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What Is Deviance?


Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

The word deviance connotes odd or unacceptable behavior, but in the sociological sense of the word, deviance is simply any violation of society’s norms. Deviance can range from something minor, such as a traffic violation, to something major, such as murder.

Each society defines what is deviant and what is not, and definitions of deviance differ widely between societies. For example, some societies have much more stringent rules regarding gender roles than we have in the United States, and still other societies’ rules governing gender roles are less stringent than ours.

Relativism and Deviance

Deviance is a relative issue, and standards for deviance change based on a number of factors, including the following:

  • Location: A person speaking loudly during a church service would probably be considered deviant, whereas a person speaking loudly at a party would not. Society generally regards taking the life of another person to be a deviant act, but during wartime, killing another person is not considered deviant.
  • Age: A five-year-old can cry in a supermarket without being considered deviant, but an older child or an adult cannot.
  • Social status: A famous actor can skip to the front of a long line of people waiting to get into a popular club, but a nonfamous person would be considered deviant for trying to do the same.
  • Individual societies: In the United States, customers in department stores do not try to negotiate prices or barter for goods. In some other countries, people understand that one should haggle over the price of an item; not to do so is considered deviant.
Deviant Traits

A person does not need to act in a deviant manner in order to be considered deviant. Sometimes people are considered deviant because of a trait or a characteristic they possess. Sociologist Erving Goffman used the term stigma to identify deviant characteristics. These include violations of the norms of physical ability or appearance. For example, people who are confined to wheelchairs or who have IQs over 140 are deviant because they do not represent the usual behaviors or characteristics of most people.

Social Control

Punishing people for deviant behavior reminds people what is expected of them and what will happen if they do not conform to society’s norms. Every society has methods of social control, or means of encouraging conformity to norms (see Chapter 1). These methods of social control include positive sanctions and negative sanctions. A positive sanction is a socially constructed expression of approval. A negative sanction is a socially constructed expression of disapproval.

Positive Sanctions

Society uses positive sanctions to reward people for following norms. Positive sanctions can be formal, such as an award or a raise. They can also be informal and include words, gestures, or facial expressions.

Example: The smile that a mother gives her child when he says “thank you” is a positive sanction.

A reaction to an individual’s actions can be a positive sanction, even if it is not intended to be.

Example: If a three-year-old learns a four-letter word at day care and says it to her parents, they might giggle and tell the child not to say it anymore. But the child repeats it because she likes seeing them laugh. Without realizing it, the girl’s parents positively sanction her actions by laughing when she says her new word. Even though what they said was intended to discourage her, their actions conveyed the opposite meaning.

Negative Sanctions

Like positive sanctions, negative sanctions can range from formal to informal.

Example: A speeding ticket or a prison sentence is a formal negative sanction. A raised eyebrow or a stare is an informal negative sanction.

Some subcultures dole out negative sanctions for behaviors generally condoned by the rest of society. In our society, academic achievement is usually held in high esteem. But in some subcultures, succeeding in a way that the dominant society approves of is not considered a good thing. In some gangs, getting good grades is not acceptable, and gang members who do well in school are criticized by their friends for “selling out.” Conformity to traditional figures of authority, such as teachers, is negatively sanctioned.

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