Constructionist Perspectives on Deviance Essay

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Constructionist perspectives are ways of viewing reality as a human cognitive or social production. Social constructionism explains how people interactively make sense of, and order, their world by defining it and categorizing it, by representing it through language, symbols, maps, etc., and by acting toward the representations as though they were real. The extent to which reality is seen as having an independent existence outside the human mind or social processes distinguishes different versions. Strong constructionism argues that we cannot objectively verify the existence of reality; we can only observe the world from different positions and make ”truth claims” about constructions of that world. Weak constructionism believes that some underlying reality exists; by selecting from and classifying this basic reality humans build social constructions having different appearances, and meaning depending upon the social and cultural context.

Constructionists see deviance as the consequence of humans attempting to create a moral order by defining and classifying selected behaviors, appearance, or statuses as normal, ethical and acceptable, and creating rules that ban, censure, and/or sanction norm violators. Deviance is seen as a variation from social norms that is perceived as different, judged as significant, and negatively evaluated as threatening. Social reaction by control agencies toward those designated as deviant can result in a labeling effect or ”self-fulfilling prophesy” that amplifies the original deviant behavior or appearance, entrenches the incumbent in a deviant role, and produces additional deviance as a result of their pursuit of secrecy. Ultimately this can result in an identity transformation into ”career deviance” as the norm violator becomes engulfed coping with the associated stigma that comes with their transformed social identity. Social constructionist perspectives toward deviance tend to focus on the practices of authoritative agents in creating moral panics about feared behavior and those who engage in it.

According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) moral panics are societal reactions to perceived threat characterized by: (1) their sudden appearance and rapid spread among large sections of the population via mass media and other means of communications, followed by a rapid decline in further instances of the problem; (2) the growth of experts who are claimed authorities in discerning cases of the said feared behavior; (3) an increased identification of cases that build into a ”wave;” (4) hostility and persecution of the accused as enemies of society; (5) measurement of society’s concern; (6) consensus about the seriousness of the threat; (7) disproportionality of the fear relative to actual harm; (8) a backlash against the persecution; and (9) exposure of the flaws in identifying the problem.

Social constructionists of deviance share a concern to examine how interest groups, moral entrepreneurs and social movements create claims about deviant behavior. Claims making involves a process of first assembling and diagnosing claims about behavior or conditions seen as morally problematic. Second, it involves presenting these claims as legitimate to significant audiences such as the news media. Third, framing a moral problem involves the prognosis of how to address the problem to bring about a desired outcome by defining strategies, tactics, and policy. Fourth, claims making involves contesting counter claims and mobilizing the support of key groups.

Critics of social constructionism have challenged each others’ epistemological position. Pro-realists accuse constructionists of being nihilistic and unscientific; for implying that crime and deviance are merely fabrications. Anti-realists ridicule science as just another truth claim using scientific ideology to claim legitimacy for political ends. The point of constructionism is that by revealing how what is taken to be real is constituted, it can be deconstructed, enabling its reconstruction and, thereby, changing social reality.


  1. Adler, P. A. & Adler, P. (eds.) (2006) Constructions of Deviance: Power, Context and Interaction..Thompson, Belmont, CA.
  2. Burr, V. (1995) An Introduction to Social Constructionism. Routledge, London.
  3. Gergen, K. (1999) An Invitation to Social Construction. Sage, London.
  4. Goode, E. & Ben-Yehuda, N. (1994). Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Blackwell, Oxford.

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