From childhood on, everyday life contains many experiences of people who, in one way or another, are different. There is the little black child in a class of whites; there is the girl who stands out as a wallflower at the party; there are the physically handicapped and the psychologically disturbed. There is another kind of difference, however. There is the boy who expresses disgust while the rest of the group are laughing at a dirty joke; there is the dove in an office full of hawks - or, for that matter, there is the hawk at a cocktail party of doves. These differences are (or seem to be) unlike the previously mentioned ones because they constitute a deliberate denial of the values or norms of the group. Being black, shy or crippled is a condition that is imposed upon the individual. Being a prude or a political nonconformist, on the other hand, is (or appears to be) the result of an act of choice. It is this second kind of difference that we will be concerned with in this chapter.
The term generally used today by sociologists for this kind of difference is deviance. Deviance has been defined and explained in different ways, as we will see. But there is widespread agreement among sociologists about the basic concept: deviance always refers to conduct that is in violation of the rules constructed by a given society or group. In other words, the concept of deviance implies a moral difference. It refers to the refusal or perhaps inability of an individual or group to abide by the moral norms that prevail in the social context in question.
THE RANGE OF ‘NORMAL’ CONDUCT
Social order is maintained by enforcing compliance with the social norms and rules that are thought to ensure the effective operation of a particular society. As we have seen, there are a variety of devices of social control, varying from physical force to mild psychological pressure, that are supposed to protect and enforce these norms and rules. In the background of any system of social control there is a set of assumptions concerning the range of conduct that is deemed permissible - that is, against which social controls will not be applied. The scope and character of this permissible zone of conduct vary from society to society. Everywhere it is the kind of conduct that is considered to be ‘normal’. Whatever may be the latitude with which ‘normality’ is defined, there will be a certain point beyond which an individual cannot go without being considered ‘abnormal’. It is safe to say that nearly everyone goes beyond this point occasionally. The individual who does so habitually is considered to be a deviant (though obviously people who have not had the benefit of an introductory sociology course will probably call him other names – none of them flattering).
What this means in terms of the real social experience of people can best be seen by looking at ordinary, everyday situations. Each situation in which people interact socially is made up of typical expectations to which individuals are expected to respond in a typical way. The deviant announces his presence by failing to respond as typically expected. Imagine a male newcomer being introduced at a party. There are a few people of both sexes already present in the room. The typical expectation is that once the man has been introduced by name to the other individuals who are present, he will make the rounds, shake everyone's hand and sit down. If he does just that, he will be responding in a typical way. But suppose that, having done all this, he walks over to one of the women at the party, kneels down before her, folds his hands, touches the floor with his forehead and says, ‘You are very beautiful. Allow me to pay homage to your beauty’. Chances are (even in a very sophisticated milieu) that everyone, and particularly the woman so honoured, will be slightly alarmed. If it is established that the character on his knees is not the native of some exotic Oriental country but actually comes from Birmingham, the alarm will deepen. Depending upon his subsequent behavior, he may be classified in a number of different ways. It may be concluded that he is simply a jerk trying to make an impression. Or it may develop that he is expressing some bizarre convictions of his own as to the proper forms of interaction between people – he may belong to some fringe group that wishes to restore the codes of medieval chivalry, or he may have decided all by himself that this is his authentic style as discovered in a marathon sensitivity-training session. On the other hand, people might decide that he is simply psychotic. Whatever the outcome, the individual's act has placed him in everyone's mind in the general category of deviant, though the precise sub-category may remain to be decided upon.