In sociology, deviance describes an action or behavior that violates social norms, including a formally enacted rule (e.g., crime), as well as informal violations of social norms (e.g., rejecting folkways and mores). It is the purview of sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and criminologists to study how these norms are created, how they change over time and how they are enforced.
While a human society is a group of people involved in persistent interpersonal relationships, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or social territory, typically subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations. Human societies are characterized by patterns of relationships (social relations) between individuals who share a distinctive culture and institutions; a given society may be described as the sum total of such relationships among its constituent members. In the social sciences, a larger society often evinces stratification or dominance patterns in subgroups.
Insofar as it is collaborative, a society can enable its members to benefit in ways that would not otherwise be possible on an individual basis; both individual and social (common) benefits can thus be distinguished, or in many cases found to overlap.
A society can also consist of like-minded people governed by their own norms and values within a dominant, larger society. This is sometimes referred to as a subculture, a term used extensively within criminology.
More broadly, and especially within structuralist thought, a society may be illustrated as an economic, social, industrial or cultural infrastructure, made up of, yet distinct from, a varied collection of individuals. In this regard society can mean the objective relationships people have with the material world and with other people, rather than “other people” beyond the individual and their familiar social environment.
Norms are rules and expectations by which members of society are conventionally guided. Deviance is an absence of conformity to these norms. Social norms differ from culture to culture. For example, a deviant act can be committed in one society that breaks a social norm there, but may be normal for another society.
Viewing deviance as a violation of social norms, sociologists have characterized it as “any thought, feeling, or action that members of a social group judge to be a violation of their values or rules “or group” conduct, that violates definitions of appropriate and inappropriate conduct shared by the members of a social system. The departure of certain types of behavior from the norms of a particular society at a particular time and “violation of certain types of group norms where behavior is in a disapproved direction and of sufficient degree to exceed the tolerance limit of the community.
Deviance can be relative to time and place because what is considered deviant in one social context may be non-deviant in another (e.g., fighting during a hockey game vs. fighting in a nursing home). Killing another human is considered wrong, except when governments permit it during warfare or for self defense. Deviant actions can be mala in se or mala prohibita.
Deviance is any behavior that violates social norms, and is usually of sufficient severity to warrant disapproval from the majority of society. Deviance can be criminal or non‐criminal. The sociological discipline that deals with crime (behavior that violates laws) is criminology (also known as criminal justice).
Deviant acts can be assertions of individuality and identity, and thus as rebellions against group norms of the dominant culture and in favor of a sub-culture.
Deviance affirms cultural values and norms. It also clarifies moral boundaries, promotes social unity by creating an us/them dichotomy, encourages social change, and provides jobs to control deviance. “Certain factors of personality are theoretically and empirically related to workplace deviance, such as work environment, and individual differences. “Situated in the masculinity and deviance literature, this article examines a “deviant” masculinity, that of the male sex worker, and presents the ways men who engage in sex work cope with the job.”
In the seminal 1961 report The Girl Delinquent and the Male Street-Corner Gang, Martha S. Lewis wrote that female juvenile delinquents were attracted to male gang members and the gang sub-culture.
Deviance is defined as any action that is perceived as violating a society’s or group’s cultural norm. Norms dictate what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behavior across cultures. One category of deviance is crime, which occurs when someone violates a society’s formal laws. Criminal deviance spans a wide range of behavior, from minor traffic violations to arson to murder. Our previous examples of Tyler robbing a convenience store and Anna driving over the speed limit both fit into this category. However, laws make up only one piece of a complex system of countless rules – formal, informal, written, implied, etc. – to which we are expected to conform. Any act of nonconformity to these rules is considered deviant.
For example, something as simple as wearing sweat pants to work is an act of nonconformity to a (usually) informal rule/expectation, and it makes that someone a deviant. Small deviant acts like this are very common. How many people do you know (including yourself) that have forgotten to return a library book on time, ran a red light, or played hooky from work or school?
Nonconformity isn’t always a negative instance of rule breaking. We can also include behaviors that fall into the category of ‘overachievement’ as deviant. What deviant actions – negative or positive – have in common is that they are different from the norm. Gretchen is clearly not performing an act of criminal deviance by choosing to keep her maiden name. However, taking the husband’s surname is a norm in our society. Because she violated that norm, she is still performing a deviant act.
The concept of deviance is complex because norms vary across cultures, and what one group or society considers deviant, may not be considered deviant in another group or society. Sociologists study patterns of deviance and how they differ between cultures. Two of the most prominent sociological theories of deviance are Emile Durkheim’s deviance theory and Robert Merton’s strain theory. Let’s look at the unique perspective of each theory.
Deviance is behavior that is regarded as outside the bounds of a group or society (Deviance pp). Deviance is a behavior that some people in society find offensive and which excites, or would excite if discovered, and is usually met with disapproval, punishment, condemnation, or hostility (Deviance pp).
Deviance is not merely behavior, but involves a moral judgement (Deviance pp). Moreover, in essence, any act can be defined as deviant (Deviance pp). It is not possible to isolate certain acts and find them universally condemned by all societies as deviant acts, not even murder or incest, and even within a given society, behavior defined as deviant continually undergoes redefinition (Deviance pp). Furthermore, it is relative to time and place, thus, it is not possible to find a behavior that is absolutely condemned by all societies, because what is deviant in one society may not be in another, and even within one society, what is deviant today may not be considered deviant next year (Deviance pp). For example, in past centuries, people used to be burned at the stake for engaging in behavior that most people today regard as normal (Deviance pp).
Although murder is generally condemned by society, there are instances, such as self-defense and warfare, when it is accepted and expected (Deviance pp). Nelson Mandela was viewed by the ruling party in South Africa as a “dangerous political deviant,” however, most of the world revered him as a leader of the freedom movement (Deviance pp). Pancho Villa was regarded by the wealthy and powerful as a deviant, yet, to the poor, bandits are often seen as rebels who reject the normal roles that poor people are expected play (Deviance pp). People such as Pancho Villa are able to display courage, cunning, and determination through their bandit activities (Deviance pp). Some of the effects can be outline below;
1. It is one way that social change occurs. If a deviant act becomes more accepted it soon may be considered legitimate. For example, many companies used to have dress codes for their workers– (Managers were required to dress-up, suits, etc. In the late 1980s and early 1990s more and more managers were showing up to work informally dressed. Soon, companies began to implement “casual days.” Today, many American corporations have done away with the business suit altogether). Most fine restaurants have also relaxed dress codes today.
2. Deviance helps people adjust to change. It provides examples of alternate lifestyles and eases the shock of social change because “deviants” introduce these changes gradually. Over time individuals get used to seeing different styles of dress, behavior, etc.
3. Deviance has a way of promoting social solidarity by distinguishing “us” form “them.” In this way it increases social cohesion in the larger society by establishing social boundaries defining what is acceptable behavior.
a. Laws passed against witchcraft in New England in the 1600s provide an example of how powerful people in the community were able to use deviance to their own advantage. Puritans strengthened the community’s religious solidarity by blaming “witches” for the troubles the communty was experiencing. Once these “witches” were identified, they were executed. Members of the community “closed ranks” and obeyed their religious leaders, lest they be accused of witchcraft and be burned at the stake!
b.The late, Ayatolla Khomeni used a different kind of witch– one he called the “Great Satan” (the United States) to rally Iranians against western modes of dress and behavior. American society represented the antithesis of all that was “good” in the eyes of Khomeni and his followers.
4. Deviance provides a way in which some individuals and groups can introduce their agendas to the rest of society, and elevate their own personal status while doing it. Parents Anonymous is a group in Richmond that has gone to extrodinary efforts to publicize the problems of child abuse and provide a mechanism to stop it by providing a support network city-wide. Their efforts in publicizing this form of deviance (and crime) have done a service for the city, (and its parents) as well as providing status to their own organization.
5. Deviance provides the key to understanding the disruption and recalibration of society that occurs over time.
6. Systems of deviance create norms and tell members of a given society how to behave by laying out patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
7. Deviance allows for group majorities to unite around their worldview, often at the expense of those marked as deviant.
8. Social parameters create boundaries between populations and lead to an us-versus-them mentality within various groups.
9. Being marked as deviant can actually bolster solidarity within the marked community as members take pride and ownership in their stigmatized identity.
10. Some traits will be stigmatized and can potentially cause social disruption. However, as traits become more mainstream, society will gradually adjust to incorporate the formerly stigmatized traits.
11. Some traits will be stigmatized and can potentially cause social disruption. However, as traits become more mainstream, society will gradually adjust to incorporate the formerly stigmatized traits.
From roughly the 4th century to the 1700’s, the most dominant explanations of deviance invoked visions of evil spirits, and the deviant was seen as morally deprived and usually possessed by the devil (Deviance pp). Thus, “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” (Deviance pp).
For the structural functionalist, deviance serves two primary roles in creating social stability. First, systems of deviance create norms and tell members of a given society how to behave by laying out patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In order to know how not to unsettle society, one must be aware of what behaviors are marked as deviant. Second, these social parameters create boundaries between populations and enable an us-versus-them mentality within various groups. Deviance allows for group majorities to unite around their worldview, at the expense of those marked as deviant. Conversely, being marked as deviant can actually bolster solidarity within the marked community as members take pride and ownership in their stigmatized identity, creating cohesive units of their own.
From a structural-functionalist perspective, then, how does society change, particularly in regards to establishing norms and deviant behaviors? Deviance provides the key to understanding the disruption and recalibration of society that occurs over time. Some traits will be stigmatized and can potentially cause social disruption. However, as traits become more mainstream, society will gradually adjust to incorporate the formerly stigmatized traits. Take, for example, homosexuality. In urban America 50 years ago, homosexual behavior was considered deviant. On the one hand, this fractured society into those marked as homosexuals and those unmarked (normative heterosexuals). While this us-versus-them mentality solidified social identities and solidarities within the two categories, there was nevertheless an overarching social schism. As time went on, homosexuality came to be accepted as more mainstream. Accordingly, what originally appears as a fracturing of society actually reinforces social stability by enabling mechanisms for social adjustment and development.

Society has created a set of behavioral standards. Anyone outside of these norms is considered to be abnormal or deviant. While the types of deviance can vary, the negative consequences of these behaviors include some form of prejudice and social ostracism. In certain cases, deviant behavior is criminal, resulting in legal ramifications. Deviance is an integral part of all societies; deviance is normal to all healthy functioning societies. People are socialized into an understanding of their society’s norms and values. But, they are never 100% socialized. This would involve not one member of society ever even thinking a deviant thought, and this is not possible. Perfection in society is often termed Utopia. The uniformity necessary to achieve this in human society is not possible; people are too different and distinct in their sociological experiences, in their values and norms, and in their beliefs.

• MB Clinard and RF Meier, Sociology of deviant behavior. 1968.
• Simon Dinitz, Russell Rowe Dynes and Alfred Carpenter Clarke, Deviance: studies in definition, management, and treatment. 1975.
• JD Douglas and FC Waksler FC, The sociology of deviance: an introduction. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.
• Gary F. Jensen, The path of the devil: early modern witch hunts. Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
• Donal E. J. MacNamara and Andrew Karmen, DEVIANTS: Victims or Victimizers? Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1983.
• Doug Thomson, Crime and deviance. 2004.
• Pratt, Travis. “Reconsidering Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime: Linking the Micro- and Macro-level Sources of Self-control and Criminal Behavior Over the Life-course”
• “DEVIANCE.” Deviance. Web. 23 Feb. 2012. .
• “Types of Deviance.” Web. 23 Feb. 2012. .
• Correctional Service of Canada Welcome Page. Web. 23 Feb. 2012. .
• “The Criminal Justice System” Macionis, J., and Gerber, L. (2010). Sociology, 7th edition.
• “Emile Durkheim”s Basic Insight” Macionis, J., and Gerber, L. (2010). Sociology, 7th edition


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