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. 

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