Deviance in Society Essay

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Deviance in Society

The sociology of deviance has been a profitable endeavor for decades. It has contributed valuable knowledge to social theory and criminology. Yet today the study of deviance is in disrepute among some sociologists for reasons of political correctness and the bankruptcy of ideas. Some sociologists wish to refrain from stigmatizing or pathologizing people through a label of deviance (see Goode, 2004, p. 114). Others from a feminist angle criticize its reliance on patriarchal notions. Indeed, Sumner (1994) has even written its obituary. Despite such dissenting opinion, a valuable inquiry into theories of deviance can still be made. This essay aims to compare the normative and labeling approaches to deviance, clarifying their perspectives and applying them to examples. Both approaches have strengths and shortcomings that more integrative viewpoints may address in future research on deviance.

To discuss deviance in society, some important preliminary definitions must be made. The notion of deviance implies a norm from which the deviant behavior departs. A norm is a standard of expectations people develop to make the world orderly. Henslin (2007) writes, "Norms provide a high degree of certainty in what, without them, would be a hopelessly disoriented world" (p. 265). Norms cover all aspects of human action and speech. They form a net of social expectations about things such as appearance, style, language, conduct, treatment of authority, social position, etiquette, and gender roles. Norms prescribe appropriate situational behavior, effectively telling someone how they are supposed to act. Therefore, they function as types of social control that aim at the maintenance of social order, solidarity, and integration. Social control is the way norms are used, through social structures, forces, and processes, to regulate social interaction. By exerting pressure, social control manipulates behavior within a society in the direction of conformity. or, as Gibbs (1981) points out, social control may be aimed at counteracting deviance, and thus serves a prophylactic purpose (p. 60).

What, then, is deviance? Jensen (2007) writes, "Deviance is the concept chosen by sociologists to encompass a variety of forms of human conduct that have been defined or reacted to by members of a social system as wrong, bad, immoral, illegal, or worthy of condemnation or punishment" (p. 370). Kaplan and Johnson (2001) have linked deviance with failure to conform to expectations in interpersonal systems (friendship, work, etc.) and behaviors or attitudes that conform to one group's norms but violate expectations of a different group that is doing the judging (p. 3). Generally speaking, deviance is normative violation. It occurs when behavior or expression takes on a quality of which others disapprove. It violates their expectations, and thus falls under censure. Some examples of deviance are mental illness, suicide, alcoholism, and lying. Sociologists understand that participation in deviance is not random but is shaped by socialization, learning, social control, and other influences. Using these definitions, this essay wants to compare how the normative theory of deviance based on Merton's work and the labeling theory based in interactionist ideas analyze deviance differently.

The normative theory aims at objective analysis of social conditions. It is based on empirical ideas about real variations in conduct that can be explained as violations of shared social norms. In this view, norms are not inherited instincts, but regulative standards that rise from social structure to create predictable patterns. The key is that it is linked to socio-economic conditions. Summarizing Merton's influential view, Jensen (2007) writes, "Merton argued that high rates of deviance are generated in anomic social systems where there is a strong emphasis on economic success coupled with inequality of opportunity to realize legitimately" (p. 371). This means that deviance occurs from frustration in the lower classes -- they have the same goals as others but are limited in their ability to reach these goals, and so turn to innovative ways to achieve them. For example, crime results from anomie. Lemert (1972) describes anomie as a disjunction between cultural structures of normative values and organized sets of social relationships (p. 28). This disjunction leads to strain or tension from the restriction a person feels against achieving their goals. In other words, people are forced by disorganization to adapt with deviance to the strain.

This structural view reflects an urban setting where social control is less influential in families. Deviance becomes the resulting alternative mode of socialization. Absence or weakness of social control caused by social disorganization (socio-economic disadvantage, communal disruption) allows deviant behavior. The social structure does not exert sufficient pressure on the individual to conform. In fact, power and economic inequality is the root cause of deviance. It sees laws as created by the powerful for their own benefit, and this power differential creates deviance by creating the conditions for it. Entrenched poverty, poor social infrastructure, hopelessness, anomie -- these increase the likelihood that someone from a marginalized group acts deviantly. Social control fails to manipulate the individual to conform.

The other side of normative theory, which is complementary to Merton's view, explains non-deviance through attachment to people, beliefs, and institutions. Goode (2007) states, "To the extent that we are bonded to our parents, to an education, to marriage and children, to a legal job and career, and to mainstream religion, we do not want to threaten or undermine our 'investment' in them by engaging in deviant or criminal behavior -- and that includes recreational, especially illicit, drug use" (p. 419). This is another way of talking about social disorganization and weak social controls. According to Goode, "To social control theorists, it is the attachment of people to conventionality that explains abstention from drugs; it is the absence or weakness of such attachments that explains drug use" (2007, p. 419). People without bonds to others are more likely to be deviant.

We can apply this normative view to an example. Take a juvenile from a poor and derelict neighborhood. He enters his local grocery store, but instead of buying the bottle of soda he wants, he shoves it in his jacket and walks out without paying. This is deviant conduct (theft). The normative view would explain his behavior in various ways. It would point out that his family is morally lax, letting him run around the neighborhood without constraint. Perhaps the parents are blue-collar workers who both work to afford expenses and do not have time to pay attention to him. He has a weak attachment to them. Further, it would investigate the neighborhood, pointing out its dilapidation and poverty (disorganization). The juvenile is unemployed because work is scarce and material conditions are bad. His parents can't give him pocket money. Yet he wants a better life, dreaming of escape and future wealth that are not within his current grasp. He is hopeless, with nothing to lose, and his pockets are empty. All the social controls are low, if not absent. They are lower than his desire to have the soda. So he chooses deviance and fails to conform to structural norms. He justifies his theft by saying that things should be available to everyone, not just to those with money or status. In fact, it is his right to have what he wants even if his conditions don't permit him to get it. Despite his protests, he is caught red-handed. Society reprimands him for breaking the law and threatening the social order. It must maintain social order lest all go to chaos and the upper class suffers.

This example fits normative theory quite well. Its socio-economic explanation for deviance seems justifiable. But we can change the example. Say now there is a young woman from a wealthy family. She happens to go into a grocery store in her wealthy neighborhood. In her purse is twenty dollars. Yet she steals a soda without paying. This example shows the limitations of the normative theory. It has a hard time explaining why a woman who does not have low attachments or socio-economic problems would engage in risky stealing.

The labeling theory of deviance does not do much better in explaining this scenario. This theory is less concerned with objective causal explanations and more with how deviance is socially constructed. According to Bartollas, the labeling perspective "is based on the premise that society creates deviance by labeling those who are different from other individuals, when in fact they are different merely because they have been tagged with a deviant label (2007, p. 430). The important notion here is audience. Deviance depends not on the quality of an act but on how it is produced in interaction between the person and those who respond to it. One proponent of this view says, "Deviance is not a property inherent in certain forms of behavior; it is a property conferred upon these forms by the audiences which directly or indirectly witness them" (Erikson, 1962, 11). It is the witnesses that define conduct as deviant by applying the label.

In this view, the theft of a soda from a store is only deviant if someone sees the theft and assigns a negative… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Deviance in Society.  (2010, March 21).  Retrieved February 16, 2019, from

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"Deviance in Society."  March 21, 2010.  Accessed February 16, 2019.