lock the door to this peer group and future sport practice. Someone being refused entry to a club at an important moment when one’s peers enter without problem may act as a social sorting, distancing the victim from the peers. In both cases, the even itself may only be first trigger and excuse for later gossip and taunts.

But more importantly, if the rejection happens over time, the impact may be devastating for the victim’s ability to test new emotional aspirations as he or she withdraws into “acceptable” uniforms.

The miniscule violence in rejections, gossip and taunts come out of certain social dynamics and formations. It is not only the wickedness of bullies which is to blame, but several layers of social interactions. But perhaps most importantly, the bullies do not feel they do anything “evil” or “amoral” – rather the opposite; they feel they “do the right thing” – they uphold the legitimate social order. In their actions, they help regulate the social relationships of the groups, doing a favor for the status of their peers (“what would other cool people think of us it we hang out with that loser?”). The peers are thankful for the ordering while they all think the victim always “deserves it” (and the victim may think so too). In this way, violence is always virtuous for the ones who commit it; they legitimize it in ways they feel they have the right to use violence. As Fiske and Rai argues in their work Virtuous Violence (2015), “the primary motives for violence are at the same time subjectively moral – people feel they must harm or kill others simply because it’s the right thing to do” (2015: 34)

To Fiske and Rai, the basis for violence is regulation of social relationships: who rules, or who is equal to whom, what is shared or what does someone owe another? All social relationships are regulated through cultural conventions, most often in informal ways: who has access to certain goods, who eats first, who has authority to act in what ways, who has access to what spaces,  who picks up the trash, who’s responsibility is this or that? These types of interactions are regulated  by peers in self-organized systems of control.

If we apply Fiske and Rai’s thinking to fashion, clothes signal many of these relations: I wear certain clothes to show unity with my working group, or to show that I am better than others, or to get access to this club, or to not draw attention to myself (or hide) in a certain social setting, or to move into proximity to other groups and through hierarchies ( such becoming the friend or mate of a prestigious person) or pretending being someone I am not. I can conform to the standards and play along, but if I break the norms, or I upset some of the standards or usurp the regulations, others may feel I “break the rules” and thus feel obliged to correct me – and this may be done in more of less violent ways. “Virtuous violence theory proposes that the perpetrator intends to harm or kill in order to constitute a social relationship to make it correspond with a prescriptive model of what the relationship ought to be – what it must be made to be.” (17)

In social relations, people act under certain “Preos” or cultural guidelines that specify how social relationships are to be regulated (a “cultural coordination device”). These guidelines are “socially transmitted prototypes, precedents, and principles that complete the mods, specifying how, when and with respect to whom the mods apply” (Fiske 2004: 4). [“mods” being “cognitively modular but modifiable modes of interacting” in Fiske 2004: 3] Preos is the cultural prescriptions of how to handle social relationships, or what we usually consider “morals” in general: “morality consists of intentions, motives, emotions, and judgments about realizing RMs according to cultural preos.” (Fiske & Rai 2015: 22)

Fiske and Rai presents Relational Models (RMs) which consists of four primary interactions: communal sharing (CS), authority ranking (AR), equality matching (EM), and market pricing (MP) [earlier developed by Fiske]

In communal sharing (CS) interactions, the victim may be seen as a possible contaminant to the in-group, thus hazing or rituals of harassment may be used (and excused) for the greater good of making sure the victim comes to share the values the group; “Unity is directed toward caring for and supporting the integrity of in-groups through a sense of collective responsibility and common fate.” (18) Dressing the same as the group becomes a signal for communal sharing, while dressing too much apart may require a response from the rest of the group to make sure the status quo is upheld. Similarly, to join the group, certain signals and commitments may have to be signalled, such as gang tattoos.

For authority ranking (AR), hierarchy is the prime concern, as “Hierarchy is directed toward creating and maintaining linear ranking in social groups.” (19) Hierarchies are not “inherently immoral, exploitive, or even undesirable. Nor do legitimate hierarchies emerge out of pure force or coercion. In many cultures, people perceive hierarchy as natural, inevitable, necessary, and legitimate” (19). The military may be a prime example, but also religious cults or organizations with clear chains or command or pecking orders, but also where superiors are supposed to provide and protect the subordinates, thus offering a reward for submission. “AR hierarchy motivates people to judge that superiors committing violence against subordinates is often acceptable and may even be praiseworthy if done to instruct or punish.” (19) The hierarchy itself is threatened if the distinctions and not upheld, thus people within the hierarchy all come to feel they “deserve their place,” and will defend the hierarchy and their place in it from both outside attacks as well as usurping practices within as members experience the asymmetrical relationships “as natural, good, legitimate, and even necessary.” (20) Authority ranking is engaged social status systems such as class or ethnic rankings (the social value of identities, what subcultures are “cool” and who are “nerds” or “losers”), and rankings such as the prestige and standing of brands (AR with respect to price, availability, knowledge etc). Within a group, as I gain status I am allowed to wear certain marks, or I can signal a long commitment to a cause within the group by wearing the right patch, and a false-flag signal is punished.

Equality matching (EM) is “manifest in activities such as turn taking, in-kind reciprocity, even distributions and randomization procedures such as coin flipping.” (20) Equality matching is a form of “democratization” as it aims to even out the playing field: “Equality is directed toward enforcing even balance and in-kind reciprocity in social relations. It requires equal treatment, equal voice, equal opportunity, equal chance, even shares, even contributions, turn taking, and lotteries (e.g., for conscription, for a dangerous assignment, for choosing ends of the field in sports or in a duel).” (20) It is a moral motivation towards reciprocity, and “accounts for the sense of obligation we feel both in inviting people to our home after they have invited us to theirs, and in seeking to hurt people in exactly the same way they have hurt us, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (20)

Market pricing (MP) aims towards proportionality and is “directed toward calculating and acting in accord with ratios or rates among otherwise distinct goods to ensure that rewards or punishments for each party are proportional to their costs, contributions, effort, merit, or guilt.” (21) A punishment should be proportionate to its effects, but also, “in the framework of proportionality, it is morally correct to inflict harm or to kill if the benefits outweigh the costs.” (21) Market Pricing relationships are oriented to socially meaningful ratios or rates between prestigious signals and tokens, such as prices, wages, interest, or cost-benefit analyses, but also exchange between groups and interpersonal networks. Certain forms of prestige may be exchanged for status or bridging towards other groups, or gifts used as blackmailing (as a form of Potlatch), and failing to uphold these market standards (causing inflation, or allowing access or condoning unregulated behaviors) may be proportionally punished.

Hierarchy of Being – Hierarchy of relations

Relational models reveal how various forms of cultural norms and Preos make social groups self-organize the policing of their norms. But these models also help us understand the moral frameworks and interactions bullies act within as feel they “do the right thing” when rejecting or harassing a victim. Matched with the desires of not only fitting in, but also aspiring to be more than one is, or uniting emotionally with others, the regulations of sharing, equality hierarchy and proportionality seeps under the skin of the victim.

Indeed, if fashion in many ways has a tradition of threatening public “morals,” and is still considered “dangerous” in many cultures, it is because of its possible use as a tool to override Preos and challenge relational orders. Fashion offers the user a pathway to bypass gatekeepers, uniting groups across cultural boundaries, and seducing powerful individuals, deceiving others, while also join together individual aspirations and popularity with people in power. And the use of things and commodities in these regulations is a common trait (Komter 2001).

This is perhaps the “danger” of fashion, as it not only manifests class, loyalties, groups and hierarchies, but also offers an avenue to usurp the same categories. There may be many motivations why the rules and regulations must be upheld, but violences is an essential part of both controlling as well as rebelling against the order of Preos.



Fiske, Alan Page (2004) “Relational Models Theory 2.0,” in Haslam, Nick (ed) (2004) Relational Models Theory: A Contemporary Overview, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Fiske, Alan Page & Tage Shakti Rai (2015) “Violence is morally motivated to regulate social relationships” in Virtuous Violence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 17-34.

Komter, Aafke (2001) “Heirlooms, Nikes and Bribes: Towards a Sociology of Things”, Sociology,Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 59–75.

(see more: Relational Models Theory)

The social stigma process of exclusion

With theories of interactionism, the focus on social relations is aimed at the processes which continuously reconstruct and guide social interactions. Norms and differences are made and remade, and people are dynamic beings who go in and out of relationships, associate in fluid and changing ways. Social psychologist Robert Thornberg (2013) has in a paper discussed the social stigma processes which keeps reproducing victimhood in school bullying. Essential to Thornberg (1), “children co-construct and participate in their own peer cultures by creatively appropriating and reconstructing information and norms from the adult world to address their own concerns (Corsaro, 2005; Wyness, 2006).” That is, identity is a social process, continuously renegotiated and readjusted, not a fixed essence. As Thornberg has pointed out elsewhere (2010) victims as often socially rejected and excluded, or considered “contagious” thought the socially construction of them as odd, different, deviant or people who do not “fit in,” and this constructed deviance from the norm is then used to justify bullying. Thornberg relates this to Goffman’s ideas of the production of “stigma” (1963), and uses this core concept for unpacking the consequences of labelling. It is the stigma in turn which makes bystanders turn against the victim, as “a negative reputation of the victim is constructed and spread further within the community. Even those who do not actively participate in bullying do not want to socialise with the victim because of social pressure (Hamarus and Kaikkonen, 2008).”(2)

As bulling is a social process, it is not dependent merely on bullies and victims, but on more collective dynamics within the in-groups, and thus bullying cannot be reduced to “individual characteristics of the bully and the victim, but indicated a group process that created, manifested and maintained normative orders that imposed what was ‘normal’ and not open to question among the peers (cf. Davies, 2011; Horton, 2011).”(4) The differentness of the victim is socially co-constructed and then used to explain and justify bullying as a “natural” consequence of the victim’s choices.

“For example, Anna in Grade 4 was socially represented by her classmates as a fat girl with odd clothes, and bullying was seen by many peers as a ‘natural’ consequence of her fat body and odd clothes or, as Frida in her class put it, ‘I know it sounds a bit cruel, but she actually has herself to blame. She wouldn’t be bullied if she just lost some weight and started to wear normal clothes’.”(4)

Indeed, in Thornberg’s article, the clothes of the victim is often used as an excuse for the bullying;

“Amina: ‘No, because she is making things this way by herself, kind of believing she can rule. Yeah, well she often wears weird clothes.’ Jennifer: ‘Not so fashionable.’ “(5)

As Thornberg posits, in the cases explored “children collectively dehumanised and blamed the victim in an effort to explain and justify their bullying towards the victim.”(6) In the process of creating the social norm of the group, the in-group members “socially compared themselves with the targeting child in a way that confirmed their ‘normality’ as well as their socially included position in the peer group, at the expense of the victim.” (6) For example, one of the in-group members claimed how much better she and her friends were than their victim;

“‘Frida, Johanna and me —we’re popular in the class. We’re kind of good-looking, and we wear brand clothes. Anna is kind of the opposite, and everyone think she’s strange’, a girl in Grade 4.” (6)

Thornberg highlights how the social process makes the victims internalize their victimhood and start identifying with their stigma,

“By name-calling and teasing, and by rumour spreading and creating a bad reputation, the bullies socially constructed the victims as people who were solely represented as and confined to negative labels. Therefore, the peer discourse of bullying created social expectations that trapped the victims in a self-fulfilling prophecy. They became nothing more than their bullying-induced labels for the classmates.” (6)

Not only do the peers withdraw from the victim, due to their stigma and the scare of being “contaminated” by their exclusion and loser-status, but the internalization also limits the victims’ opportunities to socialize with peers, develop social relations and have friends as they have been discredited as deviants. As a peer mentions; “We don’t hang around with her because we have to think about our own reputation (a girl in Grade 4),” and another, “Almost no one in the class would like to be with her… they don’t want others to think that they are like her… She’s a jerk with ugly clothes and that’s why people avoid her (a girl in Grade 5).” (7)

The victims thus gets stuck in a vicious cycle where they on one hand feel normal and like anyone else, but are socially stigmatized as “different” or losers. As Thornberg argues about a victim called Sandra,

“She repeatedly told herself that she was ‘normal’, but at the same time she was preoccupied with self-changing to be ‘normal’. The victims’ identities were not set in stone, but were rather a dynamic process, and in the never-ending work of interpretation, many victims seemed to move back and forth between the two types of identity: (a) the ‘deviant identity’ which refers to a self-image of being different or odd and not fitting in, linked with self-blaming and feelings of worthlessness, and (b) the ‘normal identity’ which refers to a self-image of being like everyone else linked with feelings of being valuable, and just as good as others.” (8)

The victim thus becomes the bullied and comes to identify as the different, rejected loser they have been stigmatized into being. The victim comes to doubt or question the normal (like-anyone-self) self-image to instead assume her bullies’ image of her.

Bur not only that, the borders to the “normal” are strictly surveilled and moved to make sure the victim cannot become one of the in-group. “Even in cases where there was a belief in the possibility of changing oneself, successful self-change was effectively prevented by the social life of the school class.” (9) In the example Thornberg lifts, “Anna changed her clothing to fit in.” But to no avail. “The problem was that the victims already played an involuntary role in an ongoing pattern of collective action.” (9) and the peers were already moving the boundaries of the norm away from the victim. “If victims tried to change something about themselves, it was never good enough (e.g. ‘It doesn’t matter if he wear his new Converse shoes, he’s still a nerd’, a boy in Grade 5). The performance of bullying did not accept having the victims play out of character, but persisted in the collective definition of their differentness.” (9)

In conclusion, the issue Thornberg brings to the table is that the perpetuators of bullying are not the only actors engaged in the act of bullying but it is a social dynamic enacted by bigger peer-groups. Thornberg cites Horton (2011: 274) who argues, “rather than categorising large numbers of school students as deviant, aggressive or evil-minded, it may be more useful to consider the social processes in which they are involved when bullying occurs”. This brings fashion into the stigma process, of who is considered “popular” or “in” versus who will never have the opportunity to become one of the group (and indeed, never “popular”). Not only does clothes and fashion play a role in this dynamic (as the whole group plays along in the definition of what is considered acceptable or not) – and as noted above, clothes act as a perfect canvas on which to project the difference and norm deviance.


Corsaro WA. 2005. The Sociology of Childhood, 2nd edn. Pine Forge Press: Thousand Oaks.

Davies B. 2011. “Bullies as guardians of the moral order: re-thinking the origins of bullying in schools.” Children & Society 25: 278–286.

Goffman E. 1963. Stigma. Simon & Schuster: New York.

Hamarus P, Kaikkonen P. 2008. “School bullying as a creator of pupil pressure.” Educational Research 50: 333–345.

Horton P. 2011. “School bullying and social and moral orders.” Children & Society 25: 268–277.

Thornberg R. 2010. “Schoolchildren’s social representations on bullying causes.” Psychology in the Schools 47: 311–327.

Thornberg, Robert (2013/2015) “School Bullying as a Collective Action: Stigma Processes and Identity Struggling” Children & Society 29.4: 310-320.

Wyness M. 2006. Childhood and Society: An Introduction to the Sociology of Childhood. Palgrave MacMillan: New York.

A short note on Sovereign Vanity

Vanity is one of the many paradoxes that cuts through fashion; that in order to be myself I need to take good care of what other’s think of me. Indeed, I feel myself better the more others see and acknowledge me. It is easy to think this is a matter of simply being liked, and have many friends that treat you kindly.

But no. In fashion, this attitude takes on other expressions. If we look at the models on the catwalk, the advertisements, or the characters of the gossip columns, it is another form of vanity that emerges; the immodest pride, sneer, despise and superiority. It is arrogance in its most attractive form. And we love it.

We may think a narcissist is vain, but as Simon Blackburn posits in Mirror Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love (2014), the narcissist does not care about the opinion of others, even though he may cherish their gaze. He does not seek the approval of his social world, but is self-absorbed. In the end of the Greek tale, Narcissus fades away, only hearing the echo of his self-love. To the narcissist there exists no society, Blackburn posits, and greed is good, “Because you’re worth it!” as the L’Oreal advert goes (Blackburn 2014: x). And Blackburn continues, the advert reveals something deeper about our fascination with narcissism and praise of vanity,

“if occasionally [the models] looked pleasantly human, at least as often they seem to project self-absorption, or arrogance and disdain. They bestow the kind of smile that might be a sneer. They pout and sulk. Their vanity and indifference goes with being above us all, and perhaps knowing that they can call up our adulation and worship at will. The personae in the advertisements are simply out of reach. They do not care what we think of them. Like Narcissus, they appear to live in a world of their own, enclosed in their own self-love. Unsurprisingly, the models calculated to inflame our desires lure us with youth and beauty, and it is relatively easy to see that those are desirable features. We envy those who are handsome or beautiful, graceful, well-proportioned, symmetrical, glowing with youth and health.” (Blackburn 2014: 44f)

The vain person, on the other hand, is dependent on the opinions of others, seeks approval, and lives in the eyes of others, not only oneself, like the narcissist.

This brings us to the paradox of vanity in fashion. We know we are dependent on others, and fashion is an interface which seeks the approval of others while it marks aspiration and distinction. Indeed, fashion is by its very nature social and heteronomous, yet we sneer at this dependency and fashion promotes its denial. This dynamic tension is at the heart of fashion – it promises independence in a realm which is explicitly contingent on the affirmation of our peers.

This tension is also something fashion media plays with,  and the icy expression of models plays its part, as Blackburn notices,

“[the model] need not smile at us-indeed, to promote this kind of illusion, she must not smile at us-because that would be a gesture of recognition and reciprocity, and the fantasy she is inducing is one in which there is no commerce with people like ourselves. By buying the produce, the promise whispers, we can transcend our everyday dependencies on one another and rise to join the royalty ans the gods, a higher place where we too can afford to ignore the herds below.” (Blackburn 2014: 46)

Fashion sells an asymmetry, a promise of aesthetic sovereignty: if I am popular and have status, I do not need to give anything back, yet others will adore me. This is a special form of social and aesthetic sovereignty, the sneering affirmation of the pedestal; you must recognize me, while I don’t need to recognize you.

But paradoxically, I would not think it simply a matter of domination or the thrill of feeling superior. Fashion is more complex than that, and it is more seductive than mere violence. Instead, this aesthetic sovereignty may resonate with Bataille’s production of sovereignty through the acts and rituals of expenditure which dissolves the self into a an intensity of unity. This may be the “oceanic” feeling of fashion: of being seen in a way that transcends boundaries, expanding the self (as discussed earlier).

The aesthetic sovereignty and vanity in fashion is not a property, but an ever-intensifying hunger for connection; impossible, unrealizable. It is the physical intensity of affirmative bodily pleasures, the ecstasy of existing in others. As Bataille writes, “Sovereignty is the object which eludes us all, which nobody has seized and which nobody can seize for this reason: we cannot possess it, like an object, but we are doomed to seek it.” (2012: 193f)



Bataille, George (2012) Literature and Evil, London: Penguin classics

Blackburn, Simon (2014) Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Status and Exclusion

An easy way to define fashion is to use journalist Susanne Pagold’s phrase “Fashion is to dress like everyone else, but before everyone else.” Fashion is social and mimetic, and is also a matter of temporal exclusivity. To be among the first is fashion, it increases status, and with enough status one can become part of an elite. Fashion and elitism are not the same, but often intertwined.

But to look like everyone else is not exclusive status, even if many come after you. You must stay in the elite, and to follow the old French etymology, “elite” means to chose and be chosen: to be an elite is not a passive position, but it is an activity. True exclusivity within fashion is “to dress like the elite, but before the elite.”

So how does one increase status to become and stay within the elite, and especially and elite within everyday fashion?

If we would follow Pagold’s definition, status is simply to be liked by everyone else, and this has been a common view within sociology: a person with a lot of connections, at the center of a large network, has many friends and a lot of status. But as Robert Faris (2012) argues, this is only partly true. Yes, a popular and well-connected person may have a “connective status” but this does not make the person part of the elite. Instead, to earn status it is better to have “bridging status”, that is, being a person that has connections through social barriers and keeps these bridges open only to a selected few. Connectivity is ok, exclusivity is better; it is in bridging “whereby nodes efficiently connect otherwise distal regions of networks.” (Faris 2012: 1208).

Not everyone can sit at the Master’s table

To be inviting and friendly with everyone does you some good, your may get a lot of “weak ties”, but being selective, exclusive and manipulative gains you more status. To Faris, these selective processes explains how “seemingly rational, ordinary people routinely engage in harassment, bullying, gossip, manipulation, ridicule, cliquishness, and ostracism” and also explains why people are not always sociable but strive to uphold networks through “reptuational aggression” (2012: 1207)

The exclusive status positions are those that can “bridge structural holes” (Burt 2009), that bridge over social barriers without undermining the exclusivity between the groups, that is, without letting in “non-elites” (which could undermine the status of one or both groups). “Elite status is maintained through selectivity, not connectivity, and by denying rather than accumulating friendships.” (Faris 2012: 1211) And as Faris points to, the elite bridge-builder maintains social barriers by the effective use of repetitional aggression,

“rejecting supplicants may increase the attractiveness of the exclusionary group. This is not to say that connections are without benefit, only that the relative costs and benefits shift toward selectivity in such settings. Actors who are able to efficiently bridge much of the network without an excessive number of ties arguably enjoy the benefits of centrality without the costs.” (Faris 2012: 1211)

Rejecting the connection to others must be central practice in maintaining status. And with the “wrong” friends, one may risk the exclusivity of one’s network, and often peers will remind or enforce restrictions. As social hierarchies are fluid, there is a continuous need to uphold their barriers and order. Repetitional aggression helps in the selection process, and also in rejecting unwanted social competition (which does not bridge to other elites). Repetitional aggression includes “verbal abuse, insults, threats, harassment, ostracism, gossip, manipulation” and their plights can be “exacerbated when perpetuators are anonymous” (2012: 1212). The many ways of rejecting unwanted connections increases the attractiveness of the exclusionary group: it is always a matter of bridging with the “right” people.

Faris argument is easily applied to the status games of fashion. The “right” people are not the friendliest with the most connections, but those who are highly selective and often act as “gatekeepers” to other social groups. The “right” people are those with ties to other exclusive groups, the ones who hang out with the other “right” people, who look like they do so, and prove it by dressing in the right stuff (before others do). The “cool” people must be hard to get to, and must be picky. And if we cannot offer them something they do not already have, we are bound to be rejected.

Or worse.


Burt, Ronald (2009) Structural holes: The social structure of competition, Cambridge: Harvard university press
Faris, Robert (2012) “Aggression, exclusivity, and status attainment in interpersonal networks.” Social Forces 90(4), pp.1207-1235.

The Status of the Bully

In the popular mind, bullies engage in harassing their peers to compensate for their low self-esteem. The bully is scorned by peers as much as feared, and most bystanders would just like the bullying to end.

But according to Juvonen & Graham’s research (2014) this is not true. Instead, bullies have very high self-esteem and are usually very popular: the bullies are the cool kids. Most bullying involves a combination of direct and indirect forms of undermining the victim’s social standing and self-esteem. Juvonen & Graham highlights,

“In contrast to direct confrontation (e.g., physical aggression, threats, name-calling), indirect tactics include spreading of rumors, backstabbing, and exclusion from the group. In other words, the indirect forms frequently involve relational manipulation (Crick & Grotpeter 1995). Whereas the direct forms of bullying often involve intimidating, humiliating, or belittling someone in front of an audience, the indirect forms are designed to damage the targets’ social reputation or deflate their social status while concealing the identity of the perpetrator (Bjorkqvist et al. 1992). That is, the bully is able to use the peer group as a vehicle for the attack (Xie et al. 2002) when relying on relationally indirect tactics.” (162f)

As Archer & Coyne (2005) has shown, indirect forms of relational aggression seems to become the norm amongst both boys and girls by middle adolescence, as physical aggression against their peers is less socially acceptable, but also as it requires considerably higher understanding of social relations than physical aggression.

Bullies may be cold and calculating, seek influence and want to be desired, but that does not make bullies a special asocial or rough types. Instead they are often the popular or “cool” kids in their social group.

“Not only do bullies strive to dominate, they also frequently have high social status. Beginning in elementary school, some aggressive children are considered to be popular (Rodkin et al. 2006). By early adolescence, peer-directed hostile behaviors are robustly associated with social prominence or high status (e.g., Adler&Adler 1998, Parkhurst&Hopmeyer 1998).These findings are consistent with ethological research demonstrating that aggression is a way to establish a dominant position within a group (e.g., Hinde 1974).” (164)

As Juvonen and Graham posits, there is a positive relation between aggression and high social status, which in turn means many aggressive youths have inflated perceptions of themselves (Cairns & Cairns 1994, Hymel et al. 1993). “For example, aggressive elementary school students overestimate their competencies not only in terms of their peer status but in terms of academic and athletic domains as well (Hymel et al. 1993).” (165) Similarly, the bullies experience elevated status as they engage in aggressive behavior, as most social feedback bullies receive affirm their behavior, and they thus think highly of themselves.

“Youths rarely challenge bullies by intervening when witnessing bullying incidents (e.g., O’Connell et al. 1999), although most condemn bullying behaviors (Boulton et al. 2002, Rigby&Johnson 2006). Moreover, when bullying incidents take place, some bystanders reinforce the bullies by smiling and laughing (Salmivalli et al. 1998). Although peers typically do not personally like those who bully others, they are still likely to side with the bully in part to protect their social status, reputation, and physical safety (Juvonen & Galvan 2008, Salmivalli 2010).[…] When peers do not challenge bullies’ aggressive behaviors, bullying is maintained and even reinforced by the peer collective. (165)

Applying Juvonen & Graham’s ideas (2014) to fashion may help reveal some central issues on the psychopolitics of everyday fashion. We may see how indirect or relational aggression in the social dynamics of bullying elevates the aggressor. It may also help us see also how fashion plays part in raising the popularity of the “cool” bully: he or she is “in” and the group surrounding the aggressor is most likely his or her peers (or “in-group”) – affirming the aesthetic domination of the bully by already having submitted to the sartorial codes of the group. The simple victim is the one who stands out as different, but even more provoking may be the ones who are on equal level, but refuse to submit, or the ones who seek access to the “in-group.” Here, the act of bullying may become something of rite of passage to come out “cool” on the other side: just think of the typical humiliating frat-rituals. The master-of-ceremonies (or grey-eminence behind the rituals) is often the “cool” kid waging to control access to the in-group.

It may be easy to think of bullying as something that “bad” people do, but not only do they feel good about themselves, the audience agrees to what they do too – often reinforcing the feeling of belonging to the right group. Clothes is one of the many ways to show belonging to the group, but also signaling the submission to the taste of the group, and indirectly, to the “cool” leader of the group.

Under the “shallowness” fashion can become a uniform that reinforces the affirmation of both group and obedience to the “cool” leader.


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