What is Deviance and why do people commit deviant acts?




A. Deviant behavior is behavior that violates social norms and values shared by people in a particular culture.

1. Sociologists do not use the term 'deviant' to make a moral judgment, but to refer to behavior

that differs from particular cultural norms and values.

2. Crime is a form of deviance consisting of acts that violate norms which have been enacted into criminal law.

3. There are important pressures for conformity; yet deviance also flourishes in all societies. One reason is that contemporary cultures also encourage its members to express their individuality.

B. Modern societies are pluralist; they comprise groups with diverse and often conflicting norms and values.

1. Different groups have different definitions of deviance.

2. Also, some concepts of deviance are contested; for example the murder or killing is considered deviant; this coexists with capital punishment. Yet even those states that allow capital punishment rarely practice it.

3. Consensus is rare; what is deviance depends ultimately on who has the power to make the label stick.

C. under certain circumstances, what appears to be deviant in most situations can become normal; this is true even of such horrific acts such as genocide, the institutionalized practice of systematically killing the members of a particular racial, religious, or ethnic group.

1. According to Hannah Arendt, Adolph Eichmann, the German overseer of the Nazi plan to exterminate Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, was not a unique monster but rather an average bureaucrat. She called this revelation that acts of terror are not extraordinary but relatively easily undertaken under the property of circumstances the 'banality of evil.' 

2. Arendt's insight is corroborated by Christopher Browning's account of the 'ordinary' lower©middle and working©class men who comprised on e of the German police units responsible for executing Jews in Poland.



A. Early studies of deviance favored biological analyses, arguing that body type, genes, or mental capacity could be correlated with deviant behavior.

B. Sociobiologists, who attempt to find the genetic origins of behavior, conducted studies of twins to determine rates of deviance among those with similar and identical genes.

1. Some similarities have been found by analyzing the criminal history of twins, although sociologists have criticized such studies for failing to account for the large majority of cases where one twin had a criminal record and the other did not.

2. Secondly, correlation's with biological factors tend to be low and these studies ignore types f deviance that do not fit the theory (such as white-collar crime).

3. Finally, most studies examine those who are already incarcerated, thus disregarding the sociological process of law enforcement.



A. Functionalist theory attempts to explain thepresence of deviance in society in terms of thefunction it serves for society as a whole.


B. Emile Durkheim, the founder of functionalism, argued that deviance serves the function of defining the moral boundaries of society.

1. According to Durkheim, societies share a consensus on normalcy and deviance. When the consensus breaks down, anomie (the absence of clear-cut norms, or normlessness) is the result.

2. Society provides a sense of what is normal and acceptable behavior through, in part, identifying and punishing what is not normal.


C. Robert K. Merton adapted Durkeim's notion of anomie to provide a functionalist explanation of deviance.

1. According to Merton, structural strain creates a form of anomie that occurs when a gap exists between the goals society sets for people to achieve and the means society provides for people to achieve those goals.

2. Those without the means to achieve society's goals may resort to one of four types of deviant behavior: innovation, ritualism, retreatism, or rebellion.

3. Merton's strain theory is undermined by the fact that groups with access to the social means to achieve their goals still commit many deviant acts.


D. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin argue that the existence of a particular opportunity structure will help to shape the type of deviance that occurs.

1. Not everyone has equal access to deviant options; people who are acquainted with bank robbers are more likely to see bank robbing as a solution than those who have never met a bank robber.


E. Control theories of deviance argue that the cause of deviance is to be found in interpersonal attachments.

1. Gottfriedson and Hirschi theorized that forming strong social bonds with others who disapprove of deviance will keep a person's desire to engage in deviant acts under control.

2. Control theorist point out that most deviant acts are spontaneous acts.



 A. Conflict theorists reject the notion that society is a unitary organism based on a consensus, arguing instead that it is characterized by conflictive differences, including different conceptions of deviance.

1. Certain acts come to be defined as deviant for the society as a whole because those with power have the ability to make and enforce their own notions of deviance.

2. Nevertheless, ruling definitions of deviance can be challenged by those who have less power, as occurred during the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's.

3. Also, while there may be many instances of deviance defined in ways that serve the interests of ruling groups, there are instances where wealthy and powerful people -- including a U.S. President -- have been held accountable for their deviant acts.

 B. Structural contradiction theory argues that conflicts generated by fundamental contradictions in the structure of society are an important source of deviant behavior.

1. For example, for a capitalistic society to thrive, firms must simultaneously promote the notion that people must engage in virtually unlimited consumption to be happy, while keeping wages and salaries down lest rising labor costs undermine profitability.

2. The structural contradictions of capitalism then can lead to declining incomes, job loss, and inequality making it difficult for people to consume all they've been socialized into believing is necessary. This, in turn, leads to a wide variety of deviant behavior, from defaulting on one's bills to cheating on taxes to outright theft.


 A. Labeling theory holds that deviance is the result of the labels attached to us by others.

1. Primary deviance occurs when an activity is labeled as deviant by others

2. Secondary deviance occurs when a person labeled as deviant accepts the label as part of his or her identity, and begins to conform to it.

3. William Chambliss' study of two teenage gangs illustrates selective labeling according to social class. Although both gangs were equally involved in deviant behavior, only the lower©class gang members were labeled as deviant.

 B. Cultural transmission theory suggests that deviant behavior is learned through interaction with others, such that subcultural behaviors can be normative for certain groups and deviant according to others.

1. Differential association holds that deviant behavior is largely the result of associating with other persons whose behavior is deviant.

 C. Symbolic interactionism accounts for all forms of behavior, explaining how all norms and values are learned, deviant and non©deviant.

1. It there fore cannot explain why deviance is more prevalent in some groups than others, why some deviant behavior tends to diminish with age, or why it is that some groups have more power to label than others.



 A. Feminist criminologists point out that studies of deviance are biased because almost all of the research is on males.

1. By ignoring the female population, variation in rates of deviance by gender are not explained.

 B. Feminist theory incorporates gender©specific socialization, labeling, and victimization into theories of deviance.


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Last revised - February 12, 1998
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