Moral Entrepreneurs Essay

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Moral entrepreneurs are individuals committed to the establishment and enforcement of rules against behavior they define as deviant. As such, they are especially visible and active agents of social control. Howard S. Becker, who coined the term moral entrepreneurs and introduced it in his classic 1963 book Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, identified two kinds of moral entrepreneurs: rule creators, or those who work to bring about new prohibitions; and rule enforcers, or those who work to enforce prohibitions already in place.

Rule creators generally express the conviction that some kind of threatening social evil exists that must be combated. This is most true of “crusading reformers,” described by Becker as “the prototype” of rule creators. Having perceived a social evil, crusading reformers take vigorous action against it. They do so by drawing public attention to the behavior they condemn; inciting people to high levels of concern and outrage over it; and convincing legislators that it is necessary to establish rules against it. Examples of rule creators abound. In Outsiders, Becker describes those active in the early 20th-century American Prohibition movement as classic examples of moral crusaders. Additional examples can be found in the many activists at work today against drunk driving, tobacco use, other kinds of drug use, abortion, pornography, child abuse, rock and rap music lyrics, environmental damage, cruelty to animals, illegal immigration, and many other behaviors.

If moral crusaders succeed in their efforts to create new rules, further social control of the acts they condemn falls to rule enforcers such as the police. As a group, rule enforcers typically do not exhibit as much moral zeal as rule creators. For them, the enforcement of rules is a job that must be performed day in and day out, and they tend to have less invested in the actual content of the rules. If the rules change, their enforcement efforts change with them. Becker suggests that it is more important to most rule enforcers to receive respect and cooperation from the people whose behavior they control, and to establish to the public that there is an ongoing need for their efforts. Nonetheless, rule enforcers can demonstrate considerable moral fervor in taking action against certain offenders under certain circumstances.

The sociology of social control seeks to predict and explain the behavior of both rule creators and rule enforcers. Donald Black (1993), a prominent sociologist in the field, sees the creation and application of explicit rules as characteristics of moralism, or the tendency to treat people as enemies. Among the social conditions that he identifies as sources of moralism are status superiority and social remoteness between the agents of social control and the people whose behavior they regulate. Thus, the most likely targets of both rule creators and rule enforcers are those who are socially inferior, culturally different, and personally unknown. It is their behavior that is most likely to seem objectionable and to call forth the strenuous efforts of moral entrepreneurs.


  1. Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press.
  2. Black, Donald. 1993. “Making Enemies.” Pp. 144-57 in The Social Structure of Right and Wrong. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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