Theories of Deviance Essay

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The term deviance is at once denotative and connotative. It points, on the one hand, to thinking about an ill-assorted range of behavior with fuzzy boundaries and indeterminate definition. It attends to the way in which the meaning of deviance is contingent on a politics of power and authority, and, where control becomes a variable, it has been argued, crime is but one of a number of possible outcomes. Theories of deviance were thus potentially wider by far in their reach than criminology and they made the criminal law, criminalization, and the facts of crime newly and interestingly problematic. Indeed, Lemert (1967) and others came to propose that attention should shift away from deviant acts and people towards the phenomena of control. And where control was the variable, rule-making, policing, and regulation came newly into view, no longer to be taken for granted as the backdrop of criminology, but occupying center stage.

But theories of deviance were also importantly connotative. Institutionally anchored in the British National Deviancy Symposium, which flourished for almost a decade from 1968, and in the American Society for the Study of Social Problems and its journal, Social Problems, they advertised for many that there had been a conceptual, indeed, for some, political, break with past work whose errors and omissions were sometimes caricatured for dramatic effect.

By and large the new theories succeeded in their object. Criminology is more fully sociological than before. It is now more responsive to the argument that deviant phenomena are emergent, political, negotiated, contingent, and meaningful. And it has moved on. Theories of deviance are still being advanced, and the ethnographic mapping of deviance is still vigorous. They may no longer hold sway as in the past, but their obituary has proved decidedly premature.

Deviance could be represented by the structural-functionalist Talcott Parsons (1951) as the temporary or longer-lasting failure of individual or group adjustment in social systems undergoing change. It could be said by other functionalists to play the unintended role of acting as an illicit support to conventional institutions. It could, by extension, present the dialectical contrasts by which the respectable, normal, and conventional would be recognized and strengthened. And there were those who argued that deviance is manufactured precisely to support the moral order. In structuralist anthropology and sociology it could be a property of classification systems where the deviant was a worrying anomalous phenomenon that did not fit neatly into existing categories, and so posed a threat to the project of collective sense-making and social order. It could recapitulate the symbolic workings of systems of social stratification, where some symmetry may be expected between authority, wealth, and moral esteem, and where deviants are typically to be found among the lowest and least-valued strata or, indeed, outcast altogether. It could thereby refract the capacity of some effectively to assign to others a devalued social status, although such assignments could be, and were, frequently challenged. And it was that link with signifying processes that was perhaps most strongly to promote its elective affinity with the ideas of symbolic interactionism, phenomenology, and ethnomethodology. That bundle of ideas was probably the most distinctive theory of deviance of all, and it entailed a preference for certain methods, notably the ethnographic, and somewhat devalued quantitative approaches. What came to be called labeling theory, methodically explored the symbolic work undertaken when attempts are made to affix the deviant ”label” to some person or group of persons, event, process, or phenomenon, encouraging power, ”signification,” and moral passages to become central topics.


  1. Lemert, E. (1967) Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  2. Matza, D. (1969) Becoming Deviant. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  3. Parsons, T. (1951) The Social System. Free Press, New York.
  4. Scott,   & Douglas, J.  (eds.)  (1972), Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance. Basic Books, New York.

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