Deviance is a form of behavior that violates the social norms of a particular culture or social group. It is generally considered an inherent part of a functioning society influenced by several social and psychological factors and regulated by internal and external mechanisms of social control. There are many sociological theories explaining why deviance exists, what role it plays in society, how it can be regulated, and what the psychological and social predispositions of deviant behavior are.
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Definition of Deviance
Deviance is a behavior that departs from the social norm and generates a negative reaction in a particular group. It includes violations of informal social norms, such as etiquette, that are seen as mildly deviant, and violations of formally enacted rules, such as laws, that are severely punished. As social norms differ throughout society and between cultures, there is no inherently deviant behavior, and what is considered inappropriate in one culture or social group might be normal in another (Shingledecker, 2015). A society’s understanding of acceptable behavior changes over time, and so does the collective perception of deviance. What was once a taboo becomes a norm, and what was once acceptable may turn into deviance as cultural values change.
Functions of Deviance
The theory of functionalism argues that every element of the social structure has a certain function and helps maintain the stability of society in general. According to French sociologist Emile Durkheim, the founder of functionalism, deviance is also a normal and necessary part of social organization that contributes to the social order (Anderson, 2017). In his studies, he identified several specific functions that deviance fulfills.
The first is that deviance helps a society to clarify its moral boundaries and affirms social values and norms. Each functioning society is based on a value consensus, a shared set of norms and values, and one of how this consensus is reinforced is through addressing deviant behavior (Anderson, 2017). The discovery and punishment of wrongdoings remind people about their shared notions of what is right and reinforce the consequences of violating them. Systems of deviance create norms and tell members of a particular society how to behave by establishing the patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Second, deviance promotes and strengthens social unity within a group or society in general. Common reactions to deviant behavior strengthen social bonds. For example, people are brought together when faced with a crime or anti-social behavior affecting the community. On the downside, differences in norms and values between cultures, groups, and societies create boundaries between populations and facilitate an us-versus-them mentality within communities (Anderson, 2017). People who share common social norms and notions of deviance perceive themselves as a group and can act hostile towards people who have different values. Deviance allows group majorities to unite around their worldview, often at the expense of those marked as deviant. On the other hand, is marked as deviant can bolster solidarity within the marked community, facilitating the formation of deviant subcultures that take pride in their stigmatized identity.
Third, deviance promotes social change and can lead to positive social developments. A process of change begins when a society starts to react positively to deviant behavior. This was the case with the African American population in the middle of the 20th century, and with the LGBT community in the second half of the 20th century. People who were considered the worst types of social deviants have gradually started to be accepted in society.
The fourth function of deviance, proposed by sociologist Herbert Gans, is that deviance creates jobs aimed at dealing with deviant behavior. Police, penitentiary system, criminology, social psychology, and rehabilitation centers could not function if society did not acknowledge deviant behavior (Anderson, 2017). On the other hand, people stigmatized as deviants are mainly engaged in undesirable dirty work that most people in society would rather not perform.
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Another theory of deviance is the social control theory developed by Travis Hirschi. It claims that the stronger an individual’s social bonds are, the less likely they are to commit a crime (Ferris & Stein, 2018). Social bonds increase one’s commitment to the community and its shared norms and values and act as mechanisms of social control. Social control is how norms, laws, rules, and structures of society regulate human behavior. Societies cannot exist without controlling their populations, and within each society, both internal and external forces evolve that structure an individual’s behavior.
Types of Social Control
Social control can be either informal, exercised through customs, norms, expectations, and stereotypes, and formal, carried out through laws and official regulations. Social control, both formal and informal, is effected through a system of rewards and punishments (Shingledecker, 2015). Informal control punishments can vary from group to group, from a disapproving look when someone breaks etiquette to more severe sanctions, for example, when an individual violates the rules of conduct in a criminal gang. Formal sanctions for social deviants are usually imposed by the government and include fines, incarceration, or even the death penalty. Methods of punishment vary between societies and groups and can also change over time.
Reasons Behind Deviant Behavior
Despite socialization and social control instruments aimed to prevent deviant behavior, people continue to behave defiantly. It is explained from different perspectives by several sociological theories. The functionalist and conflict theories both focus on aspects of a person’s background that encourage deviant behavior (Ferris & Stein, 2018). For example, studies show that people who have limited access to education and low income are more likely to turn to theft or drug dealing. The labeling theory suggests that a location is also a crucial factor, with people coming from troubled neighborhoods generally behaving more defiantly.
From the psychological point of view, people are inclined to deviance not only under the influence of community and background but also because they are emotionally attracted to this type of behavior. Deviant acts, such as shoplifting or drug use, make people experience certain emotions, such as thrill, excitement, and the satisfaction of not being caught (Ferris & Stein, 2018). A shoplifter tests their ability to be secretly deviant in public while appearing to be perfectly normal. For social deviants, their behavior is a way to experience the feelings that adhering to social norms does not provide.
Deviance is considered to be an integral part of every society and a normal variation of human behavior. As the majority within a society establishes social norms, develops common values, and uses social control mechanisms to ensure coherence, there are always people who do not fit into the established system. While too much deviance can cause serious social problems, an adequate amount of deviance within a group is considered normal and helps to affirm social values and norms, unite the community, and promote positive social changes.
Anderson, L. (2017). Deviance: Social constructions and blurred boundaries. University of California Press.
Shingledecker, N. (2015). Deviance and social control [Video]. Web.
Ferris, K., & Stein, J. (2018). Real world: An introduction to sociology (6th ed.). W. W. Norton.