Deviance is a complex concept in sociology

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Deviance in sociology is a dynamic term. Understanding this term opens up opportunities to discuss various sociological issues. Consequently, the paper aims at explaining the many different kinds of deviance, investigating its causes and the hypotheses of deviance. The research is focused on ideas by numerous scientists who have made an excellent contribution to the field of sociology. These concepts are important in reducing social crimes such as robbery, violation, assassination, attack, drug trafficking and profiling. The research also helps acknowledge the fact that despite the negative notion most people have on deviance, notable positive changes can be achieved through it. This fact is demonstrated that despite the negative notion most people have on deviance, notable positive changes can be achieved through it. This fact is demonstrated through examples of how deviance has had a positive impact on the society in the past.

Keywords: Deviance, social norms, crimes, Human behavior



Deviance is a complex concept which can be defined as any behavior that does not conform to the societal norms (Brown & Sefiha, 2018). These standards are set by the society to guide human behavior. Such a violation of the social norms results in punishment. However, despite the clear-cut definition of deviance, there is a swarming host of other meanings. The reason behind this is because different scholars hold different views on deviance (Shepard, 2012). For instance, Emile Durkheim in The Rules of Sociological Method claims that “Deviance is defiance is defined socially and will vary from one group to another” (Brown & Sefiha, 2018). Another Sociologist William Sumner defines sociology as “Violation of established norms.” Despite the different definitions of deviance, the basic idea is going against the set rules or norms in society. The concept varies across groups, times and places. Deviance is substantially connected to many issues in the community. Examples of activities which are considered as defiant include robbery, theft, rape, murder and assault (Shepard, 2012). Other deviant activities in some cultures include belching loudly, Yawning, laughing during burials, Excessive gambling, Refusing to bathe and other activities which go against the believes and culture of the particular society. It is therefore vital to deeply explore deviance in sociology so that one can be able to fit well in the society.

Types of Deviance

There are two types of deviance which include Formal and Informal deviance.

Formal Deviance

Formal deviance is the violation of laws which are formally enacted (Shepard, 2012). This type of deviation is serious since it is punishable by the law. Examples of formal deviance include robbery, theft, rape, murder, and assault.

Informal Deviance

Informal deviance is the violation of informal social norms which are not touched anywhere in the law (Brown & Sefiha, 2018). Such an offense is not punishable but should not be committed since it is against the societal morals. People who commit such deviance cannot be respected in the society. Some examples of informal deviance include belching loudly, making sounds while yawning and talking while eating.

Theories of Deviance

The theories of deviance are important since they help explain its causes (Shepard, 2012). Since deviance is significantly related to crimes, the theories also focus on how such issues can be eliminated in the society. Some of the prominent theories of defiance include differential association theory, anomie theory, control theory and labeling theory.

Strain or Anomie theory

Anomie is a term used to describe a state of confusion caused by conflicting social norms. Robert Merton applied this term while describing some socially accepted goals and their difference to the means of their achievement (Dobbert & Mackey, 2015). According to Merton a target such as wealth attainment was on the cards of all Americans. However, the minority and disadvantaged groups did not have the means. Merton noted that the road to riches was therefore closed to these people thwarting them from achieving a socially accepted goal (Dobbert & Mackey, 2015). Merton argued that it is because of this reason that such people may resolve to deviant behaviors to achieve the same goal or prove a point. The theory is significant since it helps explain the causes of deviant behavior in the society as well as different types of deviance (Brown & Sefiha, 2018). By emphasizing on the role social forces play in causing deviance, the theory is sociological. The critics of the approach point out that it is too general. The critics note that the approach does not consider the internal causes of deviance since it only focuses on the external societal forces.

Control theory

Walter Reckless developed the control theory. According to the theory inner and outer controls significantly influence deviant tendencies (Dobbert & Mackey, 2015). It is natural to feel deviant at times in some way, but most people do not. The inner controls prevent people from wanting to act deviant. Some of these controls include conscience, morality, desire to live according to the societal values and integrity (Delaney, 2017). Outer controls such as law enforcement bodies, family, friends, and religion also prevent one from being deviant. Self-control, therefore, arises from the inner and outer controls hence helps one conform to the social norms. People who grow up lacking self-control are highly likely to commit deviant behaviors. The critics of control theory opine that it does little to explain the causes of deviance. However, the proponents counter this claim through asserting that the theory focuses on explaining how behavior, socialization, and social controls are related which it perfectly achieves.

Labeling theory

According to labeling theory, the behavior is considered deviant only when the society labels it so (Dobbert & Mackey, 2015). It is the role of the conforming members of the society to interpret specific actions whether they are deviant then label the individuals, deviant or non-deviant. The theory poses the question on who is supposed to label the other, the reason for doing that, and the aftermath of the labeling.

It is the influential people in the society who mostly give these labels. Some of these people include law enforcement personnel, lawyers, doctors and politicians (Dobbert & Mackey, 2015). Labels such as drug addicts, rapists, prostitutes and psychiatric patients can be given. Labeling deviant people can have severe consequences. According to the theory, people who are given negative labels may go through self-rejection and act more defiantly as a result. Once an individual is labeled, even when evidence proving the contrary arise, it very difficult to convince those who have already accepted the labeling otherwise. According to research conducted by William, Chambliss labeling has great influence on both the individual and how the society perceives the character (Brown & Sefiha, 2018). The study involved labeling one group from a wealthy background “saints” and another from poor background “Roughnecks.” The two groups committed similar crimes and the Saints very careful in their escapades, unlike Roughnecks. The “saints” were polite and cordial to the police while the “Roughnecks” were insolent and hostile. The Saints were considered as “good” while the Roughnecks as “bad.” The Roughnecks end up being labeled by others and themselves as deviant, therefore the police greatly focused on them but not the Saints.

The critics of labeling theory opine that it only applies to a small population since it is easy to identify individuals and label them as deviants. They also assert the idea that the theory’s concept is unclear therefore cannot be scientifically tested.

Differential Association

In his theory, Edwin Sutherland notes that deviant behaviors are acquired through learning hence it is not anyone’s nature (Dobbert & Mackey, 2015). Exposure is one of the major ways in which deviant behavior is learned. Deviant activities such as crimes are learned just like other behaviors. Therefore, nothing is exceptional about it. One of the fundamental points Sutherland gives in this theory is that learning occurs through interaction between different parties which are possible through communication achieved by use of symbols and ideas (Delaney, 2017). Favorable symbols and ideas of deviation make individuals accustom themselves to these behaviors. The theory assumes that:

  1. Learning occurs in interactions through communication in a group.
  2. Every deviant behavior is learned hence Techniques, intentions, justifications, and attitudes are all learned.
  3. There are more favorable results to the deviation.
  4. Both acceptable and unacceptable behavior express the same general need and values.

An example of the theory is selling drugs in an African American neighborhood. Due to the interactions between the drug peddlers and the general African American society, Sutherland would argue that it is more likely for one in the community to get involved in drugs (Dobbert & Mackey, 2015).

Effects of Deviance on Society

Most people perceive deviance as negatively since they see it as disruptive to the society. It adversely affects social norms and divides the society. Deviance also makes the deviants to be seen as criminals since they are highly profiled (Shepard, 2012). Legal deviance leads to serious consequence since one may be executed, imprisoned or suffer other forms of punishment. Despite this, deviance has other effects which are not necessarily negative but can lead to a positive change in the society.

Deviance plays a major role in social change (Thompson & Gibbs, 2016). Deviant acts which become more accepted in the society may be considered legitimate with time. For example, many due to deviance corporations in America have implemented casual days. Before this was achieved, workers were required to dress up in suits. More and more workers went against this rule and reported to work informally dress. Today, casual days have been implemented in almost all corporations.

Deviance is paramount in adjusting to change. People have the mentality of hold on to the existing norms (Thompson & Gibbs, 2016). Deviance proves that there is an alternate lifestyle hence people are not scared to adopt new ways since deviants successfully practice them.


Deviance is a critical concept in sociology. Deviance may exist as formal or informal. Formal deviance is serious and punishable by the law. Deviance is one of the foundations for understanding how the society operates. Most social problems are as a result of deviance. To solve these problems, it is important to understand the root causes. This therefore calls for research on the causes of deviance. By exploring the control, strain, labeling and differential association theories, the key causes of deviance are established. Law enforcement bodies can utilize this knowledge to control the crime rates. Despite the negative perception of deviance by most people, it also has positive impacts on the society.


Brown, S. E., & Sefiha, O. (2018).Routledge Handbook on Deviance. New York: Routledge.

Delaney, T. (2017).Social Deviance. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Dobbert, D. L., & Mackey, T. X. (2015).Deviance: Theories on Behaviors That Defy Social Norms: Theories on Behaviors That Defy Social Norms. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.

Shepard, J. (2012). Sociology (11th Ed). Cengage Learning.

Thompson, W. E., & Gibbs, J. C. (2016).Deviance and Deviants: A Sociological Approach. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

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