Preventing Deviance by Amending Inequality
Deviance is any behavior that violates cultural and socially established norms. By investigating deviance in society, we can better understand the processes that function to maintain social order, and how inequality in society can contribute to deviant activity. Scholarship in this area has taken two divergent paths since the late twentieth century. On the one hand, there are those who argue that deviance should be studied regardless of criminality or wrongfulness. On the other hand are those who suggest that deviance is an indicator of criminal activity and attempts should be made by communities and law enforcement to control deviant behavior through various mechanisms of control and sanctions. This paper will look at ways to prevent deviance by ameliorating inequality and thus, deviance will be treated as objectively given in society; that is, deviant activities will be described in terms of their social dysfunctions and ability to upset social order. Specific attention is paid to processes by which we can reduce deviance by reducing inequality.
Keywords Bourgeoisie; Capitalism; Class Conflict; Deviance; Inequality; Marx, Karl; Proletariat; Symbolic Interactionism
Deviance is any behavior that violates culturally established norms (Rubington & Weinberg, 1996). By investigating deviance in society, we may better understand the processes that maintain social order and how deviant groups organize their lives and function in society. Stratification, inequality, and the social construction of deviance contribute to the labeling of certain behaviors as deviant and criminal. In order to understand the causes of deviance and its relationship to inequality we consider a multitude of issues including how deviance is defined, whether or not it is harmful to society, and how to prevent it by amending social inequalities.
The study of deviance as a social phenomenon relies on widespread agreement among members of society that share similar values and norms that make it easy to identify individuals who breach social norms. Deviant activity evokes a negative reaction by the majority of society. Society applies punishments to deter deviant-minded individuals and other members of society from engaging in activities that challenge the social order (Rubington & Weinberg, 1996).
We can view deviance as criminal acts, violations of formally enacted laws. For example, we might consider those who engage in robbery, theft, rape, murder, and assault, as deviants. We may also view deviant behavior as violations of informal social norms, norms that society has not codified into law. Deviant behavior such as this might include various sexual behaviors, alcohol use, and public disorder. These activities are not necessarily criminal but still have the potential to negatively affect society and upset social order.
One example of this is evident in sexual identity. Historically (and to a certain extent today), homosexual behavior has been viewed as deviant. Of course, homosexual behaviors, by most standards, do not cause harm to individuals or society. However, given the marginalization of those who participate in gay activities, subcultures were formed that have developed into social movements that call attention to the inequitable treatment of gays and lesbians in society, initiating social change.
On the other hand, when deviance causes harm to individuals and society it is important to consider measures to reduce such deviant activity and prevent individuals from harm or harming others. This also suggests a greater understanding of the causes of the harmful deviant behavior. A common explanation for harmful acts of deviance is rooted in theories of class conflict, which asserts that inequality creates hostile conditions that facilitate deviance and crime.
Because of the varying views on deviance, scholarship has taken two divergent paths over the past decades. Some scholars argue that research on deviance should focus on individuals' personal environments without considering the criminality or wrongfulness of their actions (Rubington & Weinberg, 1996). Other scholars suggest that deviance is an indicator of criminal activity that society must control through various formal and informal social control mechanisms (Hagan, Silva, & Simpson, 1977).
Symbolic interaction theorists suggest that there is nothing inherently wrong with the majority of deviant acts, but rather society has constructed definitions and mechanisms for typifying behavior and actors as deviants in order to maintain the status quo (Becker, 1963). Thus, symbolic interaction theorists define behavior that is considered by society to be deviant as behavior that is labeled deviant (Becker, 1963).
This essay considers a theoretical explanation of deviance that takes into account variations in access to social and financial resources, reviews empirical examples of the relationship between inequality and deviance, and addresses the processes through which society can prevent deviance by ameliorating inequality.
Social Conflict Theory of the Causes of Deviance
Karl Marx developed the conflict perspective, a theory renowned for its explanation of class struggles. Marx never actually studied criminality, however, criminologists and sociologists have adapted his theories of capitalism, class struggle, and the nature of the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat to develop theories of deviance. These theories of deviance highlight the consequences of social order and focus on social and structural mechanisms that contribute to inequality in society (Spitzer, 1975).
The conflict perspective provides an explanation of deviance in which a privileged few determine what actions are deviant and non-deviant. For example, laws in capitalist countries often reflect the norms and values of the privileged or upper classes. Laws related to property ownership tend to favor those with...
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