Deviance (sociology)

Deviance (sociology)
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Deviance in a sociological context describes actions or behaviors that violate cultural norms including formally-enacted rules (e.g., crime) as well as informal violations of social norms (e.g., rejecting folkways and mores). It is the purview of sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and criminologists to study how these norms are created, how they change over time and how they are enforced.


Deviance as a violation of social norms

Norms are the specific behavioral standards, ways in which people are supposed to act, paradigms for predictable behavior in society. They are not necessarily moral, or even grounded in morality; in fact, they are just as often pragmatic and, paradoxically, irrational. (A great many of what we call manners, having no logical grounds, would make for good examples here.) Norms are rules of conduct, not neutral or universal, but ever changing; shifting as society shifts; mutable, emergent, loose, reflective of inherent biases and interests, and highly selfish and one-sided. They vary from class to class, and in the generational "gap." They are, in other words, contextual.

Deviance can be described as a violation of these norms. Deviance is a failure to conform with culturally reinforced norms. This definition can be interpreted in many different ways. Social norms are different in one culture as opposed to another. For example, a deviant act can be committed in one society or culture that breaks a social norm there, but may be considered normal for another culture and society. Some acts of deviance may be criminal acts, but also, according to the society or culture, deviance can be strictly breaking social norms that are intact.

Viewing deviance as a violation of social norms, sociologists have characterized it as "any thought, feeling or action that members of a social group judge to be a violation of their values or rules";[1] "violation of the norms of a society or group";[2] "conduct that violates definitions of appropriate and inappropriate conduct shared by the members of a social system";[3] "the departure of certain types of behavior from the norms of a particular society at a particular time";[4] and "violation of certain types of group norms [... where] behavior is in a disapproved direction and of sufficient degree to exceed the tolerance limit of the community."[5]

Deviance as reactive construction

Deviance is concerned with the process whereby actions, beliefs or conditions (ABC) come to be viewed as deviant by others. Deviance can be observed by the negative, stigmatizing social reaction of others towards these phenomena. Criminal behaviour, such as theft, can be deviant, but other crimes attract little or no social reaction, and cannot be considered deviant (e.g., violating copyright laws by downloading music on the internet). Some beliefs in society will attract negative reaction, such as racism and homonegativity or alternatively even race-mixing or homosexuality, but that depends on the society. People may have a condition or disease which makes them treated badly by others, such as having HIV, dwarfism, facial deformities, or obesity. Deviance is relative to time and place because what is considered deviant in one social context may be non-deviant in another (e.g., fighting during a hockey game vs. fighting in a nursing home). Killing another human is considered wrong except when governments permit it during warfare or self-defense. The issue of social power cannot be divorced from a definition of deviance because some groups in society can criminalize the actions of another group by using their influence on legislators.[6]


There are three broad sociological classes describing deviant behaviour, namely structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism and conflict theory.


Social integration is the attachment to groups and institutions, while social regulation is the adherence to the norms and values of the society. Those who are very integrated fall under the category of "altruism" and those who are very unintegrated fall under "egoism." Similarly, those who are very regulated fall under "fatalism" and those who are very unregulated fall under "anomie". Durkheim's strain theory attributes social deviance to extremes of the dimensions of the social bond. Altruistic suicide (death for the good of the group), egoistic suicide (death for the removal of the self due to or justified by the lack of ties to others), and anomic suicide (death due to the confounding of self-interest and societal norms) are the three forms of suicide that can happen due to extremes. Likewise, individuals may commit crimes for the good of an individual's group, for the self due to or justified by lack of ties, or because the societal norms that place the individual in check no longer have power due to society's corruption.

Merton's strain theory

Mertons social strain theory.svg

Robert K. Merton discussed deviance in terms of goals and means as part of his strain/anomie theory. Where Durkheim states that anomie is the confounding of social norms, Merton goes further and states that anomie is the state in which social goals and the legitimate means to achieve them do not correspond. He postulated that an individual's response to societal expectations and the means by which the individual pursued those goals were useful in understanding deviance. Specifically, he viewed collective action as motivated by strain, stress, or frustration in a body of individuals that arises from a disconnection between the society's goals and the popularly used means to achieve those goals. Often, non-routine collective behavior (rioting, rebellion, etc.) is said to map onto economic explanations and causes by way of strain. These two dimensions determine the adaptation to society according to the cultural goals, which are the society's perceptions about the ideal life, and to the institutionalized means, which are the legitimate means through which an individual may aspire to the cultural goals.

Merton described 5 types of deviance in terms of the acceptance or rejection of social goals and the institutionalised means of achieving them:

Conformists accept society's goals and the socially acceptable means of achieving them (e.g.: monetary success is gained through hard work). Merton claims that conformists are mostly middle class people in middle class jobs who have been able to access the opportunities in society such as a better education to achieve monetary success through hard work. Innovators accept society's goals, but reject socially acceptable means of achieving them. (e.g.: monetary success is gained through crime). Merton claims that innovators are mostly those who have been socialised with similar world views to conformists, but who have been denied the opportunities they need to be able to legitimately achieve society's goals. Ritualists reject society's goals, but accept society's institutionalised means. Ritualists are most commonly found in dead-end, repetitive jobs, where they are unable to achieve society's goals but still adhere to society's means of achievement and social norms. Retreatists reject society's goals and the legitimate means to achieve them. Merton sees them as true deviants, as they commit acts of deviance to achieve things that do not always go along with society's values. Rebels reject society's goals and legitimate means to achieve them, and instead create new goals and means to replace those of society, creating not only new goals to achieve but also new ways to achieve these goals that other rebels will find acceptable.

Symbolic interactionism

As political movements come to terms with their "terror of adolescence," the debates seem to coalesce around the suffering of those who are victims of violent crime. The fear of crime that seems to be forever increasing is a powerful personal and political emotion. Ironically, the fear of kids in Canada has been fuelled by two phenomena that are largely the result of business as usual. First, part of the problem has been the increased visibility of young people in public places. As industry "rationalizes" production by reducing employment costs, youth unemployment rises, as high as 30% in some areas in Canada. Simply put, more youth have increasingly more idle time and the work that is available is poorly paid, bereft of benefits, and offers little in terms of meaningful apprenticeship. The typical employee at fast food chains is the adolescent, the typical wage is at or just above minimum wage, the work is typically hard and quite dangerous, and the typical benefits package is nonexistent. Furthermore, the building of centralized shopping centers is not done with community solidarity in mind, but is merely the result of profit considerations. That adolescents gather in such places is neither anathema to profit, nor is it discouraged by private interests. Yet the presence of youth in places such as shopping malls fuels the panic that kids are loitering with intent.

Second, people gain their images and opinions about the nature and extent of crime through the media. In Canada, much of our vicarious experience with youth crime is filtered through television. Television news, much of which teeters on the edge between fact and fiction, is highly sensational, selective to time and place, and focuses primarily on the bad. I argue below that such depictions are not based on reality, but rather on the wants of a presumed audience. All forms of news accounts, though they are mandated to be based on an objective reality, are largely based on consumer demand.

What we are left with, then, is a gulf between reality and perception. The reality is that youth are mostly disenfranchised from the democratic process at all levels of governance. They are disadvantaged in the labor market and have few services available to them unlike the adult world. When they do break the law, they victimize other youth who are like them. Furthermore, youth crime has not increased significantly, although the prosecution of youth crime has.

Sutherland's differential association

In his differential association theory, Edwin Sutherland posited that criminals learn criminal and deviant behaviors and that deviance is not inherently a part of a particular individual's nature. Also, he argues that criminal behavior is learned in the same way that all other behaviors are learned, meaning that the acquisition of criminal knowledge is not unique compared to the learning of other behaviors.

Sutherland outlined some very basic points in his theory, such as the idea that the learning comes from the interactions between individuals and groups, using communication of symbols and ideas. When the symbols and ideas about deviation are much more favorable than unfavorable, the individual tends to take a favorable view upon deviance and will resort to more of these behaviors.

Criminal behavior (motivations and technical knowledge), as with any other sort of behavior, is learned. Some basic assumptions include:

  • Learning in interaction using communication within intimate personal groups.
  • Techniques, motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes are all learned.
  • Excess of definitions favorable to deviation.
  • Legitimate and illegitimate behavior both express the same general needs and essential values.

Neutralization theory

Gresham Sykes and David Matza's neutralization theory explains how deviants justify their deviant behaviors by providing alternative definitions of their actions and by providing explanations, to themselves and others, for the lack of guilt for actions in particular situations.

There are five major types of neutralization:

  • Denial Of Responsibility: the deviant believes s/he was helplessly propelled into the deviance, and that under the same circumstances, any other person would resort to similar actions
  • Denial Of Injury: the deviant believes that the action caused no harm to other individuals or to the society, and thus the deviance is not morally wrong
  • Denial Of The Victim: the deviant believes that individuals on the receiving end of the deviance were deserving of the results due to the victim's lack of virtue or morals
  • Condemnation Of The Condemners: the deviant believes enforcement figures or victims have the tendency to be equally deviant or otherwise corrupt, and as a result, are hypocrites to stand against
  • Appeal To Higher Loyalties: the deviant believes that there are loyalties and values that go beyond the confines of the law; morality, friendships, income, or traditions may be more important to the deviant than legal boundaries

Labeling theory

Frank Tannenbaum and Howard S. Becker created and developed labelling theory, which is a core facet of symbolic interactionism, and often referred to as Tannenbaum's "dramatization of evil." Becker believed that "social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance."

Labeling is a process of social reaction by the "social audience,"(stereotyping) the people in society exposed to, judging and accordingly defining (labeling) someone's behaviour as deviant or otherwise. It has been characterized as the "invention, selection, manipulation of beliefs which define conduct in a negative way and the selection of people into these categories [....]"[7]

Labeling theory, consequently, suggests that deviance is caused by the deviant's being labeled as morally inferior, the deviant's internalizing the label and finally the deviant's acting according to that specific label(in other words, you label the "deviant" and they act accordingly). As time goes by, the "deviant" takes on traits that constitute deviance by committing such deviations as conform to the label(so you as the audience have the power to not label them and you have the power to stop the deviance before it ever occurs by not labeling them) . Individual and societal preoccupation with the label, in other words, leads the deviant individual to follow a self-fulfilling prophecy of abidance to the ascribed label.

This theory, while very much symbolically-interactionist, also has elements of conflict theory, as the dominant group has the power to decide what is deviant and acceptable, and enjoys the power behind the labeling process. An example of this is a prison system that labels people convicted of theft, and because of this they start to view themselves as by definition thieves, incapable of changing. "From this point of view," as Howard S. Becker has written,

deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an "offender". The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.[8]

In other words, "Behaviour only becomes deviant or criminal if defined and interfered as such by specific people in [a] specific situation."[9] It is important to note the salient fact that society is not always correct in its labeling, often falsely identifying and misrepresenting people as deviants, or attributing to them characteristics which they do not have. In legal terms, people are often wrongly accused, yet many of them must live with the ensuant stigma (or conviction) for the rest of their lives.

On a similar note, society often employs double standards, with some sectors of society enjoying favouritism. Certain behaviours in one group are seen to be perfectly acceptable, or can be easily overlooked, but in another are seen, by the same audiences, as abominable.

Primary and secondary deviation

Edwin Lemert developed the idea of primary and secondary deviation as a way to explain the process of labeling. Primary deviance is any general deviance before the deviant is labeled as such. Secondary deviance is any action that takes place after primary deviance as a reaction to the institutional identification of the person as a deviant.

When an actor commits a crime (primary deviance), however mild, the institution will bring social penalties down on the actor. However, punishment does not necessarily stop crime, so the actor might commit the same primary deviance again, bringing even harsher reactions from the institutions. At this point, the actor will start to resent the institution, while the institution brings harsher and harsher repression. Eventually, the whole community will stigmatize the actor as a deviant and the actor will not be able to tolerate this, but will ultimately accept his or her role as a criminal, and will commit criminal acts that fit the role of a criminal.

Primary And Secondary Deviation is what causes people to become harder criminals. Primary deviance is the time when the person is labeled deviant through confession or reporting. Secondary deviance is deviance before and after the primary deviance. Retrospective labeling happens when the deviant recognizes his acts as deviant prior to the primary deviance, while prospective labeling is when the deviant recognizes future acts as deviant. The steps to becoming a criminal are:

  1. Primary deviation.
  2. Social penalties.
  3. Secondary deviation.
  4. Stronger penalties.
  5. Further deviation with resentment and hostility towards punishers.
  6. Community stigmatizes the deviant as a criminal. Tolerance threshold passed.
  7. Strengthening of deviant conduct because of stigmatizing penalties.
  8. Acceptance as role of deviant or criminal actor.

Control theory

A theory that stresses how weak bonds between the individual and society free people to deviate. By contrast, strong bonds make deviance costly. This theory asks why do people refrain from deviant or criminal behavior, instead of why people commit deviant or criminal behavior, according to Travis Hirschi. The control theory developed when norms emerge to deter deviant behavior. Without this "control" deviant behavior would happen more often. This leads to conformity and groups. People will conform to a group when they believe they have more to gain from conformity than by deviance. If a strong bond is achieved there will be less chance of deviance than if a weak bond has occurred. Hirschi argued a person follows the norms because they have a bond to society. The bond consists of four positively correlated factors: commitment, attachment, belief, and involvement. When any of these bonds are weakened or broken one is more likely to act in defiance. Hirschi worked with this idea of a General Theory of Crime with his partner Michael R. Gottfredson. Gottfredson and Hirschi in 1990 founded their Self-Control Theory. It stated that acts of force and fraud are undertaken in the pursuit of self interest and self control. A deviant act is based on a criminals own self control of themselves.

More contemporary control theorists such as Michael Jordan take the theory into a new light, suggesting labor market experiences not only affect the attitudes and the "stakes" of individual workers, but can also affect the development of their children's views toward conformity and cause involvement in delinquency. This is still an ongoing study as he has found a significant relationship between parental labor market involvement and children's delinquency, but has not empirically demonstrated the mediating role of parents' or children's attitude. The research will try to show a correlation between labor market stratification and individual behaviour.[citation needed]

Conflict theory

In sociology, conflict theory states that society or an organization functions so that each individual participant and its groups struggle to maximize their benefits, which inevitably contributes to social change such as political changes and revolutions. Deviant behaviors are actions that do not go along with the social institutions as what cause deviance. The institution's ability to change norms, wealth or status come into conflict with the individual. The legal rights of poor folks might be ignored, middle class are also accept; they side with the elites rather than the poor, thinking they might rise to the top by supporting the status quo. Conflict theory is based upon the view that the fundamental causes of crime are the social and economic forces operating within society. However, it explains white-collar crime less well.

This theory also states that the powerful define crime. This raises the question: for whom is this theory functional? In this theory, laws are instruments of oppression: tough on the powerless and less tough on the powerful.

Karl Marx

Marx himself did not write about deviant behavior but he wrote about alienation amongst the proletariat - as well as between the proletariat and the finished product - which causes conflict, and thus deviant behaviour.

Many Marxist writers have used the theory of the capitalist state in their arguments. For example, Steven Spitzer utilized the theory of Bourgeoisie control over social junk and social dynamite; George Rusche was known to present analysis of different punishments correlated to the social capacity and infrastructure for labor. He theorized that throughout history, when more labor is needed, the severity of punishments decreases and the tolerance for deviant behavior increases. Jock Young, another Marxist writer, presented the idea that the modern world did not approve of diversity, but was not afraid of social conflict. The late modern world, however, is very tolerant of diversity[citation needed] but is extremely afraid of social conflicts, which is an explanation given for the political correctness movement. The late modern society easily accepts difference, but it labels those that it does not want as deviant and relentlessly punishes and persecutes. Hhhhhh

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault believed that torture had been phased out from modern society due to the dispersion of power; there was no need anymore for the wrath of the state on a deviant individual. Rather, the modern state receives praise for its fairness and dispersion of power which, instead of controlling each individual, controls the mass.

He also theorized that institutions control people through the use of discipline.[10]"Race and ethnicity could be relevant to an understanding of prison rule breaking if inmates bring their ecologically structured beliefs regarding legal authority, crime and deviance into the institutional environment." For example, the modern prison (more specifically the panopticon) is a template for these institutions because it controls its inmates by the perfect use of discipline.

Foucault theorizes that, in a sense, the postmodern society is characterized by the lack of free will on the part of individuals. Institutions of knowledge, norms, and values, are simply in place to categorize and control humans.

Biological theories of deviance

Praveen Attri claims genetic reasons to be largely responsible for social deviance. The Italian school of criminology contends that biological factors may contribute to crime and deviance. Cesare Lombroso was among the first to research and develop the Theory of Biological Deviance which states that some people are genetically predisposed to criminal behavior. He believed that criminals were a product of earlier genetic forms. The main influence of his research was Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution. Lombroso theorized that people were born criminals or in other words, less evolved humans who were biologically more related to our more primitive and animalistic urges. From his research, Lombroso took Darwin's Theory and looked at primitive times himself in regards to deviant behaivors. He found that the skeletons that he studied mostly had low foreheads and protruding jaws. These characteristics resembled primitive beings such as Homo Neanderthalensis. He stated that little could be done to cure born criminals because their characteristics were biologically inherited. Over time, most of his research was disproved. His research was refuted by Pearson and Charles Goring. They discovered that Lombroso had not researched enough skeletons to make his research thorough enough. When Pearson and Goring researched skeletons on their own they tested many more and found that the bone structure had no relevance in deviant behavior. The statistical study that Charles Goring published on this research is called "The English Convict".[11][12]

Other theories

The Classical school of criminology comes from the works of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. Beccaria assumed a utilitarian view of society along with a social contract theory of the state. He argued that the role of the state was to maximize the greatest possible utility to the maximum number of people and to minimize those actions that harm the society. He argued that deviants commit deviant acts (which are harmful to the society) because of the utility it gives to the private individual. If the state were to match the pain of punishments with the utility of various deviant behaviors, the deviant would no longer have any incentive to commit deviant acts. (Note that Beccaria argued for just punishment; as raising the severity of punishments without regard to logical measurement of utility would cause increasing degrees of social harm once it reached a certain point.)

Functions of deviance

  • Deviant acts can be assertions of individuality and identity, and thus as rebellions against group norms

Deviance affirms cultural values and norms, it also clarifies moral boundaries, promotes social unity by creating an us/them dichotomy,encourages social change,and provides jobs to control deviance.[13] "Certain factors of personality are theoretically and empirically related to workplace deviance,such as work environment, and individual differences."[14]"Situated in the masculinity and deviance literature, this article examines a "deviant" masculinity, that of the male sex worker, and presents the ways men who engage in sex work cope with the job."

Cross-cultural communication as deviance

Cross-cultural communication is a field of study that looks at how people from different cultural backgrounds endeavor to communicate. All cultures make use of nonverbal communication but its meaning varies across cultures. In one particular country, a non-verbal sign may stand for one thing, and mean something else in another culture or country. The relation of cross-cultural communication with deviance is that a sign may be offensive to one in one culture and mean something completely appropriate in another. This is an important field of study because as educators, business employees, or any other form of career that consists of communicating with ones from other cultures you; need to understand non-verbal signs and their meanings, so you avoid offensive conversation, or misleading conversation. Below is a list of non-verbal gestures that are appropriate in one country, and that would be considered deviant in another.

Asian United States Canada United States United States
Avoiding eye contact is considered polite The O.K. signal expresses approval Thumbs up-used for hitch hiking, or approving of something Someone may whistle when happy. Whistling can express approval, as in cheering at a public event.
United States Japan United States Nigeria Europe
When saying hello or talking to someone it is impolite to not look directly at the person. The O.K. signal means that you are asking for money. Using your middle finger is very offensive. Used in place of inappropriate language. This is a rude gesture in Nigeria. Whistling may be a sign of disapproval at public events.

These are just a few non-verbal cross-cultural communication signs of which one should be aware. Cross-Cultural communication can make or break a business deal, or even prevent an educator from offending a student. Different cultures have different methods of communication, so it is important to understand the cultures of others.

Shaving of heads after death of a family member is more common in some African cultures.

Proponents of the theory of a Southern culture of honor hold that violent behavior which would be considered criminal in most of the United States, may be considered a justifiable response to insult in a Southern culture of honor.[15]

Types of deviance

Taboo is a strong social form of behavior considered deviant by a majority. To speak of it publicly is condemned, and therefore, almost entirely avoided. The term “taboo” comes from the Tongan word “tapu” meaning "under prohibition", "not allowed", or "forbidden". Some forms of taboo are prohibited under law and transgressions may lead to severe penalties. Other forms of taboo result in shame, disrespect and humiliation. Taboo is not universal but does occur in the majority of societies. Some of the examples of include murder, rape, incest, or child molestation.

Howard Becker, a labeling theorist, touched basis with different types of deviant behaviors. There are four different types of deviant behaviors falling into different categories. One of the four is falsely accusing an individual which falls under others perceiving you to be obtaining obedient or deviant behaviors. Pure deviance,which falls under perceiving one to participate in deviant and rule-breaking behavior, is also apart of the four types of deviant behaviors listed above. Conforming, which falls under not being perceived as deviant, but merely participating in the social norms that are distributed within societies,can also be placed into the category with pure deviance and falsely accused. Lastly is secret deviance which is when the individual is not perceived as deviant or participating in any rule-breaking behaviors.

Deviance in literature/film

Many works of literature offer allegories illustrating the conflict between character and society, in which the character does not conform to the society's norms and is subsequently alienated, ostracized, socially sanctioned, discriminated against or persecuted.

See also


  • MB Clinard and RF Meier, Sociology of deviant behavior. 1968.
  • Simon Dinitz, Russell Rowe Dynes and Alfred Carpenter Clarke, Deviance: studies in definition, management, and treatment‎. 1975.
  • JD Douglas and FC Waksler FC, The sociology of deviance: an introduction. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.
  • Gary F. Jensen, The path of the devil: early modern witch hunts. Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  • Donal E. J. MacNamara and Andrew Karmen, DEVIANTS: Victims or Victimizers? Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1983.
  • Doug Thomson, Crime and deviance‎. 2004.
  • Pratt, Travis. "Reconsidering Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime: Linking the Micro- and Macro-level Sources of Self-control and Criminal Behavior Over the Life-course"


  1. ^ Douglas and Waksler 1982: 10.
  2. ^ Thomson 2004: 2.
  3. ^ Jensen 2007: 11.
  4. ^ Dinitz, Dynes and Clark 1969: 4.
  5. ^ Clinard 1968: 28.
  6. ^ Goode, E. (2004). Deviant Behavior (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
  7. ^ Jensen 2001: 88.
  8. ^ Becker 1963.
  9. ^ Thomson 2004: 12.
  10. ^ Steiner, Benjamin,and John Wooldredge."The relevance of inmate race/ethnicity versus population composition for understanding prison rule violations." "Punishment & Society". 11(2009):459–489.
  11. ^ "The English Convict"
  12. ^ Stark, Rodney. 2007. ;Sociology: Tenth Edition. Biological Theories of Deviance (pp. 182–185). Belmont, CA. Thomson Wadsworth
  13. ^ Hastings, Stephanie E. and Thomas A. O'Neil. "Predicting workplace deviance using broad versus narrow personality variables." Personality & Individual Differences.47 (2009):289–293.
  14. ^ Kong, Travis S. K. More Than a Sex Machine: Accomplishing Masculinity Among Chinese Male Sex Workers in the Hong Kong Sex Industry.Deviant Behavior. 30 (2009)715–745.
  15. ^ John Shelton Reed, "One South: An Ethnic Approach To Regional Culture" (1982).

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