What Is Deviance?

  • Deviance is any violation of society’s norms.
  • Each society defines deviance differently. Deviance is a relative issue and may differ based on location, age, social status, and individual societies.
  • Social control is a way society has of encouraging conformity to norms. It consists of positive and negative sanctions.
  • Positive sanctions are socially constructed expressions of approval.
  • Negative sanctions are socially constructed expressions of disapproval.

Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

  • The symbolic interactionist perspective is one of the main frameworks that sociologists use to analyze society. Symbolic interactionists view society as a byproduct of everyday social interaction.
  • Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association asserts that deviance is a learned behavior that people learn from the different groups with which they associate. Some people form deviant subcultures based on a shared deviance.
  • According to William Reckless’s control theory, people have two control systems to keep them from acting outside society’s norms: inner and outer controls. Inner controls are internalized thought processes such as conscience. Outer controls include people who influence us.
  • Travis Hirschi elaborated on control theory and identified four factors that make individuals more or less likely to commit deviance. These factors are attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.
  • Howard Becker’s labeling theory posits that deviant behavior is that which society labels as deviant.
  • Edwin Lemert distinguished between primary deviance, the initial act, and secondary deviance, the repeated deviance that occurs in response to people’s reaction to the primary deviance.
  • William Chambliss’s study of boys he called the Saints and Roughnecks showed the power of labeling.

Structural Functional Theory

  • Another sociological framework, the structural functional theory, focuses on society as a whole rather than the individuals within society.
  • Deviance is a normal and necessary part of any society.
  • Émile Durkheim said that deviance fulfills four functions for society: affirmation of cultural norms and values, clarification of right and wrong, unification of others in society, and bringing about social change.
  • According to Robert Merton’s strain theory of deviance, when people are prevented from achieving culturally approved goals through institutionalized means, they experience strain that can lead to deviance.
  • Denied access to institutionalized means to success, poor people turn to illegitimate opportunity structures.
  • Merton identified five reactions to goals and institutionalized means: conformists, innovators, ritualists, retreatists, and rebels.

Conflict Perspective

  • The conflict theory is Karl Marx’s theoretical paradigm that views society as struggle between groups over limited resources.
  • Conflict theory identifies two categories of people in industrialized societies: the capitalist class and the working class. Those in positions of wealth and power make up the capitalist class. The working class sells its labor to the capitalist class.
  • The two classes are always in conflict with one another. Capitalists establish the norms of society; laws support them.
  • Members of the capitalist class are less likely to be considered deviant because they make laws to benefit themselves.
  • Members of the elite are more likely to commit white-collar crime, nonviolent crime committed in the course of their occupations.
  • According to Alexander Liazos, people we commonly label as deviant are also relatively powerless.


  • The three general categories of crime are crimes against the person, crimes against property, and victimless crimes.
  • Age, gender, social class, and race and ethnicity are categories that sociologists use to create a criminal profile.

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