The Trouble With Evil

Social Control at the Edge of Morality

By Edwin M. Lemert

Subjects: Criminology
Series: SUNY series in Deviance and Social Control
Paperback : 9780791432440, 185 pages, March 1997
Hardcover : 9780791432433, 185 pages, February 1997

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Table of contents



1. The Sociological Perspective on Evil

2. Evil as Experience

3. Some Realities of Social Control

4. The Primitive Witch Hunt

5. Evil and Social Control in Melanesia

6. Sorcery as a Legal Remedy

7. Conclusion



A broadly based analysis of good and evil grounded in examination of the conceptual, philosophical, and theoretical bases of the study of evil within the social sciences.


Edwin Lemert investigates the possibility that a consideration of evil will provide new power to explanations of deviance. He links classic studies of witchcraft and sorcery to the wider problem of social control. The search for prototypical evil (a view that Lemert rejects) turns to an investigation of sorcery because sorcery involves selfish interest and intentions on the part of the sorcerer, who uses cryptic means to harm a victim that he/she dislikes.

The author then examines comparatively the conditions that produce evil actions, and social reactions to them, in a variety of societies; and he reviews explanations that previous scholars have offered for the presence and consequences of evil. A tangential consequence of this method is that the work takes on a strong Melanesian flavor, because so many of the classic studies of sorcery were conducted in that culture area. Lemert argues that the fragmented nature of political organization, rapid shifts in political alliance, and the frequency of competitive rituals involving food combine in Melanesia to produce conditions that favor the development of whole cultures that celebrate forms of animosity and violence.

Edwin M. Lemert is former Professor of Sociology at the University of California-Davis. He is the author of Instead of Court: Diversion in Juvenile Justice; Social Action and Legal Change; Social Pathology: A Systematic Approach to the Theory of Sociopathic Behavior; Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control; and co-author of Offenders in the Community. He is the 1996 recipient of the Western Society of Criminology Paul Tappan Award.


"Lemert's method provides two significant conclusions: evil is a special kind of anti-social act that is not subject to ordinary social controls; and sorcery has not been demonstrated to be a form of 'social control' at all, no matter how common that argument may be in the literature—certainly it is not remotely similar to law, as it is known in modern urban societies." — William G. Davis, Professor Emeritus, University of California-Davis

"The book is an interesting addition to our understanding of a concept—evil—that has received relatively little attention from students of deviance. Conceptualizing evil as a product of social interaction and emergent definitional processes moves our understanding of the (highly value laden) concept of evil away from comparatively fruitless efforts to derive a more concrete operational definition." — Malcolm D. Holmes, University of Wyoming