Sociologists define deviant behavior as behavior that violates social norms. Norms are expectations or prescriptions that guide people into actions that produce conformity. Norms make social life possible because they make behavior predictable. While members of a society do not have to agree on all the norms of a society, conformity to norms rests upon agreement by most members of society. Therefore, deviant behavior is behavior that most people in a society find offensive or reprehensible. It generates disapproval, punishment, or condemnation of the behavior. Society applies sanctions to deviant behavior to reinforce social norms.
Sociologists conceptualize norms into three categories: folkways, mores, and laws. Folkways are everyday norms based on custom, tradition, and etiquette, such as standards of dress and eating behavior. Violation of these norms does not generate serious condemnation but may cause people to consider the violator as odd. Mores are norms based on important societal morals. Upholding these norms is critical to the fabric of society because their violation threatens the social order. Drug addiction, for example, constitutes a moral violation that generates strong social condemnation. Criminal laws are the most serious norms of a society and are supported by formalized social sanctions. People who violate them are subject to arrest and punishment. A person convicted of robbery, for example, will usually serve a term of imprisonment. While criminal behavior and deviant behavior share some common features, they are not interchangeable terms. Clearly, some behaviors in a society, such as murder, are both criminal behaviors and deviant behaviors. However, not all deviant behaviors are criminal behaviors. Inappropriate eating behavior, for example, is not usually considered criminal behavior.
Explanations of deviant behavior are a central task of the field of sociology. In addition to sociological explanations, scholars have also formulated biological and psychological explanations. Biological, psychological, and sociological theories of deviant behavior try to answer one of two questions: (1) Why are some individuals more likely than others to engage in deviant behavior? and (2) Why do certain behaviors become defined as deviant, and how does society enforce nonconformity to norms? Sociological explanations attempt to answer both questions, while biological and psychological explanations focus on answering the first question.
Biological explanations attempt to identify characteristics of people that predispose them to engaging in deviant behavior. Primarily, these theories are concerned with attempting to identify those factors associated with criminal behavior. For example, physician and criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) formulated one of the earliest biological explanations. Basing his explanation on the measurement of bodies of men in prisons, Lombroso theorized that criminals were atavists, or throwbacks, to an earlier stage of evolution. Lombroso’s assumption that criminals were biologically defective influenced the work of anthropologist Earnest Hooton (1887-1954). Hooton also studied male prisoners and theorized that criminals are biologically inferior and should be sterilized and exiled to reservations. In 1949, William Sheldon (1898-1977) introduced his theory of somatology, theorizing that people’s body shapes affect their personalities and therefore the crimes they are likely to commit. More specifically, Sheldon identified the body shape of the mesomorph as a type that is muscular and athletic and more likely to engage in criminal behavior. While scholars criticized the research methodology and conclusions of these early biological explanations, the assumption that criminals are biologically different continued to guide research on crime. Researchers noticed that crime runs in families and assumed that criminal tendencies are inherited. Their research included, for example, studying identical twins or nontwin siblings separated by birth and raised by different parents. However, these studies were not able to conclusively establish that a genetic basis for crime exists.
Biological research has also investigated chromosomal abnormalities as an explanation for criminal behavior. The pattern that has been of most interest to researchers is the XYY variety; however, the rarity of occurrence of this pattern means that it would account only for a small fraction of the crime that is committed. Other researchers have focused on neuro-transmitters and hormones as the predisposing factors for violent criminal behavior; however, researchers have not reached any definitive conclusions regarding the biological role in offending.
Psychological explanations of deviant behavior are concerned not only with criminal behavior but also with other kinds of deviant behavior, such as mental illness, sexual deviance, and substance abuse. Psychologists refer to deviant behavior as “abnormal behavior”; that is, it is behavior that is maladaptive to the culture in which it occurs. Psychology utilizes many perspectives to explain abnormal behavior; however, generally, these explanations emphasize the importance of negative childhood experiences, especially within the family, as the cause of later problematic behavior.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, developed one of the first explanations of the relationship between the human mind and behavior. Freud posited that all individuals have natural drives and urges repressed in the unconscious, which include abnormal or deviant tendencies; however, through the process of childhood socialization, individuals develop internal controls. The improperly socialized child may develop a personality disturbance that causes abnormal or deviant behavior. Contemporary psychoanalytic theory relies on case histories of individuals under treatment or samples of individuals in mental institutions or prisons as the basis for their conclusions about the causes of deviant behavior. Social scientists view the reliance on a patient or institutionalized population as a limitation of the conclusions from this research.
Psychological explanations of deviant behavior include an explanation of moral development proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) that emphasized the role of reasoning in explaining deviant behavior. Kohlberg theorized that individuals pass through several stages of development in which they develop their ability to reason morally. He argued that not everyone completes all the stages of moral development and, because of that limitation, not all individuals develop what we refer to as a “conscience.” Therefore, a lack of conscience explains why individuals pursue criminal and other kinds of deviant behavior. However, critics of this theory point to the fact that criminal behavior as well as other kinds of deviant behavior may result from other factors, such as peer pressure.
Contemporary psychologists have also formulated theories about the relationship between personality or temperament and abnormal behavior. Personality research uses inventories, usually the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the California Psychological Inventory (CPI). Psychologists administer these inventories to samples of incarcerated juvenile and adult offenders. These studies find differences between offenders and nonoffenders that psychologists assume are responsible for the offending behavior. However, as with psychoanalytic research, critics charge that since most research occurs in institutional settings, offenders’ personality problems may be he result of their institutionalization.
Finally, contemporary psychological research also focuses on childhood temperament, examining the association between temperament problems during childhood and behavioral problems during childhood and also delinquency problems during adolescence. Psychological research demonstrates that children with temperament problems such as impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and coldness are more likely to become delinquent in unstable families marked by inadequate parenting, than in stable families. However, while this research often does not control for the factors of socioeconomic status and education, researchers believe that it offers a valuable understanding of deviant behavior at the individual level of analysis.
Sociologists study deviant behavior from many different perspectives. They examine the forces in society that shape the creation of norms. They also examine deviant behavior in terms of what groups are likely to engage in deviant behavior and the reasons for their deviance. Finally, sociological explanations also may include an analysis of how society enforces nonconformity to norms. Embedded within these varied perspectives are two distinct approaches for studying deviance as a social phenomenon. In the first approach, sociologists view deviance as an objectively given phenomenon; in the second approach, sociologists study deviance as a subjectively problematic phenomenon.
Sociologists who study deviance as objectively given phenomenon assume that there is widespread consensus in society about what expectations constitute the norms of the society and, consequently, that it is relatively easy to identify what constitutes deviant behavior. They also assume that deviant behavior typically evokes negative sanctions, such as arrest and imprisonment for criminal behavior. Finally, they assert that the punishment given to the deviant serves to reaffirms the norms of the society. Therefore, the focus for sociologists who follow this approach is to examine the sociological conditions that are likely to produce deviant behavior.
Sociologists who approach the study of deviance as a subjectively problematic phenomenon focus on social definitions and social interaction. They emphasize that deviance is a label that is applied at a given place and time. The subjectively problematic approach espouses a relativist view of deviance and examines whether and why a given act is defined by society as deviant. It also emphasizes the process by which a person is defined and stigmatized as deviant. Rather than studying the causes of deviant behavior, this approach tends to study the people, such as police, who define others as deviants, and its research often demonstrates that there is often a lack of consensus on whether a particular person should be treated as a deviant. This view also examines the perspective and reactions of the person defined as deviant.
Major Sociological Theories
There are many sociological explanations for deviant behavior that conceptualize deviance as either objectively given or subjectively problematic. The dominant sociological theories of deviant behavior include functionalism, social disorganization, anomie/strain theory, differential association theory, labeling theory, control theory, radical criminology, and feminist theory.
The functionalist approach to the study of deviant behavior is a perspective that posits that some behaviors that are widely condemned in society are in actuality functional or beneficial in terms of their effects. Sociologists credit Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) with developing the functionalist approach in sociology. While Durkheim understood that society must prohibit certain behaviors because they harm society and its members, he asserted that deviant behavior is also a normal phenomenon that occurs in every society. He argued that deviant behavior contributed to maintaining the social solidarity of society because punishment of deviant behavior clarifies social norms and reinforces social ties among societal members. Durkheim also believed that deviant behavior plays an important role in social change, because without deviant behavior, freedom of thought would not exist; hence, social change would not be possible.
In the 1930s, a sociological approach emerged at the University of Chicago that advanced a structural explanation of deviant behavior. Developed by W. I. Thomas (1863-1947) and Florian Znaniecki (1882-1958), it emphasized the relationship between crime and the social disorganization of certain neighborhoods in certain areas. This approach posited that as a city grows, its sense of community breaks down, and as social disorganization in an area increases, crime also increases. However, not all neighborhoods are equally disorganized; rather, those areas in which the population is geographically unstable, moves a great deal, is composed of a variety of different racial and ethnic groups, has a high proportion of immigrants, and lacks neighborhood controls are the neighborhoods in which deviant behavior frequently occurs. Robert E. Park (1864-1944) and Ernest W. Burgess (1886-1966), two other sociologists at the University of Chicago, advanced an ecological analysis of Chicago neighborhoods and identified the areas in which deviant behavior frequently occurs as zones of transition.
Emile Durkheim first utilized the term anomie to refer to disturbances in the social order that caused deviant behavior. In particular, Durkheim studied the relationship between anomie and suicide. In the 1930s, Robert Merton (1910-2003) further conceptualized anomie as a disjunction between culturally defined goals and structural available opportunities. Merton posited that culturally defined goals are ones that society expects all of its members to embrace. In Western societies, the primary culturally approved goals are monetary and material success. However, Merton argued that every society places limitations on how to achieve culturally defined goals. The conflict between cultural goals and the differential opportunity to achieve these goals creates pressure to commit deviance. Merton identified five different types of responses (modes of adaptation) that could result: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.
Differential Association Theory
In the 1930s, Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950) developed a major theory of criminology that he called the “theory of differential association.” Its most important proposition is that criminal behavior is learned. Sutherland advanced nine propositions to explain how criminal behavior is learned. Among these propositions are the ideas that criminal behavior is learned through face-to-face interaction between people who are close or intimate with one another and that the earlier in one’s life one is exposed to attitudes and values favorable to committing crimes, the greater the likelihood that one will in fact commit crime. Sutherland did not argue that it was necessary to associate with individuals who had committed criminal acts; rather, only exposure to definitions favorable to criminal actions is necessary.
Sutherland’s theory posits that a person becomes delinquent or criminal because of an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of the law over definitions unfavorable to the violation of the law.
Labeling theory is an approach to studying deviant behavior that developed in the 1960s. Labeling theory does not try to explain why an individual initially commits deviant acts. Rather, labeling theory posits a relativist definition of deviant behavior; it assumes that there is nothing about a particular behavior that makes it deviant. Howard Becker (1899-1960), one of the originators of labeling theory, argued that deviance is not the quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the of the rules or sanctions applied by others. Labeling theory also argues that people in positions of power impose definitions of deviance on the behaviors of those without power. Therefore, some people and behaviors are more likely labeled than others. Labeling theory also stress that labeling someone deviant can produce a deviant self-image that may result in the individual committing more deviant acts.
Control theorists focus on criminal behavior and examine the role an individual’s ties to conventional institutions play in discouraging the person from acting on criminal motivation. One of most widely known and researched control theories is Travis Hirschi’s social control theory. This theory asserts that delinquency results when an individual’s bond to society is weak or broken. Hirschi examined four interrelated elements of the social bond: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. In testing the theory, Hirschi found that attachment itself is critical in preventing delinquency. His most important finding was that there was no relationship between social class and delinquency. Other studies have focused on various aspects of Hirschi’s conceptualization of the social bond. For example, in reexamining the issue of involvement and its relationship to delinquency, research indicates that leisure activities may influence all four elements of the social bond.
Radical criminologists focus on crime and propose that we can explain crime by examining the patterns of economic organization in a society. Many of the ideas contained in radical criminology have their roots in the works of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). From this perspective, law, law enforcement agencies, and government itself are perceived as instruments of the ruling class designed to maintain the status quo. Radical criminologists also examine the disparity between the written law and law as it is actually applied. In this regard, radical criminologists especially emphasize the role of social class in the application of criminal law. Some radical criminologists, such as Richard Quinney, see crime as one of the many forms of violence perpetuated in American society. They argue that we must end suffering if we want to end crime and in order to end suffering we must fundamentally transform our social structure.
There are several feminist perspectives on crime. Although there is no single feminist perspective, all feminist theories share assumptions about the gendered nature of crime, criminal victimization of women, and the bias of criminal justice processing in patriarchal societies. Liberal feminism attributes gender differences in crime rates to the different ways men and women are socialized. Marxist feminism views women’s subordination as resulting from the capitalist mode of production. Radical feminist criminologists are distrustful of the legal system because it is male dominated. They focus their research on the violent victimization of women. Socialist feminist criminologists examine how class inequality and gender inequality operate together to shape criminal opportunities, victimization experiences, and responses of the criminal justice system.
Sociologists study deviant behavior utilizing a variety of theoretical perspectives. Each seeks to present an explanation that relates deviance to norm violation. Whether the theory assumes deviance is objectively given or subjectively problematic, each theoretical perspective examines deviant behavior from a social process or social structural perspective. Research findings from each perspective enhance our understanding of deviance in society.
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