Oct 22, 2019 in Research

Social Organization and Deviance

The concept of deviance is studied by psychologists, philosophers, sociologists, and historians. However, such a great extent of this issue’s elaboration does not make it easier to find out the essence of deviance and its importance in a society. Among a variety of approaches to deviance, this paper is aimed to discuss the most valid theories that explore a phenomenon of deviant behavior from different points of view. Namely, the study examines and evaluates the differences and similarities between definitions of deviance. In addition, extents of deviance and its relation to a criminal justice system are analyzed. Due to cultural relativism and changeable morals, the people’s understanding of deviant behavior is also changeable. It makes it harder to distinguish deviant forms of behavior from immoral or ordinary behavior that could fulfill the views of many people. Though individuals have used to associate deviance with something negative and immoral, deviant behavior is a necessary element of each society that guarantees its development as well as demonstrates its weaknesses and strengths.

Definition of Deviance

Though there is a great diversity of approaches to defining deviance, most of researchers distinguish two basic conceptions, namely relativist and normative conceptions. However, Thio states that the concept of deviance may be analyzed from a constructivist position or from a constructivist perspective. Humphrey emphasizes the situational view and the formative perspective to define deviant behavior. According to the normative perspective, deviance is a violation of existing and generally accepted social norms. On the contrary, “the situational perspective shifts the focus away from the individual and to the social situation surrounding the behavior in question”. The situational concept is also called relativistic. It takes into consideration the circumstances of time and place where the deviant behavior has been noticed. This position allows concluding that the certain culture and social organization is instrumental in determining whether certain behaviors should be defined as deviant. Humphrey, for example, insists on emphasizing culture and social organization as necessary factors that determine behavior as deviant, criminal, conformist or convectional. It is worth considering a role of power, which means that powerful people are less risky to be engaged in deviant behavior. The reason is that “powerful at a given time and space determine what is violating a social rule”. These researchers define two perspectives of deviance, such as positivism and social constructivism. Positivists define deviance as positively real, whereas constructivists think the following thing. Deviance is a social construct that is determined by the specific culture. In addition, the list of some positivist and constructivist theories of deviance may be continued. Positivism includes absolutism, objectivism, and determinism. Meanwhile a social constructivist approach is divided into relativism, subjectivism, and voluntarism. Thus, different researchers underline various aspects and features of deviance and its form. However, they approve some conceptual setups. Nevertheless, Thio, Schwartz, and Taylor think that there is a lack of consensus among sociologists regarding the estimation of deviant behavior. The definition of deviance is the most debatable issue in sociology. However, eventually, all of researchers agree that deviant behaviors have some quality and consequences that distinguish them from non-deviant.

Deviance in a Changing World

As the society is a dynamic system, its norms and morals are changeable. It means that due to the technological, scientific and cultural development, people change their attitudes, preferences, and principles. This, in turn, it leads to some changes of social norms and understanding of deviance. In addition, the technological development allows more ways to get some pleasure or enjoyment and fulfill new demands people have to give up some of their principles and accept new forms of behavior to consider deviant. Though the only single principle that must not be violated is respect and support of life, understanding of deviant behavior changes over time. For example, Gregher and Hughes write about fat identity. They observe and analyze an identity shift that leads to an identity change process, which allows discussing changing forms of deviance. The identity change and/or change of understanding of deviance comes through external (public) and internal (private) levels and ends up with acceptance of a new status. Another example which proves that forms of the deviance change is a case of becoming bisexual. According to Adler and Adler, “most (of those, who became bisexual) reported that this settling-in stage was the consequence of becoming more self-accepting. They became less concerned with the negative attitudes of others about their sexual preferences'”. Thus, the sexual orientation may change. It means that people’s attitudes towards the non-traditional sexual direction also may evolve. Another example connected with sex and gender is described by Schneinder, who has tried to measure gender changeability via acceptance of atypical housework. According to his research, individuals may face not only the change of their sexual identity, but also accept atypical activities imposed on them from outside. For instance, he writes, “I argue that men who do “women’s work” and women who do “men’s work” in the market fail to “do gender” in the important realm of work for pay. These men and women may be perceived as gender deviants in that their occupations do not perform their masculinity and femininity”. Schneider has concluded that people’s views on gender and sexuality both shape the change of social norms. They are shaped by economic and cultural changes. Another example that illustrates changeability of deviance is Survey of Sexual Behavior of Americans by Laumann et al. The writers state that researchers directed on exploration of sexual behavior of general population was a taboo, “The fact remains that, until quite recently, scientific research on sexuality has been taboo and therefore to be avoided or at best marginalized”. However, contemporary researches purposed to explore the specific sexual behavior of Americans manage to achieve the goal. However, many scientists believe that it is impossible. The reason is that “Nobody will agree to participate in such a study". Moreover, "Nobody will answer questions like these and, even if they do, they won't tell the truth"; and "People don't know enough about sexual practices as they relate to disease transmission or even to pleasure or physical and emotional satisfaction to be able to answer questions accurately”. Today sexologists and psychologists possess the significant data from interviews and questionnaires. Sexual behavior is becoming less forbidden and sinful. Consequently, it may be concluded that deviance shifts are possible because of identity changes.


Criminal Justice System and Criminal Behaviors

Though deviance supposes availability of social reaction, it is not a necessary component of any behavior to be deviant. Despite constructivist and relativist approaches to deviance, it is important to consider the individual attitudes towards his/her own conduct. For example, the interactionist perspective states that “deviance is viewed as subjectively problematic identity rather than an objective condition of behavior”. Even if the individual’s behavior seems usual to the society, a person may consider the own behavior deviant. However, one should remember that behavior may be deviant and even criminal if the individual does not think so. It makes discussing the connection between deviance and crime as well as the criminal justice system.

In order to comprehend similarities and differences between criminal and deviant behavior, it is necessary to remind the definitions of both. One should emphasize four key differences between deviance and crime. The first one states that deviant behavior is unusual or even violating social norms, whereas criminal behavior violates not only social norms but also legal. Criminal behavior is always deviant, but deviant one is not always considered a crime. The second difference is as follows. Deviance supposes the violation of an informal norm, while criminals violate formal conceptions. Thirdly, crimes are behavioral, which means that criminal behavior cannot be a belief, attitude or opinion. On the contrary, deviance includes not only behavior, but also a characteristic, condition, opinion or strange belief. That is why the quality of laws is much less than of deviance. Finally, some crimes include normative behavior, though cohabitation and drinking under 21 is usual in some communities. These groups where the law forbids this behavior consider such deviance to be the crime.

If the conduct violates social norms and exceeds their extent by violating law, the criminal justice system comes into action. For example, taking drugs has been considered to be deviance. However, it has been criminalized after some time. According to Reinarman, “in each of these periods (of drugs criminalization) more repressive drug laws were passed on the grounds that they would reduce drug use and drug problems”. In this case, the criminal justice system has exacerbated this deviance and caused a number of negative consequences. It has made the US having “more people in prison than any industrialized nation in the world-about half of them for drug offenses, the majority of whom are racial minorities”. It leads not only to criminalization and exacerbation of deviance, but also to demonization of those persons, who perform deviant behavior. However, there are the cases when criminalization of deviance promotes the development of morality, humanism, and democracy. For example, child abuse demonstrates that some deviancies must be criminalized. In the 80s, physicians were made to report the suspicion regarding child abuse if kids had serious physical injuries, whereas “now almost all states have laws that require the reporting of all forms of suspected child maltreatment, including physical abuse, physical neglect, emotional maltreatment, and of course, sexual abuse and exploitation”. Thus, the criminal justice system that has been initially designed to control the extents of deviancies frequently exacerbates the problem.

Importance of Deviant Behavior

After the theories of deviance are analyzed and the connection between deviance as well as criminal behavior is discussed, it is worth demonstrating the meaning of deviance in society. Despite the absence of consensus regarding some aspects of deviant behavior the researchers agree as follows. This phenomenon is significant and necessary. According to Macionis and Gerber, Durkheim has confirmed that deviance is a normal phenomenon. It is an irreplaceable aspect of social organization. In order to recognize the importance of deviance, it is worth distinguishing its main functions. For instance, Durkheim has emphasized four functions, the first of which is affirmation of “cultural values and norms. Any definition of virtue rests on an opposing idea of vice: There can be no good without evil and no justice without crime”. The second function is setting boundaries for people’s behavior. The reason is that individuals learn from wrong by asserting that deviant behavior should not be followed. Then, deviance unites people to stand together against it. The fourth function is pushing any society to extending the borders of normality and to social changes. These tasks prove that deviance should not be associated with something completely illegal, immoral or wrong.

The fourth function deserves additional attention. It proves that the society’s development would be impossible without deviances. For example, in the article “Who’s to Judge”, Lois Pojman states that many of those persons, who are respected and honored by the contemporary mankind, were considered to demonstrate deviances at their time. The author mentions individuals, the contributions of which are enormous. For example, William Wilberforce did a great job to develop freedom and equality, as slavery was criminalized thanks to his efforts. The history is rich for examples of those persons, who have changed a general understanding of the universe. However, they were considered to be deviants. Socrates and Giordano Bruno being sentenced by their communities are found to make great discoveries in terms of morality and science. The analysis of the world’s historical crucial moments proves the following fact. To become greater the society has to create the individuals being able to violate existing norms. They should change some aspects of the community’s life. For example, if the women in industrialized countries did not believe that they should be given the right to vote, females would not be considered equal with men today. Pascale, Sternin, and Sternin offer a positive deviance approach that rests on three basic premises: “1) solutions to seemingly distractible problems already exist, 2) they have been discovered by the members of the community itself, and 3)these innovators (individual positive deviants) have succeeded even though thy share the same constraints and barriers of others”. Thus, in order to realize positive effects of deviance one may use a synonym innovation.


The concept of deviance is one of the most debatable issues in sociology despite the variety of approaches and theories. There is the absence of consensus regarding definitions of deviant behavior. On one hand, deviant behavior is believed to violate social norms or/and individual ones. On the other hand, the person’s opinion on his/her conduct makes it deviant or usual. As the society is developing, the understanding of deviance for its members changes accordingly. The examples prove that the changed comprehension is possible due to the identity shift. Some deviations may be criminalized, while some conducts believed to be manifestations of a crime may be decriminalized. Though every misdeed is deviation, not every deviation is considered to be the misdeed. Deviant behavior may be criminalized, while the criminal justice system may both solve the problems via criminalization and exacerbate the situation. Durkheim has emphasized four main functions of deviance that constitute the significance of this phenomenon. However, the reactions on manifestation of deviance vary, deviant behavior is necessary for every community as it promotes its development.


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