Deviance Essay

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Deviance was originally conceived as sin. The moral control of sinfulness is captured in Kai Erikson’s classic book Wayward Puritans about the Salem witchcraft trials in 17th-century Massachusetts. Erikson showed that deviance was as much about the behaviors of the labelers of deviance, and an expression of their fears and concerns, as it was about the behavior designated deviant and subsequently demonized. As Stephen Pfohl has argued, this demonic perspective reveals that the control of deviance is a battle between good and evil over “who gets to name the good and control the bad,” and “deviance is, and always has been, a moral battle in which the winners are declared saints and the losers, sinners.” The study of deviance is distinct in dealing with challenges to societies’ institutions and social processes that seek to develop an ordered collective society or community.

The sociology of deviance addresses how mainstream or powerful groups within society deal with those whose behavior exists on its margins; the functional or dysfunctional role these behaviors, individuals, and groups play, and their perceived threat to social order; and what to do about both deviants and deviance. In contrast, critics challenge the legitimacy and authority of those who use their power to define normality and to marginalize and stigmatize others through mechanisms of social control used in the name of maintaining order.

The modern-day study of deviance emerged in the 1960s amid the civil rights movement, women’s movement, and the protests to end the Vietnam War. These movements began to describe, then to celebrate human differences and marginalized voices. Howard Becker’s Outsiders was a landmark sociological contribution that reversed the gaze from a focus on deviant actors and what could be wrong with them, to a focus on the audience that defines some people’s behavior as deviant. He famously stated that “deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to the ‘offender.’ The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.” As a consequence, what counts as deviance varies historically, culturally, and situationally as time, cultures, and contexts vary in what they define as normal and acceptable and, therefore, what they count as deviant and unacceptable.

The Study of Deviance

The study of deviance draws on concepts and theories from sociology, social psychology, and social constructionism. Sociology studies social interaction between individuals and groups, but locates these interactions in a wider social context that is shaped by social forces such as class, race, and gender. Social psychology addresses the cognitive processes that form a person’s self identity and their view of themselves in relation to others, an identity which acts through roles that create biographies and life trajectories. Social constructionism sees the social world as an outcome of social interaction among humans in groups and other social networks whereby meaningful realities are created from attention to, and investment in, making differences and identifying similarities, and then evaluating these as good or bad. With these influences the study of deviance examines the ways that human social interaction identifies some of society’s members’ behavior, appearance, ideas, or lifestyle as different, attributes significance to that difference, and judges the significant difference as either negative or positive in its effect on others. Deviance, then, is “a culturally unacceptable level of difference” that is subject to suspicion, surveillance regulation, sanction, or penalty by society’s social control agencies because it is seen as posing a “threat to the social fabric.”

Human beings in the study of deviance are seen as existing in the world as both physical and social entities. They are seen as social beings and as a human agents who can act individually and collectively. However, they are also seen as inhabiting the intersection between the individual and social world such that individual agency is more or less colored by social agency, as in social psychologist George Herbert Mead’s intersection of the “I” and the “Me,” which reflects the collective social other’s view of that individual internalized as the social self.

From the social constructionist perspective, human agents are energized to act, but are not fully free to act outside of the discursive social frameworks that serve as the medium for their interaction and expression. Life is a series of interactive experiences of the physical world and of the socially meaningful world of others, mediated by the social and institutional forms that humans have pre-constituted. Thus, social reality is the concreteness of the physical world, mediated by the social and the socially constructed world of meaning that humans continuously create and reproduce, sometimes as closely replicated forms of that which already exists, sometimes as variations and transformation of that emergent reality.

Studies of deviance explore the ways some people, who may perceive themselves as victims, experience others’ behavior or attributes as offensive. It documents the ways that groups, communities, and even whole societies ban or otherwise sanction the behavior, appearances, ideas, and lifestyles that they find offensive. Deviance is also concerned with exploring the forms of social control that offended, indignant, or fearful groups bring to bear on the perceived offensive behaviors and on those people who engage in deviance; and how these groups document the practices, limits, rules, and sanctions they develop to contain, limit, or prevent such behavior.

In addition to exploring mechanisms of control the study of deviance is concerned with identifying the nature, characteristics, motives, and practices of those audiences and activists who engage in control practices. Indeed, the field is often described as the study of “deviance and social control,” rather than simply “deviance,” because deviance and control are inextricably linked.

Those who exercise social control over others that they see as “deviant” are designated “agents of social control.” Such agents may be informal and spontaneously constituted, such as those who voice disgust at pornography on the Internet or graffiti in their neighborhood, to more organized groups that include “moral entrepreneurs” who generate public support via the mass media to create rules or laws that ban or criminalize behaviors they find offensive, often by creating a “moral panic” over some behavior.

Agents of social control may employ a variety of mechanisms of control, such as ostracism and shaming to mobilizing public bans sanctioned by law. Shaming involves identifying the persons committing deviant acts as having deviant identities defined by their engagement in that activity rather than by the totality of their humanity. Thus, those who practice deviant behaviors become identified, or labeled, by control agents as deviants and are thus reduced to a caricature of who they may be as persons. Thus, control agents are primarily involved in labeling actors who behave or act defiantly as “outsiders” and they construct stigmatized categories of deviants.

The study of deviance then examines the behaviors, appearance, ideas, or lifestyles of deviants relative to others seen as “normal.” Deviance is seen in one of two categories depending on whether or not the actor chose his or her behavior. Where no choice is involved deviance is seen as acquired (e.g. physical disability). Where deviance is chosen it is seen as achieved (e.g. substance abuse). Moral condemnation accrues in the case of achieved deviance, but not in the case of acquired deviance; stigma, however, accompanies both designations.

A central concept of the interactionist perspective on deviance is the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy, which is the social process of creating career deviance from minor deviance, or as Edwin Lemert described it, creating “secondary deviance” from “primary deviance.” This concept has become embedded in popular cultural discourse from education to criminology and criminal justice, and is a major reason justifying segregating juvenile offenders from adults in the criminal justice system, as well as for diverting juvenile offenders into alternatives to institutionalization. For Lemert the difference between primary and secondary deviance was not simply quantity or extent of engagement but the reason for that engagement. For primary deviants there were a wide range of motives and the behavior was simply one of many possible actions they may take. Secondary deviants engaged in deviance because they had undergone an identity change, and had embraced the label of deviant; it had, as Becker said, become their “master status” and they were engulfed by it, a process that deepened as they joined with fellow deviants and became more isolated and marginalized from the rest of society.

Thus, the study of deviance also examines deviant social organization and subcultures that form as a result of the marginalization of deviants and their exclusion from the nondeviant social world of the wider society based on their deviant behavior. It explores their interactions with nondeviants, their private and sometimes secret lives, and the effects of the labeling and stigmatizing process on their abilities to change their behavior, as well as the resistance they can develop in relation to the moral condemnation by others. Studies also explore alternative lifestyles and political opposition to mainstream values.

The study of deviance and social control has been developed within interactionist and interpretationalist tradition largely within sociology, but also within social psychology. Its objectives of study are why people create rules, why people break rules, and why and how people try to control rule-breakers. Thus, deviance researchers are interested in how some members of society develop the power, and sometimes the authority, to define others’ behavior as significant enough to warrant action, but they are also particularly interested in how those whose behavior violates the rules of others create meaningful behavior and life worlds based around that behavior. In order to conduct the kind of research that will understand such meaning and contexts, deviance researchers have typically used methods that are similar to those anthropologists use to study other cultures. Thus, they have used qualitative methods, including ethnography, interview, and case study, to gather data on their subjects, and in the United States the primary outlet to disseminate this research has been the journal Deviant Behavior.

Recent developments in studies of deviance have explored whether deviance studies are relevant to the 21st century, or whether they are a hangover from the 1960s and 20th-century protest movements. Scholars have also explored depth studies of various stages of (1) the deviance process, such as analysis of panics; and (2) the stigmatization process and the ways processes of shaming may distinguish between shaming behavior and shaming people. Thus, the concept of “reintegrative shaming” suggests that if others do not condemn people, when they condemn people’s behavior, it facilitates ways that allow the offender to re-enter society without the identity-stigmatizing consequences that accompany identity shaming.

There has also been an interest in studying deviance committed by society’s powerful elites and corporations, as well as state governments, as opposed to the original studies that were conducted on societies’ marginalized powerless, captured in the phrase nuts, sluts and perverts. Studies of elite deviance cases, such as Enron or Bernie Madoff, raise a whole different set of questions about how deviant behavior can start and become sustained. As in the case of the financial collapse in the United States in 2008, it shows that collusion with social control agents, in this case federal regulators, can produce societal, even global harm on an unprecedented scale. All of which enables society to reframe how deviance processes are both ubiquitous but also different in their impact and consequences.

As well as expanding into the realm of crimes of the powerful, deviance studies have explored the idea of positive deviance (PD). This appears to be a contradiction, but it is based on the idea that statistical deviance from a norm implies both negative and positive evaluation of statistical difference. The field of positive deviance studies emanated from the field of nutrition and health studies, and later, business and organizational change that seeks uncommon solutions to recurrent economic, social, and community problems. The view taken by such organizations is that conventional norm-conforming behavior is ill equipped to deal with anomalies or significant organizational stagnation or challenges. Positive deviants are those exceptional employees within organizations who dare to break the norms and “think outside the box” to develop ways that are successful even if they operate on the margins of conventional practices. Importantly, while positive deviance can run into bureaucratic resistance from the existing system and processes, it is also able to be incorporated into the mainstream more readily than conventional deviance.

The study of deviance can also create ethical dilemmas for its researchers. For example, there are deviant behaviors (e.g. pedophilia, satanic sacrifice rituals, drug dealing among college students, and systematic suppression of unhygienic food processing) that confront qualitative sociological researchers with the dilemma of whether to report these activities to authorities, or reveal the identity of the people and the practices they study. Inversely, in studying deviance by the powerless, or forms of social control of deviance, is the qualitative researcher supporting the exiting power/class structure by revealing/controlling lower-class/status deviance but not that of elites, corporations, or the state?

Finally, in spite of several declarations of its death, the study of deviance is enduring, not least because it is central to the study of normative order; as French sociologist Émile Durhheim insightfully observed over 100 years ago, “even in a society of saints there will be sinners.”


  1. Adler, Patricia A. and Peter Adler, eds. Constructions of Deviance: Social Power, Context and Interaction. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth, 2011.
  2. Becker, Howard. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press, 1966.
  3. Braithwaite, John. Crime, Shame and Reintegration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  4. Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of Mods and Rockers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980.
  5. Erikson, Kai. Wayward Puritans. New York: Wiley,
  6. Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1986.
  7. Goode, Erich. Deviant Behavior. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997.
  8. Goode, Erich and Norman Ben-Yehuda. Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994.
  9. Hendershott, Anne. The Politics of Deviance. San Francisco: Encounter, 2002.
  10. Henry, Stuart. Social Deviance. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.
  11. Pfohl, Stephen. Images of Deviance and Social Control. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1994.
  12. Schur, Edwin M. The Politics of Deviance: Stigma Contests and the Uses of Power. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980.
  13. Sumner, Colin. “Deviance.” In The Sage Dictionary of Criminology. 2nd ed., E. McLaughlin and Muncie, eds. London: Sage, 2006.
  14. Sumner, Colin. The Sociology of Deviance: An Obituary. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press, 1994.

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