Concept of Deviance
Deviance refers to the conducts or actions that violate social norms and are generally of adequate severity to necessitate disapproval from a majority of people in the society (Goode, 2001). Deviance can be criminal or non-criminal. The concept of deviance is broad and complex since norms differ significantly across groups, places, and times i.e. what one group regard as acceptable, may be considered deviant by another group. For instance, female circumcision is acceptable and practiced in some parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, while in the United States the act is immoral and forbidden (Goode, 2001). This paper presents a discussion of deviance in terms of its definitions, theories, characteristics, types, and causes.
Definitions of Deviance
There are two ways of defining deviance: the normative and the relativistic perspectives. The normative perspective puts emphasis on the individual performing the deviant act, while the relativistic perspective focuses on people’s reaction to the person performing the deviant act. In this regard, deviance can be defined either as the person or behavior that violates social norms or regarded by others to be a violation of social norms (Goode, 2001). The following are the normative and relativistic definitions of deviance.
According to the normative definition, deviance refers to the violation of shared social norms and values (Goode, 2001). Norms are social rules that guide people’s conduct. People who violate the norms governing a specific setting are considered deviant. Since deviance is relative both to the behavior and social context where the behavior takes place, the normative definition of deviance, therefore, reflects an interactive process amongst social actors, norms, and setting. In other words, persons who are labeled as deviant engage in behaviors, which are seen to depart from the limits of acceptable conduct governing a particular social setting (Goode, 2001).
According to the relativistic definition of deviance, there are no universal entities which define deviance i.e. persons or their behavior are labeled as deviant depending on how people react to them (Goode, 2001). According to the relativistic definition, deviance is in the beholder’s eye. This approach views the society as too complex to have the universal set of shared standards. Instead, it acknowledges that diversity of values forms the basis of the society (Goode, 2001). High level of consent is not common and various definitions of deviance and normality exist.
Anomie refers to the social condition, which is brought about by emphasizing more on success rather than on acceptable means through which people might attain it (Keel, 2007).
As a result, some people are obliged to achieve success via illegitimate means such as illicit drug selling, prostitution, crime etc. Others who are unable to achieve common social goals turn to addictions or even become mentally disturbed (Keel, 2007). Therefore, according to the anomie theory, deviance results from certain structural strains that put pressure on individuals to become deviant. Sociologist Robert Merton used the term Anomie in the 1960s to describe the variations between socially acceptable goals and the accessibility of the ways of attaining those goals (Keel, 2007). According to this theory, not everybody has the means to attain wealth in order to be viewed as successful in the society, particularly poor, disadvantaged, and minority groups. Consequently, they may use deviant behaviors to achieve their goals or retaliate against the society (Keel, 2007).
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This theory states that behavior is learnt via social interactions and deviance is learnt in the same way as other behaviors. Therefore, people are deviant because they have learnt that crime is more favorable than complying with the societal rules and regulations (Keel, 2007). This theory is based on Akers’s work, which is an expansion of the work of Sutherland. Sutherland asserted in his differential association theory that people learn deviance by interacting with the primary people/ person in their lives (Keel, 2007). Aker modified Sutherland’s work and added certain concepts like the fact that learning takes place via modeling and imitation. The social learning theory can be summarized in the notion that people become deviant since deviance has been differentially defined and reinforced as desirable over compliant behavior (Keel, 2007).
This theory states that the society or organization functions in a manner that every individual participant or group struggles to maximize his or her benefit, and this unavoidably contributes to societal changes like political changes and revolutions (Keel, 2007). Deviant behaviors are acts, which do not comply with the social institutions. The ability of social institutions to change norms, status, or wealth may conflict with the individual or group. In the process, the poor people’s legal rights may be ignored. On the other hand, the middle class may decide to support the elites as opposed to the poor, in hope that by supporting the status quo, they might rise higher in terms of social class (Keel, 2007). Therefore, conflict theory states that the economic and social forces operating in the society cause deviant behavior. In this theory, laws are used as oppression instruments i.e. they are formed for those who are powerless, and are relatively less tough on powerful people in the society (Keel, 2007).
This theory suggests that deviant behaviors are attributed to morally inferior people, after which they internalize the label and act according to their specific label. With time, the “deviants” assume traits which constitute deviance through committing deviant acts that match their labels (Keel, 2007). The labeling theory argues that behaviors are considered deviant only when the society labels them so. In this theory, the dominating group has the power of deciding what is acceptable and deviant and it enjoys the authority behind the labeling process.
Newspaper reporters who investigate specific cases of people who violate social norms often ask about the person who has done those acts. It is vital to point out that journalists typically seek a different type of description as opposed to how sociologists would describe the characteristics of deviants (Orcutt, 2010). Journalists often put emphasis on the unusual and unique traits of individual deviants. On the other hand, sociologists sharing the normative perspective have little interest in details regarding the individual deviants. They instead focus their effort on describing general characteristics, which are instrumental in differentiating deviants from non-deviants (Orcutt, 2010). From the normative perspective, the issue of the deviant person must not be directed at specific individuals, but at differentiating attributes of deviants generally.
Majority of the descriptive work carried out by sociologists within the normative perspective is based on data from the official records of organizations dealing with deviants like law enforcement statistics or psychiatric hospitals’ admission records. Since such records are based on a big numbers of cases in which vital norms have been violated, they are a good source of universal information concerning deviants’ characteristics (Orcutt, 2010). Information from such records is regularly used for the comparison of deviants and non-deviants with regards to variables like residence area, occupation, or race. Describing the distinctive characteristics of deviants can be done by noting the traits which occur more frequently in the official records than within general population. For example, black people who have low-status professions or reside in slums are usually overrepresented in arrest statistics and admissions to psychiatric hospitals (Clinard & Meier, 2010).
Even though the normative approach to deviance has depended on official records as key descriptive data source for a long time, sociologists also had to look for ways to evade the drawbacks of secondary data, which were initially collected for non-sociological reasons. Consequently, sociologists at times administer questionnaires or conduct interviews with deviants so as to collect primary data, which are directly appropriate for sociological purposes. At times, the research is carried out on persons who most often violate social norms e.g. mental patients or prisoners (Orcutt, 2010). Other studies are based on general samples where persons categorized as deviant based on their participation in norm-violating behaviors are answering questions of the questionnaire or interview. All of the above techniques for collecting primary data are called survey techniques. They measure and describe characteristics that are vital to sociologists as opposed to official agencies.
Whether founded on survey information or official records, the collected findings of descriptive research are utilized by the normative approach for deriving empirical generalizations (Orcutt, 2010). Empirical generalizations refer to statements that describe the variations between features of deviants and non-deviants on some social variables. Thus, sociologists are able to get general answers to the question of who is deviant. It is crucial to state that the empirical generalization regarding who is deviant on its own accord does not explain why such people involve themselves in deviant behaviors. Nonetheless deviants’ descriptions do offer vital clues in seeking theoretical explanations of behaviors that are deviant in the normative perspective (Orcutt, 2010).
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The normative definition of deviance provides sociologists with a simple formula for decreasing the bewildering deviant phenomena’s diversity to a universal denominator. Norm violation seems to be an objective and simple standard for the determination of deviants and non-deviants (Orcutt, 2010). The normative definition mostly appeals to a majority of sociologists because it is founded on social norms, which is a well-known phrase within their scientific vocabulary. Social norms are rules that guide behavior and are shared by the society members. The social norm concept has been credited by sociological theory tradition, which views agreement as a fundamental fact of an organized social life (Orcutt, 2010).
According to the tradition, consensus is present in every organized group or society regarding what conduct is proper and anticipated of members. The consensus is shown via norm-shared rules, which channel behaviors in different social life’s areas into predictable and organized patterns. At times, people’s behavior may deviate from the societal normative patterns (Orcutt, 2010). According to the normative definition of deviance, people who violate the shared social norms are called deviants, while their behavior is termed as deviant behavior. The following are some examples of deviants whose behaviors violate social norms.
- Homosexuals are persons who are sexually attracted to people of a same sex. The society encourages heterosexual relationships i.e. romantic relationships between a man and a woman. Therefore, homosexuals are considered deviant because they violate social norms or heterosexuality.
- Lesbians are examples of homosexuals. They are females who engage in same-sex romantic relations. Lesbianism is seen as a violation of social norms, and thereby, lesbians are considered deviant.
- Beatniks are people, particularly members of the Beat Generation, whose conducts, dressing style, and views are considered unconventional (Stuart, 2009). Such individuals are viewed by some people as deviants in the modern society.
- Atheists are persons who deny God’s existence. Because a majority of social groups believe in God, denying His existence is seen as a violation of social norm.
- Political extremists are persons who advocate for measures outside the social norms, particularly in politics, and therefore are viewed as deviants.
- Perverts are viewed as sexual deviants because of their sexual behaviors, which are considered to be beyond the ordinary.
Sociologists in the normative perspective regularly evade the study of social norms and go directly to the study of violators of norms (Akers & Sellers, 2003). Thus, the normative perception of deviation depends on the legal norms indicated by the criminal law, for instance, by the Bill of Rights in the constitution of various countries, which regards human life as sacred. Therefore, taking the lives of others is a crime and people who deviate from the legal norm of preserving human life by killing other people are liable for punishment under the law. The following are some examples of people who are considered deviant because of their criminal behaviors.
Some social norms are very precise and comprise of rules for the conducts of only certain persons in certain situations. For instance, students can be regarded as juvenile delinquents when they violate specific legal norms by engaging in burning up the school or beating their teachers. Juvenile delinquents are persons under the age of eighteen years who engage in acts that would have been considered criminal if the same acts were committed by adults (Akers & Sellers, 2003). About 60-80% of juvenile delinquents are adolescents, but in the recent years, the number of younger boys and girls who are committing crimes has increased significantly (Akers & Sellers, 2003). Some of the causes of juvenile delinquency include peer pressure, parental separation, domestic violence, and broken parent-child relationship among others. Juvenile delinquents engage in criminal behaviors such as killing, burning property, reckless driving etc. All these acts are against the legal norms and, therefore, deserve punishment from the relevant authorities (Akers & Sellers, 2003).
The use and abuse of drugs is prohibited by the laws of many countries and, therefore, going against the law by abusing and selling drugs is considered a crime and is punishable under the law.
Laws of various countries and societies differ regarding alcohol use, with some prohibiting its use, while others allowing it. Consequently, alcoholism may or may not be a crime depending on the society. In the American society, for instance, it is not illegal to consume alcohol. However, there are proper patterns of alcohol utilization, and those who drink alcohol beyond the normal limits are considered as deviants.
Sex within marriage is advocated within most societies, and selling one’s body for money is not allowed. Prostitution is viewed as a violation of not only legal norms but social norms as well. In societies where prostitution is illegal, prostitutes are often harassed, looked down upon, and regarded by the society as immoral.
Human life is regarded as sacred both in the social and legal context, and consequently, murderers are considered deviants because they act against the social norm, which states that people should not kill each other. This is also a legal norm which has been officially enshrined into law and, therefore, murder is a crime that is punishable under the law (Akers & Sellers, 2003).
- Just like murder, molestation is against both social and legal norms of the society and that is why molesters are viewed as deviants.
- Basic criminals.
- Basic criminals are categorized as deviants because they violate legal norms by engaging in acts that go against various laws such as robbery with violence, assault etc.
- Psychiatric Deviance
- Scientific standards in fields like psychiatry have been used as guidelines for detecting deviant behaviors. Persons who exhibit behaviors that are outside the normal range of the expected mental health are considered deviant (Stuart, 2009).
- Persons who are mentally ill are considered by the society as deviant because their minds are affected in a way that makes them unable to act or think normally.
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The normative view of deviance classifies social behavior in two categories: the norm-violating behavior and the conforming behavior (Orcutt, 2010). When compelled to make a choice between these two options, majority of people tend to conform. This is according to the normative perception of deviance. Usually conducts that conform to norms that are common amongst members of the society are rewarded. Therefore, conformity is not a problem both to members of the society and sociologists who share the normative perspective. However, problems occur when people’s behavior goes against the shared social norms. Those who choose to act in ways which violate societal expectations are at risk of being punished by the society (Orcutt, 2010). In explaining why people violate social norms and engage in anti-social behaviors sociologists who share the normative perspective do not see the choice of the deviant as a free choice. Instead, deviant behavior is perceived as a compelled choice, which is determined by factors causing the deviant to behave in a way different from others (Orcutt, 2010). The key problem of this viewpoint is to determine which factors exactly influence this behavior.
It is necessary to point out that besides sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists and biologists are also interested in explaining causes of deviant behavior. Nonetheless, deviant behavior theories in the above disciplines tend to focus on different determining factors than sociological explanations do (Orcutt, 2010). Non-sociological theories have the tendency to look for the causes of deviant behavior inside the deviant person. Such theories attribute deviant behavior to pathology or deficiency in the genetic make up or personality of the deviant (Orcutt, 2010). On the other hand, sociological theories explaining deviant behaviors look for causes of deviant behavior within the deviant’s social environment. Sociologists view unique characteristics of the social relationships of the deviant or the disorganizing and pressure influences within the society as major causes of deviant behaviors (Orcutt, 2010). While scientific theories focus on types of people for explaining the different forms of deviant conduct, sociological theories focus on the types of environment. Therefore, when sociologists try to give a description of the common features of deviants, they are seeking for hints to the types of environmental factors that compel people to act in a deviant way (Orcutt, 2010).
The investigation for vital environmental factors leading to deviant behavior is not carried out randomly. Instead, it is directed by theoretical concepts which define selected social environment aspects worthy of sociological consideration. Similar to concepts of deviance, social environment concepts are defined by the consensus among sociologists (Orcutt, 2010). Here too differences arise in regard to which concepts have the highest value for explaining deviant behavior. Various social environment conceptions form the foundation for important divisions among theoretical approaches to deviant conducts in the normative view (Orcutt, 2010).
One of the major divisions among theoretical approaches in the normative perspective is founded on variations in analysis levels which characterize different social environment conceptions. Normative theories explaining deviant behavior concern both macro and micro levels of analysis (Orcutt, 2010). Macro-level analysis, for instance, is based on the concepts which focus on extremely large-scale social environment features and tries to explain wide variation patterns in deviant behavior. Examples of concepts utilized in macro-level analysis in handling social environment features are community, social institution, or social class (Orcutt, 2010).
On the other hand, micro-level analysis deals with social environment’s small-scale features like face-to-face associations. Micro-level analysis tries to analyze the effect of the immediate social environment of the deviant on his or her conduct. This categorization of theoretical approaches is useful in comprehending sociological justifications of behavior in the normative perspective (Orcutt, 2010). While the two theories fall under the normative perspective because of the common way in which they define deviance, the way they explain deviant behavior is very different because they approach the phenomenon at various levels of analysis (Orcutt, 2010).