Deviance Definition

Deviance is a broad term meant to signify behavior that violates social norms. The origins and functions of deviant behavior have long been of interest in the social sciences, with early sociological theories influencing the psychology theories that followed.

Sociological Theories of Deviance

Structural Functionalism

DevianceOne broad sociological approach to the study of deviance was structural functionalism. This viewpoint focused attention on social institutions in societies. Social institutions are organizations that fulfill vital roles in society and that promote the continued existence of society (e.g., the criminal justice system, the courts, the family). Institutions bind individuals together by promoting social norms that define right and wrong.

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Emile Durkheim, an early structural functionalist, introduced the notion of anomie, a precursor to modern conceptions of deviance. Anomie was conceived of as a psychological state created when social norms fail to affect how an individual acts. Robert Merton expanded on the concept of anomie by showing two dimensions upon which individuals might deviate from social norms. First, they can reject the normative goals of society (e.g., wanting to support a drug habit rather than a family). Second, they can reject the normative means of achieving goals (e.g., stealing money rather than earning it from an employer). Alternatively, an individual can seek radical changes to society, changes that alter its normative goals and means. As an example, an American citizen might reject his or her society’s embrace of capitalism in favor of community and might advocate for socialist policies as a way of promoting this new social agenda.

The strength of structural functionalism was that it drew attention to the role that society plays in defining right and wrong. Deviation from social norms was not viewed as a property inherent to certain actors. It instead was viewed as something social institutions create to preserve the society. The major weakness of this approach was that it did not elaborate on the individual-level mechanisms that cause people to deviate. In fact, structural functionalists tended to question whether one could understand the whole (society) by examining the parts (the individual).

Symbolic Interactionism

Some scholars were interested in the component parts, and this contributed to the rise of symbolic interactionism within sociology. Symbolic interactionists examine how individuals construct social meaning through their interactions with other people. A key concept is the looking-glass self, coined by Charles Horton Cooley. Accordingly, individuals cannot find a personal identity by looking inward but must instead adopt the viewpoints of other people. The tendency to incorporate the opinions of others into the self can lead to a self-fulfilling prophesy, such that individuals become the very people they are thought to be by others.

Because symbolic interactionists focus on the opinions of other people, many of these scholars have focused attention on the majority opinions found in societies. Howard S. Becker followed such an approach. He argued that social institutions create accepted labels that give meanings to actions. Over time, he argued, people come to accept the labels society gives them. For instance, a society might create the negative term thief as a way of deterring crime, but people who are labeled in this way (e.g., by the criminal justice system) might come to identify with their label and then commit more crimes.

Group Dynamics

Although symbolic interactionism succeeded in bringing the individual into the discussion on deviance, it largely ignored the harder question that was of interest to structural functionalists: Why do social groups categorize certain people as deviant? It was this question that early psychological theories sought to address. The most influential of these traditions was the group dynamics approach, which was started in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin and his students and colleagues at the Research Center for Group Dynamics. This perspective emphasized two broad psychological tendencies that were thought to generate pressures to conform.

The first tendency was the need for social reality. It was thought that individuals possess an epistemic need to possess both certain and veridical knowledge. Individuals can satisfy this need by joining groups with like-minded individuals. For this reason, groups tend to punish and reject opinion deviants, because these individuals threaten a shared social reality. The second tendency that generated conformity pressure was the desire to succeed. Social groups often form as a way of helping individuals accomplish their goals. Group locomotion toward a shared goal thus creates uniformity pressures within the group, and so groups that are driven to succeed should identify and then punish deviants who stand in the way.

Deviance Implications

These three broad approaches to deviance differ considerably in their assumptions, but each offers a valuable and complementary view. A structural functionalist approach emphasizes external forces that define deviance (e.g., social institutions). This draws attention to complex social systems and larger societal needs, that is, needs that occur outside the individual. A group dynamics perspective focuses attention on internal psychological forces and the individual’s need to maintain a coherent social reality and to succeed. Symbolic interactionism splits the difference between these two extremes. It shares the structural functionalist emphasis on external causes (others’ opinions), but it focuses attention on individual-level mechanisms (the looking-glass self). In a way, structural functionalism and group dynamics are the most alike in that they want to reveal the ultimate cause of deviance. Structural functionalism locates this cause in the needs of societies to endure, whereas group dynamics locates this cause in the needs of the individuals to know and to grow. If symbolic interaction-ism is less ambitious for not seeking the true cause of deviance, it is also more generous in that it can accommodate causes that arise from society and the individual.


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