What’s the Big Deal About Deviance?
As was mentioned in the culture chapter a Norm is a set of expected behaviors for a given role and social status. In most societies, the majority of people conform to the most important norms most of the time. For example, wearing casual clothes to class is normal on many campuses. Attending class in your European Bikini might not be normal for some. Yet, I witnessed this back in 1982 as a student in the newly accredited West Georgia University. Many of the female students wore Bikinis to classes. It was a striking departure from what I had experienced while in high school. But, I wondered back then if swimsuits were in fact deviant given that so many students at WGU wore them to class. Deviance is not as easily defined and established as some might think (especially if you are sensitive to cultural relativism and ethnocentrism). Deviance is a violation of norms or rules of behavior that are typically outside of the norms.
A typical dictionary definition of deviance sounds something like this: “one that does not conform to the norm;” “one who behaves in sharply different ways from customs;” or “one who ignores the common and behaves in unique ways.” A thesaurus might also list: “abnormal; aberration, anomaly, weird, irregular, and even unnatural” as similarly related words. Most references attest to the nature of deviance as being something that violates normal behaviors, thoughts, or actions. But, is deviance weird/cool, positive/negative, desirable/undesirable, or good/bad?

For Sociologists the answer is found by considering exactly who has the power and authority to define the behavior as being normal or deviant. Throughout the history if the United States governments, religions, education, media , and family types have influenced and shaped what is considered “normal” or “deviant” on subjects as insignificant as swimsuits on beaches and as significant as women having the same rights that men have. You see, deviance is considered at both of C. Wright Mills’ larger social and personal levels.

A personal level example might be considered with the swimsuit on campus issue. Students back then did not need to look at university, governmental, or media for approval on how they dressed for class. They typically considered a source much more valuable to teenagers and young adults—their peers. Friends who also wear swimsuits to class may have defined the swim suit issue as being normal among students who were their friends, yet deviant among students who run in different crowds. Since they value their own peer evaluations the most they defer to peer-based norms.

But, would it be acceptable to wear nothing at all to class? On Wikipedia there is an interesting article about Andrew Martinez who attended naked at Berkley for a few years. Berkley is considered to be a very liberal campus in comparison to most US campuses. A controversy developed and eventually his nakedness came before the university leaders and the City of Berkley leaders (he often walked about town naked). He was eventually asked to leave Berkley and both the City and University of Berkley passed anti-nudity laws and policies to prevent nudity (taken from Internet 15 September, 2008). Martinez would often find himself being labeled “deviant” throughout the remainder of his life(he died in jail May 18 2006 from an apparent suicide).

Can Deviance Be Functional?
Let’s pause here to consider Emile Durkheim’s observations about deviance (original text from “The Division of Labour in Society” 1893).Durkheim argued that deviance, especially extreme forms are functional in that they challenge and offend the established norms in the larger collective conscience. In other words extreme deviance pushes things enough to make members of society reconsider why they even consider some behaviors as being deviant. Building on this idea, Functionalists often argue that: deviance reaffirms norms when the deviants are punished; deviance promotes solidarity among those who support and those who oppose the deviance; deviance provides a clear contrasting point of comparison for society’s members; and deviance often stimulates social change.

In Martinez’s naked guy case, both the City and University had to take a serious look at why and how they defined public nudity and which formal norms they would develop to support their position. Similar formal evaluations of deviance occurred after Dr “Death” Kevorkian assisted severely ill persons in taking their own lives; after September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US (Twin Towers, Pentagon, and flight crash in Pennsylvania) killed about 3,000 people; and more recently after major US corporations which have been mismanaged and have deeply shaken markets, investments, and economic stability. Extreme deviance does make us consider “normal” behavior on the personal and larger social level.

As a sociologist, you should strive for an objective stance when studying deviance. It take practice but is truly rewarding because of the clarity it brings to your evaluation. It’s like you try to see society and people the same way statisticians see things. Look at the diagram below. Here you see a distribution of numbers. From a statistical point of view you can see that the mean lowest score is 0, the mean is 80, and the highest score is 100. Is a mean of 80 good or desirable? That depends on what these scores represent. If these are test scores from your first sociology test then a mean of 80 indicates that most students did well on the test. The grey area of the diagram indicates the First Standard Deviation is the area in the distribution where about two-thirds of the scores fall (1/3 above and 1/3 below the mean).
A mean of 80 indicates that about two-thirds of the other scores where between 70 and 90 in this distribution. By the way, even though they are not indicated in the diagram, the Second Standard Deviation has the next 28 percent of the scores (13.6% above and 13.6% below); the Third Standard Deviation has the next 4 percent (2.1% above and below); and the Fourth Standard Deviation has the last 0.2 percent (0.1% above and below). You’ll learn more about deviations when you take your statistics classes.

Back to the test scores, a higher score way above the mean is good and desirable to most students. If the highest student score was 99 and the lowest was 3, both would statistically be considered deviant scores. In a sense, you’d want to deviate as high above the mean as possible, right?

But, what if this distribution was not an indicat8ion of test scores, but rather the frequency of times potential roommates stole food from the private stashes of previous roommates? You’d clearly want a score closer to 0 than 80. Likewise, what if this distribution was an indication of how many times your boyfriend or girlfriend flirted with others while they were dating you? Again 0 would be good and desirable. Finally, what if this distribution indicated the number of times during a student’s college career that they performed a “random act of senseless kindness” for others? I hope the point makes sense—the value placed upon the deviance depends greatly on how the deviance conforms to or violates the norms of the community and society you live in.

Let’s consider a sensitive and sometimes controversial issue — Homosexuality, or a sexual preference for persons of the same sex. I often ask my student to consider this simple question, “is homosexuality deviant or normal?” I am surprised at how passionate my students argue that it is normal or that it is deviant. Eventually when the discussion runs out of energy a student will ask me what I think. I answer like this. National studies indicate that less than 5 percent of the United States population considers itself to be exclusively homosexual.

“Does that make it more or less common and therefore more or less deviant?” I ask.

“It’s less common,” they reply.

“Yet, every society in the history of the world has typically had homosexuality among its members. That includes almost all societies with recorded histories and almost every society in the world today,” I continue. “Is it common or uncommon, deviant or normal?”

“Common and normal,” they reply. “But, how can something be deviant and normal at the same time?”

The answer is found in the complexity of modern societies. Not all members of society agree on the same issue in the same way. We rarely have total agreement on what’s normal. In the US we have over 300 million people, hundreds of religions, thousands of voluntary organizations, thousands of political interest groups, and thousands of personal interest groups, many of which are in striking opposition to other groups (IE: White supremacists vs. Nation of Islam).

Many sociologists have argued that it is normal to have deviance in a healthy society. If you regard homosexuality as being normal or deviant, as a sociologist you can step into a more objective role and understand the larger social level of consideration. It allows you to become more of an analyst and less of an advocate when understanding deviance. To build upon this idea, let’s consider how sociologists strive for objectivity when considering cross-cultural issues of deviance. Remember that ethnocentrism tends to burn cross-cultural bridges while cultural relativism tends to build them. Can we study deviance without becoming ethnocentric? Absolutely!

Deviance tends to vary on three major levels: across time; across cultures, and from group to group. When considering deviance we must realize that collectively people experience social levels of shifting values. In one example, contrast the I Love Lucy show which aired in the 1950’s to the Sex and The City show which aired 1988-2004. As a child I wondered how Little Ricky was born given that Lucy and her real-life and TV-life husband, Dezi slept in different beds on the TV show. Their kisses were controversial to some at the time.

Today, Sex and the City is an in-depth story line which follows the sexuality of four New York City women. As you read in the culture chapter, values shape norms, which in turn shape morés and folkways, which in turn shape laws. As values shift and change over time, so eventually do laws. Check out a fun Website called to see if your home state had some rather bizarre laws (values) back in the day.

How Does Culture Influence Deviance?
Deviance varies between cultures because values vary between cultures. In Washington D.C. there is a non-profit research organization that performs international studies (see On their Website they discuss their mission statement and organizational purpose.

“The project provides to journalists, academics, policymakers and the public a unique, comprehensive, internationally comparable series of surveys. Since its inception in 2001, the Pew Global Attitudes Project has released 21 major reports, as well as numerous commentaries and other releases, on topics including attitudes toward the U.S. and American foreign policy, globalization, terrorism, and democratization (taken from Internet 16 September, 2008).”
One such study is called the “Pew Global Attitudes Project” which is a series of worldwide public opinion surveys that encompasses a broad array of subjects ranging from people’s assessments of their own lives to their views about the current state of the world and important issues of the day. More than 175,000 interviews in 54 countries have been conducted as part of the project’s work.”

Based on 91,000 of these surveys from 50 different countries, Kohut and Stokes (2007) wrote an insightful book comparing US to other cultures and explaining how we are perceived. America Against the World: How We are Different and Why We Are Disliked (Holt Publishing, 2007). These authors talk about the perception of non-Americans about the United States. In this book American values, culture, economic influence, and military activities have lead to a singular notion about what America does to the world. Many have misguided ideas from TV and news reports. Most see the need for another superpower to keep the US in check. In sum, the average non-American views Americans much differently from how they view themselves.

How might a value compare between countries of the world? Pew also studied the concept of trust between countries and found that Eastern Europe has lower levels of Trust than did the US when asked “Most People in Society are Trustworthy”.

Among the 47 countries included in this survey, wars, famine, economic downturns, street and organized crime, and other local social influences have contributed to higher or lower levels of trust over time.

Values also vary between groups (group to group). When I was a research professor at Case Western Reserve University, I arranged for a former Folks gang member to come and speak to my Social Problems class. He was a larger man, 6 foot 3, about 275 pounds, and also a black belt in martial arts. He explained that when he was much younger he had to go through an initiation ritual called a beat down in order to be admitted to the gang. He eventually converted to Christianity and chose to leave the gang (he qualified his comments by saying “no one ever leaves the gang”). Typically to go on an inactive status with the gang there is another beat down. Because of his stature and fighting skills it was decided to forego his beat down for the overall benefit of everyone involved. The point of this story is that in most social groups a beat down would be considered deviant. In a gang it’s very much normal. Yet, in this situation, not beating him down was deviant within his gang, yet a wise choice.

Not only do values vary over time, between cultures, and between groups, it also varies a great deal between individuals. If you interviewed 11 people you personally know and asked them when abortion should be available to American women, you’d probably find some very strong opinions that change from person to person. If you polled the entire country, as did CBS and the New York Times in 2003, you would begin to see patterns that gave you a global understanding of US attitudes about abortion. In the CBS and NYT survey only 1 in 4 felt that abortion should not be permitted under any circumstances (see Taken 17 September, 2008 from “Abortion in the United States”). These trends are very similar across political parties and gender.

But how does one person feel about abortion? It can be best understood by looking at one of three perspectives that typically frame an individual’s perspective on an issue.

The Absolutist Perspective claims that deviance resides in the very nature of an act and is wrong at all times and in all places.

The Normative Perspective claims that deviance is only a violation of a specific group’s or society’s rules at a specific point in time.

The Reactive Perspective claims that behavior does not become deviant unless it is disapproved of by those in authority (laws).

For more, Google “Moral Relativism.”

Perspectives on Deviance
An absolutists would probably fall among the 1 in 4 who feel that abortion is always wrong, because it is an unacceptable act. A normative individual would consider the circumstances (rape, incest, diagnoses, or health of mother) while a reactive would consider the legality of abortion.

In every society when deviance is considered it is most often controlled. Social Control is formal and informal attempts at enforcing norms. There are a few basic concepts that help to understand social control. The Pluralistic Theory of Social Control claims that society is made up of many competing groups whose diverse interests are continuously balanced. Social Order is the customary and typical social arrangements which society’s members use to base their daily lives on. Control is easier if attachments, commitment, involvement, and beliefs are stronger.

Attachments: strong social mutual bonds that encourage society’s members to conform
Commitment: the stronger our loyalty to legitimate opportunity, the greater the advantages of conforming
Involvement: the more a person participates in legitimate activities, the greater the inhibition towards deviance
Belief: strong understanding in values of conventional morality promote conformity
Society’s members use informal and formal sanctions to reinforce control efforts. Negative Sanctions are punishments or negative reactions toward deviance. Positive Sanctions are rewards for conforming behavior.
Finally one of the harshest forms of controls comes when intense labels are given to a person because of their actions. A Stigma is an attribute which is deeply discrediting and that reduces the person from a whole and usual person to a tainted or discredited one. I know of an individual who was in prison for 5 years, falsely incarcerated for child molestation and even captured on Americas Most Wanted. His charge was child abuse. Eventually he was acquitted of the charge and awarded 16 million dollars in damages for having his civil rights violated when it was revealed that his former wife and the investigating detective had an affair, eventually married, and perhaps fabricated the entire case together (see or Google Free Ted White). A charge and conviction of child abuse are very permanent and harsh stigmas to deal with, even if you are exonerated later on.

In sum, deviance is a violation of a norm, simply not behaving in expected ways given the social circumstances. But what is the difference in conformity, crime, deviance, and both deviance and crime combined?

When an actor complies with group norms and the law it’s called Conformity, or an adherence to the normative and legal standards of a group in society. An example might be the clothes you wore to class today—legal and normal. When an actor violates group norms but complies with the law, it is deviance. An example might be if you wore your Halloween costume to class…in July. If an actor complies with group norms yet breaks the law, it’s called crime. Crime is behavior which violates laws and to which governments can apply negative sanctions. An example of this might be when you drove 10 miles over the speed limit just to avoid being rear-ended on the freeway today. If everybody speeds and you do too, it’s still “normal crime.” Over–reporting deductions and under-reporting income is also “normal crime.” Finally, if the actor violates norms and breaks the law, then it’s Deviant and Criminal behavior. An example might be when our neighbor in a middle class neighborhood started a meth lab and got busted while their 2 children watched, crying on the porch (this happened to our across-the-street neighbors during the mid-1990s).

Like deviance, crime is often found in every society. Why? Functionalist point out that: crime exist because members of society find it very difficult to reach total agreement on rules of behavior; no society can force total conformity to its rules or laws; people are normative, we continuously categorize behaviors into “right” or “wrong”; crime/deviance function as a warning light indicating an area that needs attention or consideration; crime/deviance often brings about solidarity or togetherness in society ; and there is a vital relationship between crime/deviance and societal progress. As mentioned, deviants and criminals make us reassess our values and make new rules and laws (Google search Emile Durkheim or Robert K. Merton with functionality of deviance).

Robert Merton was a Functionalist who studied why people conform or deviate (see Merton, Robert K. (1938). “Social Structure and Anomie”, American Sociological Review, Vol 3 No 5, October 1938). Using Durkheim’s concept of anomie (remember that Anomie is a state of social normlessness which occurs when our lives or society has vague norms). Merton devised a theory of deviance that brings in the concept of materialism. The average American sees the “American Dream” as a goal of monetary success. They typically desire to have the dream but realize that they often lack the means to attain it. How do they respond to this goal—means gap? Merton claimed in 1 of 5 ways.

1. Conformity
people live with what they have and get by (they accept and pursue their goals with socially accepted means—Average US Citizen)
2. Innovation
people commit crime to attain their goals (they accept and pursue their goals by replacing legitimate with deviant/criminal means to attain them—Criminals)
3. Ritualism
people try but fail and lower their goals (they appear to pursue goals but confuse means and goal—Someone who focuses on following rules, fitting in, or conforming instead of attaining the dream)
4. Retreatism
people withdraw and reject most of the goals (they reject and don’t pursue their goals—Street people, bag ladies, and hoboes)
5. Rebellion
people reject both the goals and the means to attain them (They reject socially approved goals and replace with deviant goals—Terrorists and freedom fighters)

Theories of Deviance and Crime
Conflict theories of deviance and criminality of course focus on issues of power and powerlessness. It’s about who has the power and how they attempt to force their values and rules upon those who don’t have it. The wealthier, more educated, and elite of society typically have the most power. The Power Elite are the political, corporate, and military leaders of a society are uniquely positioned to commit Elite Crimes, or crimes of insider nature that typically are difficult to punish and have broad social consequences upon the masses. A few recent examples of this might include corporate mismanagement, embezzlement, and fraud which lead to massive Federal bailouts and prosecutions.

Another key conflict issue in studying crime is the disproportionately high level of non-whites who ended up among the 2006 1,570,861 incarcerated members of society (that’s about 1 in 300 for the US) about 35 percent are White ( “Prisoners in the United States 2006” taken 17 September, 2008).

Among Symbolic Interactionists who study crime and deviance a few core theoretical approaches are used. The Labeling Theory claims that the labels people are given affect their perceptions and channel their behaviors into deviance or conformity. Perhaps people grow up and self-fulfill the expectations others have for them…they grow down to low expectations. Edward Lemert studied deviant identity formation and identified Primary Deviance (when an individual violates a norm), becomes identified by others as being deviant while maintaining a self-definition of being a conformist; and Secondary Deviance – when the individual internalizes the deviant identity others have placed upon him/her. In the Movie, Boyz n the Hood (1991 film directed by John Singleton), Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, Tre is faced with a tremendous amount of pressure when his best friend is gunned down by street gang members and he has a profound urge to retaliate. Tre is deeply supported by his father who helps him to reject both the opportunity and label of street thug and to remember his own potential. This film was nominated for an Academy Award and was listed on the National Film Registry.

One final consideration is when someone is given a Master Status, or a social position that is so intense it becomes the primary characteristic of the individual (ex-con, gang banger, etc.). Understanding how powerful a master status can be as a labeling influence helps to understand why so many criminals reoffend and end up incarcerated again. Recidivism is being arrested again after having served a sentence for another crime. Recidivism rates indicate that the majority of US prisoners have been in prison before (perhaps 60-80% depending on the studies and how they were taken).

Social Learning is an approach that studies how people learn behaviors through interactions with others. In studying crime Edwin Sutherland taught the concept of Differential Association, or the process of learning deviance from others in your close relationships who provide role models of and opportunities for deviance. There’s a useful formula to remember:

I used this theory to understand the neighbors who started the Meth lab. They were young, high school drop outs who had: a sports boat, Ski Doos, jet skis, new truck and car, all new furniture. The only catch is that his brother’s best friend had them employed in the Meth business. Both men served time in prison, but the wife who was expecting their next child was not charged. It was a group of family and friends who saw criminal behavior as being worth the risks and acceptable given the tough economy.

During the 1800’s various scientists attempted to explain deviant and criminal behavior by searching for common patterns of shapes and bumps on the skull. Phrenology is an outdated scientific approach of studying the shape and characteristics of the skull. Of course the scientific data did not support the assumptions of phrenology. Other biological attempts have included body shape and size, racial-group membership, and most recently genetic factors. To date no branch of science has been able to identify universal biological predictors of unwanted behavior.

There are three classifications that need to be made about crime types: White-Collar Crimes are crimes committed by persons of respectable and high social status committed in the course of their occupations. These types of crime are rampant and increasing, and they are the underlying cause of the economic crises of the years 1998-present. In white-collar crime, crimes are committed in the elite suites of corporate offices. These could include insider trading, safety violations where employees are injured or killed, environmental destruction, deception and fraud, and inappropriate use of corporate funds. To commit a white-collar offense one would have to be very well educated, wealthy, and somewhat powerful—a position most in society cannot claim for themselves. When caught, laws (which were created by society’s elite) rarely punish the elite criminal with the same type of justice street criminals face. One inmate said, “I walk into a bank with a gun and get 50 years. I go to college and do my stealing using a computer or some secret technique that I can’t be caught with, I get 15 months in a cushy security prison with nuptial visitation rights (my interview with ex-con who spoke to my Introduction to Sociology students).

Street Crimes are crimes committed by average persons against members, groups, and organizations. Hate Crimes are acts of racial, religious, anti-immigration, sexual orientation, gender, and disability motivated violence. Street crimes typically fall into a few sub-categories—misdemeanors tend to be less severe and have less-severe punishments associated with them; felonies tend to be very serious and often change the standing of a citizen, permanently denying rights such as voting, owning a gun, and having social interactions with other felons. The Federal Bureau of Investigations classifies two types of crimes: Violent and Property. Violent crimes include: forcible rape, murder, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault. In 2007 there were 1,408,377 violent crimes reported to police or 467 crimes/100,000 population. Property crimes include: burglary, larceny, theft, motor vehicle theft, arson, shoplifting, and vandalism.

Hate crimes have become much more concerning in the US over the last decade. These numbers give the impression that not many occur each year, but the FBI emphasizes that not all hate crimes are reported to police agencies and therefore are excluded in statistics. Race, religion, and sexual orientation continue to dominate the reported hate crime categories.

Finally a word about Organized Crime, or crime perpetrated by covert organizations which are extremely secretive and organized, devoted to criminal activity. The core principle behind organized crime venture is the pursuit of wealth using socially approved and disapproved of means, that allow murder, rape, extortion, assault, street, White-collar, and even hate crime activities if profitable. Organized crime includes: 1) a complex hierarchy; 2) territorial division of authority and practice; 3) tendency towards violence at any degree; and 4) capacity to corrupt public officials at any level of government. The reason organized crime works so well is that it typically: 1) is highly organized; 2) deals with services in high demand; 3) involves lots of political corruption; 4) very little organized opposition; and 5) uses lots of violence and intimidation. Organized crime has become rooted on every continent and in almost every country of the world. It undermined the former USSR; it brought the world super power to its knees and left only a skeleton of a powerful nation in the current Russian Federation.

Organized crime-type of economic pillaging is developing dramatically with the mainstream US economy. Unlike formally organized crime types such as Mafia, national Biker gangs, yakuza, Dugan Hands Bank, Triads, etc. current organized crime is more “mom and pop” small time operator such as Madoff and others like him that, even though small, can render tremendous devastation to a national economic system – Paul Cheney


About Jumpin' Jack Cash
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