KeywordsDeviant Behavior Psychopathic Trait Implicit Attitude Positive Deviance Label Theory
At base, deviance simply refers to any variation about some cultural norm: a societal expectation about how to think or behave. It represents a departure or violation, trivial or significant, from some socially accepted normative structure in society. This general definition implies that a vast range of beliefs, behaviors, and conditions can be considered deviant, depending on broader historical and cultural contexts, and specific social situations within those contexts.
Deviance cannot be understood apart from the concept of norms. There are two basic types of norms, folkways and mores. The former refers to routine expectations such as standing the appropriate distance from a stranger in an elevator. The latter deal with more serious acts of deviance and have stronger moral implications, such as harming another person. This distinction is important as it has relates to how and whether deviance is informally or formally sanctioned.
The study of deviance, and how people respond to it, has been the subject of scholarly research for many years. When considering its implicit presence in criminological research and theorizing and in explanations of mental illness and social problems, it has been the subject of professional inquiry for centuries. More than other topics, the historical study of deviance has been mired in superstition, bias, and pseudoscience. For instance, consider the medieval era supernaturalist explanations of demonic possession in explaining the behaviors of the mentally ill. The nineteenth-century empirical investigations which promoted the idea that deviance and crime were inherited traits likewise misunderstood the nature of deviance. The work of Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), an early criminologist, argued that individuals were “born criminal.” To understand deviant behaviors from his model, it was imperative to investigate the individual’s physiology, since deviant inclinations were thought to be a product of an inherited pathology. Even early context-focused explanations for deviance, such as poor socialization, ultimately viewed deviancy as expressions of abnormalities within the person.
Most scholars today employ a different, more sociological paradigm, in which deviance is not located within individuals, but between them. That is, deviance is a product of social interaction and societal definition in which social power, context, timing, and other contingencies explain the causes and consequences of deviance. Of course, depending on the kind of deviance under investigation, there is still reason to employ a biological perspective, and the individualistic assumptions that underlie it. The psychopathic traits of serial murderers, to take an extreme example, cannot be understood simply as the outcome of societal definitions of deviance. However, for most violations of societal norms, a perspective centered on the social psychological dynamics of deviance helps explain the “ordinary” deviance of everyday life. As such, it is this paradigm that underlies the discussion below regarding the conceptualization and study of deviance in the modern social world.
The Absolutist Versus Relativist Perspective
The most essential starting point for conceptualizing deviance is to evaluate whether it is premised on absolutist or relativist assumptions. An absolutist perspective suggests deviance is inherent or “located” within the act itself. Stealing is wrong from this view because the behavior violates a universal, natural, or essential moral code. It is thought to be intrinsically harmful to those involved and to society at large. An absolutist would argue theft is deviant, regardless of time, place, or surrounding circumstances. Absolutists often appeal to an external moral authority, such as God, wherein the justification for the wrongfulness of the act lies outside human judgment. Anne Hendershott’s (2002) “natural law” view of deviance and Barbara Costello’s (2006) “harm-based” conception of deviance are contemporary examples that argue for the merits of an absolutist perspective on deviance.
Conversely, relativism suggests that beliefs and behaviors are not intrinsically deviant or immoral, but premised on the ways in which society responds to them. Relativists argue that deviance lies in the eye of the beholder, not in the act itself. Consider an underprivileged and unemployed mother who steals groceries to feed her child, being unable to afford them after paying rent. In this case, the essence of deviance is not contained in the act of the mother stealing groceries. Rather, the act is deviant because the store manager, the police, and society label it as such. Relativists are concerned with the context in which deviance takes place and would be slow to claim this act is equal to any other act of stealing by dint of the intrinsic, universal deviance of theft. Howard Becker’s labeling theory (1991), which argues that deviance is not “given” in particular behaviors, but is instead the product of societal labels, serves as the classic statement of the relativist position on deviance. It is also relativist assumptions, implicitly or explicitly, which dominate most scholarship on deviance today.
The ABC’s of Deviance
Individuals can acquire the status of deviant along three basic dimensions, or the ABC’s of deviance: attitudinal, behavioral, and conditional (Adler and Adler 2016). Aberrant religious beliefs, radical political views, and racial bigotry are examples of attitudinal deviance because they express its cognitive level, whereas the behavioral dimension involves perceivable actions of individuals that violate normative expectations. The latter is what comes to mind for most when thinking about the concept of deviance, as it involves observable behaviors. From standing too close to someone during a conversation to violating unwritten gender codes through dress and to committing a violent act, the possibilities for behavioral deviance run long.
Conditional deviance refers to conspicuous attributes of the person. These can be either achieved or ascribed deviant statuses, that is, those chosen or involuntarily acquired (respectively). These are conditions of the person; a physical disability, copious tattoos and piercings, or even being born into extreme poverty or wealth, all constitute things about the individual that can confer on them a deviant status. These three dimensions are not mutually exclusive; they can overlap and influence each other in some cases. The person whose extreme religious beliefs (attitudinal) motivates an act of violence (behavioral) and in the process suffers conspicuous injuries (conditional) has trespassed all three categories.
Types, Forms, and Functions of Deviance
Not all deviance is the same. There are distinguishable types, forms, and functions of deviance, each with different implications and consequences. Four basic types have been distilled in the sociological literature (see Adler and Adler 2016): (1) positive deviance, (2) negative deviance, (3) rate busting, and (4) deviance admiration. Each type hinges on two elements. The first element involves whether the belief or behavior violates a norm by either not conforming or over-conforming to societal expectations. The second refers to the ways in which others respond to that violation. With positive deviance, a person over-conforms to a norm and receives a positive evaluation. Altruists and philanthropists over-conform to the norms of giving and being charitable. When they receive praise for this, they have engaged in positive deviance.
Negative deviance, in contrast, involves not conforming to a social norm and receiving a negative response in return. Driving on the wrong side of the road and defrauding an elderly person with an Internet scam are examples. Rate busting, like positive deviance, involves over-conformity to a norm, but, unlike positive deviance, elicits a negative response. The excessively diligent student who goes beyond expectations in classroom, but who develops a negative reputation as a “teacher’s pet,” rather than an excellent student, has engaged in this type of deviance. Finally, deviance admiration refers to those who do not conform to social norms, but who nevertheless garner a positive response from others. The Robin Hood character, despite his thievery, is evaluated positively. Even famous mobsters convicted of terrible crimes, when remembered and adored by the public, have elicited deviance admiration.
At least three forms of deviance can be identified: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary deviance refers to initial acts of deviance that generally go unnoticed, whereas secondary deviance suggests continued, more conspicuous deviant behaviors. The instance of a child stealing a candy bar from the local grocery store might be dismissed as a one-off event. No one feels compelled to brand the child as a thief. However, if this same child continues to steal as he or she moves through adolescence, occasionally being caught and punished, this child will likely experience a societal label as a shoplifter or thief.
The key point distinguishing primary from secondary deviance is not the act itself, but whether it paves the way for the labeling process and its implications regarding whether the individual adopts, rejects, or otherwise manages a deviant label/identity placed upon them. Tertiary deviance, by sharp contrast, deals with neither the acceptance nor rejection of a deviant label, but with its active embrace. Members of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, for instance, reject only the idea that being fat is deviant. Instead, they embrace the label “fat” as a positive lifestyle choice and attempt to change not their weight or appearance, but society’s mind regarding the issue. Some kinds of deviance, such as disordered eating or self-injury, can have individuals moving through all three forms of deviance as a series of stages.
Finally, much scholarship on deviance has focused on its social functions. This involves the counterintuitive idea that deviance is not simply something society would be better off without. Rather, violations of norms serve a purpose in the aggregate. That is, they benefit society in a number of ways. There are four basic functions of deviance (see Adler and Adler 2016): (1) boundary definition, (2) social cohesion and integration, (3) social change, and (4) full employment. The first, consistent with the relativist perspective, observes that deviance is fluid, not static. Some behaviors that were normative in the past are now generally considered deviant, such as smoking. Other acts once considered deviant are now more widely accepted, such as gay marriage or recreational marijuana use.
Deviance can also bring about cohesion and integration within social groups. For instance, tragedies or acts of terrorism can serve to unite a community. Progressive social movements that lead to positive change in society – the third function of deviance – almost always begin with acts that are considered deviant, or even unlawful, such as the beginning stages of the civil rights movement. Finally, there is a practical dimension to deviance. Full employment refers to the fact that if deviant behaviors in society suddenly ceased, many people would be out of a job, such as those who work in the criminal justice system or even the entertainment industry.
Studying and Theorizing Deviance
Studying deviance brings with it unique challenges. Many of the typical methods employed to study normative behaviors are simply ineffective when applied to deviant settings. For instance, researchers wanting to learn about drug trafficking or self-injury are unlikely to gather useful data through surveys or posting recruitment flyers for interviews. Rather, these settings would require the artful employment of longitudinal fieldwork in which the researcher would need to find a “gatekeeper” to gain access. He or she would then have to work at developing trust among those being studied, balance different roles as a researcher (e.g., overt versus covert), negotiate an insider or outsider status, and perhaps make difficult choices depending on what the situation, and ethics, demand.
But successfully being able to gather data on a deviant population or setting would mean little without a theoretical framework for making sense of the data. Over decades, various theories have influenced the modern understanding of deviance. Some of the most influential theoretical approaches to deviance include functionalist, constructionist, and critical theories. Functionalist theories, such as strain theory, take a macro-level approach and argue that deviance is the product of a disjuncture between legitimate goals in society and an individual’s relative ability and opportunity to achieve those goals.
For instance, when an individual is impeded from obtaining a lucrative career that will allow them to afford a nice home (a normative goal) because they cannot afford tuition for the degree required for that career (the legitimate means), they might instead turn to selling drugs (illegitimate means) to reach their goal. In other words, the individual’s deviance is explained by the structural arrangements in which he finds himself, not because of some intrinsic personal disposition to deviant behavior. Other microlevel constructionist theories such as labeling theory, or differential association theory, focus on how individuals are labeled deviant or how they learn deviant behaviors in the context of their interactions with others in daily life. With the former, a person labeled a criminal might find reason to continue criminal behaviors by way of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Regarding the latter, one is said to learn the techniques and reasons for engaging in deviant behavior in much the same way any other behavior is learned. Finally, critical perspectives, such as feminist analyses of deviance, point out the ways in which the deviant behavior of women and girls is often explained by the unique challenges they face in a patriarchal society. Critical perspectives focus on issues of social power and highlight its relevance regarding the social actors involved. From this view (and that of labeling and other theories), it is critically important to assess not just what is defined as deviant, but who is doing the defining.
Deviance is a fluid and multifaceted phenomenon. It has different forms, types, and functions, is uniquely challenging to study, and can be understood from a variety of theoretical frameworks. It can be examined at both the individual and collective level, and it varies by historical and cultural context. Because of this fluidity, many scholars today take a relativist position on deviance and view it as something that is socially constructed in society by people and the ways in which they create and respond to both norms and their violation. Deviance is very consequential for both the individual and society and will likely fascinate and engage scholars and laypersons alike for many years to come.
- Adler, P. A., & Adler, P. (2016). Constructions of deviance: Social power, context, and interaction. Boston: Cengage Learning.Google Scholar
- Becker, H. S. (1991). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
- Hendershott, A. (2002). The politics of deviance. San Francisco: Encounter Books.Google Scholar