Sociology of deviance - the processes that divide society into different types of people and the social effects of these processes

*       Deviance implies an alleged breach of a social norm.


There are two ways of studying deviance as a social phenomenon:

Approach deviance as objectively given;

Approach deviance as subjectively problematic


Deviance as objectively given:

delineate the norms of society under study and regard any deviation from these norms as “deviant”;

make 3 assumptions:

*            There is widespread consensus in the society in the realm of norms; this widespread agreement makes it relatively easy to identify deviance;

*                 Deviance typically evokes negative sanctions such as gossip or legal action;

*                Punishment meted out to the deviant reaffirms for the group that it is bound by a set of common norms.


Major questions raised by this approach are:

*       What sociocultural conditions are most likely to produce deviance?

*       Why do people continue to deviate despite the negative sanctions that are brought to bear on them?

*       How can deviance best be minimized or controlled?


Procedure for studying deviants:

*       List the norms of the society or group;

*       Study official records kept on persons who violate these rules;

*       Try to discover the ways in which deviants and nondeviants differ to determine sociocultural conditions that seem to make deviant behavior more likely;

*       Try to derive a theory to explain the deviance and apply the theory for the correction and prevention of deviance.


Strength of the approach is the sharpness and simplicity with which it phrases questions.

Weaknesses of approach is that in a heterogeneous society, people often do not agree on norms; it is not easy to identify deviants since some get caught and others do not; social control agencies operate with selective enforcement so that some categories of people are more likely to be punished for their deviance.


Deviance as subjectively problematic:

Focus on the social differentiation of deviants


*                When people and groups interact they communicate with one another by means of shared symbols; through symbolic communication, people are able to type one another and formulate their actions accordingly.

*                Deviance can best be understood in terms of this process, that deviant labels are symbols that differentiate and stigmatize the people to whom they are applied.

*                People act on the basis of such definitions by treating the alleged deviant differently from other people; the alleged deviant my also react to this definition.

Focus on social definitions and how these influence social interactions

Focus on the perspectives and actions of those who define a person as deviant

*       Look at circumstances under which a person is cast into a deviant role, most likely to be set apart as deviant, what actions other take on the basis of that definition of a person, and the consequences of these actions.

Focus on the perspective and reactions of the person adjudged to be deviant

*       Consider how a person reacts to being adjudged, how a person adopts a deviant role, what changes in group memberships result, and what changes occur in the alleged deviant’s self-concept


Objectively given approach focuses primarily on the characteristics of the deviant or the conditions that give rise to deviant acts; the subjectively problematic approach focuses on the definitions and actions both of the deviants themselves and of the people who label them deviant, and on the social interaction between the two.


Deviants, from the interactionist approach, are considered simply as people who are socially typed in a certain way

Typing usually involves an attempt to make sense of seemingly aberrant acts by employing stereotypical interpretations that define the actor as a particular kind of person that includes a judgment about the moral quality of the deviant’s motives and suggests how a person should act toward the deviant


The social definition of deviance consists of description, an evaluation, and a prescription


The definition of a person as a particular type of deviant organizes people’s responses to that person – the more people share the definition that a person is a particular type of deviant, the greater the consequences.

Once a person is typed as “deviant” a variety of social phenomena come into play, including who types whom, on what grounds, in what ways, before or after what acts, in front of what audience, and with what effects.


Conditions that seem to make typing more effective:

*       When typer, the person typed as deviant, and other people share and understand the deviant definition in their social relationships.  The person becomes the think he is described as being.

*       More accepted by other people if a high-ranking person does the typing

*       If there is a sense that the alleged deviant is violating important norms and that the violations are extreme

*       Negative social typing is more readily accepted than positive typing because people find comfort in the frailties of others and negative social typing is seen as a valuable safeguard if the type indicates an aberrant behavior pattern that will continue with major consequences

*       If the audience stands to gains from the labeling it may divert attention from one’s own deviance or may sustain a status difference between oneself and the deviant.


When social typing is effective, 3 kinds of consequences most often follow:

*       Self-fulfilling prophecy – typing is based on false beliefs about the alleged deviant, but the actions other people take on the basis of these false beliefs eventually make them a reality.

*       Typecasting – the deviant stereotype is so widely accepted that confirmation of the typing proceeds rapidly, and typer, audience, and the person typed relate to each other in an automatic manner

*       Recasting – the deviant is expected to behave conventionally and is encourage to disprove the deviant typing


The process of social typing occurs within a cultural context; because different groups and cultures have different ideas about deviance, typing often has an ethnocentric bias in which the outsider is typed as a deviant


Typing is easier when cultural guidelines exist


Person typed as deviant acquires a special status that carries a set of new rights and duties or changes in old ones, and a new set of expectations about future conduct





Deviant behavior involves actions and characteristics that have elicited negative reactions from relatively large and powerful audiences.


Social scientists are still not in full agreement regarding a precise definition of deviance





Howard S. Becker

From Outsiders:  Studies in the Sociology of Deviance

The Free Press:  1963


*   Howard Becker’s classic piece on “Moral Entrepreneurs” examines how deviant categories are created and how enforcement of these categories are created and how enforcement of these categories is socially structured.

*   The moral crusader or “rule creator” has a personal stake in the content of social rules and works to change them to fit his or her own world view.

*   The prototype of the rule creator is the crusading reformer who is interested in the content of the rules.

*   The existing rules do not satisfy him because there is some evil which profoundly disturbs him and he feels that nothing can be right in the world until rules are made to correct it.

*   He operates with an absolute ethic; what he sees is truly and totally evil with no qualification.  Any means is justified to do away with it. 

*   The crusader is fervent and righteous, often self-righteous.

*   The crusader is not only interested in seeing to it that other people do what he thinks [is] right.  He believes that if they do what is right it will be good for them.

*   Moral crusaders typically want to help those beneath them to achieve a better status.

*   Moral crusaders are typically dominated by those in the upper levels of the social structure, meaning that they add to the power they derive from the legitimacy of their moral positions, the power they derive from their superior position in society.

*   The moral crusader is more concerned with the ends than with means, often requiring the services of a professional who can draw up the appropriate rules in an appropriate form.

*   By leaving the drafting of the specific rule in the hands of others, the crusader opens the door for many unseen influences.

*   The “rule enforcer” on the other hand takes a detached view of the rule itself and is more interested in work situations involving enforcement.

*   This detachment and concern over job responsibilities leads enforcers to label deviance in a selective manner.

*   The most obvious consequence of a successful crusade is the creation of a new set of rules, bringing with them a new set of enforcement agencies and officials.

*   With the establishment of organizations of rule enforcers, the crusade becomes institutionalized.

*   The final outcome of the moral crusade is a police force.

*   More typical for the policeman to have a certain detached and objective view of his job; he is not so much concerned with the content of any particular rule as he is with the fact that it is his job to enforce the rule.

*   Since the enforcement of certain rules provides justification for his way of life, the enforcer has two interests which condition his enforcement activity:  he must justify the existence of his position, and he must win the respect of those he deals with.

*   In justifying the existence of his position, the rule enforcer faces a double problem: (1)  he must demonstrate to others that the problem still exists; the rules he is supposed to enforce have some point because infractions occur, and (2) he must show that his attempts at enforcement are effective and worthwhile

*   Enforcement officials and agencies are inclined to take pessimistic view of human nature and the possibilities of reform is that fact that if human nature was perfectible and people could be permanently reformed, his job would come to an end

*   Becker concludes that whether one is labeled a deviant depends on factors extraneous to the behavior itself; this idea is central to the labeling perspective on deviance.





Gary T. Marx

Social Problems 23:3 (Feb 1981), pp.221-233


*   Focuses on a relatively neglected area of study:  the interactive context within which deviance occurs

*   Argues that authorities themselves my help deviance and law breaking to occur

*   Classifies those instances where authorities contribute to, or even generate, deviant behavior as including 3 ideal types:

*   Escalation – enforcement action that may unintentionally encourage rule breaking

*                   The very process of social control directly triggers violations

*                   Five major analytic elements of escalation are:

1.      An increase in the frequency of the original violations.

2.      An increase in the seriousness of violations, including the greater use of violence.

3.      The appearance of new categories of violators and/or victims (without a net diminution of those previously present).

4.      An increase in the commitment and/or skill and effectiveness of those engaged in the violation.

5.      The appearance of violations whose very definition is tied to social control intervention.

*                   Escalation may stem from initial or post-apprehension enforcement efforts.

*                   Certain styles of intervention are likely to provoke aggressive responses.

*                   One consequence of strong enforcement actions can be to change the personnel and social organization of those involved in illegal activities.

*                   Increased corruption, a frequent escalatory consequence of stepped-up enforcement efforts is one of a number of second-order forms of illegality which may indirectly appear.

*                   Another second-order effect can be seen in the monopoly profits which may accrue to those who provide vice in a context of strong enforcement pressures.

*                   Authorities may directly provide new resources which have unintended effects – “buy” money for drugs which increased opportunities for youths to become informers and some of them were subsequently killed; detached street-worker programs aimed at reducing gang delinquency may have actually increased it by strengthening identification with the gangs.

*                   There is an increasing number of crimes which emerge solely as an artifact of social control intervention; these emerge incidentally to efforts to enforce other laws; if authorities had not taken action, the offense would not have been committed.

*   Non-enforcement – idea that by not taking action authorities intentionally permit rule breaking

*                   The contribution of authorities to deviance is more indirect with those involved in non-enforcement relationships breaking rules partly because they believe they will not be appropriately sanctioned; offenders perform services for the police and are allowed to break rules and may receive other benefits.

*                   It may literally involve taking no enforcement action, passing on information regarding police and criminal activities, using improper procedures that will not stand up in court, offering ineffective testimony, helping a person facing charges to obtain leniency, giving gifts of contraband, and taking enforcement action against competitors.

*                   Police may adopt a policy of non-enforcement with respect to:

1.      informants who give them information about the law breaking of others and/or help in facilitating the controlled commission of a crime;

2.      vice entrepreneurs who agree to keep their own illegal behaviors within agreed upon bounds;

3.      individuals who either directly regulate the behavior of others using resources police lack or means they are denied, or who take actions desired by authorities by considered too politically risky for them to undertake.

*   Covert facilitation – authorities take deceptive or hidden action that intentionally encourages rule breaking

*                   A more active surreptitious role authorities may play as they directly enter into situations in order to facilitate rule breaking by others

*                   At least 3 types of covert facilitation:

1.      disguised police or their agents cooperating with others in illegal actions:

2.      police secretly generating opportunities for rule breaking without being co-conspirators;

3.      police secretly generating motives for rule breaking without being co-conspirators.

*                   Gives evidence that police efforts can positively influence the commission of offenses






Stephen J. Pfohl

Social Problems, 24:3  (Feb. 1977), pp. 310-323


*   Examines social forces that promoted labeling child beating as deviant and produced criminal legislation.

*   The victims of child battering were characterized as pre-delinquents, as part of the general “problem” of poverty.  These children, not their guardians, were the targets of court action and preventive policies.  The courts constrained any social reaction which would apply the label of deviant to parents who abused their children.

*   Perception of abuse as deviance was not due to escalation in the behavior itself, but rather to the organizational structure of the medical profession which led to the “discovery,” by a pediatric radiologist, of broken bones on x-rays.

*   Four factors impeded the recognition of abuse:

1.      some early research maintained that doctors in emergency rooms were simply unaware of the possibilities of “abuse” as a diagnosis.

2.      many doctors were simply psychologically unwilling to believe that parents would inflict such atrocities on their own children – consistent with the existing cultural assumptions pairing parental power with wisdom and benevolence.

3.      The “norm of confidentiality” gave rise to the possibility of legal liability for violating the confidentiality of the physician-patient relationship in which physicians primarily view the parent, rather than the child, as their real patient.

4.      the reluctance of doctors to become involved in a criminal justice process that would take both their time and ability to guide the consequences of a particular diagnosis.

*   A new “illness” was created and the clinical term “battered child syndrome” was used so medical practitioners could control the consequences of their diagnoses and prevent management of such cases by extra-medical formal social control agencies.

*   The political control over the consequences of one’s profession would be jeopardized by the medical diagnosis of child abuse.

*   The first factor conducive to the radiological discovery of abuse was a potential for intraorganizational advance in prestige.

*   A second factor encouraging the discovery of abuse by relatively low-status pediatric radiologists concerns the opportunity for a coalition of interests with other more prestigious segments within organized medicine







*      Functionalists draw from the classic work of Durkheim and view deviance as an integral part of healthy societies.

*       Deviance serves to establish group boundaries for acceptable behavior.

*       Punishing violators of group norms can serve to strengthen social rules and sharpen social boundaries by bringing these matters to public attention.

*       Functionalists focus on the purposes deviance serves as a normal phenomenon of healthy societies.

*       Functionalists believe that deviance is universal, that it exists in all societies, and that it serves an important role in social life.




Emile Durkheim

From The Rules of Sociological Method

Free Press:  1938


*   Durkheim identifies the positive aspects of crime and claims that it is a normal part of society, “a factor in public health, an integral part of all healthy societies.”

*   Anomie is a term used by Durkheim to describe a “lack of norms” in society.  This lack of clear rules for behavior can exist at both the societal and individual levels.

*   Rapid social change may bring new norms that are either not fully clear or not internalized by all segments of the population – deviance may arise as persons attempt to adapt to these new situations.





Robert K. Merton

American Sociological Review, 3 (1938), pp. 672-682.


*   Merton extended Durkheim’s insight that deviance arises from social organization, and seeks to examine what processes account for deviance other than biological mechanisms and impulses.

*   His theory centers on the notion that deviance arises from the incongruence between two major elements of social structure – cultural goals and institutionalized norms or means.

*   When these elements are discordant, deviance may result, a part of a normal process of individual adaptation.

*   He sets out to study the sociocultural sources of deviant behavior with his primary aim being to discover how some social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in the society to engage in non-conformist rather than conformist conduct.

*   The culturally defined goals, purposes, and interests comprise a frame of aspirational reference.  These goals are more or less integrated and involve varying degrees of prestige and sentiment.

*   The second phase of the social structure defines, regulates, and controls the acceptable modes of achieving these goals.

*   Aberrant conduct, therefore, may be viewed as a symptom of dissociation between culturally defined aspirations and socially structured means.


Culture                             Institutionalized
 Goals                              Means


I.                   Conformity                          +                               +

II.                 Innovation                          +                               -

III.              Ritualism                             -                              +                      

IV.               Retreatism                           -                              -

V.                 Rebellion                           +/-                             +/-


*   In every society, Adaptation I (conformity to both culture goals and means) is the most common and widely diffused.

*   Adaptation IV is the least common with persons not sharing the common frame of orientation.

*   Where frustration derives from the inaccessibility of effective institutional means for attaining economic or any other type of highly values “success”, Adaptations II, III, and V (innovation, ritualism, and rebellion) are also possible.  The result will be determined by the particular personality, and thus, the particular cultural background involved.

*   Frustration and thwarted aspiration lead to the search for avenues of escape from a culturally induced intolerable situation.





Richard A. Cloward and Lloyd E. Ohlin

From Delinquency and Opportunity:  A Theory of Delinquent Gangs

The Free Press:  1960.


*   This extends Merton’s formulation by highlighting the notion that adapting in a deviant manner to social strain entails differential access to illegitimate means.

*   To enact deviance, one must have access to illegitimate groups and structures from which to learn such behavior.

*   Cloward and Ohlin believe that persons have differential opportunities for rule breaking depending on their locations in the social structure.  When legitimate opportunities are blocked, the extent of deviant behavior will vary according to the availability of illegitimate means.

*   It is assumed in the theory of anomie that access to conventional means is differentially distributed, that some individuals, because of their social class, enjoy certain advantages that are denied to those elsewhere in the class structure.

*   There are marked differences from one part of the social structure to another in the types of illegitimate adaptation that are available to persons in search of solutions to problems arising from the restricted availability of legitimate means.  Given limited access to success-goals by legitimate means, the nature of the delinquent response that may result will vary according to the availability of various illegitimate means.






*   All conflict theories focus on the central element of power in defining deviance and its social control.

*   Conflict theorists do not believe that societal consensus maintains social order.

*   Most societies are made up of groups with conflicting values, and those with the most power will define certain behaviors of weaker groups as deviant or criminal.




Steven Spitzer

Social Problems, 22 (June, 1975), pp. 641-651.


*   The article lays out the basic tenets of Marxian analysis and applies them to the study of deviance; For Marx, the crucial unit of analysis is the mode of production that dominates a given historical period; deviance production must be understood in relationship to specific forms of socio-economic organization.

*   The mode of production forms the foundation of infrastructure of our society, which regulates and manages problem populations that tend to share a number of social characteristics – their behavior, personal qualities, and/or position threaten the social relations of production in capitalist societies.

*   The production of a relative surplus-population involves the creation of a class which is economically redundant; the group is both useful and menacing to the accumulation of capital.

*   In a class society, deviance and crime are more likely to be found in the “lowest sediment” of the relative surplus population.  Elements of this population may threaten the established order of production , and must be controlled if existing economic relations are to be preserved.

*   As this class is more clearly defined, it becomes more problematic in terms of control, and that more of the state’s resources are necessary to effect this end.






Alexander Liazos

Social Problems, 20 (Summer, 1972), pp.  103-120.


*   This article provides an important challenge that the field of deviance become more inclusive of forms of deviance in society by not neglecting deviant behaviors of the political and economic elite.

*   Cannot ignore the role of power in defining deviance.

*   Believes we should banish the concept of “deviance” and speak of oppression, conflict, persecution, and suffering.

*   We perpetuate most people’s beliefs and impressions that the dramatic forms of deviance is the basic cause of many of our troubles, that these people (criminals, drug addicts, political dissenters) are the real “troublemakers” and, necessarily we neglect conditions of inequality, powerlessness, and institutional violence.






*      Examines the processes by which deviant behavior and values are learned through group interaction.

*  Focus on group behavior and affiliation and how individuals internalize norms associated with such groups.





Gresham M. Sykes and David Matza

American Sociological Review, 22 (Dec., 1957).


*   Describes the rationalizations that juveniles offer for their deviant and criminal behavior.  Such rationalizations are learned through group interaction and allow for one to engage in deviant behavior by suspending conventional norms that generally control behavior.

*   Justifications are viewed as following deviant behavior and as protecting the individual from self-blame and the blame of others after the act, but there is also reason to believe that they precede deviant behavior and make deviant behavior possible.

*   They argue that techniques of neutralization make up a significant component of the definitions favorable to law violation and must be learned and accepted before one is able to engage in deviance.

*   Disapproval flowing from internalized norms and conforming others in the social environment is neutralized, turned back, or deflected in advance.  Social controls that serve to check or inhibit deviant motivational patterns are rendered inoperative, and the individual is freed to engage in delinquency without serious damage to his self-image.

*   These techniques allow one to drift in and out of law-abiding behavior and are learned in group interaction.

*   Sykes and Matza classify five major types of neutralization:

1.      denial of responsibility – it was an accident; not my fault

2.      denial of injury – no one has been clearly hurt by the deviance; could afford it; was mischief; borrowed the item

3.      denial of victim – the injury is not wrong in light of circumstances; rightful retaliation or punishment

4.      condemnation of condemners – rejection of the rejectors; shifts focus of attention from own deviant acts to the motives and behavior of those who disapprove of his violations; condemners are hypocrites

5.      appeal to higher loyalties – internal and external social controls my be neutralized by sacrificing the demands of the larger society for the demands of the smaller social groups to which the delinquent belongs

*   All of these learned techniques allow the enactment of deviance and are part of a larger system of attitudes and beliefs that are important for understanding delinquency and other acts of lawbreaking.




Howard S. Becker

American Journal of Sociology, 59 (Nov., 1953, pp. 235-242.


*       Becker argues that this form of drug use can best be understood by focusing on the sequence of learning that leads to “the use of marihuana for pleasure.” 

*       Becker shows that persons “learn” the techniques for using marihuana to produce this effect, as well as learning to perceive certain effects through experimentation, which usually occurs in a social context.  Finally, learning to enjoy the effects of the drug allows for possible continued use.

*   Conceptions of the drug change during this learning process, which helps the user develop motivations or dispositions to use marihuana that could not have been present before actually experiencing its effects.

*   Instead of the deviant motives leading to the deviant behavior, it is the other way around; the deviant behavior in time produces deviant motivation.  Vague impulses and desires – in this case, probably most frequently a curiosity about the kind of experience the drug will produce – are transformed into definite patterns of action through the social interpretation of a physical experience which is in itself ambiguous.

*   Marihuana use is a function of the individual’s conception of marihuana and of the uses to which it can be put, and this conception develops as the individual’s experience with the drug increases.





Edwin H. Sutherland

Selections from Principles of Criminology

(Philadelphia:  J.B. Lippincott Co.), 1947, pp.5-9.


*   Sutherland attempted to create a theory that would account for all criminal behavior, including what  he termed “white-collar crime.”

*   He maintained that crime was learned, just as anything else is learned by members of society.

1.      Criminal behavior is learned.

2.      Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.

3.      The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.

4.      When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple; (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.

5.      The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable.

6.      A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation over definitions unfavorable to violation of law.

7.      Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.

8.      The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning.

9.      While criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values since non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values.

*   The knowledge necessary to commit deviant acts, along with the motives, values, and skills, are acquired through personal interactions that take place in groups.

*   Deviant groups are those where there is “an excess of definitions favorable to law violations over those favorable to conformity.”

*   Many forms of deviant and criminal behavior fit Sutherland’s model, and it has a major impact on the field of deviance theory.




Daniel Glaser

“Criminality Theories and Behavioral Images”

The American Journal of Sociology, 61 (March, 1956), pp. 440-441


*   One of the variations on Sutherland’s theory of differential association

*   It is not always necessary to have direct group interactions to acquire the values and knowledge to commit acts of deviance and crime.  A person may simply identify with a real or imaginary group or persons from whose perspective deviance is acceptable.

*   The emphasis is on the choice of models rather than the direct interaction with deviant subgroups.






*   Labeling theory, or the “interactionist approach” to deviance focuses on how certain behaviors come to be labeled as deviant in the first place and how such designations influence future behavior.

*   A central concept involves the “social self.






Charles Horton Cooley

Human Nature and the Social Order

(New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons), 1902, pp. 179-185, 259-260.


*   Defines the social aspects of the self through his central concepts of the “looking-glass self.”

*   Our central identities revolve around the ways we perceive ourselves.  How we perceive ourselves (as in a mirror, or looking-glass) in large part depends upon how we think others see us.

*   A self-idea seems to have three principal elements:

1.      the imagination of our appearance to the other person;

2.      the imagination of his judgment of that appearance;

3.      and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification.

Our self feelings arise from this process, and they are important in understanding how deviant identities are formed.




Edwin M. Lemert

From Social Pathology:  A Systematic Approach to the Theory of Sociopathic Behavior.

pp.75-78.  1951.


*   Lemert had a profound influence on the development of the labeling perspective.

*   Argues that the initial, or “primary” causes of deviance were not that important.  Of more consequence were the reactions by others to such behaviors.

*   Secondary deviation occurs when the person enacting the deviant behavior organizes his or her identity around these reactions by others.





Erving Goffman

From Stigma:  Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity

pp. 2-9, 1963.


*   Stigmatization is a major concept in the sociological study of deviance and refers to a process by which individuals are forced to reconsider their self-identities.

*   The concept of stigma is “an attribute that is deeply discrediting.”