Preventing Deviance by Strengthening Social Bonds Research Paper Starter

Preventing Deviance by Strengthening Social Bonds

(Research Starters)

A definition of deviance and norms in the field of sociology and an overview of deviance from the perspective of the classical sociological perspective structural-functionalism is presented. The social theorist Émile Durkheim's work on deviance as a functional element in normal, healthy societies is addressed, as well as an understanding of the relationship between the level of social bonds and deviance, particularly as seen by Durkheim, including an explanation for high levels of deviance in a society, which is considered a reflection of a lack of cohesion. The article also presents an overview of Durkheim's classic work “Suicide” and why it is used to understand deviance in general, and then addresses the need for members to assimilate into the dominant cultural norms and how this can strengthen social bonds in order to reduce deviance. It also gives an example of immigrants maintaining traditional norms as a means to increase cohesion and reduce deviance.

Keywords Assimilation; Breaching Experiment; Cohesion; Deviance; Ethnocentrism; Folkways; Mores; Laws; Norms; Sacred Object; Taboos

Preventing Deviance by Strengthening Social Bonds


Defining Deviance

Sociologists define deviance as behavior or appearance that goes against the dominant rules, or norms, of a society. Each society has its own set of norms, and to violate them is to be deviant. Deviance is not just being different from others; there are many instances of this in societies. For example, it is relatively rare to be a celebrity, but it is not deviant. Furthermore, a relatively common behavior, such as smoking marijuana, the most widely used illicit substance in much of the United States, is considered deviant. Deviance is not always criminal; one can be socially deviant by breaking the informal rules of a society; for example, a man wearing a skirt is considered deviant.

In the United States, the dominant norms reflect those of the founders of the country, who were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Because of this, many minority groups' norms are considered deviant only because they are different from the mainstream, dominant normative structure. When minority groups begin to take on the dominant norms in a society, it is called assimilation, or acculturation, and this is common and expected. There are examples, such as the mainstream acceptance of jazz as a music form, of Americans absorbing minority norms. This is called pluralism.

One of the best ways to understand deviance is to think about how important rules are to the smooth operations of a society. However, it is difficult to see these rules when one is immersed in society. This is why it is easier to see norms in another society, because they are different and we are forced to think about our own behavior and ways of thinking. Another way of identifying norms is to engage in norm-breaching experiments. Sociologists intentionally break, or breach, norms and record the reactions of others (Garfinkel, 1967). In this way, they can see how rules exist in a society, what the rewards are for following them, and what the punishments are for breaking them.


Norms have extraordinary power in societies. The purpose of norms is to

• Regulate social behavior,

• Reinforce social boundaries, and

• Help make sense of values, or beliefs the society holds (Durkheim, 1933).

There are three types of norms for behavior in sociology: folkways,mores (which include taboos), and laws. The level of reward for following the rules or, conversely, punishment associated with breaking the rules determines in which categories these rules will fall. Folkways are the hundreds and hundreds of everyday, informal rules we follow that guide us socially. Table manners, how others are addressed, and what to wear to a gathering are all folkways, and breaking these rules renders small irritations like a frown or a sideways look. Mores are the formal rules that are usually, but not always, law. In the mores of any society, you will find the moral imperatives, or the moral structures that inform the society in terms of religion or politics, for example; engaging in adultery or committing murder are breaches of mores. When mores are broken, members are severely punished with social embarrassment or ostracism. Laws are the codified, formally agreed upon rules that are punishable through bureaucratic means, and when these are broken there is a formal structure (the judicial system) that is in place to punish the deviant. Just because a rule is law does not mean it is the norm—for example, someone speeding in an area in which all other drivers are also speeding. In this case, the norm is to speed, yet the law is otherwise.

There are very few norms that are universal, although most social scientists agree that incest is a universal taboo (Levi-Strauss, 1969). Even in the face of massive amounts of evidence that incest is the only norm that every society holds as deviant, aside from a few known ancient practicing cultures, social scientists still look for an explanation for this norm—a function of this rule. The most plausible guess is that it extends family ties, strengthening the family, but this is still not a corroborated explanation.


The norms in any society are the glue; they are how we know what to do every day, how to interact with one another, and when and what to do in our lives. Adherents to structural-functionalism, one of the classical paradigms or theoretical perspectives in sociology, see norms as one of the most important elements in any society, and the level of adherence to the rules represents how strong the social bonds are, or how cohesive the society is. Sociologists are careful to point out that norms are always relative (Durkheim, 1933). That means deviance is also always relative, because it is dependent on the rules of the society. One cannot break a rule that does not exist. Put another way, when a rule is created, it is only then, upon its creation, that someone is able to break the rule and be defined as a deviant. In some cases, what one might consider deviant in most cases is the norm. For example, if you are a soldier, killing the enemy is not murder and, in fact, you could be required to kill someone or you may be killed.

The relative nature of norms indicates that they are socially constructed, or created, and exist to help the social world remain predictable for its members. If we did not have these rules, we would be easily confused and may feel separated, or alienated from others. Yet, in each society, the members must consider their norms superior to others so that the members agree with and follow these rules.


Structural-functionalists see high levels of deviance as a marker of a society's lack of solidarity, or lack of strong social bonds. The most well-known structural-functionalist is the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. He argued that rapid social change, or some other abrupt change in the social order, is the source of inordinately high levels of deviance. Durkheim believed that, while it is impossible for a society to be deviance-free, high levels of deviance is a sign that people in the society do not feel connected enough to others, or that the society is in such of state of chaos that its members feel that the rules do not apply.

For Durkheim and many other functionalists, deviance is created by making more laws. Actions are not inherently right or wrong; they either contribute to the smooth operations of the society or they do not. In other words, all actions are relative to the situation, and, in so far as the rules create and maintain social bonds, they are or are not functional.

Durkheim said that, while deviance is always found in normal, healthy societies, when a society has very high levels of deviance it means that the members do not feel connected to the society. When sizable numbers of members in a society break the rules, according to Durkheim, the society is in a state of anomie (Durkheim, 1951). Strong social bonds being the basis for a well-balanced society, Durkheim understood that deviance is a reflection of how connected members feel. His concept of anomie was developed to explain one of the four types of suicide that is discussed in his enlightening work Suicide (1951).

Suicide as a Deviant Act

Understanding deviance and its relationship to strong social bonds is one of the most important discussions Émile Durkheim took up in his work. In his work on suicide, Durkheim shows that deviance is a sociological phenomenon, not a psychological one. He uses suicide as the example of deviance. He shows that larger social forces are what contribute to whether people deviate from the norms of society, not individual people and the choices they make. Durkheim studied the relationship between social cohesion, or social bonds, and regulation, or whether people feel compelled to follow the rules, and whether people are more or less likely to deviate from the rules of a society—in this case committing suicide. In this study, Durkheim looked at several factors that might influence whether people would commit suicide, including sex and weather. But he found religion as the most revealing factor. He found that Protestants are the most likely to commit suicide, followed by Catholics and then Jews. Durkheim argues that Protestants have the highest levels of suicide because, as a group, they encourage personal autonomy and individualistic thinking. Catholics are more communal than Protestants and have a higher level of cohesion. Jewish people have the highest level of cohesion or social integration and are the least likely to commit suicide.

Durkheim lists four types of suicide:

• Anomic,

• Altruistic,

• Egoistic, and

• Fatalistic.

Anomic suicide occurs when the social regulation is so weak that members do not feel that the society can fulfill their needs. Altruistic suicide occurs when members feel too much social integration and they are willing to sacrifice for the group; while rare, this type of suicide is seen in suicide bombers. Egoistic suicide occurs when members do not feel enough integration, making them feel as though no one cares for them; Durkheim argues that this is more likely in highly individualistic societies. Fatalistic suicide, dealt with very little in the study, is when regulation is too high, for example when someone is in an abusive prison.


For Durkheim, the amount of deviance is directly related to whether or not a society is industrialized. In preindustrial societies, deviance is much lower, and this is because the people are very similar to one another and they feel very connected to one another. Further, members are allowed very little latitude in small hunting and gathering societies or farming villages; everyone knows one another and any rule broken results in at least public shame. In these societies, when members do break the rules, the punishment is very retributive, or harsh. This is because the deviant is perceived to have violated the entire community. Punishment in these cultures can...

(The entire section is 5048 words.)