Sep 26, 2019 in Analysis

Theories of Deviant Behavior and Their Relation to Crime

Deviance is any behavior perceived as irreverent to the existing social norms. The behavior meets the deviance threshold by form of severity. Overt behavior must be austere enough to sanction societal disapproval. Further, deviance can be criminal or non-criminal. Criminal behavior is an apparent action that breaks the law of the land, for example, theft, murder, or rape. Deviancy is usually an infringement of societal norms and values, for instance, different dressing, alcoholism, exhibitionism, and gambling. Current essay examines various theories that discuss deviant behavior in a quest to understand the sociological phenomena. Moreover, the paper seeks to find out how deviant behavior relates to crime or how it could become criminal behavior.

As articulated, deviance is a breach of societal norms and values. Deviance is relative to a culture. Each society outlines deviant behavior and ordinary behavior. Therefore, characterization of deviance differs from one culture to the other. For instance, some countries (societies) have stringent gender roles (such as Arab countries), while in other societies gender roles are nonchalant. Overt behavior that emanates because of these rules leads to the definition of deviance, implying relativism of deviance. Additionally, the threshold of deviance is malleable and can be influenced by several factors. These include:

  • Location – A yelling person in a stadium or at a party is normal, while the same person shouting in a library would be exhibiting deviant behavior.
  • Age – A toddler can cry and throw a tantrum and it is normal. An adult or adolescent doing the same would be displaying deviant behavior.
  • Social perception or status – A famous person could skip the line or be served first and it would be understandable, but an ordinary person doing the same would be considered as disrespectful. More so, they would be manifesting deviant behavior.

Situations exist where the individual does not need to perform a deviant act because they are considered as deviant regardless of it. Erving Goffman referred to this phenomenon as stigma. Stigma encompasses deviant characteristics or traits. They include desecrations of norms related to physical ability and appearance. For instance, there is a stigma on dreadlocks that characterizes all with dreadlocks as marijuana-smoking individuals (a deviant behavior). Stigmas, however, can also be a tool for social control. Social control is a formal or informal attempt by the society to enforce its norms and values. Each society achieves this goal by the mode of sanctions. The sanctions can be positive or negative. Positive sanctions are usually rewards and socially constructed tokens of approval. Sanctions can be formal (for instance, vocational promotion or a leadership role in the society). Alternately, they could be informal (including words, gestures, and non-verbal cues). The stigma is an effective negative sanction as it taints credibility of the individual in the society. Negative sanctions can graduate into criminal action if the deviant behavior breaks the laws of the land.

As explained, deviance is relative because it is dependent on the culture or society that has engineered it. The same applies to crime. Laws and norms are culturally specific (apart from universal culturally ill acts such as rape and murder). Therefore, crime and deviance are socially constructed. Relativism makes deviance a complex concept and its study has reproduced several theories that relate to deviance and crime. They include the symbolic interactionist perspective, the structural-functional theory, and the conflict perspective.

The symbolic interactionist perspective perceives the society to be a conglomeration of individual interactions. It also has vested interest in the way people in the society use symbols to create meaning. A symbolic interactionist would observe how people define deviance in everyday situation and in unique cultural settings. The perspective encompasses several theories.

The differential association theory studies how people learn deviance. The theory postulates that the environment instigates which norms people violate. The theory is an antithesis to the tenet that deviant behavior is inherent in or an offshoot of personality. The theory suggests that people manifest deviant conduct because they interact with individuals who manifest deviant behavior. Ergo, a prospective deviant unlearns values of the mainstream society and actively learns techniques of committing deviance. For instance, gangs use symbols such as gang signs and guns to embed the phenomenon of power. From there, stealing, drug abuse, and disturbing the peace are viewed as acceptable behaviors. They are perceived as necessary deeds of those with power. These values are passed on to new members. At this point, it is important to elaborate that the theory insinuates that one can learn and unlearn behavior. What determines either process is the environment and the intensity of the relationship between surrounding people. The closer the affiliation, the easier it is to be influenced.


Deviant subcultures develop as a result of learning deviant values. Individuals adopt these values and norms, effectively appearing to be or actually being alienated from the society. The individual fulfills a need for belonging and the deviant group becomes their primary source of interaction, delving deeper into deviance and often engaging in criminal acts. For instance, ex-convicts often feel alienated from the conventional society. They then gravitate to other ex-convicts, unwittingly forming a subculture. This deviant subculture elucidates why ex-convicts become repeat offenders. Their subculture sanctions acts of deviance and violence (most, if not all violent acts are criminal and, hence, they wind up back in jail).

Control theory is the alternate to the differential association theory. It plots the way people resist the pressure to engage in deviant behavior. An individual achieves this through a control system. The system encompasses inner controls and outer controls. Inner controls are adopted cognitive processes, conscience, beliefs, and sense of morality. They also include fear of negative sanctions. Outer controls involve environmental restraints emanating from parents, teachers, the church, or the police. As a part of the control theory, four factors propel or impede an individual in relation to deviance. They are attachment, involvement, belief, and commitment. According to attachment, people with weak relationships feel a lesser need to conform to group norms and ultimately societal norms. They therefore are more inclined to committing deviant acts. People with more commitments such as jobs are more likely to abide by the societal norms. People with nothing to lose are likely to engage in deviance. An individual whose beliefs are in line with societal values such as hard work and respect for authority are less likely to engage in deviant behavior. A person whose beliefs stray against the norm, for instance, they believe that it is justifiable to steal or cheat, will exhibit deviant conduct. Finally, involvement stipulates the element of time. The more time one has on their hands, the more likely they are to be idle and the more likely they will engage in deviant behavior.

Labeling theory is a primary tenet in the symbolic interactionist perspective. The theory postulates that no behavior is inherently deviant until it is labeled as such. The theory explains the phenomenon of prejudice and bias, most of which emanate from labeling. For instance, a student can be labeled a deviant if he/she has appallingly bad grades, displays hostility to authority, and comes from a low socioeconomic background. Another student with bad grades who is polite and comes from a well-off family escapes the tag of deviance. In essence, according to the theory, attitudes and behavior of others toward an act and not the act itself determine deviance.

There exists primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance is an act of deviance or the first act of deviance. Secondary deviance is the repetition of the primary deviant behavior because of people’s negative reactions. For instance, an adolescent begins drinking. People react negatively to his drinking, making him an outcast. Consequently, he drinks more and probably engages in other deviant activities such as reckless sex.

The structural-functional theory postulates that deviance is a necessary part of a society. It plays a vital role in the affirmation of norms and values. Seeing another person punished or rewarded vicariously affirms accepted and disapproved behaviors in individuals. The strain theory postulates that frustration develops when people fail to achieve societal-approved goals through sanctioned means. The frustration may graduate into deviant displays and anomie (the feeling of being disconnected from the society), hence precipitating criminal behavior (because they feel no obligation toward society). The final theory is the conflict theory.

Conflict theory postulates that there are two kinds of people in the society: the elite and the working class. The elite have the power and wealth and, so, they rule over the working class. The working class (as the name suggests) are the ones who work, but have to abide by rules formulated by the elite. At this point, the crime connection is made.

The conflict theory suggests that categories of people are unequal and there are systems that actively maintain the status quo. The criminal justice system is a prime example. The elite formulate laws that benefit them. The same laws foster the disadvantage of the working class to the advantage of the elite. The criminal justice punishes members of these categories differently, with leniency shown to the elite. The working class is viewed to commit brute crimes such as robbery, murder, or assault. Members of the elite (due to their extensive education) are less likely to commit violent acts and more likely to engage in white-collar crimes. White-collar crime escapes prosecution for two reasons. For starters, it seldom leaves physical evidence of discernible victims. Finally, perpetrators are likely to use their power and influence to steer the prosecution to their favor.


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