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Sociology of deviance

The sociology of deviance is the sociologicalstudy of deviant behavior, the recognized violation of cultural norms, and the creation and enforcement of those norms. The sociology of deviance is related to, but also distinct from the field of criminology.


  • 1 Theories
    • 1.1 Labeling theory
    • 1.2 Strain theory (sociology)
    • 1.3 Differential association
    • 1.4 Functionalism
    • 1.5 Conflict theory
    • 1.6 Medicalization of deviance
    • 1.7 Prosecution of deviance
    • 1.8 Media and deviance


The field of deviance is primarily defined by the theories used to explain deviance.

Labeling theory

Howard S. Becker, a leading sociologist in this field, theorized in 1963that "social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance." Labeling theory suggests that deviance is caused by the deviant person being negatively labeled, internalizing the label, and acting according to the label. For example, if a teacher labels a student as unruly, the student may internalize that label from the authority figure and behave unruly as if the labeling was a self-fulfilling prophesy. This theory, while very much a symbolic-interactionist theory, also has elements of conflict theory as the dominate group has the power to decide what is deviant and acceptable, and enjoys the power behind the labeling process. An example of this theory is a prison system that labels people convicted of theft, and because of this they start to view themselves as thieves.

Strain theory (sociology)

Strain Theory Table
Accepts Goals Rejects Goals
Accepts Means Conformist Ritualist
Rejects Means Innovator Retreatist

Robert K. Mertondiscussed deviance in terms of goals and means as part of his strain/anomie theory. He postulated that an individual's response to societal expectations and the means by which the individual pursued those goals were useful in understanding deviance. Acceptance of both goals and means is defined as conformity (e.g. founding a business to achieve the American goal of wealth and materialism). Acceptance of the goals and rejection of the means is described as innovation, which can be positive or negative (e.g. acquiring wealth by robbery would be negative, while inventing a new business method would be positive). Rejection of the goal and acceptance of the means is ritualism - going through the motions, such as the disillusioned Milton in the movie Office Space(although his ritualism later changed to a mix of innovation and rebellion). Rejection of both the goal and means is retreatism - a homeless person is often cited as an example. Rebellion is a special case, where the individual rejects both the goal and means and actively attempts to replace them with other systems which are more acceptable. Anything other than conformity is a form of deviance from the accepted societal norms of behavior.

Differential association

Also known as Social Learning Theory, it explains deviance as a learned behavior. The most important variables in this theory are the age of the learner of deviance, the quality of contact between the learner and the deviant role model, and the relationship between the learner and the deviant model. It does a great job of explaining how children grow up to become law-breakers or juvenile offenders, but it suffers from a paradox. If all deviance is learned from a teacher, and the teacher learned from their teacher, how did the first teachers learn to be deviant?


Functionalism views deviance as something needed by society. For one, deviance tests boundaries and also reaffirms social norms. Deviance also provides jobs for medicine, law enforcement, social workers, politicians, religious leaders, etc. The persistence of deviance is explained by the fact that deviance is important in adaptation, and because people who work with social control do not want to completely end deviance because it provides them jobs.

Conflict theory

Conflict theorists generally see deviance as a result of conflict between individuals and groups. The theoretical orientation contributes to labeling theory in that it explains that those with power create norms and label deviants. Deviant behavior is actions that do not go along with the socially prescribed worldview of the powerful, and is often a result of the present social structure preventing the minority group access to scarse resources. Since it explains deviance as a reaction due to conflict between groups and individuals due to scarse resources, it does a great job of explaining deviance by poor citizens, etc. However, it does not do such an excellent job in explaining white-collar crime.

Medicalization of deviance

Sociologists have also studied what is called the "medicalization" of deviance. Power of the ability to label deviants has greatly shifted from religious insititutions to healthcare institutions. This is evident by the increase of scientific and medical explanations for deviant behavior. For example, a person with a mental disorder under a religious explanation may would be considered to be possessed or blessed with supernatural powers, depending on the religious tradition. However, the medicalization of deviance has caused mental problems and other health problems to be given medical explanations, and have impacted the roles in which a person plays. A person labeled as sick or mentally ill must then play the "sick role" where they are forgiven reasonable violations of norms so long as they are trying to receive medical attention from the healthcare professionals. Many sociologists have questioned the power in which mental health and other healthcare professionals have been able to maintain, and have even questioned the objectivity of the medical labels. Sociologists have also commented on the role medicine plays as an institution of social control much like the government.

Prosecution of deviance

Sociologists have also observed that deviance is sometimes known by law enforcement, but not prosecuted. Many incidents have been recorded as deviant acts but ignored by police so long as they do not harm unsuspecting citizens or do not call attention to themselves.

Media and deviance

In Joel Best's book, Random Violence: How We Talk about New Crimes and New Victims, the author explains how society has evolved a "victim industry." Best compares our labeling and creation of victims to a witch-hunt. But instead of going around labeling and burning people as witches, we have started to frantically look for victims. Best also explains how the media distorts facts about violence and over-emphasizes its randomness and frequency.

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