Sociology of Deviance Research Paper Topics

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In sociology deviance is defined as the violation of a social norm which is likely to result in censure or punishment for the violator. Behind this seemingly simple and clear cut definition, however, lurks a swarming host of controversies. A perusal of course curricula verifies that most sociologists who teach a course on deviance divide the field into two distinctly different perspectives: constructionist approaches and explanatory theories. The constructionist approach sees deviance as ‘‘subjectively problematic,’’ that is, ‘‘in the eye of the beholder,’’ and takes as its primary task an understanding of how judgments of deviance are put together, and with what consequences. Explanatory theories regard deviance as ‘‘objectively given,’’ that is, a syndrome like entity with more or less clear cut, identifiable proper ties whose causal etiology can be explicated by the social scientist. Each perspective has its own mission, agenda, enterprise, and methodology. And though these two approaches define deviance in superficially similar ways, their definitions point to sharply divergent universes of meaning. The enterprises in which these perspectives are engaged are in fact linked only by the objectively similar nature of their subject matter; conceptually and theoretically, they are worlds apart.

45 Sociology of Deviance Research Paper Topics

  • Abominations of the body
  • Absolutist definitions of deviance
  • Addiction and dependency
  • Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
  • Body modification
  • Collective Deviance
  • Constructionist perspectives on deviance
  • Crime and deviance
  • Criminalization of deviance
  • Death of the sociology of deviance?
  • Deinstitutionalization
  • Deviance processing agencies
  • Deviance research methods
  • Deviance theories
  • Deviant Accounts
  • Deviant beliefs/cognitive deviance
  • Deviant careers
  • Deviant identity
  • Deviant subcultures
  • Explanatory theories of deviance
  • Female sex work as deviance
  • Medicalization of deviance
  • Mental disorder
  • Moral boundaries and deviance
  • Moral entrepreneur
  • Moral panics
  • New left realism
  • Normative definitions of deviance
  • Organizational deviance
  • Peacemaking
  • Positive deviance
  • Positivist theories of deviance
  • Poverty and disrepute
  • Reactivist definitions of deviance
  • Sexual deviance
  • Social control
  • Transgression
  • What is deviance?

Theories of Deviance

Since its inception as a discipline, sociology has studied the causes of deviant behavior, examining why some persons conform to social rules and expectations and why others do not. Typically, sociological theories of deviance reason that aspects of individuals’ social relationships and the social areas in which they live and work assist in explaining the commission of deviant acts. This emphasis on social experiences, and how they contribute to deviant behavior, contrasts with the focus on the internal states of individuals taken by disciplines such as psychology and psychiatry.

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Sociological theories are important in understanding the roots of social problems such as crime, violence, and mental illness and in explaining how these problems may be remedied. By specifying the causes of deviance, the theories reveal how aspects of the social environment influence the behavior of individuals and groups. Further, the theories suggest how changes in these influences may yield changes in levels of deviant behaviors. If a theory specifies that a particular set of factors cause deviant behavior, then it also implies that eliminating or altering those factors in the environment will change levels of deviance. By developing policies or measures that are informed by sociological theories, government agencies or programs focused on problems like crime or violence are more likely to yield meaningful reductions in criminal or violent behavior.

Despite their importance, deviance theories disagree about the precise causes of deviant acts. Some look to the structure of society and groups or geographic areas within society, explaining deviance in terms of broad social conditions in which deviance is most likely to flourish. Others explain deviant behavior using the characteristics of individuals, focusing on those characteristics that are most highly associated with learning deviant acts. Other theories view deviance as a social status conferred by one group or person on others, a status that is imposed by persons or groups in power in order to protect their positions of power. These theories explain deviance in terms of differentials in power between individuals or groups.

This topic reviews the major sociological theories of deviance. It offers an overview of each major theory, summarizing its explanation of deviant behavior. Before reviewing the theories, however, it may prove useful to describe two different dimensions of theory that will structure our discussion. The first of these, the level of explanation, refers to the scope of the theory and whether it focuses on the behavior and characteristics of individuals or on the characteristics of social aggregates such as neighborhoods, cities, or other social areas. Micro-level theories stress the individual, typically explaining deviant acts in terms of personal characteristics of individuals or the immediate social context in which deviant acts occur. In contrast, macro-level theories focus on social aggregates or groups, looking to the structural characteristics of areas in explaining the origins of deviance, particularly rates of deviance among those groups.

Theories of deviance also vary in relation to a second dimension, causal focus. This dimension divides theories into two groups, those that explain the social origins of norm violations and those explaining societal reactions to deviance. Social origin theories focus on the causes of norm violations. Typically, these theories identify aspects of the social environment that trigger norm violations; social conditions in which the violations are most likely to occur. In contrast, social reaction theories argue that deviance is often a matter of social construction, a status imposed by one person or group on others and a status that ultimately may influence the subsequent behavior of the designated deviant. Social reaction theories argue that some individuals and groups may be designated or labeled as deviant and that the process of labeling may trap or engulf those individuals or groups in a deviant social role.

These two dimensions offer a four-fold scheme for classifying types of deviance theories. The first, macro-level origin theories, focus on the causes of norm violations associated with broad structural conditions in the society. These theories typically examine the influences of such structural characteristics of populations or communities like the concentration of poverty, levels of community integration, or the density and age distribution of the population on areal rates of deviance. The theories have clear implications for public policies to reduce levels of deviance. Most often, the theories highlight the need for altering structural characteristics of society, such as levels of poverty, that foster deviant behavior.

The second, micro-level origin theories focus on the characteristics of the deviant and his or her immediate social environment. These theories typically examine the relationship between a person’s involvement in deviance and such characteristics as the influence of peers and significant others, persons’ emotional stakes in conformity, their beliefs about the propriety of deviance and conformity, and their perceptions of the threat of punishments for deviant acts. In terms of their implications for public policy, micro-level origin theories emphasize the importance of assisting individuals in resisting negative peer influences while also increasing their attachment to conforming lifestyles and activities.

A third type of theories may be termed micro-level reaction theories. These accord importance to those aspects of interpersonal reactions that may seriously stigmatize or label the deviant and thereby reinforce her or his deviant social status. According to these theories, reactions to deviance may have the unintended effect of increasing the likelihood of subsequent deviant behavior. Because labeling may increase levels of deviance, micro-level reaction theories argue that agencies of social control (e.g. police, courts, correctional systems) should adopt policies of ”nonintervention.”

Finally, macro-level reaction theories emphasize broad structural conditions in society that are associated with the designation of entire groups or segments of the society as deviant. These theories tend to stress the importance of structural characteristics of populations, groups, or geographic areas, such as degrees of economic inequality or concentration of political power within communities or the larger society. According to macro-level reaction theories, powerful groups impose the status of deviant as a mechanism for controlling those groups that represent the greatest political, economic, or social threat to their position of power. The theories also imply that society can only achieve reduced levels of deviance by reducing the levels of economic and political inequality in society.

The rest of this article is divided into sections corresponding to each of these four ”types” of deviance theory. The article concludes with a discussion of new directions for theory—the development of explanations that cut across and integrate different theory types and the elaboration of existing theories through greater specification of the conditions under which those theories apply.

Macro-Level Origins of Deviance

Theories of the macro-level origins of deviance look to the broad, structural characteristics of society, and groups within society, to explain deviant behavior. Typically, these theories examine one of three aspects of social structure. The first is the pervasiveness and consequences of poverty in modern American society. Robert Merton’s (1938) writing on American social structure and Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin’s (1960) subsequent work on urban gangs laid the theoretical foundation for this perspective. Reasoning that pervasive materialism in American culture creates unattainable aspirations for many segments of the population, Merton (1964) and others argue that there exists an environmental state of ”strain” among the poor. The limited availability of legitimate opportunities for attaining material wealth forces the poor to adapt through deviance, either by achieving wealth through illegitimate means or by rejecting materialistic aspirations and withdrawing from society altogether.

According to this reasoning, deviance is a byproduct of poverty and a mechanism through which the poor may attain wealth, albeit illegitimately. Thus, ”strain” theories of deviance interpret behaviors such as illegal drug selling, prostitution, and armed robbery as innovative adaptations to blocked opportunities for legitimate economic or occupational success. Similarly, the theories interpret violent crimes in terms of the frustrations of poverty, as acts of aggression triggered by those frustrations (Blau and Blau 1982). Much of the current research in this tradition is examining the exact mechanisms by which poverty and economic inequality influence rates of deviant behavior.

Although once considered a leading theory of deviance, strain theory has come under criticism for its narrow focus on poverty as the primary cause of deviant behavior. Recent efforts have sought to revise and extend the basic principles of the theory by expanding and reformulating ideas about strain. Robert Agnew (1992) has made the most notable revisions to the theory. His reformulation emphasizes social psychological, rather than structural, sources of strain. Agnew also broadens the concept of strain, arguing that poverty may be a source of strain, but it is not the only source. Three sources of strain are important: failure to achieve positively valued goals, removal of positively valued stimuli, and confrontation with negative stimuli. The first type of strain, failure to achieve positively valued goals, may be the result of a failure to live up to one’s expectations or aspirations. Strain may also result if an individual feels that he or she is not being treated in a fair or just manner. The removal of a positively valued stimulus, such as the death of a family member or the loss of a boyfriend or girlfriend, can also result in strain. Finally, strain can also be produced by the presentation of negative stimuli, such as unpleasant school experiences. Thus, although this reformulation of strain theory retains the notion that deviance is often the result of strain, the concept of strain is broadened to include multiple sources of strain.

The second set of macro-level origin theories examine the role of culture in deviant behavior. Although not ignoring structural forces such as poverty in shaping deviance, this class of theories reasons that there may exist cultures within the larger culture that endorse or reinforce deviant values; deviant subcultures that produce higher rates of deviance among those segments of the population sharing subcultural values.

Subcultural explanations have their origin in two distinct sociological traditions. The first is writing on the properties of delinquent gangs that identifies a distinct lower-class culture of gang members that encourages aggression, thrill seeking, and antisocial behavior (e.g., Miller 1958). The second is writing on cultural conflict that recognizes that within complex societies there will occur contradictions between the conduct norms of different groups. Thorsten Sellin (1938) suggests that in heterogeneous societies several different subcultures may emerge, each with its own set of conduct norms. According to Sellin, the laws and norms applied to the entire society do not necessarily reflect cultural consensus but rather the values and beliefs of the dominant social groups.

Subcultural theories emerging from these two traditions argue that deviance is the product of a cohesive set of values and norms that favors deviant behavior and is endorsed by a segment of the general population. Perhaps most prominent among the theories is Marvin Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti’s (1967) writing on subcultures of criminal violence. Wolfgang and Ferracuti reason that there may exist a distinct set of beliefs and expectations within the society; a subculture that promotes and encourages violent interactions. According to Wolfgang and Ferracuti, this violent subculture is pervasive among blacks in the United States and may explain extremely high rates of criminal homicide among young black males.

Although Wolfgang and Ferracuti offer little material specifying the subculture’s precise causes, or empirical evidence demonstrating the pervasiveness of subcultural beliefs, other writers have extended the theory by exploring the relationship between beliefs favoring violence and such factors as the structure of poverty in the United States (Curtis 1975; Messner 1983), the history of racial oppression of blacks (Silberman 1980), and ties to the rural South and a southern subculture of violence (Gastil 1971; Erlanger 1974). Even these writers, however, offer little empirical evidence of violent subcultures within U.S. society.

A third class of theories about the macro-level origins of deviance began with the work of sociologists at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. Unlike strain and subcultural theories, these stress the importance of the social integration of neighborhoods and communities—the degree to which neighborhoods are stable and are characterized by a homogenous set of beliefs and values—as a force influencing rates of deviant behavior. As levels of integration increase, rates of deviance decrease. Based in the early work of sociologists such as Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, the theories point to the structure of social controls in neighborhoods, arguing that neighborhoods lacking in social controls are ”disorganized,” that is, areas in which there is a virtual vacuum of social norms. It is in this normative vacuum that deviance flourishes. Therefore, these theories view deviance as a property of areas or locations rather than specific groups of people.

Early writers in the ”disorganization” tradition identified industrialization and urbanization as the causes of disorganized communities and neighborhoods. Witnessing immense growth in eastern cities such as Chicago, these writers argued that industrial and urban expansion create zones of disorganization within cities. Property owners move from the residential pockets on the edge of business and industrial areas and allow buildings to deteriorate in anticipation of the expansion of business and industry. This process of natural succession and change in cities disrupts traditional mechanisms of social control in neighborhoods. As property owners leave transitional areas, more mobile and diverse groups enter. But the added mobility and diversity of these groups translate into fewer primary relationships—families and extended kinship and friendship networks. And as the number of primary relationships decline, so will informal social controls in neighborhoods. Hence, rates of deviance will rise.

Recent writing from this perspective focuses on the mechanisms by which specific places in urban areas become the spawning grounds for deviant acts (Bursik and Webb 1982; Bursik 1984; and others). For example, Rodney Stark (1987) argues that high levels of population density are associated with particularly low levels of supervision of children. With little supervision, children perform poorly in school and are much less likely to develop ”stakes in conformity”—that is, emotional and psychological investments in academic achievement and other conforming behaviors. Without such stakes, children and adolescents are much more likely to turn to deviant alternatives. Thus, according to Stark, rates of deviance will be high in densely populated areas because social controls in the form of parental supervision are either weak or entirely absent.

Similarly, Robert Crutchfield (1989) argues that the structure of work opportunities in areas may have the same effect. Areas characterized primarily by secondary-sector work opportunities— low pay, few career opportunities, and high employee turnover—may tend to attract and retain persons with few stakes in conventional behavior—a ”situation of company” in which deviance is likely to flourish.

Recent writing from the disorganization perspective has also taken the form of ethnographies; qualitative studies of urban areas and the deviance producing dynamics of communities. As Sullivan (1989, p. 9) states, ethnographies describe the community ”as a locus of interaction, intermediate between the individual and the larger society, where the many constraints and opportunities of the total society are narrowed to a subset within which local individuals choose.” At the heart of Sullivan’s argument is the idea that social networks in neighborhoods are important in understanding whether individuals are capable of finding meaningful opportunities for work. For example, youth were less likely to turn to crime in those neighborhoods where they could take advantage of family and neighborhood connections to blue collar jobs. Because of the greater employment opportunities in these neighborhoods, even youth who become involved in crime were less likely to persist in high-risk criminal behaviors.

Similarly, Jay MacLeod (1995) attempts to explain how the aspirations of youth living in urban areas have been ”leveled,” or reduced to the point where the youths have little hope for a better future. In an analysis of two urban gangs, MacLeod argues that the youths’ family and work experiences, along with their relationships with their peers, help explain why a predominantly white gang had lower aspirations and engaged in more delinquent and antisocial behavior than the other gang, predominantly comprised of African Americans. According to MacLeod, the parents of white youth were much less likely to discipline their children or to encourage them to achieve and do well in school. Also, white youth had more experience on the job market than the African American youth. This contributed to a more pessimistic outlook and a lowering of their future aspirations.

Finally, MacLeod argues that the white youths’ immersion in a subculture, which emphasized rejecting the authority of the school, reinforced their negative attitudes to a much greater extent than the African American peer group.

In sum, theories of the macro-level origins of deviance argue that many of the causes of deviance may be found in the characteristics of groups within society, or in the characteristics of geographic areas and communities. They offer explanations of group and areal differences in deviance—for example, why some cities have relatively higher rates of crime than other cities or why blacks have higher rates of serious interpersonal violence than other ethnic groups. These theories make no attempt to explain the behavior of individuals or the occurrence of individual deviant acts. Indeed, they reason that deviance is best understood as a property of an area, community, or group, regardless of the individuals living in the area or community, or the individuals comprising the group.

The theories’ implications for public policy focus on the characteristics of geographic areas and communities that lead to deviance. The impact of change on neighborhoods, for example, can be reduced if the boundaries of residential areas are preserved. By preserving such boundaries, communities are less likely to become transitional neighborhoods that foster deviance and crime. Also, by maintaining residential properties people become invested in their own community, which helps foster the mechanisms of informal social control that make deviance less likely. Strengthening schools and other stabilizing institutions in neighborhoods, such as churches and community centers, can also contribute to a reduction in deviance. Finally, establishing networks for jobs and job placement in disadvantaged areas may increase the opportunities of employment among youth. If they succeed in increasing employment, the networks should decrease the chances that youth will turn to careers in crime.

Micro-Level Origins of Deviance

Many explanations of deviance argue that its causes are rooted in the background or personal circumstances of the individual. Micro-level origin theories have developed over the past fifty years, identifying mechanisms by which ordinarily conforming individuals may become deviant. These theories assume the existence of a homogeneous, pervasive set of norms in society and proceed to explain why persons or entire groups of persons violate the norms. There exist two important traditions within this category of theories. The first tradition involves ”social learning theories”—explanations that focus on the mechanisms through which people learn the techniques and attitudes favorable to committing deviant acts. The second tradition involves ”social control theories”—explanations that emphasize factors in the social environment that regulate the behavior of individuals, thereby preventing the occurrence of deviant acts.

Edwin Sutherland’s (1947) theory of differential association laid the foundation for learning theories. At the heart of this theory is the assumption that deviant behavior, like all other behaviors, is learned. Further, this learning occurs within intimate personal groups—networks of family members and close friends. Thus, according to these theories individuals learn deviance from persons closest to them. Sutherland specified a process of differential association, reasoning that persons become deviant in association with deviant others. Persons learn from others the techniques of committing deviant acts and attitudes favorable to the commission of those acts. Further, Sutherland reasoned that persons vary in their degree of association with deviant others; persons regularly exposed to close friends and family members who held beliefs favoring deviance and who committed deviant acts would be much more likely than others to develop those same beliefs and commit deviant acts.

Sutherland’s ideas about learning processes have played a lasting role in micro-level deviance theories. Central to his perspective is the view that beliefs and values favoring deviance are a primary cause of deviant behavior. Robert Burgess and Ronald Akers (1966) and subsequently Akers (1985) extended Sutherland’s ideas, integrating them with principles of operant conditioning. Reasoning that learning processes may best be understood in terms of the concrete rewards and punishments given for behavior, Burgess and Akers argue that deviance is learned through associations with others and through a system of rewards and punishments, imposed by close friends and relatives, for participation in deviant acts. Subsequent empirical studies offer compelling support for elements of learning theory (Matsueda 1982; Akers et al. 1979; Matsueda and Heimer 1987).

Some examples may be useful at this point. According to the theory of differential association, juveniles develop beliefs favorable to the commission of delinquent acts and knowledge about the techniques of committing deviant acts from their closest friends, typically their peers. Thus, sufficient exposure to peers endorsing beliefs favoring deviance who also have knowledge about the commission of deviant acts will cause the otherwise conforming juvenile to commit deviant acts. Thus, if adolescent peer influences encourage smoking, drinking alcohol, and other forms of drug abuse— and exposure to these influences occurs frequently, over a long period of time, and involves relationships that are important to the conforming adolescent—then he or she is likely to develop beliefs and values favorable to committing these acts. Once those beliefs and values develop, he or she is likely to commit the acts.

The second class of micro-level origin theories, control theories, explores the causes of deviance from an altogether different perspective. Control theories take for granted the existence of a cohesive set of norms shared by most persons in the society and reason that most persons want to and will typically conform to these prevailing social norms. The emphasis in these theories, unlike learning theories, is on the factors that bond individuals to conforming lifestyles. The bonds act as social and psychological constraints on the individual, binding persons to normative conformity (Toby 1957; Hirschi 1969). People deviate from norms when these bonds to conventional lifestyles are weak, and hence, when they have little restraining influence over the individual. Among control theorists, Travis Hirschi (1969) has made the greatest contributions to our knowledge about bonding processes and deviant behavior. Writing on the causes of delinquency, he argued that four aspects of bonding are especially relevant to control theory: emotional attachments to conforming others, psychological commitments to conformity, involvements in conventional activities, and beliefs consistent with conformity to prevailing norms.

Among the most important of the bonding elements are emotional attachments individuals may have to conforming others and commitments to conformity—psychological investments or stakes people hold in a conforming lifestyle. Those having weak attachments—that is, people who are insensitive to the opinions of conforming others— and who have few stakes in conformity, in the form of commitments to occupation or career and education, are more likely than others to deviate (see, e.g., Paternoster et al. 1983; Thornberry and Christenson 1984; Liska and Reed 1985). In effect, these individuals are ”free” from the constraints that ordinarily bond people to normative conformity. Conversely, individuals concerned about the opinions of conforming others and who have heavy psychological investments in work or school will see the potential consequences of deviant acts—rejection by friends or loss of a job—as threatening or costly, and consequently will refrain from those acts.

A related concern is the role of sanctions in preventing deviant acts. Control theorists like Hirschi reason that most people are utilitarian in theirjudgments about deviant acts, and thus evaluate carefully the risks associated with each act. Control theories typically maintain that the threat of sanctions actually prevents deviant acts when the risks outweigh the gains. Much of the most recent writing on sanctions and their effects has stressed the importance of perceptual processes in decisions to commit deviant acts (Gibbs 1975, 1977; Tittle 1980; Paternoster et al. 1982, 1987; Piliavin et al. 1986; Matsueda, Piliavin, and Gartner 1988). At the heart of this perspective is the reasoning that individuals perceiving the threat of sanctions as high are much more likely to refrain from deviance than those perceiving the threat as low, regardless of the actual level of sanction threat.

Writing from the social control perspective attempts to build on and extend the basic assumptions and propositions of control theory. Michael Gottfredson, in conjunction with Hirschi, has developed a general theory of crime that identifies ”low self-control,” as opposed to diminished social control, as the primary cause of deviant behavior (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1987; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Arguing that all people are inherently self-interested, pursuing enhancement of personal pleasure and avoiding pain, Gottfredson and Hirschi suggest that most crimes, and for that matter most deviant acts, are the result of choices to maximize pleasure, minimize pain, or both.

Crimes occur when opportunities to maximize personal pleasure are high and when the certainty of painful consequences is low. Further, people who pursue short-term gratification with little consideration for the long-term consequences of their actions are most prone to criminal behavior. In terms of classical control theory, these are individuals who have weak bonds to conformity or who disregard or ignore the potentially painful consequences of their actions. They are ”relatively unable or unwilling to delay gratification; they are indifferent to punishment and the interests of others” (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1987, pp. 959-960).

Building on traditional control theory, Charles Tittle (1995) reasons that it helps explain why individuals conform, but it also helps to explain why they engage in deviant behavior. Tittle (1995, p. 135) argues that ”the amount of control to which an individual is subject, relative to the amount of control he or she can exercise, determines the probability of deviance occurring as well as the type of deviance likely to occur.” Conformity results when individuals are subjected to and exert roughly equal amounts of control—there is ”control balance.” According to Tittle, however, individuals who are subjected to more control than they exert will be motivated to engage in deviance in order to escape being controlled by others.

Robert Sampson and John Laub (1993) have also expanded on the basic propositions of control theory. In their research, Sampson and Laub focus on stability and change in the antisocial behavior of individuals as they grow from juveniles to adults. Sampson and Laub argue that family, school, and peer relationships influence the likelihood of deviant behavior among juveniles. In particular, Sampson and Laub argue that the structure of the family (e.g., residential mobility, family size) affects family context or process (e.g., parental supervision, discipline), which, in turn, makes deviance among children more or less likely. Many adolescent delinquents grow up to become adult criminals because their juvenile delinquency makes the formation of adult social bonds to work and family less likely. Despite this continuity in antisocial behavior from adolescence to adulthood, however, Sampson and Laub argue that many juvenile delinquents do not commit deviant acts as adults because they develop adult social bonds, such as attachment to a spouse or commitment to a job.

In sum, micro-level origin theories look to those aspects of the individual’s social environment that influence her or his likelihood of deviance. Learning theories stress the importance of deviant peers and other significant individuals, and their impact on attitudes and behaviors favorable to the commission of deviant acts. These theories assume that the social environment acts as an agent of change, transforming otherwise conforming individuals into deviants through peer influences. People exposed to deviant others frequently and sufficiently, like persons exposed to a contagious disease who become ill, will become deviant themselves. Control theories avoid this ”contagion” model, viewing the social environment as a composite of controls and restraints cementing the individual to a conforming lifestyle. Deviance occurs when elements of the bond— aspects of social control—are weak or broken, thereby freeing the individual to violate social norms. Sanctions and the threat of sanctions are particularly important to control theories, a central part of the calculus that rational actors use in choosing to commit or refrain from committing deviant acts.

The policy implications of micro-level origin theories are obvious. If, as learning theories argue, deviance is learned through association with deviant peers, then the way to eliminate deviance is to assist youths in resisting deviant peer influences and helping them to develop attitudes that disapprove of deviant behavior. Control theories, on the other hand, suggest that deviance can be reduced with programs that help families develop stronger bonds between parents and children. Control theory also implies that programs that help youths develop stronger commitments to conventional lines of activity and to evaluate the costs and benefits of deviant acts will also result in a reduction of problematic behavior.

Micro-Level Reactions to Deviance

Unlike micro-level origin theories, micro-level reaction theories make no assumptions about the existence of a homogeneous, pervasive set of norms in society. These theories take an altogether different approach to explaining deviant behavior, viewing deviance as a matter of definition; a social status imposed by individuals or groups on others. Most argue that there exists no single pervasive set of norms in society and that deviant behavior may best be understood in terms of norms and their enforcement. These theories typically stress the importance of labeling processes—the mechanisms by which acts become defined or labeled as ”deviant—and the consequences of labeling for the person so labeled. Many of these theories are concerned with the development of deviant lifestyles or careers; long-term commitments to deviant action.

One of the most important writers in this tradition is Howard Becker (1963). Becker argues that deviance is not a property inherent in any particular form of behavior but rather a property conferred on those behaviors by audiences witnessing them. Becker (1963, p. 9) notes that ”. . . 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 that label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.” Thus, Becker and others in this tradition orient the study of deviance on rules and sanctions, and the application of labels. Their primary concern is the social construction of deviance—that is, how some behaviors and classes of people come to be defined as ”deviant” by others observing and judging the behavior.

Building on the idea that deviance is a property conferred on behavior that is witnessed by a social audience, Becker (1963) also developed a simple typology of deviant behavior. The dimensions upon which the typology is based are whether or not the individual is perceived as deviant and whether or not the behavior violates any rule. Conforming behavior is behavior that does not violate any rules and is not perceived as deviant. Individuals in the opposite scenario, in which the person both violates rules and is perceived by others as deviant, Becker labeled pure deviants. Some individuals, according to Becker, may be perceived as deviant, even though they have not violated any rules. Becker identified these individuals as the falsely accused. Finally, the secret deviant is one who has violated the rules, but, nonetheless, is not perceived by others as being deviant.

Equally important is the work of Edwin Lemert (1951). Stressing the importance of labeling to subsequent deviant behavior, he argues that repetitive deviance may arise from social reactions to initial deviant acts. According to Lemert (1951, p. 287), deviance may often involve instances where ”a person begins to employ his deviant behavior. . . as a means of defense, attack or adjustment to the. . . problems created by the consequent social reactions to him.” Therefore, a cause of deviant careers is negative social labeling; instances where reactions to initial deviant acts are harsh and reinforce a ”deviant” self-definition. Such labeling forces the individual into a deviant social role, organizing his or her identity around a pattern of deviance that structures a way of life and perpetuates deviant behavior (Becker 1963; Schur 1971, 1985).

Perhaps the most significant developments in this tradition have contributed to knowledge about the causes of mental illness. Proponents of micro-level reaction theories argue that the label ”mental illness” can be so stigmatizing to those labeled, especially when mental-health professionals impose the label, that they experience difficulty returning to nondeviant social roles. As a result, the labeling process may actually exacerbate mental disorders. Former mental patients may find themselves victims of discrimination at work, in personal relationships, or in other social spheres (Scheff 1966). This discrimination, and the widespread belief that others devalue and discriminate against mental patients, may lead to self-devaluation and fear of social rejection by others (Link 1982, 1987). In some instances, this devaluation and fear may be associated with demoralization of the patient, loss of employment and personal income, and the persistence of mental disorders following treatment (Link 1987).

Hence, micro-level reaction theories reason that deviant behavior is rooted in the process by which persons define and label the behavior of others as deviant. The theories offer explanations of individual differences in deviance, stressing the importance of audience reactions to initial deviant acts. However, these theories make no attempt to explain the origins of the initial acts (Scheff 1966). Rather, they are concerned primarily with the development and persistence of deviant careers.

Micro-level reaction theories have very different implications for public policy than macro- and micro-level origins theories. Micro-level reaction theories argue that unwarranted labeling can lead to deviant careers. In effect, the reaction to deviance can cause deviant behavior to escalate. Thus, in order to reduce deviance, agencies of social control must adopt policies of nonintervention. Rather than being formally sanctioned and labeled as deviant, nonintervention policies must encourage diversion and deinstitutionalization. Formal sanctioning must be highly selective, focusing only on the most serious and threatening deviant acts.

Macro-Level Reactions to Deviance

The final class of theories looks to the structure of economic and political power in society as a cause of deviant behavior. Macro-level reaction theories—either Marxist or other conflict theories— view deviance as a status imposed by dominant social classes to control and regulate populations that threaten political and economic hegemony. Like micro-level reaction theories, these theories view deviance as a social construction and accord greatest importance to the mechanisms by which society defines and controls entire classes of behavior and people as deviant in order to mediate the threat. However, these theories reason that the institutional control of deviants has integral ties to economic and political order in society.

Marxist theories stress the importance of the economic structure of society and begin with the assumption that the dominant norms in capitalist societies reflect the interests of the powerful economic class; the owners of business. But contemporary Marxist writers (Quinney 1970, 1974, 1980; Spitzer 1975; Young 1983) also argue that modern capitalist societies are characterized by large ”problem populations”—people who have become displaced from the workforce and alienated from the society. Generally, the problem populations include racial and ethnic minorities, the chronically unemployed, and the extremely impoverished. They are a burden to the society and particularly to the capitalist class because they create a form of social expense that must be carefully controlled if the economic order is to be preserved.

Marxist theories reason that economic elites use institutions such as the legal, mental-health, and welfare systems to control and manage society’s problem populations. In effect, these institutions define and process society’s problem populations as deviant in order to ensure effective management and control. In societies or communities characterized by rigid economic stratification, elites are likely to impose formal social control in order to preserve the prevailing economic order.

Conflict theories stress the importance of the political structure of society and focus on the degree of threat to the hegemony of political elites, arguing that elites employ formal social controls to regulate threats to political and social order (Turk 1976; Chambliss 1978; Chambliss and Mankoff 1976). According to these theories, threat varies in relation to the size of the problem population, with large problem populations substantially more threatening to political elites than small populations. Thus, elites in societies and communities in which those problem populations are large and perceived as especially threatening are more likely to process members of the problem populations as deviants than in areas where such problems are small.

Much of the writing in this tradition has addressed the differential processing of people defined as deviant. Typically, this writing has taken two forms. The first involves revisionist histories linking the development of prisons, mental asylums, and other institutions of social control to structural changes in U.S. and European societies. These histories demonstrate that those institutions often target the poor and chronically unemployed independent of their involvement in crime and other deviant acts, and thereby protect and serve the interests of dominant economic and political groups (Scull 1978; Rafter 1985).

A second and more extensive literature includes empirical studies of racial and ethnic disparities in criminal punishments. Among the most important of these studies is Martha Myers and Suzette Talarico’s (1987) analysis of the social and structural contexts that foster racial and ethnic disparities in the sentencing of criminal offenders. Myers and Talarico’s research, and other studies examining the linkages between community social structure and differential processing (Myers 1987, 1990; Peterson and Hagan 1984; Bridges, Crutchfield, and Simpson 1987; Bridges and Crutchfield 1988), demonstrate the vulnerability of minorities to differential processing during historical periods and in areas in which they are perceived by whites as serious threats to political and social order. In effect, minorities accused of crimes during these periods and in these geographic areas are perceived as threats to white hegemony, and therefore become legitimate targets for social control.

In addition to studying the connections between community social structure and the differential processing of racial and ethnic minorities, researchers have also begun to examine how court officials’ perceptions of offenders can influence disparities in punishments. Bridges and Steen (1998), for example, show how court officials’ perceptions of white and minority youths differ, and how these different perceptions contribute to different recommendations for sentencing. Probation officers often attribute the offenses of minority youths to internal characteristics of the youths (i.e., aspects of their personality), while attributing the offenses of white youths to external characteristics (i.e., aspects of their environments). As a result of these differential attributions, minority youths are perceived as more threatening, more at risk for re-offending than whites and more likely to receive severe recommendations for sentences.

Thus, macro-level reaction theories view deviance as a by-product of inequality in modern society, a social status imposed by powerful groups on those who are less powerful. Unlike micro-level reaction theories, these theories focus on the forms of inequality in society and how entire groups within the society are managed and controlled as deviants by apparatuses of the state. Like those theories, however, macro-level reaction theories make little or no attempt to explain the origins of deviant acts, claiming instead that the status of ”deviant” is, in large part, a social construction designed primarily to protect the interests of the most powerful social groups. The primary concern of these theories is explicating the linkages between inequality in society and inequality in the labeling and processing of deviants.

Since macro-level reaction theories view deviance as a status imposed by powerful groups on those with less power, the most immediate policy implication of these theories is that imbalances in power and inequality must be reduced in order to reduce levels of deviance and levels of inequality in the sanctioning of deviance. More effective monitoring of government agencies that are used to control problem populations, such as the criminal justice system, can also help to reduce the disproportionate processing of less powerful groups, such as racial minorities, as deviant.

New Theoretical Directions

A recurring issue in the study of deviance is the contradictory nature of many deviance theories. The theories often begin with significantly different assumptions about the nature of human behavior and end with significantly different conclusions about the causes of deviant acts. Some scholars maintain that the oppositional nature of these theories—the theories are developed and based on systematic rejection of other theories (Hirschi 1989)—tends toward clarity and internal consistency in reasoning about the causes of deviance. However, other scholars argue that this oppositional nature is intellectually divisive—acceptance of one theory precludes acceptance of another—and ”has made the field seem fragmented, if not in disarray” (Liska, Krohn, and Messner 1989, p. 1).

A related and equally troublesome problem is the contradictory nature of much of the scientific evidence supporting deviance theories. For each theory, there exists a literature of studies that supports and a literature that refutes major arguments of the theory. And although nearly every theory of deviance may receive empirical confirmation at some level, virtually no theory of deviance is sufficiently comprehensive to withstand empirical falsification at some other level. The difficult task for sociologists is discerning whether and under what circumstances negative findings should be treated as negating a particular theory (Walker and Cohen 1985).

In recent years, these two problems have renewed sociologists’ interest in deviance theory and, at the same time, suggested new directions for the development of theory. The oppositonal nature of theories has spawned interest in theoretical integration. Many scholars are dissatisfied with classical theories, arguing that their predictive power is exceedingly low (see Elliott 1985; Liska, Krohn, and Messner 1989). Limited to a few key explanatory variables, any one theory can explain only a limited range and amount of deviant behavior. And because most scholars reason that the causes of deviance are multiple and quite complex, most also contend that it may be ”necessary to combine different theories to capture the entire range of causal variables” (Liska, Krohn, and Messner 1989, p. 4).

Because it combines the elements of different theories, the new theory will have greater explanatory power than theories from which it was derived. However, meaningful integration of deviance theories will require much more than the simple combination of variables. Scholars must first reconcile the oppositional aspects of theories, including many of their underlying assumptions about society, the motivations of human behavior, and the causes of deviant acts. For example, learning theories focus heavily on the motivations for deviance, stressing the importance of beliefs and values that ”turn” the individual to deviant acts. In contrast, control theories accord little importance to such motivations, examining instead those aspects of the social environment that constrain people from committing deviant acts. Reconciling such differences is never an easy task, and in some instances may be impossible (Hirschi 1979).

The problem of contradictory evidence suggests a related but different direction for deviance theory. Theories may vary significantly in the conditions—termed scope conditions—under which they apply (Walker and Cohen 1985; Tittle 1975; Tittle and Curran 1988). Under some scope conditions, theories may find extensive empirical support, and under others virtually none. For instance, macro-level origin theories concerned with the frustrating effects of poverty on deviance may have greater applicability to people living in densely populated urban areas than those living in rural areas. The frustration of urban poverty may be much more extreme than in rural areas, even though the actual levels of poverty may be the same. As a result, the frustrations of urban poverty may be more likely to cause deviant adaptations in the form of violent crime, drug abuse, and vice than those of rural poverty. In this instance, ”urbanness” may constitute a condition that activates strain theories linking poverty to deviance. Obviously, the same theories simply may not apply in rural areas or under other conditions.

Effective development of deviance theory will require much greater attention to the specification of such scope conditions. Rather than combining causal variables from different theories as integrationists would recommend, this approach to theory development encourages scholars to explore more fully the strengths and limitations of their own theories. This approach will require more complete elaboration of extant theory, explicitly specifying those circumstances under which each theory may be meaningfully tested and thus falsified. The result will be a greater specification of each theory’s contribution to explanations of deviant behavior.

These two directions have clear and very different implications for the development of deviance theory. Theoretical integration offers overarching models of deviant behavior that cut across classical theories, combining different levels of explanation and causal focuses. If fundamental differences between theories can be reconciled, integration is promising. The specification of scope conditions offers greater clarification of existing theories, identifying those conditions under which each theory most effectively applies. Although this direction promises no general theories of deviance, it offers the hope of more meaningful and useful explanations of deviant behavior.


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social deviance essay topic

The Social Deviance: Types and Forms Essay

Deviance can be described as any form of behavior that goes against the cultural values, norms beliefs or practices. Social deviance can thus be defined as the violation of a society’s norms

Deviance is clearly evident in various settings within a society and can be divided into two with the first type being formal deviance that refers to the abuse of a society’s laws that have been enacted formally for example child sexual abuse, murder, robbery, incest, drug and substance and assault. (Erdwin H. Jr. p 54).

The second type of deviance is known as informal deviance which refers to the violation or abuse of social norms, beliefs or practices that have not been formally enacted as laws. These vary from culture to culture and may include simple habits like that of picking the nose and loud belching to serious behaviors that include tattooing, polygamy and homosexuality. (Erdwin H. Jr. p 54).

Erich Goode defines extreme deviance as the serious behavior, physical characteristics or beliefs that casts people outside a given society through stigmatization, discrimination or even exclusion from a particular society. An action or trait is regarded as deviant when it becomes unacceptable or unpleasant to many people. According to Erich, those involved in extreme deviance always want to associate with others with similar behavior hence creating a subculture that further highlights or strengthen their identity. Examples of such cultures of deviance include belief in white supremacy, involvement in the Earth First movement and alien abduction. These present ideologies are deemed by the society as abnormal. (Erich Goode, p 105).

Alien abduction involves an individual’s claim of having had a distressing encounter or meeting with an alien. The alien is described as a short grey-whitish skinned cat looking creature that has thin hands, this serves as a stereotype for a white man describing a black or even a Hispanic criminal, a concept that describes America where crime is defined by race. The individual mainly referred to as an alien abductee withdraws from the public and instead gets affiliated with groups that hold similar beliefs. Alien abductees alienate themselves from the society to form their own different society and culture.

White supremacy is believing that the white race is superior to every other races. This term can sometimes be used to describe the political philosophy that explains the great dominance of the whites in political and social issues. White supremacism involves a group of people that have formed their own culture different from that of the American values, practices and morals. This group believes that violence is the only way to ensure ethnic purification or cleansing that clears out the rest of the races and lives a pure white race in the society.

White supremacists share different values from those of the society, they form a subculture that gives them a sense of identity and that supports their beliefs hence reducing the rejection they receive from the ordinary Americans. According to some sociologists however, white supremacy includes megre beliefs that have been totally exaggerated by a large number of the white American majority. (Fredrickson George, p 163). The sociologists explain four white supremacy subcultures that include the Ku Klux Klan, the racist skinhead groups, the militant racists group and the neo Nazis. These four distinct groups have very distinctive beliefs in relation to race, religion, patriotism and the Jewish society. Though each subculture’s beliefs, recruitment procedures, commitment and political affiliations are different from other subcultures, they all believe that the human race is genetically as well as biologically different. White supremacy can be clearly identified as a major factor that results into racial discrimination and oppression whereby the non-whites are seen as outcasts. The creativity movement is an example of white supremacist. The movements define a person’s race in terms of religion and believe that a holy war based on race will at one time occur with an aim of eliminating all the Jews and other races from the world. (Fredrickson, George, p 162).

The Earth First movement is another extremely deviant group whose major influence was the anarchist political philosophy back in the early 1990’s. Earth first movement aims at protecting the earth by use of any possible means. The movement is not involved in any form of democracy and is instead involved in the damage and destruction of property of individuals involved in ‘the destruction of the earth’. These individuals include ranchers, loggers and farmers mainly those who practice genetically modified farming. The acts of destruction and damage are mainly through arson, sabotage and assault. The movement achieved its target of protecting mother earth through the destruction of other people’s property. It is only a small group of people with their own distinct ideologies and beliefs and whose acts are not only against the law but also cause harm to other members of the society.

Obesity is a condition whereby an individual’s weight is composed of more than 30% body fat. The condition that has turned out to be an epidemic in America is currently being viewed as a deviant behavior within various societies mainly due to the reaction it escalates from the society and also due to its various characteristics and traits that are similar to those of other socially deviant behaviors. One such trait is the fact that the condition is as a result of substance abuse that leads to severe effects just like alcohol or drug abuse or misuse. Children that are obese face a lot of stigmatization as well as victimization and as a result have a very low self esteem.

Also similar to other forms of deviant behaviors are the various factors that determine the obesity rate, these factors include age, sex and ethnicity of a child or individual. Parents and family are however regarded as those responsible for the weight and condition of a child as they play a huge role in determining a child’s diet, eating habits and lifestyle. (Tolle, Jr., Glen, p 4).

Obesity can be defined as a deviant behavior for various reasons. Apart from being unhealthy, obesity is extensively unacceptable in the United States. Obese people are seen as lazy, greedy and obscene and are highly discriminated against. For one to be termed as a deviant one has to have broken the cultural norms and beliefs hence is judged from his or her deeds. Norms are guidelines to societal behaviors. Obesity is a norm that is mainly based on traditional beliefs and manners that sometime depict an obese person as an outcast or abnormal. The attitudes, conditions and behaviors that label individuals as deviant all lead to obesity. Certain behaviors that result in obesity include inactiveness and excessive eating while on the other hand, a person’s or society’s attitude dictates ones perception on obesity. (Adler and Adler, p 50-51).

The sociological labeling theory of deviance can be used to define an obese person. Acquiring the obese status gives one the deviant status which can later be reversed and in turn bring back an individual within the accepted norm though this does not necessarily remove the deviant label. The society is harsher to individuals who acquire back their lost weight while they greatly cheer those who completely shed off any excess weight. It is very difficult for one who has regained lost weight to get rid of the deviant obese label. Those who completely shed off excess weight on the other hand are termed as positive deviants who the society looks at as role models.

Secondary and primary deviances have been described as steps in acquiring the deviant identity. Primary deviance involves the violation of the various norms that do not necessarily affect ones self esteem and role in the society. The person at this point does not show any obesity signs but is overeating hence feels the same as any other normal individual. Later, the person becomes visibly obese and is labeled by the society as obese. Secondary deviance is the stage where by an individual alienates himself from the society but later internalizes his or her identity and begins to freely interact with others with a condition similar to his. At this point, one has a very low self esteem.

Structuralism and interactionism theories can be used to explain the deviant obese behavior. Structuralism explains the positive role of deviance while interactionism explains the role of role models , peers and peer groups in influencing behavior whereby a person identifies him or herself with others in the society.

The American norm that defines beauty as thinness will continue to label obesity as deviance and the obese as deviant as long as it exists. Changing this norm is hence the only solution to building the self concept of the obese. (Adler and Adler, 245).

Engagement in premarital sex is an act that is greatly discouraged by parents hence regarded as a deviant behavior. Seventy seven percent of adults above the age of twenty one years view sex outside marriage as an abuse of the socially acceptable norms. Clinard’s definition of deviant behavior as the behavior that is viewed by a large number of people as wrong and intolerable can be used to support this. (Clinard, p 65).

Premarital sex can be termed as a deviant behavior similar to that of bhang smoking. Many parents and guardians view the behavior as one that is intolerable despite the fact that the behavior is normatively acceptable to the youths and is actively practiced. In this case parents and their children greatly differ in labeling premarital sex. Clinard’s definition depicts sex outside marriage as a deviant behavior from the adult’s view point. (Clinard, p 66).

Sexual child abuse is another extreme deviant behavior. In this form of child abuse a child is used to sexually an adult or an elder adolescent. Sexual abuse does not only involve physical sexual contact but also an adult’s indecent exposure of their sexual organs to the child, forcing the child to take part in sexual actions or behavior, displaying pornographic materials to a child or involving the child in pornographic activities. Incest is sexual abuse by a relative or member of the family.

Child sexual abuse as a deviant behavior has harmful effects on the victim. Such effects include trauma, stress and depression, physical harm especially to the genitalia, anxiety, possible low self esteem in adulthood and alienation whereby a child wants to stay alone. Incest is known to severely traumatize a child psychologically particularly if it is done by a parent. (Erdwin H. Jr. p 127).

Sexual abuse does not only violate the cultural norms but also the law meaning that any sex offenders are liable to be prosecuted in the court of law. This aspect further supports sexual abuse of children as extreme deviance.

From the discussion, it is evident that deviant behavior can only be termed as deviant by the audience members of the society or the victims but not those who are involved in the deviant acts. The subculture formed by the deviants can be seen as a justification for their actions.

Works Cited

Adler Patricia, Adler Peter. Constructions of Deviance Social Power, Context, and Interaction. 3rd ed. United States: Wadsworth, 2000.

Fredrickson, George (1981). White Supremacy . Oxford shire: Oxford University Press.

Clinard, Marshall (1961). Sociology of Deviant Behavior . New York: Rinehart Inc.

Erdwin H. Jr. (1980). Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control . New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Erich Goode and D. Angus Vail (2008). Extreme Deviance . New York: Pine Forge Press.

Tolle, Jr., Glen. “The Emerging of Obese Children as Social Deviance” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the AMERICAN SOCIETY OF CRIMINOLOGY, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atlanta, Georgia, 2007. Web.

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  • Aggression, Violence and Deviance
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  • Society Power: Ending a Deviant Career
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  • Malasie: How to Know If You Have It
  • The Anorexia Nervosa as a Mental Illness
  • Psychology of Social Perception and Communication
  • Mental Health Stigma from American Perspective
  • Final Wishes Before Death

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5.2: Social Control and the Relativity of Deviance

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Learning Objectives

  • Define deviance, crime, and social control.
  • Understand why Émile Durkheim said deviance is normal.
  • Understand what is meant by the relativity of deviance.

Deviance is behavior that violates social norms and arouses negative social reactions. Some behavior is considered so harmful that governments enact written laws that ban the behavior. Crime is behavior that violates these laws and is obviously an important type of deviance that concerns many Americans.

The fact that both deviance and crime arouse negative social reactions reminds us that every society needs to ensure that its members generally obey social norms in their daily interaction. Social control refers to ways in which a society tries to prevent and sanction behavior that violates norms. Just as a society like the United States has informal and formal norms (see Chapter 2), so does it have informal and formal social control. Generally, informal social control is used to control behavior that violates informal norms, and formal social control is used to control behavior that violates formal norms. We typically decline to violate informal norms, if we even think of violating them in the first place, because we fear risking the negative reactions of other people. These reactions, and thus examples of informal social control, include, but are not limited to, anger, disappointment, ostracism, and ridicule. Formal social control in the United States typically involves the legal system (police, judges and prosecutors, corrections officials) and also, for businesses, the many local, state, and federal regulatory agencies that constitute the regulatory system.

Social control is never perfect, and so many norms and people exist that there are always some people who violate some norms. In fact, Émile Durkheim (1895/1962), a founder of sociology discussed in Chapter 1, stressed that a society without deviance is impossible for at least two reasons. First, the collective conscience (see Chapter 1) is never strong enough to prevent all rule breaking. Even in a “society of saints,” such as a monastery, he said, rules will be broken and negative social reactions aroused. Second, because deviance serves several important functions for society (which we discuss later in this chapter), any given society “invents” deviance by defining certain behaviors as deviant and the people who commit them as deviants. Because Durkheim thought deviance was inevitable for these reasons, he considered it a normal part of every healthy society.


Although deviance is normal in this regard, it remains true that some people are more likely than others to commit it. It is also true that some locations within a given society have higher rates of deviance than other locations; for example, U.S. cities have higher rates of violent crime than do rural areas. Still, Durkheim’s monastery example raises an important point about the relativity of deviance: whether a behavior is considered deviant depends on the circumstances in which the behavior occurs and not on the behavior itself. Although talking might be considered deviant in a monastery, it would certainly be considered very normal elsewhere. If an assailant, say a young male, murders someone, he faces arrest, prosecution, and, in many states, possible execution. Yet if a soldier kills someone in wartime, he may be considered a hero. Killing occurs in either situation, but the context and reasons for the killing determine whether the killer is punished or given a medal.

Deviance is also relative in two other ways. First, it is relative in place : a given behavior may be considered deviant in one society but acceptable in another society. Recall Chapter 2’s discussion of sexual behavior, where we saw that sexual acts condemned in some societies are often practiced in others. There we contrasted a small island off the coast of Ireland, where sex and nudity are considered disgusting, with another island in the South Pacific, where sexual activity is very common. We also saw that although many societies condemn homosexuality, in some societies homosexuality is actually fairly common.

Second, deviance is relative in time : a behavior in a given society may be considered deviant in one time period but acceptable many years later; conversely, a behavior may be considered acceptable in one time period but deviant many years later. In the late 1800s, many Americans used cocaine, marijuana, and opium, because they were common components of over-the-counter products for symptoms like depression, insomnia, menstrual cramps, migraines, and toothaches. Coca-Cola originally contained cocaine and, perhaps not surprisingly, became an instant hit when it went on sale in 1894 (Goode, 2008).

The relativity of deviance in all of these ways is captured in a famous statement by sociologist Howard S. Becker (1963, p. 9), who wrote several decades ago that deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules or sanctions to an “offender.” The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.

This insight raises some provocative possibilities for society’s response to deviance and crime. First, harmful behavior committed by corporations and wealthy individuals may not be considered deviant, perhaps because “respectable” people engage in them. Second, prostitution and other arguably less harmful behaviors may be considered very deviant because they are deemed immoral or because of bias against the kinds of people (poor and nonwhite) thought to be engaging in them. These considerations yield several questions that need to be answered in the study of deviance. First, why are some individuals more likely than others to commit deviance? Second, why do rates of deviance differ within social categories such as gender, race, social class, and age? Third, why are some locations more likely than other locations to have higher rates of deviance? Fourth, why are some behaviors more likely than others to be considered deviant? Fifth, why are some individuals and those from certain social backgrounds more likely than other individuals to be considered deviant and punished for deviant behavior? Sixth and last, but certainly not least, what can be done to reduce rates of violent crime and other serious forms of deviance? The sociological study of deviance and crime aims to answer all of these questions.

  • Deviance is behavior that violates social norms and arouses negative social reactions.
  • Crime is behavior that is considered so serious that it violates formal laws prohibiting such behavior.
  • Social control refers to ways in which a society tries to prevent and sanction behavior that violates norms.
  • Émile Durkheim believed that deviance is a normal part of every society.
  • Whether a behavior is considered deviant depends on the circumstances under which it occurs. Considerations of certain behaviors as deviant also vary from one society to another and from one era to another within a given society.

Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance . New York, NY: Free Press.

Durkheim, E. (1962). The rules of sociological method (Ed. S. Lukes). New York, NY: Free Press. (Original work published 1895)

Goode, E. (2008). Drugs in American society . New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.Today, of course, all three drugs are illegal.

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100 Deviance Research Topics & Essay Examples

📝 deviance research papers examples, 🏆 best deviance essay titles, 🎓 simple research topics about deviance, ❓ deviance research questions.

  • Gender Influence on Deviant Acts Psychology essay sample: The relation between gender and deviant behavior provides that the person's gender can be a factor contributing to their involvement in "anti-social activities."
  • Deviant Behavior Through the Social Norms' Concept Psychology essay sample: In the paper, deviant behavior is perceived as actions that do not comply with norms or standards officially or actually established in a particular society.
  • Deviant Behaviors and Its Types and Examples Psychology essay sample: Society will seek to either understand that behavior or avoid the behavior. It is important to note either way: a person will always get negative views from society.
  • Deviant Behavior: Workplace Bullying Psychology essay sample: This paper aims to explore workplace bullying in terms of conflict and labeling theories to better understand its causes and nature.
  • Destructive Behaviour Prevention Psychology essay sample: This essay seeks to briefly describe how to avoid destructive behaviours that affect human health in the short term or long-term.
  • Deviance and Crime in Colleges and Universities Psychology essay sample: The study will be examining the causes of this behavior and the possible impact on learners and other stakeholders.
  • The Deviant Behavior of Freshmen in College Psychology essay sample: Deviant behavior among freshmen is a serious problem which has to be handled. This behavior often leads to disease, pregnancy and fights that results in expulsion.
  • Becker’s Labeling Theory: Advantages and Disadvantages Psychology essay sample: This paper will examine and criticize Becker's labeling ideas in detail to demonstrate their advantages and disadvantages.
  • Drug Peddling: The Form of Social Deviance Psychology essay sample: This paper will highlight drug peddling as a form of social deviance and apply the strain theory to elucidate the formation of this behavior.
  • Positive Behavior Support Psychology essay sample: The paper states that deviant behavior is quite a big problem for teachers and students. This approach aims to develop a strategy for teachers.
  • Social Deviation Influence on Teenage Alcoholism Psychology essay sample: This paper will analyze the influence of social deviation on the development of adolescent alcoholism and consider this problem from a theoretical point of view.
  • Deviant Behavior, Crimes, and Justice: Perceptions and Reflections Psychology essay sample: The paper describes deviance as any conduct, trait, or belief that breaches social norms in a particular society or group.
  • Deviant Behavior Related to Stress and Strain Psychology essay sample: With the knowledge of new alternatives to self-destructing actions, people could adopt new behavior patterns and activate feelings of excitement and joy.
  • The Phenomenon of the Deviation Psychology essay sample: Deviation is a social phenomenon that is characterized by actions or behaviors that contradict or violate the norms of society.
  • What Role Does Deviance Play in Everyday Life? Psychology essay sample: Deviance is interpreted as a social issue since such conduct abuses the regulating assumptions of a defined group.
  • Conformity, Nonconformist Deviance and Learning Perspective Psychology essay sample: The three universal human nature methodologies are conformity, nonconformist deviance, and the learning perspective.
  • Gun Violence as Social Deviation Psychology essay sample: Gun violence, especially in the form of mass shootings, is promoted by a sense of hopelessness and hostility towards peers that seem to be more successful.
  • The Collective Behavior Deviations Psychology essay sample: The following paper provides an analysis of the collective behavior that deviates from society's normative conduct.
  • Can Deviation Lead to Progress? Psychology essay sample: In societies with settled norms, deviants are traditionally stigmatized and marginalized, however, their behavior plays a crucial role in historical development.
  • Disruptive Behavior in Primary School Psychology essay sample: This disorder includes manifestations of destructive, aggressive, oppositional, and antisocial behavior. DBD is associated in the long term with impaired communication with peers.
  • Deviant Behavior and the Commitment of Crime Psychology essay sample: Though deviance is considered to be something dangerous and is in some ways connected with committing crimes, deviant behavior is not the same thing as a crime.
  • The Concepts of Deviance and Crime Psychology essay sample: Deviations are defined as a divergence from socially accepted standards and norms. Crime is an act that must be criticized and punished by society.
  • The Positive Role of Social Deviance Psychology essay sample: The paper states that social deviance plays a positive role in society as it opens channels of discussion, inclusivity, freedom, and truth.
  • The Problem of Deviant Behavior: Case Description and Diagnoses Psychology essay sample: The specialists can observe the problem of deviant behavior in the described case, which requires professional approaches to develop specific forms of its implementation.
  • Deviance: Construction, Definition, Benefits, and Influence
  • Adult Deviance and Conduct Disorder
  • Theories and Perspectives on Crime and Deviance
  • Deviance Beyond the Conventional Norm
  • Individual and Social Influences That Lead to Deviations From the Dominant Group Norms
  • Deviance and Its Consequences
  • Groups and Deviance in the Society Socialization is the process of understanding the ideologies and norms of a society. It encompasses both teaching and learning.
  • The Relationship Between Depression, Abusive Supervision, and Organizational Deviance
  • Deviance: Abuse and Tertiary Victimization
  • Biological and Social Deviance
  • Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Functional magnetic resonance imaging is a tool that is used in the medical field for identifying possible changes o activities in the brain which can be caused by neurological dysfunction or deviance.
  • Deviance and Dissent: A Sociological Approach to Terrorism
  • Crime, Deviance and Jail Systems
  • Biological Explanations and Social Constructionist Theories of Deviance
  • Mitigating Measures for Containing the Occurrence of Corporate Deviance From the international outlook, the exploitation of under-developed nations by developed countries and multi-national corporations is being monitored by international organizations.
  • Deviant Beliefs and Cognitive Deviance
  • Religion Deviance and Social Control
  • Bullying: Criminal Deviance and Social Control
  • Celibacy and Sexual Deviance by Priest
  • The Theory of Atavism for the Study of Criminal Deviance
  • Changing Definition and Perceptions of Sexual Deviance
  • Child Abuse and Social Deviance
  • Basic Sociological Theories of Crime and Deviance
  • Controlling Deviance With the Death Penalty
  • Core Self-Evaluations and Workplace Deviance
  • Deviance and the Correctional System
  • The Impact of Deviant Behavior by Police Officers The police deviance has significant impacts that affect the public such as victimization, and the police unit itself such as police integrity, trust, and respect from the public.
  • Corporate Deviance and Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Covert and Overt Stigmatizations Related to Social Deviance
  • Deviance and Its Effect on Society
  • The Current Schools of Criminological Theory in the UK and Canada The paper analyzes the new deviance theory, left realism, and the new criminology, have emerged in the UK and Canada to help expound on the complexities of criminology.
  • Creating Sustainable Work Environments by Developing Cultures That Diminish Deviance
  • Crime and Deviance Criminological Concepts
  • Deviance: Anomie and the Promotion of Order in the State
  • Criminal Justice, Discrimination, and Political Deviance
  • The Contribution of Label Theory to the Understanding of Crime and Deviance
  • Cyber Deviance Among Adolescents
  • Delinquency and Deviance Traits in Children
  • Deviance Among Adolescents and Their Social Environment
  • Deviance and Crime From a Sociological Theoretical Perspective
  • Mental Illness as a Form of Deviance
  • Workplace Favoritism and Leadership Development This literature research has revealed some crucial points regarding leadership development with a focus on workplace favoritism.
  • Deviance and Social Stigma
  • Different Interpretations of Deviance for Different Contexts
  • Deviance: Mental Illness and Homelessness
  • Deviance, Psychiatry and Cultural Relativism
  • What Are the Possible Causes of Deviance Behavior?
  • Can Deviance Be Positive?
  • What Is “Labeling Theory” for the Study of Crime and Deviance?
  • Are There Any Roles for Social Conformity and Deviance in Poverty?
  • What Are the Types of Deviant Behavior?
  • How Does Deviance and Social Control Affect Youth?
  • What Is a Social Deviance?
  • What Are the Strengths of Psychological Approaches to the Study of Deviance?
  • Can a Leader’s Style Change the Situation of Organizational Deviance?
  • What Are Examples of Deviance in the Workplace?
  • How Does Gender Affect Crime and Deviance?
  • What Sociological Theories Explain the Ethnic Aspect of Deviance?
  • How Useful Are Marxist Explanations of Crime and Deviance?
  • What Is the Relationship Between Deviation and Labeling?
  • What Is Cyber Deviance?
  • How to Explain Subcultural Crime and Deviance in Society?
  • Is Deviance a Rebellion Against the Group Norms of the Dominant Culture?
  • What Sociological Classes Describe Deviance?
  • How Does Durkheim’s Theory Explain Social Deviations?
  • What Are the Types of Deviance in Terms of Acceptance or Rejection of Social Goals?
  • What Is Primary and Secondary Deviation?
  • Does Deviance Always Lead to Criminal Activity?
  • Can Increased Control Over Minor Forms of Deviance Lead to a Reduction in Serious Crime?
  • What Factors Prevent a Person From Deviant Behavior?
  • Does the Close Connection of the Individual With Society Keep Him From Deviance?
  • Are Genetic Causes Responsible for Social Deviance?
  • What Are the Mental Explanations for Criminal Offending and Deviance?
  • How Does America’s Social Structure Cause Deviance?
  • What Is the Impact of Formal Deviation on Society?
  • How Can Crime and Deviance Be Seen as Functional for Society?

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7.2 Explaining Deviance

Learning objective.

  • State the major arguments and assumptions of the various sociological explanations of deviance.

If we want to reduce violent crime and other serious deviance, we must first understand why it occurs. Many sociological theories of deviance exist, and together they offer a more complete understanding of deviance than any one theory offers by itself. Together they help answer the questions posed earlier: why rates of deviance differ within social categories and across locations, why some behaviors are more likely than others to be considered deviant, and why some kinds of people are more likely than others to be considered deviant and to be punished for deviant behavior. As a whole, sociological explanations highlight the importance of the social environment and of social interaction for deviance and the commision of crime. As such, they have important implications for how to reduce these behaviors. Consistent with this book’s public sociology theme, a discussion of several such crime-reduction strategies concludes this chapter.

We now turn to the major sociological explanations of crime and deviance. A summary of these explanations appears in Table 7.1 “Theory Snapshot: Summary of Sociological Explanations of Deviance and Crime” .

Table 7.1 Theory Snapshot: Summary of Sociological Explanations of Deviance and Crime

Functionalist Explanations

Several explanations may be grouped under the functionalist perspective in sociology, as they all share this perspective’s central view on the importance of various aspects of society for social stability and other social needs.

Émile Durkheim: The Functions of Deviance

As noted earlier, Émile Durkheim said deviance is normal, but he did not stop there. In a surprising and still controversial twist, he also argued that deviance serves several important functions for society.

First, Durkheim said, deviance clarifies social norms and increases conformity. This happens because the discovery and punishment of deviance reminds people of the norms and reinforces the consequences of violating them. If your class were taking an exam and a student was caught cheating, the rest of the class would be instantly reminded of the rules about cheating and the punishment for it, and as a result they would be less likely to cheat.

A second function of deviance is that it strengthens social bonds among the people reacting to the deviant. An example comes from the classic story The Ox-Bow Incident (Clark, 1940), in which three innocent men are accused of cattle rustling and are eventually lynched. The mob that does the lynching is very united in its frenzy against the men, and, at least at that moment, the bonds among the individuals in the mob are extremely strong.

A final function of deviance, said Durkheim, is that it can help lead to positive social change. Although some of the greatest figures in history—Socrates, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. to name just a few—were considered the worst kind of deviants in their time, we now honor them for their commitment and sacrifice.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Émile Durkheim wrote that deviance can lead to positive social change. Many Southerners had strong negative feelings about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, but history now honors him for his commitment and sacrifice.

U.S. Library of Congress – public domain.

Sociologist Herbert Gans (1996) pointed to an additional function of deviance: deviance creates jobs for the segments of society—police, prison guards, criminology professors, and so forth—whose main focus is to deal with deviants in some manner. If deviance and crime did not exist, hundreds of thousands of law-abiding people in the United States would be out of work!

Although deviance can have all of these functions, many forms of it can certainly be quite harmful, as the story of the mugged voter that began this chapter reminds us. Violent crime and property crime in the United States victimize millions of people and households each year, while crime by corporations has effects that are even more harmful, as we discuss later. Drug use, prostitution, and other “victimless” crimes may involve willing participants, but these participants often cause themselves and others much harm. Although deviance according to Durkheim is inevitable and normal and serves important functions, that certainly does not mean the United States and other nations should be happy to have high rates of serious deviance. The sociological theories we discuss point to certain aspects of the social environment, broadly defined, that contribute to deviance and crime and that should be the focus of efforts to reduce these behaviors.

Social Ecology: Neighborhood and Community Characteristics

An important sociological approach, begun in the late 1800s and early 1900s by sociologists at the University of Chicago, stresses that certain social and physical characteristics of urban neighborhoods raise the odds that people growing up and living in these neighborhoods will commit deviance and crime. This line of thought is now called the social ecology approach (Mears, Wang, Hay, & Bales, 2008). Many criminogenic (crime-causing) neighborhood characteristics have been identified, including high rates of poverty, population density, dilapidated housing, residential mobility, and single-parent households. All of these problems are thought to contribute to social disorganization , or weakened social bonds and social institutions, that make it difficult to socialize children properly and to monitor suspicious behavior (Mears, Wang, Hay, & Bales, 2008; Sampson, 2006).

Sociology Making a Difference

Improving Neighborhood Conditions Helps Reduce Crime Rates

One of the sociological theories of crime discussed in the text is the social ecology approach. To review, this approach attributes high rates of deviance and crime to the neighborhood’s social and physical characteristics, including poverty, high population density, dilapidated housing, and high population turnover. These problems create social disorganization that weakens the neighborhood’s social institutions and impairs effective child socialization.

Much empirical evidence supports social ecology’s view about negative neighborhood conditions and crime rates and suggests that efforts to improve these conditions will lower crime rates. Some of the most persuasive evidence comes from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (directed by sociologist Robert J. Sampson), in which more than 6,000 children, ranging in age from birth to 18, and their parents and other caretakers were studied over a 7-year period. The social and physical characteristics of the dozens of neighborhoods in which the subjects lived were measured to permit assessment of these characteristics’ effects on the probability of delinquency. A number of studies using data from this project confirm the general assumptions of the social ecology approach. In particular, delinquency is higher in neighborhoods with lower levels of “collective efficacy,” that is, in neighborhoods with lower levels of community supervision of adolescent behavior.

The many studies from the Chicago project and data in several other cities show that neighborhood conditions greatly affect the extent of delinquency in urban neighborhoods. This body of research in turn suggests that strategies and programs that improve the social and physical conditions of urban neighborhoods may well help decrease the high rates of crime and delinquency that are so often found there. (Bellair & McNulty, 2009; Sampson, 2006)

Strain Theory

Failure to achieve the American dream lies at the heart of Robert Merton’s (1938) famous strain theory (also called anomie theory). Recall from Chapter 1 “Sociology and the Sociological Perspective” that Durkheim attributed high rates of suicide to anomie, or normlessness, that occurs in times when social norms are unclear or weak. Adapting this concept, Merton wanted to explain why poor people have higher deviance rates than the nonpoor. He reasoned that the United States values economic success above all else and also has norms that specify the approved means, working, for achieving economic success. Because the poor often cannot achieve the American dream of success through the conventional means of working, they experience a gap between the goal of economic success and the means of working. This gap, which Merton likened to Durkheim’s anomie because of the resulting lack of clarity over norms, leads to strain or frustration. To reduce their frustration, some poor people resort to several adaptations, including deviance, depending on whether they accept or reject the goal of economic success and the means of working. Table 7.2 “Merton’s Anomie Theory” presents the logical adaptations of the poor to the strain they experience. Let’s review these briefly.

Table 7.2 Merton’s Anomie Theory

Despite their strain, most poor people continue to accept the goal of economic success and continue to believe they should work to make money. In other words, they continue to be good, law-abiding citizens. They conform to society’s norms and values, and, not surprisingly, Merton calls their adaptation conformity .

Faced with strain, some poor people continue to value economic success but come up with new means of achieving it. They rob people or banks, commit fraud, or use other illegal means of acquiring money or property. Merton calls this adaptation innovation .

Other poor people continue to work at a job without much hope of greatly improving their lot in life. They go to work day after day as a habit. Merton calls this third adaptation ritualism . This adaptation does not involve deviant behavior but is a logical response to the strain poor people experience.

A homeless woman with dogs

One of Robert Merton’s adaptations in his strain theory is retreatism, in which poor people abandon society’s goal of economic success and reject its means of employment to reach this goal. Many of today’s homeless people might be considered retreatists under Merton’s typology.

Franco Folini – Homeless woman with dogs – CC BY-SA 2.0.

In Merton’s fourth adaptation, retreatism , some poor people withdraw from society by becoming hobos or vagrants or by becoming addicted to alcohol, heroin, or other drugs. Their response to the strain they feel is to reject both the goal of economic success and the means of working.

Merton’s fifth and final adaptation is rebellion . Here poor people not only reject the goal of success and the means of working but work actively to bring about a new society with a new value system. These people are the radicals and revolutionaries of their time. Because Merton developed his strain theory in the aftermath of the Great Depression, in which the labor and socialist movements had been quite active, it is not surprising that he thought of rebellion as a logical adaptation of the poor to their lack of economic success.

Although Merton’s theory has been popular over the years, it has some limitations. Perhaps most important, it overlooks deviance such as fraud by the middle and upper classes and also fails to explain murder, rape, and other crimes that usually are not done for economic reasons. It also does not explain why some poor people choose one adaptation over another.

Merton’s strain theory stimulated other explanations of deviance that built on his concept of strain. Differential opportunity theory , developed by Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960), tried to explain why the poor choose one or the other of Merton’s adaptations. Whereas Merton stressed that the poor have differential access to legitimate means (working), Cloward and Ohlin stressed that they have differential access to illegitimate means . For example, some live in neighborhoods where organized crime is dominant and will get involved in such crime; others live in neighborhoods rampant with drug use and will start using drugs themselves.

In a more recent formulation, two sociologists, Steven F. Messner and Richard Rosenfeld (2007), expanded Merton’s view by arguing that in the United States crime arises from several of our most important values, including an overemphasis on economic success, individualism, and competition. These values produce crime by making many Americans, rich or poor, feel they never have enough money and by prompting them to help themselves even at other people’s expense. Crime in the United States, then, arises ironically from the country’s most basic values.

In yet another extension of Merton’s theory, Robert Agnew (2007) reasoned that adolescents experience various kinds of strain in addition to the economic type addressed by Merton. A romantic relationship may end, a family member may die, or students may be taunted or bullied at school. Repeated strain-inducing incidents such as these produce anger, frustration, and other negative emotions, and these emotions in turn prompt delinquency and drug use.

Deviant Subcultures

Some sociologists stress that poverty and other community conditions give rise to certain subcultures through which adolescents acquire values that promote deviant behavior. One of the first to make this point was Albert K. Cohen (1955), whose status frustration theory says that lower-class boys do poorly in school because schools emphasize middle-class values. School failure reduces their status and self-esteem, which the boys try to counter by joining juvenile gangs. In these groups, a different value system prevails, and boys can regain status and self-esteem by engaging in delinquency. Cohen had nothing to say about girls, as he assumed they cared little about how well they did in school, placing more importance on marriage and family instead, and hence would remain nondelinquent even if they did not do well. Scholars later criticized his disregard for girls and assumptions about them.

Another sociologist, Walter Miller (1958), said poor boys become delinquent because they live amid a lower-class subculture that includes several focal concerns , or values, that help lead to delinquency. These focal concerns include a taste for trouble, toughness, cleverness, and excitement. If boys grow up in a subculture with these values, they are more likely to break the law. Their deviance is a result of their socialization. Critics said Miller exaggerated the differences between the value systems in poor inner-city neighborhoods and wealthier, middle-class communities (Akers & Sellers, 2008).

A very popular subcultural explanation is the so-called subculture of violence thesis, first advanced by Marvin Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti (1967). In some inner-city areas, they said, a subculture of violence promotes a violent response to insults and other problems, which people in middle-class areas would probably ignore. The subculture of violence, they continued, arises partly from the need of lower-class males to “prove” their masculinity in view of their economic failure. Quantitative research to test their theory has failed to show that the urban poor are more likely than other groups to approve of violence (Cao, Adams, & Jensen, 1997). On the other hand, recent ethnographic (qualitative) research suggests that large segments of the urban poor do adopt a “code” of toughness and violence to promote respect (Anderson, 1999). As this conflicting evidence illustrates, the subculture of violence view remains controversial and merits further scrutiny.

Social Control Theory

Travis Hirschi (1969) argued that human nature is basically selfish and thus wondered why people do not commit deviance. His answer, which is now called social control theory (also known as social bonding theory ), was that their bonds to conventional social institutions such as the family and the school keep them from violating social norms. Hirschi’s basic perspective reflects Durkheim’s view that strong social norms reduce deviance such as suicide.

Hirschi outlined four types of bonds to conventional social institutions: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.

  • Attachment refers to how much we feel loyal to these institutions and care about the opinions of people in them, such as our parents and teachers. The more attached we are to our families and schools, the less likely we are to be deviant.
  • Commitment refers to how much we value our participation in conventional activities such as getting a good education. The more committed we are to these activities and the more time and energy we have invested in them, the less deviant we will be.
  • Involvement refers to the amount of time we spend in conventional activities. The more time we spend, the less opportunity we have to be deviant.
  • Belief refers to our acceptance of society’s norms. The more we believe in these norms, the less we deviate.

A gamily sharing some watermelon outside

Travis Hirschi’s social control theory stresses the importance of bonds to social institutions for preventing deviance. His theory emphasized the importance of attachment to one’s family in this regard.

More Good Foundation – Mormon Family Dinner – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Hirschi’s theory has been very popular. Many studies find that youths with weaker bonds to their parents and schools are more likely to be deviant. But the theory has its critics (Akers & Sellers, 2008). One problem centers on the chicken-and-egg question of causal order. For example, many studies support social control theory by finding that delinquent youths often have worse relationships with their parents than do nondelinquent youths. Is that because the bad relationships prompt the youths to be delinquent, as Hirschi thought? Or is it because the youths’ delinquency worsens their relationship with their parents? Despite these questions, Hirschi’s social control theory continues to influence our understanding of deviance. To the extent it is correct, it suggests several strategies for preventing crime, including programs designed to improve parenting and relations between parents and children (Welsh & Farrington, 2007).

Conflict and Feminist Explanations

Explanations of crime rooted in the conflict perspective reflect its general view that society is a struggle between the “haves” at the top of society with social, economic, and political power and the “have-nots” at the bottom. Accordingly, they assume that those with power pass laws and otherwise use the legal system to secure their position at the top of society and to keep the powerless on the bottom (Bohm & Vogel, 2011). The poor and minorities are more likely because of their poverty and race to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. These explanations also blame street crime by the poor on the economic deprivation and inequality in which they live rather than on any moral failings of the poor.

Some conflict explanations also say that capitalism helps create street crime by the poor. An early proponent of this view was Dutch criminologist Willem Bonger (1916), who said that capitalism as an economic system involves competition for profit. This competition leads to an emphasis in a capitalist society’s culture on egoism , or self-seeking behavior, and greed . Because profit becomes so important, people in a capitalist society are more likely than those in noncapitalist ones to break the law for profit and other gains, even if their behavior hurts others.

Not surprisingly, conflict explanations have sparked much controversy (Akers & Sellers, 2008). Many scholars dismiss them for painting an overly critical picture of the United States and ignoring the excesses of noncapitalistic nations, while others say the theories overstate the degree of inequality in the legal system. In assessing the debate over conflict explanations, a fair conclusion is that their view on discrimination by the legal system applies more to victimless crime (discussed in a later section) than to conventional crime, where it is difficult to argue that laws against such things as murder and robbery reflect the needs of the powerful. However, much evidence supports the conflict assertion that the poor and minorities face disadvantages in the legal system (Reiman & Leighton, 2010). Simply put, the poor cannot afford good attorneys, private investigators, and the other advantages that money brings in court. As just one example, if someone much poorer than O. J. Simpson, the former football player and media celebrity, had been arrested, as he was in 1994, for viciously murdering two people, the defendant would almost certainly have been found guilty. Simpson was able to afford a defense costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and won a jury acquittal in his criminal trial (Barkan, 1996). Also in accordance with conflict theory’s views, corporate executives, among the most powerful members of society, often break the law without fear of imprisonment, as we shall see in our discussion of white-collar crime later in this chapter. Finally, many studies support conflict theory’s view that the roots of crimes by poor people lie in social inequality and economic deprivation (Barkan, 2009).

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist perspectives on crime and criminal justice also fall into the broad rubric of conflict explanations and have burgeoned in the last two decades. Much of this work concerns rape and sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and other crimes against women that were largely neglected until feminists began writing about them in the 1970s (Griffin, 1971). Their views have since influenced public and official attitudes about rape and domestic violence, which used to be thought as something that girls and women brought on themselves. The feminist approach instead places the blame for these crimes squarely on society’s inequality against women and antiquated views about relations between the sexes (Renzetti, 2011).

Another focus of feminist work is gender and legal processing. Are women better or worse off than men when it comes to the chances of being arrested and punished? After many studies in the last two decades, the best answer is that we are not sure (Belknap, 2007). Women are treated a little more harshly than men for minor crimes and a little less harshly for serious crimes, but the gender effect in general is weak.

A third focus concerns the gender difference in serious crime, as women and girls are much less likely than men and boys to engage in violence and to commit serious property crimes such as burglary and motor vehicle theft. Most sociologists attribute this difference to gender socialization. Simply put, socialization into the male gender role, or masculinity, leads to values such as competitiveness and behavioral patterns such as spending more time away from home that all promote deviance. Conversely, despite whatever disadvantages it may have, socialization into the female gender role, or femininity, promotes values such as gentleness and behavior patterns such as spending more time at home that help limit deviance (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004). Noting that males commit so much crime, Kathleen Daly and Meda Chesney-Lind (1988, p. 527) wrote,

A large price is paid for structures of male domination and for the very qualities that drive men to be successful, to control others, and to wield uncompromising power.…Gender differences in crime suggest that crime may not be so normal after all. Such differences challenge us to see that in the lives of women, men have a great deal more to learn.

A young boy posed with his fists up, ready to fight

Gender socialization helps explain why females commit less serious crime than males. Boys are raised to be competitive and aggressive, while girls are raised to be more gentle and nurturing.

Philippe Put – Fight – CC BY 2.0.

Two decades later, that challenge still remains.

Symbolic Interactionist Explanations

Because symbolic interactionism focuses on the means people gain from their social interaction, symbolic interactionist explanations attribute deviance to various aspects of the social interaction and social processes that normal individuals experience. These explanations help us understand why some people are more likely than others living in the same kinds of social environments. Several such explanations exist.

Differential Association Theory

One popular set of explanations, often called learning theories , emphasizes that deviance is learned from interacting with other people who believe it is OK to commit deviance and who often commit deviance themselves. Deviance, then, arises from normal socialization processes. The most influential such explanation is Edwin H. Sutherland’s (1947) differential association theory , which says that criminal behavior is learned by interacting with close friends and family members. These individuals teach us not only how to commit various crimes but also the values, motives, and rationalizations that we need to adopt in order to justify breaking the law. The earlier in our life that we associate with deviant individuals and the more often we do so, the more likely we become deviant ourselves. In this way, a normal social process, socialization, can lead normal people to commit deviance.

Sutherland’s theory of differential association was one of the most influential sociological theories ever. Over the years much research has documented the importance of adolescents’ peer relationships for their entrance into the world of drugs and delinquency (Akers & Sellers, 2008). However, some critics say that not all deviance results from the influences of deviant peers. Still, differential association theory and the larger category of learning theories it represents remain a valuable approach to understanding deviance and crime.

Labeling Theory

If we arrest and imprison someone, we hope they will be “scared straight,” or deterred from committing a crime again. Labeling theory assumes precisely the opposite: it says that labeling someone deviant increases the chances that the labeled person will continue to commit deviance. According to labeling theory, this happens because the labeled person ends up with a deviant self-image that leads to even more deviance. Deviance is the result of being labeled (Bohm & Vogel, 2011).

This effect is reinforced by how society treats someone who has been labeled. Research shows that job applicants with a criminal record are much less likely than those without a record to be hired (Pager, 2009). Suppose you had a criminal record and had seen the error of your ways but were rejected by several potential employers. Do you think you might be just a little frustrated? If your unemployment continues, might you think about committing a crime again? Meanwhile, you want to meet some law-abiding friends, so you go to a singles bar. You start talking with someone who interests you, and in response to this person’s question, you say you are between jobs. When your companion asks about your last job, you reply that you were in prison for armed robbery. How do you think your companion will react after hearing this? As this scenario suggests, being labeled deviant can make it difficult to avoid a continued life of deviance.

Labeling theory also asks whether some people and behaviors are indeed more likely than others to acquire a deviant label. In particular, it asserts that nonlegal factors such as appearance, race, and social class affect how often official labeling occurs.

Handcuffed hands

Labeling theory assumes that someone who is labeled deviant will be more likely to commit deviance as a result. One problem that ex-prisoners face after being released back into society is that potential employers do not want to hire them. This fact makes it more likely that they will commit new offenses.

Victor – Handcuffs – CC BY 2.0.

William Chambliss’s (1973) classic analysis of the “Saints” and the “Roughnecks” is an excellent example of this argument. The Saints were eight male high-school students from middle-class backgrounds who were very delinquent, while the Roughnecks were six male students in the same high school who were also very delinquent but who came from poor, working-class families. Although the Saints’ behavior was arguably more harmful than the Roughnecks’, their actions were considered harmless pranks, and they were never arrested. After graduating from high school, they went on to college and graduate and professional school and ended up in respectable careers. In contrast, the Roughnecks were widely viewed as troublemakers and often got into trouble for their behavior. As adults they either ended up in low-paying jobs or went to prison.

Labeling theory’s views on the effects of being labeled and on the importance of nonlegal factors for official labeling remain controversial. Nonetheless, the theory has greatly influenced the study of deviance and crime in the last few decades and promises to do so for many years to come.

Key Takeaways

  • Both biological and psychological explanations assume that deviance stems from problems arising inside the individual.
  • Sociological explanations attribute deviance to various aspects of the social environment.
  • Several functionalist explanations exist. Durkheim highlighted the functions that deviance serves for society. Merton’s strain theory assumed that deviance among the poor results from their inability to achieve the economic success so valued in American society. Other explanations highlight the role played by the social and physical characteristics of urban neighborhoods, of deviant subcultures, and of weak bonds to social institutions.
  • Conflict explanations assume that the wealthy and powerful use the legal system to protect their own interests and to keep the poor and racial minorities subservient. Feminist perspectives highlight the importance of gender inequality for crimes against women and of male socialization for the gender difference in criminality.
  • Interactionist explanations highlight the importance of social interaction in the commitment of deviance and in reactions to deviance. Labeling theory assumes that the labeling process helps ensure that someone will continue to commit deviance, and it also assumes that some people are more likely than others to be labeled deviant because of their appearance, race, social class, and other characteristics.

For Your Review

  • In what important way do biological and psychological explanations differ from sociological explanations?
  • What are any two functions of deviance according to Durkheim?
  • What are any two criminogenic social or physical characteristics of urban neighborhoods?
  • What are any two assumptions of feminist perspectives on deviance and crime?
  • According to labeling theory, what happens when someone is labeled as a deviant?

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Akers, R. L., & Sellers, C. S. (2008). Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application . New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city . New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Barkan, S. E. (1996). The social science significance of the O. J. Simpson case. In G. Barak (Ed.), Representing O. J.: Murder, criminal justice and mass culture (pp. 36–42). Albany, NY: Harrow and Heston.

Barkan, S. E. (2009). The value of quantitative analysis for a critical understanding of crime and society. Critical Criminology, 17 , 247–259.

Belknap, J. (2007). The invisible woman: Gender, crime, and justice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Bellair, P. E., & McNulty, T. L. (2009). Gang membership, drug selling, and violence in neighborhood context. Justice Quarterly, 26 , 644–669.

Bohm, R. M., & Vogel, B. (2011). A Primer on crime and delinquency theory (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Bonger, W. (1916). Criminality and economic conditions (H. P. Horton, Trans.). Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Cao, L., Adams, A., & Jensen, V. J. (1997). A test of the black subculture of violence thesis: A research note. Criminology, 35, 367–379.

Chambliss, W. J. (1973). The saints and the roughnecks. Society, 11, 24–31.

Chesney-Lind, M., & Pasko, L. (2004). The female offender: Girls, women, and crime . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Clark, W. V. T. (1940). The ox-bow incident . New York, NY: Random House.

Cloward, R. A., & Ohlin, L. E. (1960). Delinquency and opportunity: A theory of delinquent gangs . New York, NY: Free Press.

Cohen, A. K. (1955). Delinquent boys: The culture of the gang . New York, NY: Free Press.

Daly, K., & Chesney-Lind, M. (1988). Feminism and criminology. Justice Quarterly, 5, 497–538.

Gans, H. J. (1996). The war against the poor: The underclass and antipoverty policy . New York, NY: Basic Books.

Griffin, S. (1971, September). Rape: The all-American crime. Ramparts, 10 , 26–35.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency . Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mears, D. P., Wang, X., Hay, C., & Bales, W. D. (2008). Social ecology and recidivism: Implications for prisoner reentry. Criminology, 46, 301–340.

Merton, R. K. (1938). Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review, 3, 672–682.

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Miller, W. B. (1958). Lower class culture as a generating milieu of gang delinquency. Journal of Social Issues, 14 , 5–19.

Pager, D. (2009). Marked: Race, crime, and finding work in an era of mass incarceration . Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Reiman, J., & Leighton, P. (2010). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class, and criminal justice (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Renzetti, C. (2011). Feminist criminology . Manuscript submitted for publication.

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Welsh, B. C., & Farrington, D. P. (Eds.). (2007). Preventing crime: What works for children, offenders, victims and places . New York, NY: Springer.

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Sociology Copyright © 2016 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Deviant Behavior Essay Examples

Deviant behavior: reflection on its causes and effects.

Everyone, at some point in their life, has most likely committed some deviant act. This isn’t as inconceivable as it may seem. Deviance is relative to different societal groups and different cultures. Deviance refers to any violation of norms, which varies significantly. We encounter deviant...

Analysis of a Deviant Behavior of the Filipino Using the Merton’s Strain Theory

An American Sociologist named Robert K. Merton was born on July 4, 1910 in Philadelphia. This American sociologist developed the Merton’s Strain Theory of Deviance which explains the rising crime rates expression in the United Stated of America (USA) at that time. This theory states...

Deviance and Social Control

When Auguste Comte coined the term ‘sociology' to refer to a positivistic or scientifically proven approach to study human society and social life, he gave rise to the central idea of the structural-functionalist perspective on deviance and conformity (Thompson & Gibbs, 2017). This sociological perspective...

Deviant Behavior: Deviance Behind Drunk Driving

Many individuals in today’s society wonder what pushes people past a breaking point in which they become involved in actions not accepted by society, such as stripping, prostitution, drug use, alcoholism and more. The reasoning behind this is deviance. Deviance can be either positive (over...

Analysis of Deviance Related Crimes

Deviance is a path taken away from the social norms of certain societies. Deviant people tend to commit illegal crimes that are against these norms. Some people view certain crimes as deviant, while others may not. Crimes can be separated into two different categories, deviant...

Definition of Crime and Deviance

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘crime’ is defined as “an action that is against the law” or “illegal actions as a whole”. (Lexico 2019) This definition could be argued as too simplistic as it does not apply to all criminal offenses. In 1884, the criminal...

The Elements that Determine Murder as a Deviant Behaviour

Although deviance is difficult to define due to differences in geography, audience, and status; there are some actions that are universally thought of as deviant. One such action is murder. Although one might argue that murder can be justifiable under circumstances of immediate danger to...

Why Crime and Deviant Behaviour Are Often Confused

“Crime is an interdisciplinary science. ” For maximum of the 20th century, criminology's primary orientation became sociological, however nowadays it is able to be regarded as an integrated method to examine a criminal behaviour. we can take factors from every faculty of concept to formulate...

The Issue of Deviance and Integrity of Police Officer

In enforcement, officers play a crucial role in deciding however they're perceived by the general public. This will have a control on their ability to enforce totally different laws and work with the community in reducing criminal activity. However, their overall amounts of authority and...

Lebron James and Example of Deviant Behaviour in Sport

Sport is more than just a competition or physical activities, instead it can be regarded as a microcosm of society. Deviant behaviour has existed in both sport and society across time because people are members of these social system who create and attach label to...

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