Defining Deviance Research Paper Starter

Defining Deviance

An overview of how deviance is defined is provided, beginning with a general review of historical definitions and the most general definitions currently used by sociologists. The development and changes of the definition of deviance across time and societies are highlighted. Special attention is given to Durkheim's views of deviance and Becker's views of the process of becoming deviant. Various types of commonly studied deviant behaviors are very briefly reviewed. The ongoing debate about positive deviance and the political correctness in defining deviance are addressed.

Keywords Anomie; Nonconformity; Norms; Prescriptive Norms; Primary Deviance; Proscriptive Norms; Roles; Secondary Deviance; Subculture

Deviance and Social Control: Defining Deviance


Defining deviance is not only a sociological endeavor. Several fields of study such as social work, psychology, criminal justice, and religion aim to understand deviant behavior. There are many sociological perspectives that offer a definition of deviance. While there may be some controversies about defining deviance, there are some general patterns that emerge from the literature. First explored here is the general definition of deviance with some emphasis on historical approaches, followed by a review of various approaches to defining deviance and concluding with specific topics that sociologists typically consider deviant behavior.


There are many perspectives in sociology that define deviance. Deviance generally refers to the violation of culturally established norms, values, and beliefs. From this definition, it is evident that the actions or attitudes that constitute deviance vary from one culture to another. Most definitions of deviance include behaviors that violate the norms of society. Some sociologists' definitions of deviance also include attitudes that vary from the dominant values and beliefs of society and individual characteristics such as birth defects, and/or individuals with physical disabilities. The definition of deviance may also vary from one subculture to another. However, how one defines deviance reflects additional assumptions about how human behavior is evaluated and by whom. Deviance can result from violations of either prescriptive norms or proscriptive norms. Because deviance is often viewed negatively by laymen, it is important to note that deviant behavior may also include activities that have positive connotations.

Positive Deviance

Deviant behavior that is negatively viewed generally reflects the normative approach to deviance. That is, behaviors that are considered deviant fall outside of behaviors that are considered acceptable or desirable by the majority of the population. Positive deviance consists of behaviors or attitudes that reflect the norms or values of a given society but are taken to the extreme of the norms or values. For example, most people in the United States would likely agree that altruistic behavior is favorable and is viewed positively. But when someone demonstrates such altruistic behavior at a much greater rate than most people do, it then takes on the characteristics of being a deviant behavior that is viewed positively. The idea that some people may view the extreme altruistic behavior as odd, unusual, or extreme demonstrates that the behavior is now classified as deviant. Not all sociologists agree that there is such a concept as positive deviance (Goode, 1991; Sagarin, 1985). Some sociologists view the concept of positive deviance as a contradiction in terms, and that only negative behaviors and attitudes constitute deviance.

Early Explanations

Some of the earliest efforts of defining deviance involved superstition and supernatural causes. For example, people who acted outside the realm of normal behavior were sometimes accused of being witches. Others suggested that demonic possession of the body accounts for deviant behavior. While there were several social issues with the previously mentioned approaches to explaining deviance, one major problem with them was that the efforts made to correct the deviant behavior and, in essence curing the individual of these problems, often resulted in the death of the deviant person. One example of an early cure for deviance was bloodletting—literally draining some of the blood from the deviant person in order to rid the person's body of demonic possession. Clearly, many people accused of deviant behavior died in the process.

Other early approaches to defining deviance involved biological explanations of deviance. Lombroso (1896) suggested that he could identify individuals prone to criminality by the number and location of bumps on one's head. His attempt to explain deviant behavior was rooted in biological determinism; one was born a criminal. Sheldon (1954) suggested that different body types are associated with elevated risks of criminal and deviant behavior. The three main body types are endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph. These somatotypes developed by Sheldon (1954) were used to explain deviant behavior. Sheldon concluded that deviant behavior varied by body composition.

While many of the original approaches to explaining deviance have been debunked, modern approaches to explaining deviance may have some general connections to the original efforts to define deviance. For example, some twenty-first century theories of crime and deviance include both social elements and individual characteristics of the deviant person. These approaches are referred to as biosocial explanations or trait theories of deviant behavior. For example, research found support for a relationship between intelligence (IQ) and crime (Cornell & Wilson, 1992; Moffitt & Silva, 1988; Raine et al., 2005); physiological and biological explanations of crime and deviance (Booth & Osgood, 1993; Raine, 1993); and personality, impulsivity, and low self-control (Glueck & Glueck, 1950; Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Tremblay et al, 1994). So while the historical approaches to deviance today seem highly unacceptable and unethical, the assumptions from which they developed are taken by some modern theorists. The modern day notion that an individual's mental or physical characteristics are somewhat related to biological determinism is related to the early approaches to explaining deviance.

Durkheim: Deviance is Inevitable

Emile Durkheim (1938, 1970), one of the earliest and most famous sociologists, concluded that deviant behavior is the result of lower levels of social integration. One of his popular research projects on individuals' suicidal behavior led him to conclude that controlling people's behavior even on a topic as personal as suicide is also related to variations in levels of one's social integration. He suggested that not every member of society can be socialized to the norms, values, and beliefs of society or that every member of society can be socially integrated throughout the life course. Durkheim was a functionalist. He believed that deviance is inevitable and that all societies have members who commit deviant behaviors. Inherent to functional theory, Durkheim suggested that the reason deviance occurs in every society is because it serves a purpose for societies.

Durkheim suggested that deviant behavior serves societies in several ways. First, deviant behavior serves to create solidarity among the members of society. The solidarity develops from the group coming together in agreement that the deviant behavior is unacceptable and therefore the person demonstrating the deviant behavior must be dealt with accordingly. The idea is that deviant behavior results in verbal reinforcements among members of society about the violation of cultural norms. Also, when society responds to the deviant behavior either through actual punishment or other negative social responses, this action serves as a warning to other members of society that they should not participate in deviant behavior or they too will experience the punishment. This process, according to Durkheim, results in greater group conformity. Another function of deviant behavior is that it clarifies what behaviors and attitudes constitute deviant behaviors. In essence, when people commit deviant acts they serve to remind others of the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

Lastly, Durkheim suggested that deviant behavior may serve societies by initiating social change. Basically, when one pushes the boundaries of norms and values in a society, then the members of society are presented with...

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