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Relativism and Deviance

Deviance is a relative issue, and standards for deviance change based on a number of factors, including the following:

  • Location: A person speaking loudly during a church service would probably be considered deviant, whereas a person speaking loudly at a party would not. Society generally regards taking the life of another person to be a deviant act, but during wartime, killing another person is not considered deviant.
  • Age: A five-year-old can cry in a supermarket without being considered deviant, but an older child or an adult cannot.
  • Social status: A famous actor can skip to the front of a long line of people waiting to get into a popular club, but a nonfamous person would be considered deviant for trying to do the same.
  • Individual societies: In the United States, customers in department stores do not try to negotiate prices or barter for goods. In some other countries, people understand that one should haggle over the price of an item; not to do so is considered deviant.

Cultural Norms and Deviance

In Japan, there are strict norms involving the exchange of business cards. One person presents his or her business card with the writing facing the recipient, who looks at it for a moment and asks a question about some of the information on the card. The question may be irrelevant, but it tells the giver that the recipient has read the card and acknowledges the person and his or her company. A Japanese executive who receives a business card and does not take the time to look at it and ask a question would be considered deviant.

Deviant Traits

A person does not need to act in a deviant manner in order to be considered deviant. Sometimes people are considered deviant because of a trait or a characteristic they possess. Sociologist Erving Goffman used the term stigma to identify deviant characteristics. These include violations of the norms of physical ability or appearance. For example, people who are confined to wheelchairs or who have IQs over 140 are deviant because they do not represent the usual behaviors or characteristics of most people.

2. Social control refers to the various means used by a society to bring its members back into line with cultural norms. There are two general types of social control:

  • formal social control refers to components of society that are designed for the resocialization of individuals who break formal rules; examples would include prisons and mental health institutions
  • informal social control refers to elements of society that are designed to reinforce informal cultural norms; examples might include parental reminders to children not to pick their nose.

Some researchers have outlined some of the motivations underlying the formal social control system. These motivations include:

  • retribution - some argue that people should pay for the crime they committed
  • deterrence - some argue that punishments, e.g., prison time, will prevent people from committing future crimes
  • rehabilitation - some argue that formal social controls should work to rehabilitate criminals, eventually turning them into productive members of society
  • societal protection - finally, some argue that the motivation for formal social controls is nothing more than removing the deviant members of society from the non-deviant members

The methods of social control include positive sanctions and negative sanctions. A positive sanction is a socially constructed expression of approval. A negative sanction is a socially constructed expression of disapproval.

Positive Sanctions

Society uses positive sanctions to reward people for following norms. Positive sanctions can be formal, such as an award or a raise. They can also be informal and include words, gestures, or facial expressions.

Example: The smile that a mother gives her child when he says “thank you” is a positive sanction.

A reaction to an individual’s actions can be a positive sanction, even if it is not intended to be.

Example: If a three-year-old learns a four-letter word at day care and says it to her parents, they might giggle and tell the child not to say it anymore. But the child repeats it because she likes seeing them laugh. Without realizing it, the girl’s parents positively sanction her actions by laughing when she says her new word. Even though what they said was intended to discourage her, their actions conveyed the opposite meaning.

Negative Sanctions

Like positive sanctions, negative sanctions can range from formal to informal.

Example: A speeding ticket or a prison sentence is a formal negative sanction. A raised eyebrow or a stare is an informal negative sanction.

Some subcultures dole out negative sanctions for behaviors generally condoned by the rest of society. In our society, academic achievement is usually held in high esteem. But in some subcultures, succeeding in a way that the dominant society approves of is not considered a good thing. In some gangs, getting good grades is not acceptable, and gang members who do well in school are criticized by their friends for “selling out.” Conformity to traditional figures of authority, such as teachers, is negatively sanctioned.

The degree of severity of the social response to the act.

In all cases of possible deviance, the "social reaction" to behaviour is going to be significant and, as you might expect, the range of responses goes from fairly minor, highly-localised, responses (telling someone to go away, sending them to Coventry and so forth), through such "personal" responses as physical violence to more society-wide responses such as imprisonment and even Capital Punishment. It's important to note that, in the general evaluation of levels of seriousness, the three categories are interconnected. That is, in order to arrive at an overall assessment of the level of seriousness of a form of deviance we have to consider a combination of all three categories. Therefore, the most serious acts of deviance in any society are those that:

1. Involve broad levels of agreement about the wrongfulness of the act.

2. Involve high levels of social (as opposed to personal) harm.

3. Involve a very strong social reaction to the act across society as a whole.

Drawing on the above, there is a distinction between both "crime" and "deviance" and the varieties of likely social response to each in the following way:

1. Crime, involving two basic types:

a. Consensus (for example, murder, theft, etc.).

Crimes about whose seriousness there is general agreement.

b. Conflict (for example, public demonstrations, drug offences, illegal abortion etc.).

Crimes over which "public opinion" is divided. For example, "drug abuse" may be defined as a "medical problem" and therefore one where the drug user is in need of help rather than punishment (these kinds of crimes are sometimes referred-to as "crimes without victims", since no person other imethan the drug abuser is directly "injured" by the behaviour - other forms of such crime might be things like tax evasion, illegal parking, etc.).

2. Deviance (non-criminal deviance):

a. Social deviations (for example, insanity, betrayal of trust, juvenile pranks etc.).

These types of behaviour will be viewed as deviant (because they will, in some way, break social norms) but they are not viewed as criminal because, for example, they are:

Highly localised (a betrayal of trust may only involve a couple of people).

Something the individual has no control over and therefore no responsibility for (insanity).

Not particularly serious in relation to the social harm they do.

b. Social diversions (for example, styles of dress, mannerisms etc.).

Behaviour in this category tends to be used more as an indication of likely forms of potential deviance (although, in many cases they may be mildly deviant forms of behaviour) than anything else For example, dressing as a "hippy" may indicate to people that here is someone who is likely to be involved in some form of drug abuse (which, if you're interested, represents a form of stereotyping).

In general, we can note that behaviour that falls into the criminal category is behaviour that is regulated by some form of formal social process of attempted regulation (police, legal system and so forth), whilst behaviour that falls into the deviance category is likely to be regulated by informal control agencies (parents, peer groups and so forth).


3. Why does deviance occur? How does it affect a society? Since the early days of sociology, scholars have developed theories attempting to explain what deviance and crime mean to society. These theories can be grouped according to the three major sociological paradigms: functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory.


Sociologists who follow the functionalist approach are concerned with how the different elements of a society contribute to the whole. They view deviance as a key component of a functioning society. Strain theory, social disorganization theory, and cultural deviance theory represent three functionalist perspectives on deviance in society.

Émile Durkheim: The Essential Nature of Deviance

Émile Durkheim believed that deviance is a necessary part of a successful society. One way deviance is functional, he argued, is that it challenges people’s present views (1893). For instance, when black students across the United States participated in “sit-ins” during the civil rights movement, they challenged society’s notions of segregation. Moreover, Durkheim noted, when deviance is punished, it reaffirms currently held social norms, which also contributes to society (1893). Seeing a student given detention for skipping class reminds other high schoolers that playing hooky isn’t allowed and that they, too, could get detention.

Robert Merton: Strain Theory

Sociologist Robert Merton agreed that deviance is an inherent part of a functioning society, but he expanded on Durkheim’s ideas by developing strain theory, which notes that access to socially acceptable goals plays a part in determining whether a person conforms or deviates. From birth, we’re encouraged to achieve the “American Dream” of financial success. A woman who attends business school, receives her MBA, and goes on to make a million-dollar income as CEO of a company is said to be a success. However, not everyone in our society stands on equal footing. A person may have the socially acceptable goal of financial success but lack a socially acceptable way to reach that goal. According to Merton’s theory, an entrepreneur who can’t afford to launch his own company may be tempted to embezzle from his employer for start-up funds.

Robert K. Merton, in his discussion of deviance, proposed a typology of deviant behavior. A typology is a classification scheme designed to facilitate understanding. In this case, Merton was proposing a typology of deviance based upon two criteria: (1) a person's motivations or her adherence to cultural goals; (2) a person's belief in how to attain her goals. These two criteria are shown in the diagram below. According to Merton, there are five types of deviance based upon these criteria:


  • conformity involves the acceptance of the cultural goals and means of attaining those goals (e.g., a banker)
  • innovation involves the acceptance of the goals of a culture but the rejection of the traditional and/or legitimate means of attaining those goals (e.g., a member of the Mafia values wealth but employs alternative means of attaining her wealth)
  • ritualism involves the rejection of cultural goals but the routinized acceptance of the means for achieving the goals
  • retreatism involves the rejection of both the cultural goals and the traditional means of achieving those goals (e.g., a homeless person who is homeless more by choice than by force or circumstance)
  • rebellion is a special case wherein the individual rejects both the cultural goals and traditional means of achieving them but actively attempts to replace both elements of the society with different goals and means (e.g., a communist revolution)

What makes Merton's typology so fascinating is that people can turn to deviance in the pursuit of widely accepted social values and goals. For instance, individuals in the U.S. who sell illegal drugs have rejected the culturally acceptable means of making money, but still share the widely accepted cultural value in the U.S. of making money. Thus, deviance can be the result of accepting one norm, but breaking another in order to pursue the first.

The structural-functionalist approach to deviance argues that deviant behavior plays an important role in society for several reasons. First, deviance helps distinguish between what is acceptable behavior, and what is not. In a sense deviance is required in order for people to know what they can and cannot do. It draws lines and demarcates boundaries. This is an important function as it affirms the cultural values and norms of a society for the members of that society.

In addition to clarifying the moral boundaries of society, deviant behavior can also promote social unity, but it does so at the expense of the deviant individuals, who are obviously excluded from the sense of unity derived from differentiating the non-deviant from the deviants.

Finally, and quite out of character for the structural-functionalist approach, deviance is actually seen as one means for society to change over time. Deviant behavior can imbalance societal equilibrium. In the process of returning societal equilibrium, society is often forced to change. Thus, deviant behavior serves several important functions in society.

Social Disorganization Theory

Developed by researchers at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, social disorganization theory asserts that crime is most likely to occur in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social control. An individual who grows up in a poor neighborhood with high rates of drug use, violence, teenage delinquency, and deprived parenting is more likely to become a criminal than an individual from a wealthy neighborhood with a good school system and families who are involved positively in the community.

Social disorganization theory points to broad social factors as the cause of deviance. A person isn’t born a criminal, but becomes one over time, often based on factors in his or her social environment. Research into social disorganization theory can greatly influence public policy. For instance, studies have found that children from disadvantaged communities who attend preschool programs that teach basic social skills are significantly less likely to engage in criminal activity.

Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay: Cultural Deviance Theory

Cultural deviance theory suggests that conformity to the prevailing cultural norms of lower-class society causes crime. Researchers Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay (1942) studied crime patterns in Chicago in the early 1900s. They found that violence and crime were at their worst in the middle of the city and gradually decreased the farther one traveled from the urban center toward the suburbs. Shaw and McKay noticed that this pattern matched the migration patterns of Chicago citizens. New immigrants, many of them poor and lacking knowledge of English, lived in neighborhoods inside the city. As the urban population expanded, wealthier people moved to the suburbs, leaving behind the less privileged.

Shaw and McKay concluded that socioeconomic status correlated to race and ethnicity resulted in a higher crime rate. The mix of cultures and values created a smaller society with different ideas of deviance, and those values and ideas were transferred from generation to generation.

The theory of Shaw and McKay has been further tested and expounded upon by Robert Sampson and Byron Groves (1989). They found that poverty, ethnic diversity, and family disruption in given localities had a strong positive correlation with social disorganization. They also determined that social disorganization was, in turn, associated with high rates of crime and delinquency—or deviance. Recent studies Sampson conducted with Lydia Bean (2006) revealed similar findings. High rates of poverty and single-parent homes correlated with high rates of juvenile violence.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory looks to social and economic factors as the causes of crime and deviance. Unlike functionalists, conflict theorists don’t see these factors as positive functions of society, but as evidence of inequality in the system. They also challenge social disorganization theory and control theory, arguing that both ignore racial and socioeconomic issues and oversimplify social trends (Akers 1991). Conflict theorists also look for answers to the correlation of gender and race with wealth and crime.

Karl Marx: An Unequal System

Conflict theory is derived greatly from the work of sociologist, philosopher, and revolutionary Karl Marx. Marx divided the general population into two rigid social groups: the proletariat and the bourgeois. The bourgeois are a small and wealthy segment of society who controls the means of production, while the proletariat is composed of the workers who rely on those means of production for employment and survival. By centralizing these vital resources into few hands, the bourgeois also has the means to control the way society is regulated—from laws, to government, to other authority agencies—which gives the bourgeois the opportunity to maintain and expand their power in society. Though Marx spoke little of deviance, his ideas created the foundation for conflict theorists who study the intersection of deviance and crime with wealth and power.

C. Wright Mills: The Power Elite

In his book The Power Elite (1956), sociologist C. Wright Mills described the existence of what he dubbed the power elite, a small group of wealthy and influential people at the top of society who hold the power and resources. Wealthy executives, politicians, celebrities, and military leaders often have access to national and international power, and in some cases, their decisions affect everyone in society. Because of this, the rules of society are stacked in favor of a privileged few who manipulate them to stay on top. It is these people who decide what is criminal and what is not, and the effects are often felt most by those who have little power. Mills’ theories explain why celebrities such as Chris Brown and Paris Hilton, or once-powerful politicians such as Eliot Spitzer and Tom DeLay, can commit crimes with little or no legal retribution.

Crime and Social Class

While crime is often associated with the underprivileged, crimes committed by the wealthy and powerful remain an under-punished and costly problem within society. The FBI reported that victims of burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft lost a total of $15.3 billion dollars in 2009 (FB1 2010). In comparison, when Bernie Madoff was arrested in 2008, the US Securities and Exchange Commission reported that the estimated losses of his financial Ponzi scheme fraud were close to $50 billion (SEC 2009).

This imbalance based on class power is also found within US criminal law. In the 1980s, the use of crack cocaine (cocaine in its purest form) quickly became an epidemic sweeping the country’s poorest urban communities. Its pricier counterpart, cocaine, was associated with upscale users and was a drug of choice for the wealthy. The legal implications of being caught by authorities with crack versus cocaine were starkly different. In 1986, federal law mandated that being caught in possession of 50 grams of crack was punishable by a 10-year prison sentence. An equivalent prison sentence for cocaine possession, however, required possession of 5,000 grams. In other words, the sentencing disparity was 1 to 100 (New York Times Editorial Staff 2011). This inequality in the severity of punishment for crack versus cocaine paralleled the unequal social class of respective users. A conflict theorist would note that those in society who hold the power are also the ones who make the laws concerning crime. In doing so, they make laws that will benefit them, while the powerless classes who lack the resources to make such decisions suffer the consequences. The crack-cocaine punishment disparity remained until 2010, when President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which decreased the disparity to 1 to 18 (The Sentencing Project 2010).

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical approach that can be used to explain how societies and/or social groups come to view behaviors as deviant or conventional. Labeling theory, differential association, social disorganization theory, and control theory fall within the realm of symbolic interactionism.

Labeling Theory

Although all of us violate norms from time to time, few people would consider themselves deviant. Those who do, however, have often been labeled “deviant” by society and have gradually come to believe it themselves. Labeling theory examines the ascribing of a deviant behavior to another person by members of society. Thus, what is considered deviant is determined not so much by the behaviors themselves or the people who commit them, but by the reactions of others to these behaviors. As a result, what is considered deviant changes over time and can vary significantly across cultures.

Labeling Theory refers to the idea that individuals become deviant when two things occur:

  1. a deviant label is applied to them (e.g., loner, punk)
  2. they adopt the label by exhibiting the behaviors, actions, and attitudes associated with the label

This approach to deviance recognizes its cultural relativity and is aware that deviance can result from power imbalances. But it takes the idea of deviance further by illustrating how a deviant identity develops through the application and adoption of labels. Labeling theory argues that people become deviant as a result of people forcing that identity upon them and then adopting the identity.

Labels are understood to be the names associated with identities or role-sets in society. Examples of more innocuous labels might include father or lover. Deviant labels refer to identities that are known for falling outside of cultural norms, like loner or punk.

There are two additional ideas related to the labeling theory approach to understanding deviance. First, once a deviant identity is adopted, it is often the case that the past behaviors of the now deviant individual are re-interpreted in light of the new identity. The process of re-casting one's past actions in light of a current identity is referred to as retrospective labeling.

Another important element of labeling theory involves the idea of stigma. Stigma refers to the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance because of some mark of infamy or disgrace or a label that is often difficult to hide or disguise. Stigma extend the idea of labeling theory by illustrating how individual characteristics can be the basis for attaching labels that can be life-altering. A good example of a stigma that is now increasingly difficult to hide is the publishing of convicted sex offender identities and information on websites. The stigma is the past behavior - the sex offense - but this identity is relatively easily hidden as it impossible to pick a sex offender out of a crowd. By pushing the sex offender identity into public purview, sex offenders, regardless of current behavior, are stigmatized; they are stuck with a deviant identity that overwhelms any other identity they may have. In sum, labeling theory argues that the application of labels (role-sets) to individuals is an important element leading to deviant behavior.

Sociologist Edwin Lemert expanded on the concepts of labeling theory, identifying two types of deviance that affect identity formation. Primary deviance is a violation of norms that does not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others. Speeding is a deviant act, but receiving a speeding ticket generally does not make others view you as a bad person, nor does it alter your own self-concept. Individuals who engage in primary deviance still maintain a feeling of belonging in society and are likely to continue to conform to norms in the future.

Sometimes, in more extreme cases, primary deviance can morph into secondary deviance. Secondary deviance occurs when a person’s self-concept and behavior begin to change after his or her actions are labeled as deviant by members of society. The person may begin to take on and fulfill the role of a “deviant” as an act of rebellion against the society that has labeled that individual as such. For example, consider a high school student who often cuts class and gets into fights. The student is reprimanded frequently by teachers and school staff, and soon enough, he develops a reputation as a “troublemaker.” As a result, the student starts acting out even more and breaking more rules; he has adopted the “troublemaker” label and embraced this deviant identity. Secondary deviance can be so strong that it bestows a master status on an individual. A master status is a label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual. Some people see themselves primarily as doctors, artists, or grandfathers. Others see themselves as beggars, convicts, or addicts.

Edwin Sutherland: Differential Association

In the early 1900s, sociologist Edwin Sutherland sought to understand how deviant behavior developed among people. Since criminology was a young field, he drew on other aspects of sociology including social interactions and group learning (Laub 2006). His conclusions established differential association theory, stating that individuals learn deviant behavior from those close to them who provide models of and opportunities for deviance. According to Sutherland, deviance is less a personal choice and more a result of differential socialization processes. A tween whose friends are sexually active is more likely to view sexual activity as acceptable.

Sutherland’s theory may account for why crime is multigenerational. A longitudinal study beginning in the 1960s found that the best predictor of antisocial and criminal behavior in children was whether their parents had been convicted of a crime (Todd and Jury 1996). Children who were younger than 10 when their parents were convicted were more likely than other children to engage in spousal abuse and criminal behavior by their early thirties. Even when taking socioeconomic factors such as dangerous neighborhoods, poor school systems, and overcrowded housing into consideration, researchers found that parents were the main influence on the behavior of their offspring (Todd and Jury 1996).

Travis Hirschi: Control Theory

Continuing with an examination of large social factors, control theory states that social control is directly affected by the strength of social bonds and that deviance results from a feeling of disconnection from society. Individuals who believe they are a part of society are less likely to commit crimes against it.

Travis Hirschi (1969) identified four types of social bonds that connect people to society:

Attachment measures our connections to others. When we are closely attached to people, we worry about their opinions of us. People conform to society’s norms in order to gain approval (and prevent disapproval) from family, friends, and romantic partners.

Commitment refers to the investments we make in the community. A well-respected local businesswoman who volunteers at her synagogue and is a member of the neighborhood block organization has more to lose from committing a crime than a woman who doesn’t have a career or ties to the community.

Similarly, levels of involvement, or participation in socially legitimate activities, lessen a person’s likelihood of deviance. Children who are members of little league baseball teams have fewer family crises.

The final bond, belief, is an agreement on common values in society. If a person views social values as beliefs, he or she will conform to them. An environmentalist is more likely to pick up trash in a park because a clean environment is a social value to him (Hirschi 1969).

The three major sociological paradigms offer different explanations for the motivation behind deviance and crime. Functionalists point out that deviance is a social necessity since it reinforces norms by reminding people of the consequences of violating them. Violating norms can open society’s eyes to injustice in the system. Conflict theorists argue that crime stems from a system of inequality that keeps those with power at the top and those without power at the bottom. Symbolic interactionists focus attention on the socially constructed nature of the labels related to deviance. Crime and deviance are learned from the environment and enforced or discouraged by those around us.

Conformity and deviance are two ways in which people respond to real or imagined pressures from others. In this lecture, we examine the relationship between conformity, deviance, and mechanisms of social control.

  1. A society uses social control to bring about acceptance of basic norms.
  2. Stanley Milgram defined conformity as going along with one's peers; obedience is defined as compliance with higher authorities in a hierarchical structure.
  3. Some norms are so important to a society they are formalized into laws. Socialization is a primary source of conforming and obedient behavior, including obedience to law.
  4. Deviant behavior violates social norms. Some forms of deviance carry a negative social stigma, while other forms are more or less accepted.
  5. From a functionalist point of view, deviance and its consequences help to define the limits of proper behavior.
  6. Interactionists maintain that we learn criminal behavior from interactions with others (cultural transmission). They also stress that for crime to occur, there has to be a convergence of motivated offenders and suitable targets of crime (routine activities theory).
  7. The theory of differential association holds that deviance results from exposure to attitudes favorable to criminal acts.
  8. An important aspect of labeling theory is the recognition that some people are viewed as deviant while others engaged in the same behavior are not.
  9. The conflict perspective views laws and punishments as reflecting the interests of the powerful.
  10. The feminist perspective emphasizes that cultural attitudes and differential economic relationships help explain differences in deviance and crime between the genders.
  11. Crime represents a deviation from formal social norms administered by the state.
  12. Sociologists differentiate among professional crime, organized crime, white-collar crime, and victimless crimes (such as drug use and prostitution).
  13. Crime statistics are among the least reliable social data, partly because so many crimes are not reported to law enforcement agencies.
  14. Many nations have the death penalty, but not all of them use it. Sociologists debate the deterrence effect of capital punishment and the social inequality in its use.


Questions for Review:

1. List three models explain normative rule content

2. Describe two general types of social control

3. Why does deviance occur?

4. How does deviance at affect a society?

5. Which theories of deviant behavior do you know


Date: 2016-03-03; view: 22058

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