Conflict Theory & Deviance Research Paper Starter

Conflict Theory & Deviance

Deviance, the violation of dominant societal norms, is defined from a sociological perspective. The major theorists associated with conflict theory, including Karl Marx and Max Weber, are discussed. Class is established as the major element in deviance from a conflict perspective. How systems work to legitimate those in power is discussed, as well as the dominant norms members are expected to follow. White-collar crime is discussed, as is the prison-industrial complex. The article explores those who control the media, and looks at studies that negate the idea that class and wealth distribution is the source of deviance. A brief look at the major sociological perspective of structural functionalism and its arguments for the causes of deviance in societies is also included.

Keywords Anomie; Assimilation; Criminology; Cultural Capital; Deviance; Differential Association; Hegemony; Ideological State Apparatus; False Consciousness; Norms; Prison-industrial Complex; Stratification; Uniform Crime Report


Defining Deviance

Deviance, according to sociologists, is defined as behavior or appearance that violates, or goes against, the norms of society. In every society, there are unwritten rules, called norms, and those who break those rules are considered deviant. But just being different is not what it is to be deviant. There are rare positions in societies, like being a famous baseball player, for instance, and it is not considered deviant to occupy these roles. Also, some very common behaviors are seen as deviant, like cheating on one's spouse. Deviance is not always criminal; one can be socially deviant by breaking the informal rules of a society. For example, a woman who doesn't shave her legs is considered deviant, but for such "odd" behaviors, people are often informally stigmatized in societies, rather than formally punished.

The dominant norms in American society can be directly traced to those who first established the United States: white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men. Consequently, the history of America has been a battle between the dominant norms of a relative few and the norms of various groups that challenge them. In any society, when minority groups start to accept the norms and values of the dominant group, it is called assimilation, or acculturation. All societies expect new members to take on the existing norms. Still, one of the ways societies change is for the dominant structure to adopt some parts of minority cultures. This has occurred in America regularly and is seen in our acceptance of music generally associated with African American culture, like rock and roll, which came out of the American South in the 1950s.

Sociologists recognize that it is very difficult, without training and awareness, to see these rules that define a society. So, one of the ways to see them more clearly is to notice them in relationship to another culture's norms. When you go on vacation or move to another country, it is then that your own norms become clearer. It is also possible to be trained to see these norms. One of the ways sociologists understand norms is to do norm breaching experiments. A researcher will go out into a social setting and intentionally break the rules and record the reaction of others (Garfinkel, 1967). Sociologists are looking for how others react to the norm breaching, attempting to judge what rules apply and how people are sanctioned, or rewarded or punished, for engaging in various behaviors.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theorists see the social world as defined by those who have power in any society. The term "conflict" is used in this theory not because there is necessarily literal conflict between those who are in power and those who are not. Rather, this term is used to express a conflict of interest between the two groups; that is to say, what is beneficial for one group is not good for the other. For example, for a business owner who has wage laborers, it is not in his interest to raise wages. In fact, it is in his interest to keep wages as low as possible. But, naturally, it is in the interest of the worker to have higher wages. So, by definition, these two groups have a conflict of interest.

For the conflict theorist, those who have power, whether it is economic, political, or social, are the ones who define the norms of a society. Karl Marx is the sociological theorist who first identified the idea that those who have control over the production of goods and services, mainly in the form of wealth and ownership of property, have control over all information, and therefore, how those in the society think. For Marx, the capitalist economic system creates wider and wider disparities, or differences, between the rich and the poor. To fully understand Marx, one must see that one of the central tenets, or rules, in capitalism is to achieve wealth, ideally through profit. Marx tried to show that this tenet, and many others that define capitalism, were the most powerful in society; he believed the economic form of a society takes precedence over all other social institutions.

Karl Marx believed that the ideologies of a society, the belief systems upon which we depend in order to make sense of the world, were produced by the wealthy because they owned the means to communicate (Marx & Engels, 1976). Conflict theorists contend that those who hold wealth and power have an interest in insuring that the masses hold particular beliefs, like individualism and competition, because believing they could somehow achieve wealth and power keep those who are not in power from rebelling against the system of oppression. His earliest work focused on how those who hold wealth have the means to form and maintain our ideologies, or our core beliefs, and one of the most important aspects of this control of ideas is that people are not aware that it is happening to them. In order to make sure people don't rebel against the system of dominance, the ruling class is made legitimate by creating and sustaining ways of thinking that seem fair. An Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, called this type of domination “cultural hegemony” (1971). An example of this might be that most Americans — even those who own very little property — believe ideas like competition or private property are simply the way things should be. Speaking out publicly in the United States against, say, private property, is being deviant. This type of social system is very successful because those who are not necessarily benefiting from it support it. Marx called this false consciousness.


Most conflict theorists argue that inequalities based in class struggles are the reason for crime and deviance. In other words, capitalism creates a stratified, or layered, system because it requires inequality to insure there are workers willing to work for wages and produce goods and services. Owners do not work for wages, but co-opt a portion of the profit that workers create by making the product. Capitalism also produces a level of poverty and, therefore, powerlessness. In capitalism, members are driven to desire wealth, even though it is impossible for everyone to have wealth. This puts most of the members in a very precarious situation since not all members have access to wealth, but most members believe if they work hard enough they can achieve it. In order to access the labor market, or get a job, certain dominant norms must be followed. These norms are created and perpetuated by the owners, not the workers.

Max Weber, also a conflict theorist, did not agree with Marx that the economy was the most powerful social institution. For Weber, it is the systems of power and organization that define societies, adding that those who have power over others, defined as the ability to control others (Weber, 1947) are the source of inequality. Power may or maybe not exist because of unequal distributions of wealth. Economics is one source of inequality, with others being power and status. Weber, then, did not see economics as more important than other major social institutions like religion or politics.

Weber's position on deviance is not as clear as some of the other theorists, although he wrote briefly on the topic of anomie (Orru, 1989), which is a term that describes societies and individuals in a state of social disorder in which the norms are unclear, making it easier for people to be deviant. He did, however, see deviance as a path to social change. Weber's excellent study on religion and its power to effect social change, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, shows how Martin Luther's famous act of deviance against the Catholic Church in 1517 not only altered the direction of Western religions, it also created a landscape of possibility that was necessary for capitalism to thrive three centuries later.

Critical Theory

Sociologists are careful to note that crime is not the only form of deviance. A branch of conflict theory called critical theory concerns itself more directly with the enormous amount of social control that goes into keeping people from being, not just criminally deviant, but socially deviant. For these thinkers, those of us living in Western democratic systems are duped into believing we are free; however, most aspects of our lives are mechanized to the point of dehumanization. Critical theory holds that there is an elite group that defines the society and perpetuates the myth that we are a democratic structure. Under these circumstances, those who criticize the system must be controlled. Since we technically have freedoms such as speech and assembly, those who attempt to reveal the true system of power and oppression must be termed deviant. This is particularly true for anyone who questions the systems of authority. There are also subtle messages to those who are "odd" in behavior or thinking.

An example of this is atheism in the United States. A 2006 study showed that Americans fear atheists more than they fear Muslims; Americans are more likely to vote for a Muslim than an atheist (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann,2006). About 10 percent of Americans are either atheist or agnostic. Europeans are much more likely to be atheist, with France reporting 40 percent atheism (Higgins, 2007). Critical theorists see religion as a powerful form of social control that is perpetuated by a system that benefits from limiting ideologies through insuring that beliefs that are not...

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