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Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

What Is Deviance?

Structural Functional Theory

Sociologists use a variety of theoretical perspectives to make sense of the world. These perspectives or theories provide a framework for understanding observations on topics such as deviance. The symbolic interactionist perspective of sociology views society as a product of everyday social interactions of individuals. Symbolic interactionists also study how people use symbols to create meaning. In studying deviance, these theorists look at how people in everyday situations define deviance, which differs between cultures and settings.

Theory of Differential Association

Sociologist Edwin Sutherland studied deviance from the symbolic interactionist perspective. The basic tenet of his theory of differential association is that deviance is a learned behavior—people learn it from the different groups with which they associate. His theory counters arguments that deviant behavior is biological or due to personality. According to Sutherland, people commit deviant acts because they associate with individuals who act in a deviant manner.

He further explained exactly what one learns from people who commit deviance. He said that the future deviant learns values different from those of the dominant culture, as well as techniques for committing deviance.

Example: In a gang environment, current gang members resocialize new members to norms that oppose those of the dominant culture. From the gang, these new members learn that stealing, carrying a gun, and using drugs are acceptable behaviors, whereas they were not before. In the meantime, the norms they learned at home are no longer acceptable within the gang environment, and they must reject those norms and values to accept the new ones. Current gang members also teach new members how to commit specific deviant acts, such as hotwiring a car or breaking into a home.

Part of Sutherland’s theory is that if people learn deviance from others, the people with whom we associate are of utmost importance. The closer the relationship, the more likely someone is to be influenced. Parents who worry that their children are socializing with an undesirable crowd have a justified concern.

Example: If an adolescent changes schools and his new peer group smokes marijuana, the new student is more likely to smoke marijuana. On the other hand, if a student moves to a new school where no one smokes marijuana, he is less likely to take up the habit.

Deviant Subcultures

When individuals share a particular form of deviance, they often form a deviant subculture, a way of living that differs from the dominant culture and is based on that shared deviance. Within the deviant subculture, individuals adopt new norms and values and sometimes feel alienated from the larger society. They end up relying more on the group to which they feel they most belong. When an individual becomes a member of a deviant subculture, the members of his immediate group often become his primary source of social interaction. The deviant feels comfortable among others who have also been rejected from the dominant society.

Example: People released from prison often find that the dominant society does not welcome them back with open arms, and they often drift toward other ex-convicts to attain a sense of belonging and purpose, thereby forming a subculture. This deviant subculture helps to explain why rates of recidivism, or repeated offenses by convicted criminals, are so high. The ex-convict subculture sanctions and encourages further acts of deviance.

Control Theory

Sociologist Walter Reckless developed the control theory to explain how some people resist the pressure to become deviants. According to control theory, people have two control systems that work against their desire to deviate. Each person has a set of inner controls and outer controls.

  • Inner controls are internalized thought processes such as a sense of morality, conscience, or religious beliefs. People may also refrain from doing acts of deviance because they fear punishment or couldn’t live with the guilt that would come from acting outside of society’s norms. Inner controls represent a sort of internalized morality.
  • Outer controls consist of the people in our lives who encourage us not to stray. They could be family members, police officers, clergy, or teachers. Whoever they are, they influence us to conform to society’s expectations. A person who is tempted to engage in a deviant act can resist the temptation by imagining how others would react to his or her behavior.
Travis Hirschi and Control Theory

Sociologist Travis Hirschi elaborated on the control theory. He identified four elements that would render an individual more or less likely to commit deviance: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.

  • Attachment: People who feel a strong attachment to other people, such as family or close friends, are less likely to be deviant. If people have weak relationships, they feel less need to conform to the other person’s or group’s norms. They are more likely to commit a deviant act.
  • Commitment: Individuals who have a sincere commitment to legitimate goals are more likely to conform to society’s norms. Those goals could be a legitimate job, higher education, financial stability, or a long-term relationship. When people have little confidence in the future, they are more likely to engage in deviance.
  • Involvement: The more involved people are with legitimate activities, the less likely they are to deviate from appropriate behavior. A person with a job, a family, and membership in several clubs or organizations is less likely to commit deviance. Not only does he not have time to waste in potentially harmful activities, but he has a lot to lose if he does.
  • Belief: An individual who shares the same values as the dominant society, such as respect for authority, the importance of hard work, or the primacy of the family, is less likely to commit deviance. Individuals whose personal belief systems differ from those of the dominant society are more likely to commit deviance. A person raised to believe that it is acceptable to cheat, lie, and steal will probably not integrate into mainstream society as well as someone whose beliefs conform to the values of the larger society.

Labeling Theory

A key aspect of the symbolic interactionist perspective of deviance is labeling theory. First proposed by sociologist Howard Becker in the 1960s, labeling theory posits that deviance is that which is so labeled. No status or behavior is inherently deviant until other people have judged it and labeled it deviant.

Example: Some parents absolutely prohibit physical punishment of children, such as spanking, while other parents regularly use physical punishment to enforce household rules. Are parents who spank their children deviant? The answer depends on what is considered acceptable behavior within that given household, or within the greater society in which the family lives. Though spanking is inherently neither right nor wrong, it is subject to the often harsh judgment of others. 

Primary and Secondary Deviance

Sociologist Edwin Lemert differentiated between primary deviance and secondary deviance. The difference between primary deviance and secondary deviance is in the reactions other people have to the original act of deviance.

Primary deviance is a deviant act that provokes little reaction and has limited effect on a person’s self-esteem. The deviant does not change his or her behavior as a result of this act.

Example: An adolescent who smokes cigarettes with other adolescents is not at risk of being labeled a deviant among her peers, since they all smoke. Even though adolescents who smoke cigarettes are considered deviant by the larger American society, that teenager’s actions go relatively unnoticed, unpunished, and therefore unchanged. The primary deviance is of little consequence.

Secondary deviance includes repeated deviant behavior that is brought on by other people’s negative reactions to the original act of primary deviance.

Example: The same adolescent moves to a new school where his peers never smoke and where smoking is considered a deviant behavior. The students call him names and exclude him from all of their social activities. Because of their reactions to his smoking, he feels like an outcast and begins to smoke more, perhaps engaging in other deviant activities, such as alcohol or drugs.

According to Lemert, the reactions to the adolescent’s primary deviance provoked a form of secondary deviance. Because his alleged friends reacted so negatively to his behavior, he began to engage in more of the deviant behavior. This repeated deviance results in the adolescent having a deviant identity. He now has a “reputation,” and no one looks at him in quite the same way as before.

Chambliss and the Saints and Roughnecks

In the 1970s, sociologist William Chambliss studied two groups of high school boys to find out how strongly labels affected them. The eight boys in the group Chambliss called the Saints came from middle-class families. Society expected them to do well in life. The six boys in the other group, the Roughnecks, came from lower-class families in poorer neighborhoods. The community generally expected them to fail. Both groups engaged in deviant behavior—skipping school, fighting, and vandalizing property—but suffered different consequences. The teachers, the police, and the community excused the Saints’ behavior because they believed the Saints were good boys overall. The same people saw the Roughnecks as bad and prosecuted them for their behavior more often.

Years later, all but one of the Saints had gone to college and subsequently into professional careers. Two Roughnecks went to college on athletic scholarships, graduated, and became coaches. Two never graduated from high school, and the other two ended up in prison.

Chambliss discovered that the boys’ social class had much to do with the public’s perception of them and the ways the public perceived their acts of deviance. He also hypothesized that a deviant label can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Roughnecks had heard for so long that they were never going to amount to much that they behaved in accordance with the negative expectations others had of them.

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