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July 17, 2017
by Russ Long

I.     A General Definition of Deviance

Deviance is behavior that some people in society find offensive and which excites, or would excite, if it were discovered, disapproval, punishment, condemnation, or hostility. Deviance is behavior that is likely to get you into trouble. Deviant behavior is outside the bounds of the group or society (Goode, 1997:37).

Many times during a day we disagree with people, but we don't usually label those we disagree with as deviant. Deviance is not simply behavior. It involves a moral judgment. Deviance involves a judgment made by somebody. Actually, any act can be defined as deviant (See Henslin, 1999:192).

II.     Deviance: A Relative Term

It's not possible to isolate certain acts and find them universally condemned by all societies as deviant acts (Not even murder or incest). Even within a given society, behavior defined as deviant continually undergoes redefinition.

Deviance, furthermore, is relative to time and place. It is not possible to find something that is absolutely condemned by all societies. Behavior that is deviant in one society may not be in another. Even within one society, what is deviant today may not be deviant tomorrow.

Three examples that highlight the relative nature of deviance are provided below:

A.     Is killing wrong?

Usually it is. But, is murder wrong when it is done in self-defense or in warfare? Vietnam veterans were taught to be efficient killers for war, but could not control themselves when reintroduced into civilian life.

B.     What about the case of Nelson Mandela?

For years, the ruling party in South Africa viewed him as a "dangerous political deviant." To most South Africans, those who are Black, Mandela is a revered leader of the freedom movement (see Kornblum, 1988:201).

C.     Was Panache Villa a deviant?

The social status of a bandit, particularly one whose activities have political overtones, is ambiguous. To those who are being robbed, as the bandit gains status (and wealth and power), the bandit is seen as even more deviant. To the poor, however, bandits are sometimes seen as rebels who reject the normal roles that poor people are expected to play. Through their bandit activities people like Pancho Villa are able to display courage, cunning, and determination (See Kornblum, 1988:212).

III.     Examples of Relative Definitions of Deviance:
Using Mental Health Examples

Definitions of mental disorders occur in much the same fashion that other forms of deviance receive their definitions. Many times the definition is quite vague and varies "depending on the culture, audience, and context." Behavior alone does not add up to mental disorder. Context is important (Eitzen, 1986:456-7).

A.     Class Context

If a poor woman shoplifts a roast, people call her a common criminal. On the other hand, if a rich woman steals a roast, her deviant status is kleptomaniac -- a form of mental illness.

B.     Sexual Context

If a woman is sexually promiscuous, she might find herself labeled as a nymphomaniac, while a man is a stud, macho, swinger, etc.

C.     Professional vs. Domestic Context

A man may be punctual and obedient during the week while he is at work, but on Saturday afternoon he raises hell while watching the afternoon foot ball game. Both behaviors, while appearing contradictory, are "normal" in their respective contexts. But, if he took Saturday's behavior to the office he would find himself labeled as strange and he might even get fired. On the other hand, passive behavior at a Saturday afternoon football game would be considered a social drag and his peers would not want to watch football with him anymore.

D.     Cultural Context

Abstinence for two years after marriage in the West would be viewed as weird and grounds for annulment. Such behavior is, however, required for newlyweds in the Dani Tribe of New Guinea. Sexual activity for the Dani before two years would be viewed as sexual deviance.

E.     Time Context

People used to be burned at the stake for engaging in behavior that most twentieth-century people see as normal.

IV.     Demonic Possession:
Religious Explanations of Deviance

For a long time the Western view of deviance has been strongly influenced by the church's view which dates back to the 4th century. Religious Explanations are the oldest of all explanations for deviance. Goode (1997:65) notes that from the beginning of time to roughly the 1700s, the most dominant explanations of deviance invoked visions of evil spirits. The deviant is seen as morally deprived and perhaps possessed by the devil. The cause is seen as residing inside the individual.

Evil spirits possess the victim. Alcoholism is seen as a weakness, mental illness is seen as irresponsibility, criminal and deviant acts result from giving in to our evil nature, sexual deviance is seen as moral depravity, and rebellion is seen as immaturity. In each case the cause of deviance lies within the individual.

It is easy to blame individuals. Societal-based problems are difficult to understand and even more difficult to correct. People seem to prefer what is easiest. Even today, people have trouble understanding that the cause of conditions they do not like may, in fact, be social in origin.

Solutions used to correct demonic possession seem bazaar. Holes were drilled in the head of hosts to let the evil spirits escape. Exorcisms were also employed. The witches of Salem were brutalized! Demonic possession lost it popularity around the 1700s.

V.     The Positivist School:
Biological Theories of Deviance

The positivist school of the second half of the 19th century argues that deviant behavior was dictated by forces beyond the control, or even the awareness, of individuals. Positivists argued that biological abnormalities provided valid explanations for deviance.  In essence, genetic predispositions create inborn tendencies to commit deviant acts.

According to the positivist philosophers, only through scientific inquiry could one understand the forces that drive society.

Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909), a well-known positivist, argued that physical abnormalities that afflict people cause them to pursue deviant (or criminal) activity. Lombroso argued that criminals were throwbacks to some sort of pre-human. Lombroso (in Kendall, 1998:191) called these criminal types Atavists. He claimed that prisoners had "low foreheads and smaller than normal human cranial capacities" (1998:191). Lombroso thought that he could predict deviant behavior based on skull and body types.

A.     Critique:

Biological explanations for deviance are almost useless. There is no consistent evidence that supports the belief that social temperament is related to body type. This approach ignores the interactions of the individual with the environment. Research shows that most people, who have suspect genetic traits, are not deviant. Furthermore, the vast majority of criminals do not have irregular genetic patterns.

Example: XXY

Perhaps the very fact that people look different than the general population draws attention to those people. When that individual does something deviant, attention is already focused upon that individual. Previous suspicions become justified.

B.     A Variant on Positivism

A new type of sociobiological theory tries to apply positivist philosophy to street crime. The general argument here is that it requires stamina to be a criminal so those people with the most stamina will be more likely to commit crimes. This would include the young and men.

Other biological theories look for links between higher rates of aggression in men to levels of testosterone or chromosomal abnormality. This research, however, produces no consistent findings (Kendall, 1998:192).

VI.     Functionalism

Functionalist theories focus on the preservation of social order. Deviance helps maintain social cohesion and the collective conscious.

A.     Functional Deviance

1.     Deviance Contributes to Social Order

Durkheim emphasized the importance of deviance in society as a tool for boundary maintenance. The media, who reports on deviance and the accompanying punishment, serve to educate the public by restating society's rules. Punishing violators reaffirms the rightness of society and its rules.

Degradation ceremonies

Rituals play a role in boundary maintenance (see Henslin, 1999:211). A group that discovers a deviant in their fold will attempt to "mark" that deviant for everyone can see. The individual is called before the group to account for his or her deviance. People will testify against him. The individual is found guilty. Finally, an effort is made to strip the individual of his or her group membership. An example of degradation ceremonies is a court martial where a guilty officer is publicly stripped of his rank. The officer is forced to stand at attention while the insignia of his rank is ripped from his uniform (Henslin, 1999:211).

2.     Deviance Contributes to Social Change

Deviance is an important element of social change because it offers alternative definitions to what is right. Sometimes the alternative becomes acceptable and it may even become the dominant view.

Durkheim noted that the death of Socrates paved the way for intellectual freedom. Much of the civil and human rights legislation, as well as public sentiment, have been influenced by the behavior of those whose actions were originally judged to be in violation of the law or accepted moral convention. For civil rights, deviant behavior called attention to inadequacies in the existing system of race relations. Today's crime may be tomorrow's accepted behavior.

3.     Dysfunctional Deviance

Functionalists (Goode, 1997:100-101) like to concern themselves with those forms of deviance that assist in maintaining the social order. Dysfunctional deviance would be those types of deviance that threaten the social order. I suppose some forms of political deviance might be considered here.

B.     Control Theory

Kendall (1998:193) suggests that one functionalist perspective raises the question, why don't people engage in more deviance than they do? An assumption of Control Theory is that people have a strong desire to be deviant.   Control theory assumes that people are hedonists.

Henslin (2004:143) suggests that people often do not engage in deviance because they have outer containments emanating from a supportive family and friends.  Significant others reinforce the idea that deviance is wrong. People also have inner containments such as self-control and a sense of responsibility that reduce deviance.

Anomie or Strain Theory:
Robert Merton's Typology of Deviance

The historic foundations of the Anomie or Strain Theory go back to the work on Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton. For both sociologists, the cause of deviance is found in disturbances in the social structure. People who encounter disturbances in social structure experience stress. Durkheim was the first sociologist to investigate how disturbances in social structure prompt one to commit suicide. Both wanted to know what accounted for the varying rates of deviancies found cross-culturally and between social classes. Durkheim called the sensation associated with stress anomie.

Anomie or Strain Theory contends that social structure puts varying degrees of stress on individuals in society. In order to cope with the stress individuals will begin to purse unconventional means to relieve that stress. In essence, deviance (unconventional means) arises from purely conventional sources.

I.     Robert Merton's Explanation of Deviance

The following material represents Merton's attempt to explain deviance. According to Merton, deviance is an adaptation by individuals to the dominant culture. Discrepancies exist between cultural (material) goals and structural opportunities. As the discrepancy grows between the material goals of society and the means to achieve those goals, the individual experiences more and more internal conflict.

Example: Poor people internalize middle-class goals, like wanting a home in a middle-class suburb. They learn to want goals, such as owning a color TV or new home, from sources such as the mass media or school. The means to achieve their goal, however, is difficult to find. Good paying jobs are scarce. Society has not provided the means to achieve those goals. Unable to achieve their goal, they experience stress.

In order to relieve the stress the individuals violate the "goals" defined important by society or they violate the "means" to achieve those goals. Note that individuals approach the means-ends discrepancy in different ways.

Merton argues that poor people, who cannot achieve goals determined worthy by the dominant society, use illegitimate means to achieve legitimate goals. Society defines success through the ownership of material possessions such as cars or color TVs. The individual, however, cannot find legitimate means, like a job, to finance that TV. The next course of action for the individual is to use illegitimate means, like stealing, to get that TV.

People from the middle-class, however, are less inclined to steal. They have more at stake in the system. A person from the middle-class who steals may suffer greater criticism compared with a poor person who steals the same TV. When people from the middle-class experience discrepancies between goals and opportunities, they tend to use illegitimate goals while using conventional means. A response by a middle-class person may be to continue to "work hard," but deny that they need a new home or color TV.

Merton presents the following typology of Deviance. According to Merton, people conform to either the opportunities and goals defined by society or they engage in four types of deviance:

II.     Merton's Typology

Conformity: The individual conforms to the dominant culture. Here the individual experiences no problem in terms of goals and the means that society provides to achieve those goals. There is, therefore, no need to engage in deviance to obtain goals deemed worthy by society.

A.     Innovation

Innovators are people who accept the goals of society. For some reason, like poverty, they cannot achieve societies' goals by legitimate means. They have to use illegitimate means such as stealing.

B.     Ritualism

People who ritualize have similar problems that the innovator experiences, but for ritualists the individual rejects the goals, but accepts the means. The individual may, for example, choose to work hard knowing that he or she is not going to achieve the goals that society defines as worthy because they do not get paid enough.  People from the middle class may tend to ritualize.

C.     Retreatism

People who are retreatists reject both the means and goals of society. Drug addicts and vagrants are examples of people who retreat.

D.     Rebellion

The individual rejects the culture (values, goals, norms). These individuals pursue alternative cultures. Included in this group are revolutionaries and some gangs.

III.     Critiques of Merton's Typology

Many functionalist arguments, like the ones presented above, are easy to critique because their positions are usually very rigid and simplistic. They assume that what exists and is dominant is correct.

  1. Functionalists assume that people who are not a part of the dominant culture automatically use the dominant culture as their point of reference. Note that functionalists define legitimate and illegitimate from a middle-class point of view.
  2. Even if we accept the middle-class point of reference, Merton assumes that people who do not have access to goals by legitimate means automatically have access by illegitimate means. How do you steal a color TV? Criminal activity is also a skilled profession. An individual does not just wake up one morning and say to him or herself: "I think I'll rob a TV store today!"
  3. Merton assumes that people who have access to legitimate means and goals automatically use legitimate means and goals. The drug "problem" in middle-class high schools demonstrates that people who have access to legitimate means still engage in deviance. Another example that contradicts Merton's claims is the large number of middle-class teenagers who shoplift merchandise at shopping malls. They do not engage in this activity because they do not have access to means and/or goals. They shoplift because their life is boring.
  4. There is also a problem with cause and effect. We assume that because a person cannot achieve legitimate goals in society that he automatically turns to deviance (like drug use). Perhaps the cause and effect travel in the opposite direction. The individual may get into drugs, which in turn blocks their access to legitimate goals in society (via drug tests).
  5. Finally, when an individual cannot achieve legitimate goals, Merton assumes failure with reference to the person engaging in the deviance. This assumption is misplaced. If someone is a successful "hustler," how can we say that person is a failure? He or she is achieving something illegitimately, which means that the individual must have to work extra hard to be a success at his or her deviant profession.

VII.     Social Disorganization
and the Chicago School

In the early and mid-1900s the Chicago school emerged and shifted the emphasis away from individual pathology to social structure. It represented an attempt to uncover the complex relationship between deviance and neighborhood. The Chicago School discovered the highest rates of deviance in neighborhoods that were considered transitional in that there was a lot of in-0 and out-migration. According to the Chicago perspective, entire neighborhoods had become disorganized.

The transitional neighborhood where one would expect to find deviance according to the Chicago school has the following characteristics:

  1. They are neighborhoods where immigrants first came. There is a high concentration of immigrants.
  2. The population is geographically unstably. There is rapid movement of populations into and out of the transitional neighborhood.
  3. The transitional neighborhoods contain a variety of racial and ethnic groups.
  4. Population density is very high.
  5. Poverty
  6. Low levels of education.

A.     Gangs and the transitional neighborhood

Frederick Thrasher found a greater number of gangs in transitional neighborhoods than in more stable neighborhoods. He noted that the gang is a social creation. The gang is the way people organize themselves to cope with disorganized neighborhoods. The gang functions in two ways. First, it offers a substitute for what society fails to give. Second, it provides relief from suppression and distasteful living conditions. In this respect the gang fills a gap and affords an escape at the same time.

B.     A Critique of the Chicago School

There is a bias associated with the Chicago school perspective. "Disorganization" uses middle-class points of view.

1.     Research that followed the Chicago school found that, in fact, ghetto neighborhoods demonstrate a lot of organization. The kind of organization found in poor neighborhoods, however, is simply different from that found in middle-class neighborhoods.

Example: The Role of the Church in Black Communities.

2.     Furthermore, many of the activities viewed as deviant in poor communities, were also committed in middle-class suburban areas.

VIII.     Interactionist Perspective:
Differential Association

Differential association is the first of two Interactionist perspectives. Goode (1997:87-90) contends that Edwin Sutherland's Differential Association Theory is one of the more important theories in the study of deviance. It arose as a critique to those theories that sought biological explanations for deviance. According to differential association theory, people learn to be deviant (see Henslin, 1999:198-99).

Goode (1997) maintains that one learns deviance the same as one learns to brush their teeth. People learn to be deviant by associating with people who are deviant. Criminal knowledge, skills, values, traditions, and motives are passed on by word of mouth.

A.     Differential Association: Priority and Intensity:

People develop deviant life styles when they deferentially associate with people who support norm violations. It is not especially necessary for people to associate with actual criminals, all that is needed is that criminal definitions are common.

1.     Priority

The earlier in life that one is exposed to deviant attitudes, the greater the chance the individual will learn and internalize those attitudes.

2.     Intensity

The more one associates with deviants, the greater the chance the individual will develop deviant attitudes and skills.

B.     A Critique of Differential Association

As with all perspectives, this one has its biases. In this case, the critique centers on the proposition that deviance is learned. Not all deviance can be accounted for using this assumption.

  1. Some individuals, in fact, create deviance anew.
  2. Certain types of crime (or deviance) do not fit the differential association pattern. Crimes of passion are a good example. Also, upper-class crimes may fit here. Wartime black market activities may also fit.
  3. Further, many people are exposed to deviance, but are generally law abiding.

Illegitimate Opportunity Structure

In order to be a successful at anything, one has to have opportunity.  In order to be a successful teacher, one has to have access to college and teaching opportunities.  One might call access to college and teaching opportunity, a legitimate opportunity.

In order to be a successful criminal, one has to have an "opportunity" to engage in crime.  A person cannot just decide to be a criminal. He/she would be a miserable failure because he/she does not have contacts. Henslin (2004:149) notes that in poor neighborhoods, people have an unusually high access to illegitimate opportunities to engage in robbery, theft, drug dealing, etc.

IX.     Interactionist Perspective:
Labeling Theory

Henslin (2004:144) argues that labeling theory focuses in the names and reputations of names or reputations given to people when they engage in certain types of behavior.  Kendall (1998:196)argues that "delinquents and criminals are people who have been successfully labeled as such by others."

Moral Entrepreneurs

The labeling, according to Howard Becker, is done by moral entrepreneurs. They are people who use their own views of right and wrong to establish rules and label others as deviant. Kendall (1998:196) contends that the process of labeling is "directly related to the power and status of the people who do the labeling and those who are being labeled."

Labeling theory calls attention to two kinds of deviance.

A.     Primary Deviance

This refers to the act of breaking a rule.

B.     Secondary Deviance

Henslin (2004:146) notes that sometimes people become more deviant as a result of being labeled as deviant.  This happens because the label becomes a part of the person's self-concept.

Secondary deviance is the process that occurs when a person who has been labeled a deviant accepts that new identity and continues the deviant behavior (Kendall, 1998:196).

According to Henslin (2004:146), labels open and close doors.   Once a person is labeled as deviant, often that person is forced to have almost exclusive contact with other deviants.

Saints and the Roughnecks

Under the topic of the power of labeling, Henslin (2004:146) provides a study where a group of troubled kids are labeled as Saints and Roughnecks. The Saints were treated positively and none had future arrest records while the Roughnecks were treated as if they were degenerates, and later on experienced numerous problems with the police.

X.     Conflict Theory: Deviance as
Acts Condemned by the Powerful

The community defines deviance. People, as they interact, define what is appropriate and what is not. Some people in the community have more power than other to define deviance. People who occupy high positions within economic and political sectors are in a better position to determine what laws are enacted and to enforce their definitions of deviance.

The upper class is in a better position to determine what crimes are seen as serious and they tend to point to problems associated with the lower classes. Organizations with financial backing are better equipped to present its impressions of deviance.

See: White-Collar Crime


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