Deviance refers to behaviors that violate social norms.
Deviance is often divided into two types of activities. The first, crime, is the violation of formally enacted laws and is referred to as formal deviance. Examples of formal deviance include robbery, theft, rape, murder, and assault. The second type of deviant behavior involves violations of informal social norms (norms that have not been codified into law) and is referred to as informal deviance. Examples of informal deviance include picking one’s nose, belching loudly, or standing unnecessarily close to another person. Deviance can vary dramatically across cultures. Cultural norms are relative, which makes deviant behavior relative as well.
Three theories attempt to explain what deviance and crime mean to society. These theories can be grouped according to the three major sociological paradigms: functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory.
The functionalist approach views deviance as a key component of a functioning society. Strain theory, social disorganization theory, and cultural deviance theory represent three functionalist perspectives on deviance in society.
Strain theory, notes that access to socially acceptable goals plays a part in determining whether a person conforms or deviates. From birth, we’re encouraged to achieve the “American Dream” of financial success. A woman who attends business school receives her MBA, and goes on to make a million-dollar income as CEO of a company is said to be a success. However, not everyone in our society stands on equal footing. A person may have a socially acceptable goal of financial success but lack a socially acceptable way to reach that goal. According to strain theory, an entrepreneur who can’t afford to launch his own company may be tempted to embezzle from his employer for start-up funds.
Strain theory defines five ways people respond to this gap between having a socially accepted goal and having no socially accepted way to pursue it.
1. Conformity: Those who conform choose not to deviate. They pursue their goals to the extent that they can through socially accepted means.
2. Innovation: Those who innovate pursue goals they cannot reach through legitimate means by instead using criminal or deviant means.
3. Ritualism: People who ritualize lower their goals until they can reach them through socially acceptable ways. These members of society focus on conformity rather than attaining a distant dream.
4. Retreatism: Others retreat and reject society’s goals and means. Some beggars and street people have withdrawn from society’s goal of financial success.
5. Rebellion: A handful of people rebel and replace a society’s goals and means with their own. Terrorists or freedom fighters look to overthrow a society’s goals through socially unacceptable means.
Social disorganization theory asserts that crime is most likely to occur in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social control. Social disorganization theory points to broad social factors as the cause of deviance. A person isn’t born a criminal but becomes one over time, often based on factors in his or her social environment.
Cultural deviance theory suggests that conformity to the prevailing cultural norms of lower-class society causes crime. It explores how socioeconomic status correlates to race and ethnicity resulting in a higher crime rate. The mix of cultures and values created a smaller society with different ideas of deviance, and those values and ideas were transferred from generation to generation.
Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical approach that can be used to explain how societies and/or social groups come to view behaviors as deviant or conventional. Labeling theory, differential association, social disorganization theory, and control theory fall within the realm of symbolic interactionism.
Labeling theory examines the ascribing of deviant behavior (and the associated stigma) by society to a certain group or individual regardless of specific behavior. Thus, what is considered deviant is determined not so much by the behaviors themselves or the people who commit them, but by the reactions of others to these behaviors. As a result, what is considered deviant changes over time and can vary significantly across cultures.
Differential association theory suggested that individuals learn deviant behavior from those close to them who provide models of and opportunities for deviance. Deviance is less a personal choice and more a result of differential socialization processes. This theory explains why crime is multigenerational.
In conflict theory, deviant behaviors are actions that do not comply with social institutions. The institution’s ability to change norms, wealth, or status comes into conflict with the individual. The legal rights of poor folks might be ignored, while the middle-class side with the elites rather than the poor. Conflict theory is based upon the view that the fundamental causes of crime are the social and economic forces operating within society.
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• Deviant behavior may violate formally-enacted rules or informal social norms.
• Formal deviance includes criminal violation of formally-enacted laws. Examples of formal deviance include robbery, theft, rape, murder, and assault.
• Informal deviance refers to violations of informal social norms, which are norms that have not been codified into law. Examples of informal deviance include picking one’s nose, belching loudly, or standing unnecessarily close to another person.
• Deviance can vary dramatically across cultures. Cultural norms are relative, which makes deviant behavior relative as well.
• The three major sociological paradigms offer different explanations for the motivation behind deviance and crime.
• Functionalists point out that deviance is a social necessity since it reinforces norms by reminding people of the consequences of violating them. Violating norms can open society’s eyes to the injustice in the system.
• Conflict theorists argue that crime stems from a system of inequality that keeps those with power at the top and those without power at the bottom.
• Symbolic interactionists focus attention on the socially constructed nature of the labels related to deviance. Crime and deviance are learned from the environment and enforced or discouraged by those around us.
formal deviance: Deviance, in a sociological context, describes actions or behaviors that violate social norms, including formally-enacted rules (e.g., crime), as well as informal violations of social norms (e.g., rejecting folkways and mores).
deviance: Actions or behaviors that violate formal and informal cultural norms, such as laws or the norm that discourages public nose-picking.
informal deviance: Deviance, in a sociological context, describes actions or behaviors that violate social norms, including formally-enacted rules (e.g., crime), as well as informal violations of social norms (e.g., rejecting folkways and mores).
strain theory: Notes that access to socially acceptable goals plays a part in determining whether a person conforms or deviates.
social disorganization theory: Asserts that crime is most likely to occur in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social control.
cultural deviance theory: Suggests that conformity to the prevailing cultural norms of lower-class society causes crime.
labeling theory: Examines the ascribing of deviant behavior to another person by members of society.
differential association theory: proposes that through interaction with others, individuals learn the values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal behavior
symbolic interactionism: the view of social behavior that emphasizes linguistic or gestural communication and its subjective understanding, especially the role of language in the formation of the child as a social being.
conflict theory: perspectives in sociology and social psychology that emphasize a materialist interpretation of
cultural norms: shared expectations and rules that guide behavior of people within social groups.