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Sociological discussions of deviance typically focus on non-normative behaviors. Cognitive deviance, on the other hand, refers to deviant beliefs. Beliefs are deviant if they fall outside the norms of acceptability and are deemed wrong, irrational, eccentric, or dangerous. Deviant beliefs are important to study because they reveal basic social processes and affirm the belief structure on which a society is built. In addition, the study of deviant beliefs is important because deviance is often the first step toward social change. Today’s deviant idea may well be tomorrow’s norm. The study of deviant beliefs reveals to the sociologist the social construction of all knowledge (Berger & Luckmann 1966).
Deviant beliefs are not always, or necessarily, minority beliefs. In fact, many widespread beliefs are rejected by society’s dominant social institutions. Nor are deviant beliefs necessarily wrong or misguided. The empirical, objective, or scientific erroneousness of a belief is not what makes it deviant. What makes a belief deviant is the negative reaction it evokes.
What members of the society, or of specific social collectivities, take to be real and true has momentous consequences for the nature of the society. Beliefs that challenge these collective understandings may be reacted to negatively. Since the costs can be significant, deviant beliefs are difficult to maintain. Occasionally, the fringe may become the mainstream, blasphemy the inspiration, or the nutcase the prophet. Yet more commonly they remain fringe and lunatic. Most deviant beliefs, in fact, come and go with hardly a notice.
- Berger, P. L. & Luckmann, T. (1966) The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Doubleday, Garden City, NY.
- Goode, E. (2000) Paranormal Beliefs: A Sociological Introduction. Waveland Press, Prospect Heights, IL.