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The term "deviance" usually refers to some behavior that is inconsistent with standards of acceptable conduct prevailing in a given social group, although the term has also been used to designate personal conditions, ideas, or statuses that are stigmatized or disreputable. Social scientists disagree, about a precise definition of deviance because they use different approaches in trying to determine exactly what the standards of conduct or the acceptable statuses and conditions are in a given group (Gibbs, 1981). At least five ways of conceptualizing deviance are used.

Conceptualizations of deviance

The statistical approach. One way of defining standards of conduct and deviance from them is to observe how people in a particular group actually behave (Wilkins, 1964). Accordingly, if a large proportion of people in a group smoke cigarettes, smoking is "normal" while failure to smoke would be atypical, or deviant. With a "statistical" perspective, sky diving, eating snails, and murder are all deviant in the United States since they are all unusual. On the other hand, highway speeding, "fudging" on one's income tax, and pilfering small items from employers are all conforming behaviors since they are currently committed by a fairly large proportion, if not a majority, of the population.

A statistical approach rests on a common observation: many people assume that something that "everybody does" cannot be in violation of conduct standards. Indeed, a frequent justification (or rationalization) for conduct that is being threatened with sanctions is to claim that everybody else or at least most others do it. And, many people decide what is appropriate by watching what others do.

Even though a statistical approach appears to correspond with the everyday thinking of many laypersons, it is not widely used by social scientists. Scholars have found that statistical patterns only superficially reflect how social groups formulate standards of conduct. Most people in the United States, for example, would feel uncomfortable classifying behaviors like church tithing, abstinence from all alcohol use, and maintenance of premarital sexual virginity (all atypical behaviors) as "deviant." There is an underlying agreement that even though they are unusual, these behaviors are somehow "good," acceptable, even desirable, and that they are to be encouraged as ways of behaving. Similarly, most people feel discomfort in thinking of adultery, lying to one's spouse or sweetheart, or pilfering from an employer as appropriate, even though they are frequently committed by a large proportion of the populace. Yet, most can easily endorse the inappropriateness of acts that are atypical in a negative waymore evil, unacceptable, or undesirable than the average. Therefore, most students of deviance contend that despite some tendency for people to refer to statistical guidelines, normative standards mainly revolve around notions of rightness and wrongness or with what people think others "ought" to do.

The absolutist approach. A second approach applies ideal conduct standards set down by a social scientist (or group of social scientists) to all groups and individuals under study. A social scientist decides what is good, useful, or just, and then measures deviations from those evaluative criteria. For example, some theorists (functionalists) view societies as interdependent mechanisms; all parts that work together for maintenance of the society are regarded as essential and in that sense "good" or nondeviant. But a society may contain dysfunctional (dangerous or destructive) elements (see Gross), which are regarded as deviant. Most who use this approach assume that societies will usually condone inherently good behaviors and condemn those that are inherently bad. Indeed, it has been argued that contemporary societies exist because throughout evolutionary history they practiced and condoned useful behavior while avoiding and condemning dangerous behavior. Presumably, social groups that failed to do this did not survive the ravages of time (Parsons).

Functionalists assume that an investigator can, through logic and research, actually determine what is good for a society. For example, incest is thought to be dysfunctional (Davis; Murphy) because if widely practiced, it could lead to biological deterioration of the population, destruction of orderly social relations, and disruption of the mechanisms for efficient child rearing. According to some, therefore, incest is inherently and obviously deviant because it is socially dangerous. Most members of any existing society presumably will disapprove of incest and will refrain from practicing it because only those societies that in the past developed and enforced social rules prohibiting incest would have survived to be represented in the contemporary world. Similar arguments can be made for murder, rape, assault, homosexuality, child abuse, mental illness, and other behaviors.

Other absolutist thinkers employ a different rationale. Radical, Marxist, and humanist scholars often maintain that a sensitive informed researcher can apply absolute moral standards to behavior in any given society or specific situation to decide whether various activities are unjust or evil (deviant) (Schwendinger and Schwendinger). Some believe that any exploitation of one person or a category of persons for the benefit of another, or any conduct that threatens the dignity and quality of life for specific people or humanity as a whole, is inherently evil, and thereby deviant (Simon). Others contend that any behavior causing people to suffer or violating any person's right to self-actualization and freedom is inherently immoral, or deviant (Platt). Marxist scholars, for instance, point up the exploitative nature of economic relations in capitalistic societies and regard this inherent exploitation, along with the selfish and insensitive acts it breeds, as deviant or "criminal" because it corrupts human qualities (Bonger; Quinney, 1970, 1980). Similarly, humanists regard racial discrimination as deviant because it deprives a whole group of people of equal rights and human dignity.

Absolutist approaches to deviance are not widely used because of their subjectivity. Trained (sensitized), careful observers disagree about what is good or bad for society, what is contrary to human dignity, and what is fair or unfair. And what one observer believes to be functional for a society another may find dysfunctional. It has even been argued that a certain amount of deviance itself may benefit society. Dealing with deviance may help a group differentiate its members, crystalize the norms so group members will know how to behave, provide a means for tension to be reduced, keep the mechanisms of social control in good working order so that they will be efficient in true emergencies, and generate cohesion as the members of a group unite in opposition to deviance (Cohen, 1966; Dentler and Erikson). Since there is no reason to believe that the values or insights of social scientists are in any way superior, more desirable, or defensible than those of anyone else, or that the values of any particular social scientist are any more justifiable than those of another social scientist, an absolutist approach in the study of deviance cannot be used in a consistent and meaningful way.

The legalistic approach. A third way of identifying conduct standards and deviant behavior is to simply use illegality as the criterion of whether a given activity is in violation of behavioral norms. Accordingly, if the law prohibits an act, it is deviant; and if the law requires an act, failure to perform it is deviant. If the law is silent about, or permits, an act, then that act is considered consistent with conduct standards, or conforming.

The rationale for a legal criterion of deviance differs depending on how the law is viewed. Some contend that the law expresses collective sentiment indicating that particular activities are dangerous or threatening enough to require efforts at control (see Tittle, 1994). Although recognizing that law making is a political process, which often reflects conflicting interests and the clash of power, some nevertheless believe that, in the main, law reflects popular sentiment as well as efforts to promote the public good.

Others see the law as an instrument by which the powerful maintain their elite positions and protect their privileges, but these scholars accept illegality as the appropriate criterion of behavioral standards because they believe conformity and deviance are inherently whatever people powerful enough to impose their own views say they are. Accordingly, norms (or conduct standards) are "definitions of the situation" imposed upon a social group by power elites (McCaghy; Quinney).

Still others view law as a combination of popular sentiment and elite desires. They contend that some law expresses consensus among the population (such as laws prohibiting assault, murder, child abuse) while other laws reflect the desires of special interests (such as laws prohibiting importation of competitive products, requiring licenses to provide certain services, or denying the right of laborers to strike). For these scholars, whether law is collectively or particularistically oriented is irrelevant; in both instances, law expresses coercive potentiala key element of behavioral norms. Thus, the conduct rules that matter are those that can be enforced. Since the law reflects behavioral rules backed up by power of enforcement, it necessarily encompasses conduct normsat least those worth social scientists' study.

A legalistic approach is straightforward and usually easily applied (since a scholar need only refer to the codification of laws), and it hinges on an extremely important element of social lifethe exercise of political power. Moreover, a related body of inquirycriminologyalmost exclusively uses a legalistic approach to define its subject matter. Yet the legalistic conceptualization is not generally used for the larger study of deviance, of which crime may be a part. For one thing, not all societies have a clearly defined body of written statutes that can be identified as law. Primitive societies, for example, have deviant behavior but no formally written law that defines it as such (Malinowski; Hoebel). Using a legalistic approach in nonliterate societies assumes the resolution of a prior definitional problemwhat is law?

In addition, in any society many of the activities that are illegal nevertheless appear to be normatively acceptable. For instance, despite legal prohibitions on the sale of tobacco products to minors, in many places such products are easily available to minors in vending machines and minors are officially allowed to smoke in designated areas by many schools. Moreover, it is rare for the police to arrest anyone for selling tobacco to minors; and most people may not regard such sale as bad, dangerous, or abnormal (although public opinion about this appears to be undergoing a change). Thus, laws are often out of synch with actual behavior and public sentiment, sometimes because society changes without the laws being changed or repealed and sometimes because laws result from political action by interest groups whose agendas may not correspond with views of the general public.

By contrast, many activities that appear to be inconsistent with general conduct standards are not illegal. It is not a crime to lie to one's spouse or sweetheart although evidence suggests that a large proportion of the people disapprove of it (Tittle, 1980). Similarly in some places it is not illegal to operate a topless bar, yet such establishments frequently meet with scorn, protests, and sometimes violent opposition by neighbors. Further, legal statutes rarely prohibit eating human flesh although it is clearly outside the bounds of acceptable conduct in contemporary societies.

Finally, despite the importance of the legal realm, conduct norms are not limited to that realm but instead are ubiquitous at all levels of social life from the interpersonal to the societal. A legalistic approach, therefore, narrowly focuses attention on one tier of a multi-tiered system.

The reactive approach. A fourth way of defining deviance is by social reaction (what people do about behavior or a condition). According to this approach, when social reaction to some behavior is condemnatory, punitive, or simply disapproving, it indicates that the behavior is in violation of behavioral standards prevailing in that group and is therefore deviant. One variation of the reactive approach emphasizes the "typical" reaction to a class of behaviors. Another stresses social reaction to particular instances of behavior while assuming that this particular reaction implies nothing about the deviance of the entire class of behaviors of which the particular case is an instance. Such basic differences are complicated by questions concerning which part of the social system must react negatively to qualify something as deviant. Some emphasize negative reactions by official agents and functionaries, but others accord more importance to informal reactions by a collective social audience.

Probably the best-known reactive approach to deviance is that embodied in the "labeling perspective" (Tannenbaum; Becker; Schur; Gove). Labeling theorists do not agree about their focus, and they are sometimes ambiguous in presentation. Nevertheless, most scholars agree that the predominant concern of the labeling perspective is legal reaction to specific acts, particularly the reaction of agents of the criminal justice system (such as police) to particular instances of behavior disapproved by power holders, whose interests are embodied in the legal codes (Gove). Accordingly, some labeling proponents recognize no categories or classes of deviant behavior. To them, murder, rape, child abuse, or smoking marijuana are not necessarily deviant. Rather, specific acts of murder, rape, child abuse, or marijuana use may or may not be deviant depending upon whether officials arrest the perpetrator and label him/her as deviant. When labeling occurs, the particular act of murder, rape, child abuse, or marijuana use is deviant; otherwise, it is not.

Some labeling theorists are more restrictive in what they define as deviant. They maintain that an act is not deviant unless and until a collective social audience has accepted the label of deviant for the act and/or the perpetrator. It is said that a label attached by officials must "stick"; that is, it must be recognized by a social audience and serve as the vehicle through which the group attributes bad character to the actor, or attributes badness to the act (Becker; Kitsuse).

Another variant of the reactionist approach accepts the generally deviant nature of some categories of behavior. Accordingly, if a social collectivity or its chief representatives typically react negatively to some behavior or typically attach a stigma to those who are caught, that kind of behavior is deviant even if a particular perpetrator escapes being labeled. For instance, if a social group usually shows its condemnation of some class of behaviors by punishing specific acts of that class or if it usually attributes bad character to those who commit such acts, then theorists would assume that in that social group those behaviors are deviant. Using this approach, apprehension, punishment, or group attribution of bad character for a specific act may be treated as problematic but such actions are not essential for a given act to be deviant.

Still another variation of the reactive/labeling approach does not limit itself to behavior but includes as deviance, statuses, states of being, or physical conditions (Lemert). According to this approach, "deviance" inheres in disreputable or pejorative statuses, styles of life, or physical attributes; therefore, deviance is a condition not a behavior or set of behaviors. Accordingly, race, gender, poverty, and criminality have all been identified as stigmatized "deviant" statuses while physical handicaps, unattractive appearances, speech impediments, and small statures have been designated as stigmatized conditions qualifying as deviant. Although most approaches to deviance raise issues about how and why particular acts or categories of acts come to be deviant and why individuals come to commit acts that are deviant or that are likely to be regarded as deviant, this particular approach poses different questionshow stigma comes about and how people who are targets of stigma react to, or manage, the deviant identity associated with it.

The reactive approach has been widely used, and during the 1960s and 1970s was the dominant orientation. Even now many people associate the study of deviance exclusively with the reactive approach. This popularity stemmed partly from the key idea that deviant acts or conditions are those disapproved, either by officials or by group members, or in one version of this approach, are considered important enough by key functionaries of the social system to warrant attention. The reactive approach was also popular because of the appeal of the larger labeling argument, from which many of the reactive conceptualizations sprang. The notion that deviant behavior and stigmatized conditions are highly problematic intrigued many. Moreover, the contentions of the labeling school that deviance is a creation of the very forces intending to do something about it and that designating acts as deviant represents unequal power in action, with large consequences for those labeled and for society, meshed with the ideological bent of many social scientists of the time.

In due course, however, numerous problems caused the reactive approach to lose its dominance. Among other concerns, many behaviors that appear to be in violation of conduct standards are not necessarily the focus of negative reactions, especially not official reactions. For instance, adultery in the United States is almost never dealt with by the police or the courts, and it rarely results in a deviant label for the actor. Even when there are citizen complaints, the police normally refuse to make arrests. Yet surveys show that most people believe adultery to be wrong, bad, or inappropriate, and it is thought by many social scientists to have crucial implications for a major social institutionthe family.

Furthermore, the police frequently arrest people, and courts sometimes impose severe penalties, for behaviors that are not widely disapproved and do not seem to have much impact on society (such as marijuana use during the 1960s). Third, the narrower reactive definitions created unusual conceptual inconsistencies. If murder is regarded as deviant only when discovered and reacted against by official agents, then it must also be regarded as conformity if the perpetrator escapes punishmentregardless of the number of group members who may disapprove of it, how socially dangerous it might be, or how many people do it. Moreover, according to this kind of reactive definition, deviance can only be studied on a case-by-case basis after the fact, thereby making generalization or consideration and explanation of categories of deviance impossible.

Finally, practical application of some reactive definitions has proven difficult. Empirically ascertaining when labeling has occurred (is an arrest a labeling act, or must one be convicted?) or when a label sticks (how do we know the boundaries of a social audience, how many must accept the label, what constitutes stigma?) renders some versions of the reactive approach almost completely unworkable (see Gove). Furthermore, those reactive definitions that focus on disreputable statuses and conditions raise limited questions leading to repetitious research about the importance of power in the stigmatization process and about the way various stigmatized people manage their identities. In addition, evidence and logical critiques have eroded the luster of labeling theory, which had earlier energized reactive approaches (Gibbs, 1966; Gove; Hagan, 1973; Mankoff; Wellford).

The group evaluation approach. A fifth method of identifying conduct standards and deviance is by the beliefs or opinions of group members. Accordingly, deviant behavior is that regarded as unacceptable, inappropriate, or morally wrong in the opinion of the members of a group. One problem is deciding how many people in a group must believe some behavior to be unacceptable for it to qualify as deviance, although it is generally assumed that a significant consensus exists among group members about rightness or wrongness and about how people ought to behave. If this assumption is correct, social disapproval indicates that some behavior is outside acceptable standards of conduct. And such disapproval would suggest deviance regardless of the typicality or prevalence of the behavior, whether anything is actually done about the offense, or whether the shared concepts about rightness or wrongness grew out of common experiences or out of careful socialization by particular interest groups with an investment in promoting specific ideas.

A group evaluational definition of deviance has never been the dominant approach although it is conceptually clear, has intuitive meaning, permits deviance to be treated meaningfully as a continuous variable expressing the extent to which different behaviors are disapproved, and provokes many sociologically relevant questionssuch as why some people do disapproved things, why and how social processes sometimes produce shared opinions of disapproval, why general opinions sometimes change, and why social processes sometimes come to activate collective responses to behavior but not at other times. Perhaps the major reason for under use of the group evaluational approach is its assumption that all group members' opinions are of equal value. Research shows that the opinions of some are more important than the opinions of others because some people can implement their opinions with coercive action, and some are more influential in persuading others to their points of view. In addition, some question the usefulness of a conceptualization of deviance that treats as a violation of conduct standards some acts about which nothing is done and for which no sanctions are brought to bear. Furthermore, efficient application of this approach requires survey datapublic opinion information about perceptions of conduct. Such information is rarely available for all the acts that one might want to consider as potentially deviant, and in some societies no survey data about any behavior are available. Finally, this approach assumes that the boundaries of groups are clear enough to permit scholars to ascertain the thoughts of most people within those boundaries about the appropriateness of various behaviors. In reality, however, group boundaries are often ambiguous, particularly in a heterogeneous society with overlapping subcultures and diverse group identities.

The synthetic approach. Some scholars merge different definitions of deviance in an effort to produce more effective, though more complicated, "integrated" approaches. For example one synthetic definition (Tittle and Paternoster) combines the reactive and the group evaluation approaches because they pose especially salient questions about social behaviordo most people believe it is wrong and are there usually negative sanctions associated with the behavior? Deviance is defined as any type of behavior that the majority of a given group regards as unacceptable or that typically evokes a collective response of a negative type. In this definition, "unacceptable" means the behavior is disapproved, or regarded as wrong, inappropriate, bad, or abnormalin short, behavior that a group evaluates negatively. "Majority" means that over half of the people in a specified, bounded group regard the behavior as unacceptable. Although this is an arbitrary cutoff point, it is used because the main objective is to array behavior on a continuum from very nondeviant (hardly anybody considers it unacceptable) to very deviant (almost everybody in the group considers it unacceptable), with any particular act falling somewhere on the continuum. Collective response of a negative type implies that the majority of the specified group typically does something to express its displeasure, or the officials who possess coercive power over the members of the group typically respond to the behavior in a way that expresses negative evaluation. Whether synthetic, integrated conceptualizations become widely accepted remains to be seen.

The relativity and importance of deviance

Most students of deviance regard it as a socially constructed phenomenon; that is, things regarded as deviant have no inherent pejorative qualities but instead are the objects of social processes in a given context that result in negative attributions. With the exception of those who employ an "absolutist" definition, scholars note that what is deviant behavior varies from group to group, from one time to another, and from one status to another.

Explaining such differences, including differences in legality, has been of prime concern to students of deviance because they believe the processes affecting social attributions of deviance are fundamental to the maintenance and operation of social groups. Émile Durkheim, regarded by many as the father of studies of deviance, called attention to a shifting scale of attribution by which societies adjust their conceptions of unacceptable conduct to the volume of specific behaviors that exist and can be managed. He pointed out that even saints recognize deviant behavior among themselves, although what they regard as deviant is usually quite saintly from the point of view of the outside world. Studies show that groups sometimes shift standards downward, expanding the supply of deviant behavior or enhancing the evilness of acts that were previously regarded as trivial (Erikson). The standards are also sometimes moved upward, reducing the number of things that are regarded as unacceptable or transforming behaviors that were once regarded as bad into acceptable conduct. This general process has been called "the elasticity of evil" (Cohen, 1974) or, when it specifically involves acceptance of things previously thought of as intolerable, "defining deviancy down" (Moynihan). Because transforming deviance into conformity or vice versa is a major means by which social change occurs, students of deviance try to understand the process and the conditions under which conceptions of deviance change.

In addition, Durkheim and his followers believed that the process of identifying and doing something about deviant behavior is normal, even essential for group emergence and maintenance. Much like pain is unpleasant but essential for the human body to protect itself from truly destructive conditions, so is deviance essential for group survival. Although scholars have not been able to demonstrate that identifying and managing deviance is necessary for social organization, they have shown that such processes are ubiquitous so that what is or is not deviant is highly variable, often in predictable ways. As a result, almost all students of deviance reject the idea that deviance is inherent to particular behaviors; rather, they see it as a quality conferred upon some behaviors or individuals by groups as they go about the business of social organization.

Moreover, the fact of being deviant is thought to influence whether people do it or not. For that reason most students of deviance have concluded that one cannot simply explain behavior that happens to be deviant in a given group and expect the explanation to apply to all such behavior in all contexts. Some go even further, arguing that specific forms of deviance in a given social setting, such as addictive drug use, cannot be explained in the same way that other forms of deviance in that context, such as fraud, are explained, nor can acts of crime be explained the same way acts of noncriminal deviance are explained. Such contentions have spawned a controversy concerning the potential value of general theories as opposed to theories aimed explicitly at one or another form of deviance. This controversy also bears on the relationship between criminology and studies of deviance.

Relationship between deviance and crime

To a large extent, criminology and studies of deviance have developed along separate tracks although they show much overlap. Criminologists have typically limited themselves to issues about legality, crime, or crime-related phenomena. Students of deviance, on the other hand, have studied crime as well as a wider range of behaviors or conditions that are deviant by one or another of the definitions reviewed but are not necessarily illegal, such as suicide, alcoholism, homosexuality, mentally disordered behaviors, stuttering, and even such behaviors as public nose picking or flatulence, sectarian religious behaviors, and body mutilation. Hence, it is difficult to distinguish criminology clearly from studies of deviance (Bader et al.).

Many criminologists concede that illegal acts are not fundamentally different from legal but deviant acts, except by the fact of illegality itself, which is largely an arbitrary designation by legal functionaries. At the same time, students of deviance readily acknowledge that many deviant acts are also illegal and they have found data about crime especially useful because it is more systematic than most data concerning legal forms of deviance. Recognizing this overlap is obvious among those deviance scholars who employ a legalistic definition of deviance, but almost every comprehensive treatment of deviant behavior, regardless of the definition used, includes a subsection on criminal acts that are also deviant. Furthermore, both camps have raised similar questions and have come to share a common set of theories for explaining the phenomena in their domains. Among other issues, criminologists as well as students of deviance want to explain why the acts they study are deviant or criminal; they want to describe and explain the distribution, frequency, prevalence, and change in the occurrence of various criminal or deviant acts; they want to explain why and how criminal or deviant acts are committed; they want to explain how social groups manage and respond to crime and deviance and how people who are accused or guilty of crime or deviance respond to being accused or managed; and they want to understand how criminal or deviant phenomena affect and are affected by other aspects of social life.

Because of the overlap between crime and deviance, some scholars now regard distinctions between criminology and deviance studies as false and counterproductive, and they have called for a merger of the subject matters. Since all definitions of deviance, except the legalistic one, portray deviant behavior as a more inclusive concept, merger might imply subsuming criminology under the umbrella of deviance studies. Under that conceptualization, criminal behavior would be treated as a special case of deviant behaviorthat which is prohibited in law, thereby meriting the possibility of officially imposed sanctions that legal forms of deviance escape. On the other hand, some contend that criminology has already preempted deviance studies so that deviance as a separate subject matter no longer exists or matters (Sumner), and still others contend that the two fields should clearly differentiate themselves by allocating legally related phenomena exclusively to criminology, leaving other forms of disapproved behavior to deviance studies (Bader et al.).

There are two main intellectual barriers to merging criminology with studies of deviance. First, some criminal behavior in some places (such as gambling) is not deviant, at least by most definitions of deviance, so would be subject to criminological study but not to study by students of deviance. The political processes that produce laws can result in behaviors being declared illegal although the conduct is not deviant by any definition except a legalistic one. How those political processes unfold and how enforcement might fare when illegality does not match social reality are of great importance to some criminologists. In addition, some behaviors are deviant at the time they become illegal but later become non-deviant without the law having been changed. Therefore, those intellectually opposed to merger might note that subsuming criminology under deviance studies would exclude some of the more interesting aspects of criminology.

A second intellectual obstacle to conceiving of crime and deviance as one subject matter hinges on disagreements about the nature of human behavior. Some criminologists and some students of deviance contend that all forms of behavior, including specific acts or types of crime or deviance, are more or less distinct, requiring unique explanations. By observing a plethora of differences, such as whether committed by males or females, blacks or whites, young or old, in some circumstances rather than others, whether legal or not, whether regarded as especially serious or not, whether violent or simply immoral, whether committed with planning or spontaneously, and the like, some conclude that specific behaviors have few similarities that would justify their being explained by the same theories. This orientation has generated a large number of explanations of specific behaviors, such as predatory crime (Braithwaite), common juvenile misdeeds (Hagan, 1989), embezzlement (Cressey), mental illness (Scheff), homicide by females (Ogle et al.), and many others.

Challengers, however, contend that various deviant behaviors are only superficially different because similar underlying causal processes operate in most if not all forms of deviance. They often use the analogy of focusing so closely on individual trees that the forest is overlooked. In addition, those who advocate general theory contend that it is necessary in order to achieve scientific goals of explanation and prediction based on assumptions about unity in nature; and that general theory is more parsimonious because specific accounts already overlap, often in unrecognized ways. The generalist orientation has led to a number of theories that aim to account for wide ranges of deviance in a variety of circumstances. These general accounts usually take one of two forms.

One form of general theorizing assumes a universal causal process that generates different forms of deviance under different conditions. The theories attempt to identify that causal process and specify the conditions under which it produces one form of deviance rather than another (some examples are: Akers; Gottfredson and Hirschi; Agnew; Tittle). A second approach to general theory assumes that different causal processes operate at different times and under different conditions. The theories merge several causal processes by specifying when or why one or another will come into play to produce a given form of deviance at a specific point in time or in a given circumstance (some examples are: Braithwaite; Conger and Simons; Elliott et al.; Thornberry).

The generalist orientation clearly implies that crime and deviance are one entity. However, no general theory has yet been generally accepted as better than specific, focused accounts. Therefore, debates concerning the intellectual benefits of general theory and the relative advantages of differentiating criminology and studies of deviance will continue.

The main barriers to conceptualizing deviance and crime as a single entity are not intellectual, howeverthey are ideological and practical. Criminologists claim a more central role in addressing issues of acute public concern and they position themselves more favorably to receive government funds for research and to offer useful advice for controlling crime. Indeed, criminology has traditionally been identified with practical concerns. In addition, because they regard many forms of deviant behavior that are not illegal as unworthy of serious attention, some criminologists resist identity as students of deviance. Finally, by focusing on illegal conduct and limiting themselves to modern, politically, and geographically demarcated societies, criminologists avoid some of the problems encountered by students of deviance who struggle to identify group boundaries, to measure opinions of group members, or to document disapproval of various behaviors. Students of deviance, on the other hand, often resist the idea that they are also criminologists, maintaining that criminological study is too narrowly focused on behaviors arbitrarily designated by simple acts of legislative bodies. By so limiting itself, criminology ignores a large domain of phenomena crucial for under-standing human behavior and social organization. Some students of deviance also regard criminology as a handmaiden of government, committed to preventing acts that are contrary to the interests of powerful groups who influence the content and enforcement of the criminal law.

Perhaps the major practical barrier to criminology and studies of deviant behavior becoming one subject matter is the tendency of criminologists to orient themselves concretely while students of deviance are relativistically oriented. Assuming that concepts of serious illegality are largely invariant across time and place (Wellford), most criminologists have focused on explanations of criminal behavior or its distribution, with only a minority showing concern with explaining variations in the law. Students of deviance, however, have traditionally emphasized variations in social attributions of deviance and have mainly tried to understand why something is or is not deviant in a given place and time, with only a minority being concerned with explaining behavior itself.


Deviance generally implies pejorative departures from social standards of one kind or another. However, there are many conceptualizations of deviance and how it is conceptualized affects what and how deviance is studied. One key unifying theme is the relativity of deviance. Because much deviance is also illegal, there is great over-lap between criminology and deviance studies. Some contend that the two areas of study should be regarded as one, but there are intellectual and practical barriers to such a merger. A related issue concerns whether various forms of deviance can be explained with large general theories or requires special ad hoc accounts. Much work remains to be done before the key questions about deviant behavior can be answered.

Charles R. Tittle

See also Crime Causation: Sociological Theories; Criminology: Modern Controversies; Delinquent and Criminal Subcultures.


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In Deviant Behavior, Erich Goode defined deviance as behavior or characteristics that some people in a society find offensive or reprehensible and that generatesor would generate if discoveredin 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 normsauthoritative standards of behaviorby 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 researchand his first major published work. In this book, 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 entrepreneurspeople 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.

SEE ALSO Crime and Criminology; Justice, Social; Labeling Theory; Power


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Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chambliss, William J. 1973. The Saints and the Roughnecks. Society 11(1): 243.

Curra, John. 2000. The Relativity of Deviance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

DeKeseredy, Walter S., Desmond Ellis, and Shahid Alvi. 2005. Deviance + Crime: Theory, Research, and Policy. 3rd ed. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

Duggan, Erin. 2005. Most Americans Ready for Woman to Be President: Clinton Leads Group of Possible Female Candidates, Poll Finds. Albany Times Union, February 21.

Foucault, Michel. 1965. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Pantheon.

Goode, Erich. 1997. Deviant Behavior. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 7th ed., 2005.

Lawrence v. Texas (02102) 539 U.S. 558. 2003.

Mohamed, A. Rafik, and Erik D. Fritsvold. 2006. Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta: The Social Organization of the Illicit Drug Trade Servicing a Private College Campus. Deviant Behavior 27: 97125.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Statistics. 2005. National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2004.

A. Rafik Mohamed


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deviance Commonsensically, deviance has been seen as an attribute, as something inherent in a certain kind of behaviour or person: the delinquent, the homosexual, the mentally ill, and so forth. Indeed, this was a position which had a certain credence in the earlier writings of the social pathology theorists, and which is still important in some clinical and criminological research. For sociologists, however, deviance is best viewed, not as a type of person, but rather as a formal property of social situations and social systems. There is no fixed agreement on the substance of deviance—even murder or incest are accepted at times—but there are two interrelated properties which help characterize the phenomenon.

The first refers to deviance as a pattern of norm violation, and a range of norms are then specified such that religious norms give rise to heretics, legal norms to criminals, health norms to the sick, cultural norms to the eccentric, and so forth. Since norms emerge in most social situations, such a definition is very wide-ranging, and enters every sphere of social life. For example, there can be class deviance, where the normative expectations of class behaviour are violated; or situational deviance, where the norms emerging between a group of friends are transgressed.

A second property highlights deviance as a stigma construct, a label bestowed upon certain classes of behaviour at certain times, which then become devalued, discredited, and often excluded. This characteristic can also be seen as very wide-ranging: people may make friends deviant simply because they belch or talk too much; whilst terrorists may become political martyrs in the eyes of those who share their particular values. The study of deviance here is concerned primarily with the construction, application, and impact of stigma labels.

Within either tradition—norm violation or stigma construct—deviance is a shifting, ambiguous, and volatile concept. Precisely who or what is deviant depends upon a firm understanding of the norms and labelling process in particular social contexts. Despite these inherent difficulties with the term an enormous sociological literature has been generated by research on deviance.

The work of Émile Durkheim is generally considered the most fruitful starting-point for the contemporary analysis of deviance. In his work, two major and somewhat antagonistic issues emerge, both of which signpost subsequent trends. One is his focus on anomie: a state of normlessness and breakdown which emerges most conspicuously at times of rapid social change. Anomie indicates a strain, a breakdown, within a social order or social structure. This concept shifts the focus away from the deviant as a type of person to the suggestion that deviance is a feature of certain kinds of social structure. It is an idea followed through in a host of subsequent writings; in theories of delinquency as a consequence of strains within the social order (as in the work of Robert Merton and anomie theory); as a consequence of the breakdown of parts of the city (see, for example, the concept of the ZONE OF TRANSITION); and in the idea of subcultures.

Durkheim's second concern is his focus upon the functions of deviance. In The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) he suggests that ‘crime is normal because a society exempt from it is utterly impossible’. Deviance is bound up with the very conditions for a society; far from deviance being abnormal or pathological in itself, every society needs deviance. This seemingly paradoxical claim about the normality of deviance is propounded by Durkheim on several grounds. First there is a broad statistical argument; empirically, all known societies do have their deviance, and the rate of deviance often remains relatively stable over periods of time (though Durkheim certainly agrees that there can be abnormally high rates which need to be checked). But why is deviance universal? In line with Durkheim's more general functional analysis he suggests that deviance fulfils a number of important functions. Citing Socrates, he argues that one of these functions is to bring about change: today's deviants are signs of tomorrow's world. This is not true of all deviance—some is apologetic and fits readily into the existing social order. But deviance that is radical, challenging, and threatening is often so precisely because it suggests a different vision of the social world, one that may increasingly come to be: the reforming Christian sects of the sixteenth century, for example, quickly became the established Churches of subsequent eras. But in contrast to the function of facilitating change there is also a major function of solidarity and cohesion secured by deviance: people unite against a common enemy.

Durkheim's work has been very influential but there have been many other sociological traditions within which the issue of deviance has also been addressed in some depth. Members of the so-called Chicago School examined deviance as part of a normal learning process of cultural transmission, most fruitfully in the later work of Edwin Sutherland, and in terms of the general theory of differential association. Those within the symbolic interactionist tradition were particularly concerned with the processes through which deviance was socially constructed. Ultimately this interest gave rise to labelling theory and social constructionism. Other strands of thought have seen deviance as a form of social conflict, and there have been attempts recently to link it to Marxism and the sociology of law, feminist criminology, and Michel Foucault and discourse theory.

Throughout the late 1960s and much of the 1970s, deviance theory was one of the most fertile and controversial fields of sociology, but by the 1980s debate had become largely institutionalized and interest somewhat diminished. In the opinion of some observers the rather boisterous specialism gradually matured. Alternatively, in the view of many of the self-proclaimed radicals within the field, the sociology of deviance simply became yet another sociological orthodoxy. However one judges this process the story itself is well documented in Stephen J. Pfohl , Images of Deviance and Social Control: A Sociological History (1985)


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Conspicuous dissimilarity with, or variation from, customarily acceptable behavior.

Deviance implies a lack of compliance to societal norms, such as by engaging in activities that are frowned upon by society and frequently have legal sanctions as well, for example, the illegal use of drugs.

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