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All societies and social collectivities exercise social control: They expect their members to conform to certain normative expectations and punish, condemn, or reproach persons who fail to meet them. Although the layperson rarely uses the term, the sociologist refers to a society’s member’s departure from the norms as ”deviance.” By exercising social control, society’s members define or constitute deviance.
Sociologically, four components constitute deviance: One, the existence of a norm or rule or law. Two, someone who violates that norm. Three, an audience that observes or learns about the violation and the violator. And four, a negative reaction to the violation: a snub, punishment, condemnation, arrest, denunciation, ridicule, gossip, social isolation, reproach. Clearly, negative reactions range from slightly to strongly negative, which means that deviance is a spectrum, a matter of degree.
Social control may be formal or informal. Some actions are crimes, or violations of the formal norms we refer to as laws, and call for punishment by the state or government. Whenever the state arrests, prosecutes, and imprisons a miscreant, it exercises ”formal” social control. By definition, a crime is an action the violation of which activates formal social control. A crime is a specific type of deviance. While all crime is a type of deviance, not all deviance is crime; obesity, full body tattooing, and believing that one has been kidnapped by extraterrestrials exemplify serious but not illegal deviance. Nonetheless, crimes are typically regarded as more serious violations of society’s norms and usually generate a higher level of public consensus as to their ”wrongness.” Crime is studied by criminologists; criminology studies violations of the law, usually from a positivistic or explanatory perspective, in addition to the exercise of formal social control, while the sociology of deviance more often studies low-consensus normative violations, usually by means of ethnographic or qualitative methods.
The degree to which a given act, belief, or physical or mental condition is regarded as deviant is evaluated by diverse audiences; the standards that one audience applies as to whether a norm has been violated and deserving of condemnation may be quite different from those applied by a different audience. Thus, we see two very different species of deviance.
”Societal” deviance is made up of acts, beliefs, and traits that are regarded as objectionable on a widespread basis, in the society taken as a whole. The standard by which the unacceptability of the act, belief, or trait is judged is vertical and hierarchical: the norm is promulgated in major institutions such as education, the law, the media, politics, religion, and the family. Violations of such standards may be referred to as ”high-consensus” deviance, and include murder, rape, robbery, incest, theft, alcoholism, adultery, and drug addiction. While some such practices do find endorsement in certain social circles, the individuals who embrace or endorse them tend to be exceptional, marginal, and themselves deviant. Discovery that someone engages in such practices is likely to result in arrest or, if they are not crimes, reproach, ridicule, avoidance, and social isolation.
In contrast, ”situational” deviance is made up of those actions, beliefs, and traits that are endorsed or tolerated in some contexts, settings, locales, or social sectors that are elsewhere regarded as normative violations. Here, we find ”low-consensus” deviance, the judgment of which is ”horizontal” rather than vertical; with respect to deviance, society can be likened to a ”mosaic” rather than a hierarchy. As we move from one group, stratum, or social circle to another, what’s considered wrong or right, good or bad, deviant or conventional, likewise shifts around. For instance, evolution as a scientific fact is taught in most schools, colleges, and universities in the USA, but creationists constitute nearly half the population, and are rarely referred to as ”deviants.” Having a small number of inconspicuous tattoos, engaging in sex with more than a specific number of partners, smoking marijuana occasionally, and visiting nude beaches represent examples of ”situational” or ”low consensus” deviance. Again, since deviance is a matter of degree, the line between ”societal” and ”situational” deviance is blurry and in flux.
Social control will be applied to normative violations as long as humans organize themselves into collectivities, and as long as sociologists study human behavior, the concept of deviance will remain a vital subject of study.
- Adler, P. A., and Adler, P. (eds.) (2009) Constructions of Deviance: Social Power, Context, and Interaction. Thompson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.
- Dotter, D. (2004) Creating deviance: an Interactionist Approach. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.
- Downes, D. & Rock, P. (2007) Understanding Deviance, 5th edn. Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford.