DEVIANCE (Social Science)

In Deviant Behavior, Erich Goode defined deviance as "behavior or characteristics that some people in a society find offensive or reprehensible and that generates—or would generate if discovered—in these people disapproval, punishment, condemnation of, or hostility toward, the actor or possessor" (1997, p. 26). While this definition of deviance is acceptable to much of the academic community, there is no consensus among academics or in the general public over what should and should not be considered deviant. Certainly, large groups of people may be able to agree on very general precepts of acceptable behavior. For example, most people in the world may agree that the killing of another person is unacceptable and therefore deviant. However, the heated debates that exist over capital punishment, abortion, stem cell research, or the permissibility of one country engaging in military action against another all highlight the difficulties in identifying something like the killing of another person as deviant. Beyond these sweeping generalities, a closer look at what is and is not permitted reveals that deviance is truly relative; what is considered deviant changes from society to society and over time within any given society, and often changes based on who carries out the particular behaviors. In academia, definitions of deviance tend to fall under one of four major categories: natural law definitions, normative definitions, labeling definitions, and critical definitions.

Perhaps the oldest conceptions of deviance, natural law or absolutist definitions, suggest that some norms, prohibitions, and codes of conduct are appropriate for all people in any social context at all times. These include taboos like incest and cannibalism, thought to be so morally repugnant that they are universally prohibited. But they also include codes of conduct governing other, less extreme, behaviors that are seen as necessary for a society to function properly. Contemporary sociologists tend to be critical of these definitions because they assume some degree of global consensus over what is right and wrong. These sociologists also criticize natural law approaches for denying the role that power inequalities play in shaping definitions of deviant behavior.

Prior to the 1960s, normative definitions of deviance were those to which most sociologists adhered. Proponents of these definitions suggest that deviance is rule-breaking behavior. All social groups have norms— authoritative standards of behavior—by which all group members are expected to abide. These norms range from less serious rules of social etiquette, such as not chewing food with your mouth open, to legal norms that prohibit behaviors like murder and terrorism that threaten the values that society holds up to be most important. Similar to the criticisms of natural law definitions of deviance, normative definitions are often criticized for their presumption of societal consensus over which rules will bind people together. Further, normative definitions are also criticized for not examining the role that power inequalities play in classifying behavior as deviant. Finally, these conceptions of deviance are criticized for the disjunctions that exist between what sociologists refer to as ideal culture (norms and values that a society holds up as paramount) and real culture (the behaviors that members of a society actually practice). For example, possession of marijuana is strictly prohibited by federal law in the United States, and thousands of people are incarcerated each year for violating these laws. However, over 40 percent of all adult Americans surveyed admit to using marijuana at least once in their lifetime (USDHHS 2005).

Often referred to as "social reaction" definitions, labeling definitions of deviance begin with the assumption that no act is inherently deviant. Every society has people who engage in norm-violating behavior. In fact, at some point in their lives, most people engage in deviant or criminal behavior. However, many of these rule breakers are able to avoid being formally labeled or identified as deviant because of their power or prestige, and other attributes like race or social class. Therefore, it is not the act itself that is deviant, it is how society reacts to the act that determines whether something or someone will be viewed as deviant. As Howard Becker wrote in Outsiders, "Deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender.’ The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label" (1973, p. 9).

Becker and other labeling theorists have been criticized for overstating the relativity of deviance and for failing to explain why some groups tend to be involved in more criminal and deviant behavior than others. Nonetheless, the labeling approach continues to be the dominant perspective in studies of deviance.

Many of the tenets of the labeling approach to deviance were adopted and built upon by supporters of the critical approach. Critical theorists argue that definitions of deviance intentionally favor those in positions of economic and political privilege. The political and economic elite use the law and other agencies of socialization under their control, such as the mass media, to simultaneously play up the threat of the deviant and criminal underclass while neutralizing their own law-violating and otherwise deviant behaviors. This neutralization allows the elite to profit and conduct themselves in ways that go against the best interests of society at the expense of the less powerful. Most criticisms of critical theories of deviance suggest that these theories are too vague and broad to have any practical import.


The dominant belief among sociologists today is that, to a great extent, deviance is relative; what is acceptable in one place and at one time is not acceptable in a different place and time. Consistent with the labeling and critical theories, deviance is a matter of power relationships and personal and collective perspective. For example, in many contemporary societies, women who attempt to access political institutions are regarded as deviant and socially unacceptable. In all of these cases, it is men who control these institutions and therefore have the most to lose if women were to gain a political foothold. As was the case with the Taliban in Afghanistan, these men embrace norms and make rules designed to relegate women to inferior social-status positions. In contrast, formal barriers to female participation in politics are scoffed at by most people in the Western world. However, it was not until 1920 that women were guaranteed the right to vote in the United States. Only recently have surveys indicated support for a female president of the United States, and the United States still lags well behind many other nations when it comes to the number of women who hold elected government positions (Duggan 2005). Thus, while people in the United States may rightfully view Afghanistan under the Taliban as a sexist and deviant society, people in other nations where women are routinely elected to the highest political offices might think similarly of the United States.

Also, with regard to the relativity of deviance, formal distinctions between deviant and acceptable behaviors often have little to do with an objective analysis of harm or societal consensus. Rather, because of their appeal, perceived legitimacy as authorities, or control over political institutions and important resources like money and power, certain groups have a disproportionate influence over which behaviors are acceptable in a society. As sociologist John Curra writes, "Deviance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and it exists because some groups decide that other groups ought not to be doing what they are" (2000, p. 16).

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was among the pioneers of this relativity perspective insisting that defining deviance requires the proper social perspective and an analysis of power relationships in society. In 1961 Foucault published Madness and Civilization, the results of his doctoral research—and his first major published work. In this topic, Foucault examines the different ways that "madness" was perceived and addressed by those in power during the classical age (the late sixteenth century through the eighteenth century). Madness begins the era as an "undifferentiated experience," but over the course of the classical age, due to moral and economic factors, the mad are labeled as deviant, alienated from society, and subjected to various forms of confinement by those in positions of power.

Often, certain types of behaviors are defined as deviant, not because of the will of the majority or the interests of the power elite, but because of interest groups who wish to define these behaviors as deviant because they do not fit within their value systems. In many respects, the thirteen-year prohibition of alcohol in the early twentieth-century United States resulted from the pressure exerted upon lawmakers by these "moral entrepreneurs"—people on a personal or social crusade to change attitudes toward particular behaviors. While these "reformers" were successful in formally labeling alcohol consumption as deviant behavior, large numbers of people refused to accept this label. Subsequently, a black market for alcohol emerged, leading to deaths caused by the ingestion of toxic "bootlegged" alcohol. Of even greater social consequence, Prohibition created what many historians have pinpointed as the genesis of organized crime in the United States as crime syndicates were established to meet the public demand for illegal alcohol.

In the United States, there is an ongoing crusade by moral entrepreneurs to deny gay and lesbian couples many of the basic rights and privileges that heterosexual couples take for granted. Such issues as same-sex marriage, gay couples adopting orphaned children, rights of inheritance, and coverage for domestic partners under private insurance plans are all examples of these contested issues. There have been some symbolic victories for gay couples. For example, in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional laws that singled out gay couples for criminal prosecution under state sodomy laws. However, the moral entrepreneurs have gained significant ground in their efforts; many states have adopted laws prohibiting same-sex marriages and banning adoption by gay couples. As with prohibition,only time will tell of any unintended consequences of these changes in formal conceptions of deviance.


Traditionally, studies and theories of deviance and crime research have been primarily based on segments of the population without political and economic power, particularly racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants. Much of this research has reinforced the idea that deviance and criminality remain problems of the lower classes and people of color. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in deviance and drug research. While the sociological literature on drug use is extensive, the vast majority of this research explores the drug using and dealing habits of urban minorities, particularly African Americans. This is in spite of the fact that the data indicate that rates of drug use are fairly evenly distributed across race and social class, and that white people are more likely than either black people or Latinos to have used illegal drugs in their lifetime (USDHHS 2005).

A study by A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold (2006) exploring drug dealing among predominantly white college students uncovered a profitable drug network in which both the patrons and providers did not fit the stereotype of drug users and dealers. But, because of their relative affluence, race, access to costly legal counsel, and other factors related to their social status, when the illegal behaviors in this market were exposed, the dealers and users were not labeled as deviants. This study made clear that both researchers and the engineers of U.S. drug policy still do not gear drug research or drug law strategies toward people whom they resemble in social class and status. Instead, the war on drugs, like much of the research on deviant behavior in general, ignores the illicit enterprises of the affluent and continues to operate as a furtive attack against the poor and people of color.

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