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Introduction to Deviance

Partea a I-a. Delimitări conceptuale

Deviance may be considered as banned or controlled behaviour, which is likely to attract

punishment or disapproval. Downes and Rock, 1988

Deviance is behaviour that violates the standards of conduct or expectations of a group or

society. Wickmann, 1991

Defining Deviance is like trying to nail a jellyfish to the wall: it is so illusive and slippery that it
is almost impossible to define. The view is very social constructionist and qualitative; deviance
is socially constructed and must be interpreted.

Defining deviance is straightforward: actions that offend conventional norms are deviant.

Deviance is an often exciting and popular area of investigation for sociology and sociologists.
Deviance, and more significantly that specific form of deviance, or rule breaking known as
crime, is not only a sociological problem; it is defined by some, especially ruling groups as a
social problem. Whereas, some see the purpose of sociology is to explain and describe human
behaviour in a detached manner – others often working in this topic area – wish to use
sociological insights to produce social policy that limits the effects of crime and helps policy
makers and decision makers to reduce or limit the account of so-called ‘undesirable activities’.

In 1993, Prime Minister, John Major had a view on deviance. (See above quote) . This has
important implications for the pursuit of a sociological understanding of crime and deviance.
Are sociologists guilty of supporting the activities of deviants in society by not condemning
their activities, or must understanding come before society can genuinely attempt to solve or
reduce social problems?

A great deal of sociology of deviance attempts to add to, evaluate and replace what we could call
‘common sense’ understandings of crime and deviance. In the pursuit of a sociological
understanding of crime it is not enough to simply seek answers, although this is a good starting
point. Answers must be sought to specific questions, and answers must take into account both
the theoretical and empirical dimensions of sociological analysis. However, before we can
discuss, analyse and evaluate some of these theoretical and empirical contributions made by
sociologists and sociological thought to an understanding of crime and deviance, we must be
clear in our use of the terms and of others central to this topic area.

What is Crime?
The category of crime is usually associated with behaviour which the formal, written laws of a
given society. The punishment of crime is likely to be more serious than the punishment of
‘deviance’ in general but obviously different crimes and different laws and treated in varying
What is Deviance?
To deviate means, literally, to move away or stray from, set standards in society. Deviance,
then is a much more general category than crime, and is used by sociologists to refer to
behaviour that, while being different, is often not controlled legally.

It must be made clear, however, that to distinguish between crime and deviance like this is to a
disservice to the complexities of these concepts. It is of more value to think of deviance as a
wide category, of which crime is a smaller part. Thus all crime is deviance, but not all
deviance is crime.
1. An Act can be Criminal and Deviant

Moreover, an act can be criminal and deviant i.e. Breaking both social and legal rules. For
example, most people would agree that battering an old lady to death is both criminal and
deviant and deserves punishment such as imprisonment. Other acts of killing may be more
complex; what happens, for instance, if killing occurs in wartime? The ‘killer’, who in other
contexts would be condemned as a murderer, might be applauded and called a ‘heroine’.

2. When an Act can be deviant but not criminal

An act can be deviant but not criminal i.e. breaking social, but not legal, rules. Examples, of this
include acts that are seen as deviant when they occur in a certain context, such as a male
manager wearing a dress to the office or someone talking loudly in the middle of a concert. Close
examination of such instances shows how delicately balanced our social order world can be.
Minor transgressions of behaviour, which may be acceptable in our own private realm, become
very different when occurring in public.

Defining Deviance
Exercise One

Picture a man living in a dark room with the curtain permanently drawn, spending his final years
lying naked in an armchair watching old films on TV. He has few personal contacts as he has an
intense fear of germs – to the extreme that he places tissue paper on the floor to step on as he
walks. The main described is Howard Hughes, who has a multimillionaire American

In May 1982, Colonel ‘H’ Jones died a hero, leading his parachute regiment into the Falklands
battle of Goose Green. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously, for his ‘devastating
display of courage’.

In his book, Not Mentioned in Dispatches Spencer Fitzgibbon, 1996 raises questions about the
nature of Colonel Jones’s heroic act. His fellow soldiers admitted that he was an impatient,
impulsive man who had suddenly left his post and charged alone towards a heavily armed
Argentinean position. The Argentinean soldier who had shot and killed him said he could not
believe anyone would be so foolish to do such a thing.
How do we now see this person. A straightforward ‘comic book’ hero with outstanding courage
and valour, or a deviant whom lost his life in a vain attempt against impossible odds? A closer
examination of many of our historical heroes might cause us to make similar revisions of their
actions. These two cases show the complexity of how we arrive at definitions of heroism and

1. Read the article and decide whether Howard Hughes behaviour falls into the category of
deviance as defined.
2. Reflect on your first impressions of the description of the man, before you knew who was
being described. Does this further information alter your view? Are terms like ‘eccentric’ or
‘odd’ now more appropriate than ‘deviant’? If so why?
3. How does the case of Hughes compare with the definitions of deviance given in this

1. When Acts can be criminal but not deviant

Acts can be criminal but not deviant. You might think that all crimes are deviant, but are
this always the case? Take the example of speeding, breaking the speed limit is a criminal
offence, but the majority of drivers do it at some time or another. The question arises as to
how others see it. If someone is found guilty of a minor speeding offence and fined, are they
subject to social disapproval? Similar examples include tax evasion and fiddling expenses.

Exercise Two

1. Give three examples of each of the three categories described above.

2. Write a short essay of around 500 words of why the relationship between crime and deviance
is not straightforward.

Not all deviance is negative

To deviate from social standards, however, is not to say that the deviant in question has
performed a negative act (as defined by the standards of a given society). Although crime is
usually associated with a negative action, it is perfectly possible for one to deviate in a
positive action. One could be held in high social regard, for example, for contributing
outstanding and original sciences. Thus the modern day and much heralded physicist Stephen
Hawking, could be seen as deviant; his book A Brief History of Time has become an outstanding
popular best-seller even amongst non scientific book buying public, and its is certainly true that
his knowledge of modern science deviates from the norm in society.


As the name suggests, norms are the normal ways of behaving in society. A norm refers
specifically to a given behavioural pattern. This is what we do in our everyday lives to
behave normally. As with the relationship between deviance and crime, all laws are norms but
not all norms are laws. If one breaks, a norm one is considered deviant. Sanctions – or
punishments- against one who breaks norms depends upon the severity of the norm and the
public nature of the norm breaking action. Such sanctions can range from simple ‘disapproving
stare’ to, on extreme occasions, social exclusion from a group.

The Social Construction of Deviance

Norms are the products of social construction. Behaviour can vary in being normal or
abnormal depending upon the situation the social actor is in. Norms also vary across both
time and space – they vary within a society historically, and between societies


A value has a special relationship to a norm. Values are the specific cultural goals towards
which norms are directed. Whereas a norm prescribes actual behaviour, a value justifies that
behaviour. It is the reason why some actions are approved of more than others.

The Problem of a ‘Sociology of Deviance’

The term sociology of deviance, is an overarching theme for the next few months, has its
problems. Whereas some sociologists investigate deviance in its everyday general sense,
others almost exclusively study the specific form of deviance known as criminality. In the
literature, these two terms have also become associated closely with one another; so much so,
that what is called the ‘sociology of deviance’ contains a vast array of different theories, terms
and interests, as Downes and Rock comment…

The very title of the discipline, which we shall describe, the sociology of deviance, is a little
misleading. A singular noun and a hint of science seem to promise a unified body of knowledge
and an approved set of procedures for resolving the analytical difficulties. It suggests that the
curious and troubled may secure sure answers to practical, political, moral and intellectual
problems. In addition, of all branches of applied sociology, the demands placed on the sociology
of deviance are probably the most urgent. Deviance is upsetting and perplexing and it confronts
people in many settings. Turning to sociology, enquirers are rarely given certain advice.

They will not be offered one answer, but a series of competing and contradictory visions of the
nature of people, deviation and the social order. Downes and Rock, 1995

The academic study of crimes and criminality, why crime occurs, who commits crime and how
crime can be reduced solved and eradicated, if at all, is known as criminology. Sociology and
criminology exist in a special but problematic relationship to one another. Whereas, some would
claim that criminology is a smaller part of sociology, others claim criminology is much wider,
since it draws on a whole variety of disciplines – sociology being one.
Partea a II-a

The Social Foundations of Deviance

In the sociological perspective all behavior – deviance as well as conformity – is shaped by

society. Therefore the society lays the foundation of deviance and that is how the title of this
discussion. The social foundations of deviance may be looked at from three dimensions:

1. Cultural relativity of deviance

No thought or action is inherently deviant; it becomes deviant only in relation to particular

norms. Sociologists use the term deviance to refer to a violation of norms of culture. One may
look at three basic principles:

(1) It is not the action itself, but the reactions to the act that makes something deviant. In other
words people’s behavior must be viewed from the framework of the culture in which it takes

(2) Different groups are likely to have different norms therefore what is deviant to some is not
deviant to others.

(3) This principle holds within a society as well as across cultures. Thus acts perfectly acceptable
in one culture – or in one group within a society – may be considered deviant in another culture,
or in another group within the same society.

Sociologists use the term deviance non-judgmentally, to refer to any act to which people respond
negatively. When sociologists use this term, it does not mean that they agree that the act is bad,
just because others judge it negatively. If we have to understand a particular behavior, we must
understand the meanings people give to that event. Consequently we must consider deviance
from within a group’s own framework, for it is their meanings that underlie their behavior.

2. Who defines deviance?

People become deviant as others define them that way. If deviance does not lie in the act, but in
definition of the act, where do these definitions come from? The simple answer is that the
definitions come from people. May be through trial and error process people determine the
appropriate patterns of behavior for the smooth functioning of their society. They themselves
decide what is desirable and what is undesirable for having social order in their society. These
are actually the social norms of the people. These norms are incorporated in the mechanics of
social control. The process may be a little different in a simple and small society than in a
complex and large society having ethnic variations.

3. Both rule making and rule breaking involve social power.

Each society is dominated by a group of elite, powerful people, who make the decisions for
making rules, which become part of the social control system in the society. The powerful group
of people makes sure that their interests are protected. The machinery of social control usually
represents the interests of people with social power.

A law amounts a little more than a means by which powerful people protect their interests. For
example the owners of an unprofitable factory have the legal right to shut down their business,
even if doing so puts thousands of workers out of work. But if a worker commits an act of
vandalism that closes the same factory for a single day is subject to criminal prosecution.


When we think of deviance, its dysfunctions are likely to come to mind. Most of us are upset by
deviance, especially crime, and assume that society would be better off without it. Surprisingly
for Durkheim there is nothing abnormal about deviance; in fact it contributes to the functioning
of the society in four ways:

1. Deviance affirms cultural values and norms.

Living demands that we make moral choices. To prevent our culture from dissolving into chaos,
people must show preference for some attitudes and behaviors over others. But any conception
of virtue rests upon an opposing notion of vice. And just as there can be no good without evil,
there can be no justice without crime. Deviance is indispensable to creating and sustaining

2. Deviance clarifies moral boundaries and affirms norms.

A group’s ideas about how people should act and think mark its moral boundaries. Deviance
challenges those boundaries. To call a deviant member to explain, say in effect, “ you broke a
valuable rule, and we cannot tolerate that,” affirms the group’s norms and clarifies the distinction
between conforming and deviating behavior. To deal with deviants is to assert what it means to a
member of the group. For example there is a line between academic honesty and cheating by
punishing students who do so.

3. Deviance promotes social unity.

To affirm the group’s moral boundaries by reacting to deviants, deviance develops a “we”
feeling among the group’s members. In saying “you can’t get by with that,” the group
collectively affirms the rightness of its own ways.

4. Deviance promotes social change.

Deviant people push a society’s moral boundaries, pointing out alternatives to the status quo and
encouraging change. Groups always do not agree on what to do with people who push beyond
their acceptable ways of doing things. Some group members even approve the rule-breaking
behavior. Boundary violations that gain enough support become new, acceptable behavior. Thus
deviance may force a group to rethink and redefine its moral boundaries, helping groups and
whole societies, to change their customary ways. Today’s deviance can become tomorrow’s