Deviance and social control

Deviance Behavior- Sociological Definitions & Theories


In sociology, Deviance describes actions or behaviors that violate cultural norms. Deviance also goes against the social norms by which a particular society lives.

Deviant behavior may be a point of view or a difference in philosophy. It may be as small and insignificant as going against the grain when being told what to do. In other words, you may deviate in a way that the people around you don’t understand.

Punishment for a deviation may be as small and insignificant as someone giving you a dirty look for moving away from the group or as big and violating as being charged with murder.

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Sociological Definitions

There is a difference between Deviance, conformity, and compliance.

  • Conformity can be thought of as a behavior that is typical and expected.
  • Compliance can be thought of as the opposite of Deviance.
  • A deviation can be thought of as behavior that varies from the expectation.

There are two broad forms of Deviance, namely formal and informal

Formal Deviance

Formal Deviance refers to a behavior that is defined as deviant by the law. Examples of formal Deviance are theft, rape, murder, and vandalism. Members of a community who commit these deviant acts are most likely to be punished.

Informal Deviance

Informal Deviance refers to a behavior that is defined as deviant by the standards or norms of society. Examples include speeding, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and cheating on exams.

Theoretical Study of Deviance

Various theories explain social Deviance.

Max Weber Theory

Max Weber, an early sociologist, defined three types of authority.

  1. People usually hold traditional authority at a higher status, such as parents and teachers.
  2. Charismatic authority refers to leaders who are strong enough to influence others by their personal qualities.
  3. Finally, legal authority is the authority that comes from governmental laws and regulations.

Max Weber’s definition of Deviance is a violation of rules that are supported by society. This theorist believed that deviant behavior stems from an individual’s desire to have things their way. Weber also says that people in high positions of power will not be deviant because they get things their way.

Strain Theory

Robert K. Merton developed this theory. The strain theory is a sociological response to Max Weber’s definition of Deviance. Merton said that there are four categories of deviant behavior that he called strain.

  1. The first type of strain is the failure to achieve goals due to inadequate means. An example would be students failing a class because their parents can’t afford to pay for the classes.
  2. The second strain is due to the inability to adopt desired roles. For example, a student who fails to graduate from college may not become an engineer.
  3. The third strain is society’s inability to give the person a role that suits their needs.
  4. Finally, the last strain is due to failure to obtain rewards or “satisfaction of wants.” For example, a student who fails to obtain good grades may be unable to go to a prestigious college.

The strain theory links criminal activities with the inability of an individual to fulfill their goals. For example, if a person’s goal is to attend college and fails to achieve it, they may turn to a life of crime.

The strain theory says that the pressure to achieve their goals, coupled with low societal status, causes individuals to resort to deviant acts.

Symbolic Interactionism Theory

George Herbert Mead developed this theory. According to this theory, individuals participate in the creation of their society. According to Mead, we are born with an innate desire to fulfill our needs and desires. This innate desire to fulfill our needs and desires leads us to take part in society.

As we participate in society, we acquire a sense of identity. Our sense of identity is created by how we get our needs and desires met in society. The extent to which an individual gets their needs and desires fulfilled depends on their participation in society.

When an individual takes part in society, they experience different feelings and emotions towards one another. These feelings and emotions give meaning to what they do with one another. The more we interact with others, the more we develop a sense of identity.

Symbolic interaction and deviant behavior

In the interaction process, a person and another person or a group of people interacting with each other exchange meanings through symbols and not necessarily directly.

Symbols are words, gestures, or actions that carry meanings in ordinary social interactions. An interaction can be defined as how two or more people try to communicate. They also share their ideas, feelings, and emotions. This sharing can involve learning deviant behavior.

Conflict Theory

Karl Marx developed conflict theory. According to this theory, there is an ongoing struggle between the working class (the ordinary people) and the ruling class (the wealthy). In Marx’s view, the role of an individual in a society is determined by that person’s place in the social class structure.

The ruling class controls the economy and the government, and it is in their best interest to preserve the current economic system. Individuals can be classified as members of the working class or the ruling class, depending on their relationship to the means of production.

The conflict theory is excellent because it explains how the rich and powerful get what they want and the poor receive fewer resources.

Differential Association Theory

Edwin Sutherland developed differential association theory. According to this theory, individuals learn Deviance from three sources: primary groups (family), secondary groups (schools, media), and the larger society.

How Primary groups Encourage Deviance

An individual’s close family and friends are called primary groups. These individuals may encourage their children to engage in deviant acts for the sake of belonging or gaining attention from them.

For example, a young boy’s parents may encourage stealing because they are poor and need money, or his friends may encourage him to steal for attention.

Differential Association and the Media

The mass media (especially TV) are also a source of differential association. Many crimes are reported on TV, in newspapers, magazines, and on the radio. Therefore, watching the mass media may encourage an individual to engage in these acts.

Differential Association and Society

Finally, individuals may learn from society as a whole. Socially, it is acceptable to underreport crime; this, in turn, leads people to believe that the crime rate is lower than it is. In this case, an individual learns that crime pays because they do not get caught.

The Criminal Justice System (CJS) provides the legal and social authority in a given society to respond to crime. The CJS includes various institutions such as the police, the courts, and penal institutions.

The CJS plays a crucial role in differentiating between crime and Deviance. To decide whether a crime committed is Deviance or not, the CJS must determine what constitutes deviant behavior according to the law.

Sutherland’s theory states that criminal behavior is a learned behavior. Individuals learn proper behaviors from primary groups, while they learn Deviance from other secondary groups. Deviant behavior is learned through communication.

The learning of criminal behavior is socially influenced. If an individual’s family, school, or mass media encourages deviant behavior, they are more likely to break the moral law.

The Neutralization Theory

David Martza and Gresham Sykes developed the neutralization theory.

The neutralization theory explains how individuals can live with themselves after they commit a crime. The reasoning behind neutralization is that even if someone commits a crime, the individual can still live a normal life.

Neutralization is achieved through one or all of three ways: denial, justification, and sanctioning.

  1. Denial: The individual denies that they made a mistake or committed the crime for any reason, such as “I was provoked” or “it wasn’t my fault.”
  2. Justification: The individual justifies the behavior by saying that they did it because of their emotions.
  3. Sanction: The individual creates a rule that makes it seem okay to break the law, for example, “Everyone does it,” or “It’s too difficult to change things.”

The neutralization theory states that crime is committed only when the individual feels that they can live with himself after breaking the law.

The Labelling Theory

Howard S.Becker and Frank TennenBaum formulated this theory. According to labeling theory, Deviance is not an inherent property of certain acts; instead, it is a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender.”

The labeling of someone as a deviant can result from direct action by groups with a vested interest in “creating crime” (for example, the police and the courts).

Labeling theory focuses on society’s reaction to an “offender” as the defining factor in whether or not a person is deviant. The highlighted features of this theory are that it focuses on the reaction of others to the behavior and does not attempt to explain why someone behaved a certain way.

As a result, it ignores all the factors that could lead to deviant behavior like poverty, social learning, and the availability of rewards for criminal activity.

Four main assumptions that makeup labeling theory

  • Assumption 1: Deviance is relative to the society or culture in which it occurs. This means that Deviance depends on the norms of the society or culture in which it occurs. Example: In many parts of the world, smoking is considered deviant behavior, while smoking is the norm in other parts of the world, making it non-deviant behavior.
  • Assumption 2: Deviance is not inherent to a particular action but rather is imposed upon the action by an agent that has the power to label or not label someone as deviant. Example: If a police officer didn’t see someone smoking, they might not consider it deviant behavior. However, when a police officer notices someone smoking in a place where they are not allowed to smoke, they can consider it deviant behavior.
  • Assumption 3: Agents of labeling are not restricted to just formal authorities like the police but can be any party, such as a single individual or even the society in general. Example: In most movies, when two people are having sex in a hotel room, the maid can be an agent of labeling, especially if she has caught them on multiple occasions.
  • Assumption 4: The deviant label is highly stigmatized. Example: In many ways, the act of smoking can be viewed as deviant, but in a country with a high percentage of people who smoke, the act itself would be less likely to be considered deviant behavior.

The theory does not explain why a person behaved as they did. It only describes what happens after the act occurred. The theory suggests that people are labeled deviant only because most of society is unaccepting towards their behavior or actions.

The Labelling Theory has been criticized for not including the relationship between Deviance and crime. There is no apparent connection between behavior that is labeled as deviant and the criminal act. It does not consider what makes the actions deviant.

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The Broken Windows Theory

James Q.Wilson and George L.Kelling formulated this theory. It is based on maintaining and fixing minor problems in a community or neighborhood. The fixing helps prevent bigger crimes like rape and murder.

It asserts that minor “disorders” such as graffiti on subways can signal a breakdown of social norms. As such, minor infractions should be addressed immediately to prevent more serious crimes.

The theory also assumes that the community’s tolerance for a disorder is directly related to their safety. Cleaning up minor problems, like graffiti, makes people feel safer and thus allows them to be more tolerant of things they would otherwise consider disruptive.

The Broken Window Theory originated from Wilson’s and Kelling’s article in Atlantic Monthly, titled “Broken Windows.”

Kelling said, “The idea is that if you prevent trouble in the first place, there is less crime and disorder.”

Example: A window is broken by a vandal. If it is not fixed immediately, it will be broken again and again. The first broken window sends a signal that no one cares and thus leads to more broken windows.

If the first window is fixed, it is more likely that other people will fix their broken windows too. Soon enough, no one will break windows because there will be no broken windows to smash.

According to this theory, the image of a neighborhood is not just looking nice; it is also looking crime-free.

Assumption 1: People learn from their environment. In other words, what we are surrounded by will influence our behavior.

Assumption 2: The theory assumes that people imitate the crimes and antisocial behaviors they see. In other words, they will copy the behavior if it is rewarded (i.e., fun and enjoyable) and continued for long enough without punishment.

Assumption 3: Some people are more vulnerable than others to adopt the same behavior from close contacts and may not do so from a simple observation.

Assumption 4: The theory assumes there’s no relationship between the seriousness of a crime and the likelihood that it will be copied.

Social Stigma and Deviance

Social stigma is a term used in sociology to refer to the extreme disapproval of a person or group. This disapproval is done on socially characteristic grounds. If a person commits a deviant act, they may be the target of stigma.

A deviant act is not necessarily a criminal act, and it can range from minor insignificant acts (e.g., being tardy) to brutal and socially unacceptable acts (e.g., murder).

The act is seen as a threat, either real or imagined, to society and its norms. When a person is stigmatized, they are given the message that there is something wrong with their behavior.

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Effects of Social Stigma on Deviance

Dramatically increases feelings of shame, guilt, and anger: shamed individuals have a strong desire to hide or cover up themselves as a way to protect themselves from others’ disapproval.

  • Harms the deviant’s social status: The deviant may lose friends, status, and prestige.
  • Decreases the social support the individual receives: The victims of stigma often find themselves virtually alone, without the support of friends or family.
  • Impacts the self-image of a stigmatized individual: The afflicted feel less worthy and often withdraw from society as a way to hide from the shame.
  • Individuals are labeled with negative stereotypes: These negative perceptions include, but are not limited to, associations with criminals and other deviants.
  • Difficult to eliminate: The more stigmatized a group, the more likely it is that feelings and behaviors are attributed to group members, regardless of the individual’s actual involvement or noninvolvement with that prejudice.

What Do Primary and Secondary Deviations mean?

Primary Deviation

Primary deviance usually refers to the first time one is committing a deviant act, and they may not be labelled for it.

A primary deviant may be a person who hangs out with secondary deviants or has similar traits as the secondary deviation but does not commit serious crimes.

The individual is often considered a nuisance to the community rather than a threat to public safety. Primary Deviance also has the potential to escalate into secondary Deviance.

Secondary Deviation

The individual who is a secondary deviant is often considered extraordinary in terms of personality or deviation. The police may consider this person as a threat to the community and public safety. Someone who is a secondary deviant puts society at risk, so an arrest or punishment is necessary.

It is usually not the first time they are committing the deviance.

You may also be interested in Primary Theories of Crime Causation


There are two main definitions of Deviance- “behavior that violates norms” and “violation of socially constructed rules.” Theories related to deviant behavior include labeling theory, social control theory, differential association theory, conflict perspective. If you’re looking for more information on this topic, please feel free to research further. Also, our top tutors can do it for you at an affordable fee, all you need to do is click the green button below!

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