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Deviance - Conceptualizations Of Deviance

deviant social approach people

The statistical approach. One way of defining standards of conduct and deviance from them is to observe how people in a particular group actually behave (Wilkins, 1964). Accordingly, if a large proportion of people in a group smoke cigarettes, smoking is "normal" while failure to smoke would be atypical, or deviant. With a "statistical" perspective, sky diving, eating snails, and murder are all deviant in the United States since they are all unusual. On the other hand, highway speeding, "fudging" on one's income tax, and pilfering small items from employers are all conforming behaviors since they are currently committed by a fairly large proportion, if not a majority, of the population.

A statistical approach rests on a common observation: many people assume that something that "everybody does" cannot be in violation of conduct standards. Indeed, a frequent justification (or rationalization) for conduct that is being threatened with sanctions is to claim that everybody else or at least most others do it. And, many people decide what is appropriate by watching what others do.

Even though a statistical approach appears to correspond with the everyday thinking of many laypersons, it is not widely used by social scientists. Scholars have found that statistical patterns only superficially reflect how social groups formulate standards of conduct. Most people in the United States, for example, would feel uncomfortable classifying behaviors like church tithing, abstinence from all alcohol use, and maintenance of premarital sexual virginity (all atypical behaviors) as "deviant." There is an underlying agreement that even though they are unusual, these behaviors are somehow "good," acceptable, even desirable, and that they are to be encouraged as ways of behaving. Similarly, most people feel discomfort in thinking of adultery, lying to one's spouse or sweetheart, or pilfering from an employer as appropriate, even though they are frequently committed by a large proportion of the populace. Yet, most can easily endorse the inappropriateness of acts that are atypical in a negative way—more evil, unacceptable, or undesirable than the average. Therefore, most students of deviance contend that despite some tendency for people to refer to statistical guidelines, normative standards mainly revolve around notions of rightness and wrongness or with what people think others "ought" to do.

The absolutist approach. A second approach applies ideal conduct standards set down by a social scientist (or group of social scientists) to all groups and individuals under study. A social scientist decides what is good, useful, or just, and then measures deviations from those evaluative criteria. For example, some theorists (functionalists) view societies as interdependent mechanisms; all parts that work together for maintenance of the society are regarded as essential and in that sense "good" or nondeviant. But a society may contain dysfunctional (dangerous or destructive) elements (see Gross), which are regarded as deviant. Most who use this approach assume that societies will usually condone inherently good behaviors and condemn those that are inherently bad. Indeed, it has been argued that contemporary societies exist because throughout evolutionary history they practiced and condoned useful behavior while avoiding and condemning dangerous behavior. Presumably, social groups that failed to do this did not survive the ravages of time (Parsons).

Functionalists assume that an investigator can, through logic and research, actually determine what is good for a society. For example, incest is thought to be dysfunctional (Davis; Murphy) because if widely practiced, it could lead to biological deterioration of the population, destruction of orderly social relations, and disruption of the mechanisms for efficient child rearing. According to some, therefore, incest is inherently and obviously deviant because it is socially dangerous. Most members of any existing society presumably will disapprove of incest and will refrain from practicing it because only those societies that in the past developed and enforced social rules prohibiting incest would have survived to be represented in the contemporary world. Similar arguments can be made for murder, rape, assault, homosexuality, child abuse, mental illness, and other behaviors.

Other absolutist thinkers employ a different rationale. Radical, Marxist, and humanist scholars often maintain that a sensitive informed researcher can apply absolute moral standards to behavior in any given society or specific situation to decide whether various activities are unjust or evil (deviant) (Schwendinger and Schwendinger). Some believe that any exploitation of one person or a category of persons for the benefit of another, or any conduct that threatens the dignity and quality of life for specific people or humanity as a whole, is inherently evil, and thereby deviant (Simon). Others contend that any behavior causing people to suffer or violating any person's right to self-actualization and freedom is inherently immoral, or deviant (Platt). Marxist scholars, for instance, point up the exploitative nature of economic relations in capitalistic societies and regard this inherent exploitation, along with the selfish and insensitive acts it breeds, as deviant or "criminal" because it corrupts human qualities (Bonger; Quinney, 1970, 1980). Similarly, humanists regard racial discrimination as deviant because it deprives a whole group of people of equal rights and human dignity.

Absolutist approaches to deviance are not widely used because of their subjectivity. Trained (sensitized), careful observers disagree about what is good or bad for society, what is contrary to human dignity, and what is fair or unfair. And what one observer believes to be functional for a society another may find dysfunctional. It has even been argued that a certain amount of deviance itself may benefit society. Dealing with deviance may help a group differentiate its members, crystalize the norms so group members will know how to behave, provide a means for tension to be reduced, keep the mechanisms of social control in good working order so that they will be efficient in true emergencies, and generate cohesion as the members of a group unite in opposition to deviance (Cohen, 1966; Dentler and Erikson). Since there is no reason to believe that the values or insights of social scientists are in any way superior, more desirable, or defensible than those of anyone else, or that the values of any particular social scientist are any more justifiable than those of another social scientist, an absolutist approach in the study of deviance cannot be used in a consistent and meaningful way.

The legalistic approach. A third way of identifying conduct standards and deviant behavior is to simply use illegality as the criterion of whether a given activity is in violation of behavioral norms. Accordingly, if the law prohibits an act, it is deviant; and if the law requires an act, failure to perform it is deviant. If the law is silent about, or permits, an act, then that act is considered consistent with conduct standards, or conforming.

The rationale for a legal criterion of deviance differs depending on how the law is viewed. Some contend that the law expresses collective sentiment indicating that particular activities are dangerous or threatening enough to require efforts at control (see Tittle, 1994). Although recognizing that law making is a political process, which often reflects conflicting interests and the clash of power, some nevertheless believe that, in the main, law reflects popular sentiment as well as efforts to promote the public good.

Others see the law as an instrument by which the powerful maintain their elite positions and protect their privileges, but these scholars accept illegality as the appropriate criterion of behavioral standards because they believe conformity and deviance are inherently whatever people powerful enough to impose their own views say they are. Accordingly, norms (or conduct standards) are "definitions of the situation" imposed upon a social group by power elites (McCaghy; Quinney).

Still others view law as a combination of popular sentiment and elite desires. They contend that some law expresses consensus among the population (such as laws prohibiting assault, murder, child abuse) while other laws reflect the desires of special interests (such as laws prohibiting importation of competitive products, requiring licenses to provide certain services, or denying the right of laborers to strike). For these scholars, whether law is collectively or particularistically oriented is irrelevant; in both instances, law expresses coercive potential—a key element of behavioral norms. Thus, the conduct rules that matter are those that can be enforced. Since the law reflects behavioral rules backed up by power of enforcement, it necessarily encompasses conduct norms—at least those worth social scientists' study.

A legalistic approach is straightforward and usually easily applied (since a scholar need only refer to the codification of laws), and it hinges on an extremely important element of social life—the exercise of political power. Moreover, a related body of inquiry—criminology—almost exclusively uses a legalistic approach to define its subject matter. Yet the legalistic conceptualization is not generally used for the larger study of deviance, of which crime may be a part. For one thing, not all societies have a clearly defined body of written statutes that can be identified as law. Primitive societies, for example, have deviant behavior but no formally written law that defines it as such (Malinowski; Hoebel). Using a legalistic approach in nonliterate societies assumes the resolution of a prior definitional problem—what is law?

In addition, in any society many of the activities that are illegal nevertheless appear to be normatively acceptable. For instance, despite legal prohibitions on the sale of tobacco products to minors, in many places such products are easily available to minors in vending machines and minors are officially allowed to smoke in designated areas by many schools. Moreover, it is rare for the police to arrest anyone for selling tobacco to minors; and most people may not regard such sale as bad, dangerous, or abnormal (although public opinion about this appears to be undergoing a change). Thus, laws are often out of synch with actual behavior and public sentiment, sometimes because society changes without the laws being changed or repealed and sometimes because laws result from political action by interest groups whose agendas may not correspond with views of the general public.

By contrast, many activities that appear to be inconsistent with general conduct standards are not illegal. It is not a crime to lie to one's spouse or sweetheart although evidence suggests that a large proportion of the people disapprove of it (Tittle, 1980). Similarly in some places it is not illegal to operate a topless bar, yet such establishments frequently meet with scorn, protests, and sometimes violent opposition by neighbors. Further, legal statutes rarely prohibit eating human flesh although it is clearly outside the bounds of acceptable conduct in contemporary societies.

Finally, despite the importance of the legal realm, conduct norms are not limited to that realm but instead are ubiquitous at all levels of social life from the interpersonal to the societal. A legalistic approach, therefore, narrowly focuses attention on one tier of a multi-tiered system.

The reactive approach. A fourth way of defining deviance is by social reaction (what people do about behavior or a condition). According to this approach, when social reaction to some behavior is condemnatory, punitive, or simply disapproving, it indicates that the behavior is in violation of behavioral standards prevailing in that group and is therefore deviant. One variation of the reactive approach emphasizes the "typical" reaction to a class of behaviors. Another stresses social reaction to particular instances of behavior while assuming that this particular reaction implies nothing about the deviance of the entire class of behaviors of which the particular case is an instance. Such basic differences are complicated by questions concerning which part of the social system must react negatively to qualify something as deviant. Some emphasize negative reactions by official agents and functionaries, but others accord more importance to informal reactions by a collective social audience.

Probably the best-known reactive approach to deviance is that embodied in the "labeling perspective" (Tannenbaum; Becker; Schur; Gove). Labeling theorists do not agree about their focus, and they are sometimes ambiguous in presentation. Nevertheless, most scholars agree that the predominant concern of the labeling perspective is legal reaction to specific acts, particularly the reaction of agents of the criminal justice system (such as police) to particular instances of behavior disapproved by power holders, whose interests are embodied in the legal codes (Gove). Accordingly, some labeling proponents recognize no categories or classes of deviant behavior. To them, murder, rape, child abuse, or smoking marijuana are not necessarily deviant. Rather, specific acts of murder, rape, child abuse, or marijuana use may or may not be deviant depending upon whether officials arrest the perpetrator and label him/her as deviant. When labeling occurs, the particular act of murder, rape, child abuse, or marijuana use is deviant; otherwise, it is not.

Some labeling theorists are more restrictive in what they define as deviant. They maintain that an act is not deviant unless and until a collective social audience has accepted the label of deviant for the act and/or the perpetrator. It is said that a label attached by officials must "stick"; that is, it must be recognized by a social audience and serve as the vehicle through which the group attributes bad character to the actor, or attributes badness to the act (Becker; Kitsuse).

Another variant of the reactionist approach accepts the generally deviant nature of some categories of behavior. Accordingly, if a social collectivity or its chief representatives typically react negatively to some behavior or typically attach a stigma to those who are caught, that kind of behavior is deviant even if a particular perpetrator escapes being labeled. For instance, if a social group usually shows its condemnation of some class of behaviors by punishing specific acts of that class or if it usually attributes bad character to those who commit such acts, then theorists would assume that in that social group those behaviors are deviant. Using this approach, apprehension, punishment, or group attribution of bad character for a specific act may be treated as problematic but such actions are not essential for a given act to be deviant.

Still another variation of the reactive/labeling approach does not limit itself to behavior but includes as deviance, statuses, states of being, or physical conditions (Lemert). According to this approach, "deviance" inheres in disreputable or pejorative statuses, styles of life, or physical attributes; therefore, deviance is a condition not a behavior or set of behaviors. Accordingly, race, gender, poverty, and criminality have all been identified as stigmatized "deviant" statuses while physical handicaps, unattractive appearances, speech impediments, and small statures have been designated as stigmatized conditions qualifying as deviant. Although most approaches to deviance raise issues about how and why particular acts or categories of acts come to be deviant and why individuals come to commit acts that are deviant or that are likely to be regarded as deviant, this particular approach poses different questions—how stigma comes about and how people who are targets of stigma react to, or manage, the deviant identity associated with it.

The reactive approach has been widely used, and during the 1960s and 1970s was the dominant orientation. Even now many people associate the study of deviance exclusively with the reactive approach. This popularity stemmed partly from the key idea that deviant acts or conditions are those disapproved, either by officials or by group members, or in one version of this approach, are considered important enough by key functionaries of the social system to warrant attention. The reactive approach was also popular because of the appeal of the larger labeling argument, from which many of the reactive conceptualizations sprang. The notion that deviant behavior and stigmatized conditions are highly problematic intrigued many. Moreover, the contentions of the labeling school that deviance is a creation of the very forces intending to do something about it and that designating acts as deviant represents unequal power in action, with large consequences for those labeled and for society, meshed with the ideological bent of many social scientists of the time.

In due course, however, numerous problems caused the reactive approach to lose its dominance. Among other concerns, many behaviors that appear to be in violation of conduct standards are not necessarily the focus of negative reactions, especially not official reactions. For instance, adultery in the United States is almost never dealt with by the police or the courts, and it rarely results in a deviant label for the actor. Even when there are citizen complaints, the police normally refuse to make arrests. Yet surveys show that most people believe adultery to be wrong, bad, or inappropriate, and it is thought by many social scientists to have crucial implications for a major social institution—the family.

Furthermore, the police frequently arrest people, and courts sometimes impose severe penalties, for behaviors that are not widely disapproved and do not seem to have much impact on society (such as marijuana use during the 1960s). Third, the narrower reactive definitions created unusual conceptual inconsistencies. If murder is regarded as deviant only when discovered and reacted against by official agents, then it must also be regarded as conformity if the perpetrator escapes punishment—regardless of the number of group members who may disapprove of it, how socially dangerous it might be, or how many people do it. Moreover, according to this kind of reactive definition, deviance can only be studied on a case-by-case basis after the fact, thereby making generalization or consideration and explanation of categories of deviance impossible.

Finally, practical application of some reactive definitions has proven difficult. Empirically ascertaining when labeling has occurred (is an arrest a labeling act, or must one be convicted?) or when a label sticks (how do we know the boundaries of a social audience, how many must accept the label, what constitutes stigma?) renders some versions of the reactive approach almost completely unworkable (see Gove). Furthermore, those reactive definitions that focus on disreputable statuses and conditions raise limited questions leading to repetitious research about the importance of power in the stigmatization process and about the way various stigmatized people manage their identities. In addition, evidence and logical critiques have eroded the luster of labeling theory, which had earlier energized reactive approaches (Gibbs, 1966; Gove; Hagan, 1973; Mankoff; Wellford).

The group evaluation approach. A fifth method of identifying conduct standards and deviance is by the beliefs or opinions of group members. Accordingly, deviant behavior is that regarded as unacceptable, inappropriate, or morally wrong in the opinion of the members of a group. One problem is deciding how many people in a group must believe some behavior to be unacceptable for it to qualify as deviance, although it is generally assumed that a significant consensus exists among group members about rightness or wrongness and about how people ought to behave. If this assumption is correct, social disapproval indicates that some behavior is outside acceptable standards of conduct. And such disapproval would suggest deviance regardless of the typicality or prevalence of the behavior, whether anything is actually done about the offense, or whether the shared concepts about rightness or wrongness grew out of common experiences or out of careful socialization by particular interest groups with an investment in promoting specific ideas.

A group evaluational definition of deviance has never been the dominant approach although it is conceptually clear, has intuitive meaning, permits deviance to be treated meaningfully as a continuous variable expressing the extent to which different behaviors are disapproved, and provokes many sociologically relevant questions—such as why some people do disapproved things, why and how social processes sometimes produce shared opinions of disapproval, why general opinions sometimes change, and why social processes sometimes come to activate collective responses to behavior but not at other times. Perhaps the major reason for under use of the group evaluational approach is its assumption that all group members' opinions are of equal value. Research shows that the opinions of some are more important than the opinions of others because some people can implement their opinions with coercive action, and some are more influential in persuading others to their points of view. In addition, some question the usefulness of a conceptualization of deviance that treats as a violation of conduct standards some acts about which nothing is done and for which no sanctions are brought to bear. Furthermore, efficient application of this approach requires survey data—public opinion information about perceptions of conduct. Such information is rarely available for all the acts that one might want to consider as potentially deviant, and in some societies no survey data about any behavior are available. Finally, this approach assumes that the boundaries of groups are clear enough to permit scholars to ascertain the thoughts of most people within those boundaries about the appropriateness of various behaviors. In reality, however, group boundaries are often ambiguous, particularly in a heterogeneous society with overlapping subcultures and diverse group identities.

The synthetic approach. Some scholars merge different definitions of deviance in an effort to produce more effective, though more complicated, "integrated" approaches. For example one synthetic definition (Tittle and Paternoster) combines the reactive and the group evaluation approaches because they pose especially salient questions about social behavior—do most people believe it is wrong and are there usually negative sanctions associated with the behavior? Deviance is defined as any type of behavior that the majority of a given group regards as unacceptable or that typically evokes a collective response of a negative type. In this definition, "unacceptable" means the behavior is disapproved, or regarded as wrong, inappropriate, bad, or abnormal—in short, behavior that a group evaluates negatively. "Majority" means that over half of the people in a specified, bounded group regard the behavior as unacceptable. Although this is an arbitrary cutoff point, it is used because the main objective is to array behavior on a continuum from very nondeviant (hardly anybody considers it unacceptable) to very deviant (almost everybody in the group considers it unacceptable), with any particular act falling somewhere on the continuum. Collective response of a negative type implies that the majority of the specified group typically does something to express its displeasure, or the officials who possess coercive power over the members of the group typically respond to the behavior in a way that expresses negative evaluation. Whether synthetic, integrated conceptualizations become widely accepted remains to be seen.

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over 2 years ago

Among the four definition of deviance, (Normarive, Reactivist, Statistical, and Moralist Definition) which do you think is the best definition pf deviance? Justify your answer.

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over 2 years ago

Wondarful job. Enjoy d substance so well