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Deviance – Types, Theories, Consequences and Detailed Explanation | Sociology


Deviance is a complex and socially constructed concept that varies across cultures and historical periods. The term refers to any behavior, belief, or condition that differs from the values, norms, and expectations of a particular social group or society. As a rule of thumb, norms are the unwritten rules and expectations that guide behavior in a society or group. They may be codified (laws) or informal (customs).

A society’s social control mechanisms, including both formal (the legal system) and informal (social shaming and peer pressure), are aimed at maintaining order and regulating deviant behavior.

Types of Deviance

Some of the types of deviance are as follows:

Types of Deviance

1. Formal Deviance:

This type of behavior entails violating formalized laws and norms, incurring legal sanctions like fines or imprisonment. These actions are prosecuted in the legal system as criminal offenses.

2. Informal Deviance:

The term informal deviance refers to behavior that violates unwritten norms and customs, but does not necessarily result in legal consequences. Rather than being punished, informal deviance may be stigmatized, excluded from social groups, and subjected to social sanctions. Informal deviance is not necessarily illegal, but may be considered inappropriate or socially undesirable.

3. Positive Deviance:

In positive deviance, actions or beliefs that differ from the norm but are regarded as beneficial or admirable by society are considered positive deviance. Among the examples of positive deviation are innovative ideas, altruistic acts, and social activism. As a result of positive deviance, existing norms are challenged constructively and positive social change can occur.

4. Negative Deviance:

The term negative deviation is used to describe beliefs or behavior that are seen as harmful or undesirable, resulting in negative social reactions. Criminal activity and antisocial behavior are good examples of negative deviation.

Labeling Theory

In the labeling theory, deviations are not intrinsic to an act or individual, but rather result from the social response to that act, according to which individuals become deviants. The individual may not initially consider themselves deviants if they engage in minor shoplifting, but if they are caught and labeled as thieves, they may internalize the label and begin to commit more deviant acts in the future.

When individuals internalize the deviant identity assigned to them, the process can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where they continue to act deviantly. A deviant identity and behavior are shaped by social interactions and reactions, according to this theory.

Theories of Deviance

Sociological and psychological theories have been proposed to explain deviance’s origins and causes. Among the most prominent are:

1. Structural-Functional:

The structural-functionalism view of deviance, which was developed by Emile Durkheim, views it as a normal and necessary part of society. In this perspective, it is even functional for maintaining social order to have some degree of deviance.

It also promotes social cohesion by uniting people in opposition to perceived threats to societal values by reinforcing societal norms by emphasizing unacceptable and harmful behavior.

2. Strain Theory:

A discrepancy between culturally defined goals and legitimate methods of achieving those goals leads to deviance, according to Robert Merton’s strain theory. Success and attainment of cultural goals, such as wealth, status, and success, are expected of individuals in societies.

It is, however, not the case that everyone has equal access to the approved means for achieving these goals, which can cause frustration or strain.

The following five modes of adaptation to this strain were identified by Merton:

a.  Conformity:

Cultural conformity refers to the acceptance of both the goals and the means prescribed by society.

b. Innovation:

Individuals accept cultural goals but use unconventional or deviant methods to achieve them (e.g., criminal activity).

c. Ritualism:

In ritualism, individuals abandon cultural goals while adhering rigidly to rules and norms in society.

d. Retreatism:

Retreatism refers to a person who rejects both the cultural objectives and the methods approved to reach them, which may lead to drug addiction or homelessness.

e. Rebellion:

The term rebellion refers to when individuals reject both the established goals and the means of achieving those goals (e.g., the revolutionary movement).

Social Learning Theory

Deviant behavior is shaped by socialization and peer influence, according to the social learning theory, which is associated with Albert Bandura. In this theory, individuals learn behaviors through observation and imitation, including deviant ones. If they observe deviant behavior that is rewarded or not punished, they may be more inclined to do the same.

Moreover, reinforcement and punishment are also emphasized in this theory as factors that influence behavior. Thus, positive reinforcement for deviant behavior may increase its occurrence, while negative consequences may discourage it. Deviant behavior is more likely to be repeated if it is rewarded and avoided if it is punished.

Control Theory

According to Travis Hirschi’s control theory, individuals are inherently prone to deviance, and social attachments and bonds serve as a form of control that prevents deviance. Hirschi argues that individuals are rational actors who weigh the benefits of deviance against the costs, such as social disapproval or legal consequences, associated with deviance.

Individuals’ likelihood of engaging in deviant behavior is influenced by their social bonds, including family, friends, schools, and community ties. As a result of strong social bonds, individuals are less likely to engage in deviant acts, resulting in a deterrent effect.

Conflict Theory

Sociologists like Ralf Dahrendorf developed conflict theory, which views deviance as a response to power imbalances and social inequality. Deviant behavior is regarded as a form of resistance or survival among those with less power and resources, according to this perspective.

Deviance can serve as a tool for challenging social structures and norms, especially those that perpetuate inequality, according to conflict theory. It is common for political activists to be labeled as deviants by the ruling class while being viewed as heroic or revolutionary by those who support their cause when they engage in civil disobedience or protest movements.

Causes of Deviance

Deviance results from a combination of individual, social, and structural factors. While some acts are motivated by individual motives, others are heavily influenced by societal forces. Some causes of deviance include:

Individual Factors

1. Psychological Factors:

The psychological factors that contribute to deviant behavior include mental health issues, personality disorders, and cognitive biases. People with antisocial personality disorder may display patterns of criminal behavior and disregard for the rights of others.

2. Subculture Influence:

An individual may engage in deviant behavior acceptable within their subcultural context if they belong to a subculture with distinct values and norms. It is not uncommon for certain groups or gangs to have norms that challenge mainstream society.

Social Factors

1. Peer Pressure:

The social pressure of peers can lead individuals to engage in deviant behaviors as a means of gaining acceptance or maintaining their social standing. Adolescents, in particular, may be influenced by their peers to engage in delinquent or risky behaviors.

2. Family Dynamics:

Dysfunctional family environments, lack of parental supervision, and exposure to deviant behavior within the family can lead to children developing deviant behaviors. When children witness violence or criminal behavior in their families, they may be more inclined to emulate those behaviors.

Structural Factors

1. Socioeconomic Status:

Deviant individuals from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds may resort to deviance to survive or improve their circumstances. As a result of economic inequality and limited access to legitimate opportunities, some individuals may engage in illegal activities.

2. Urbanization and Anonymity:

The urbanization process and anonymity in urban environments can facilitate deviant behavior by weakened social ties and increasing opportunities for deviant behavior. Individuals may feel less afraid of social judgment and more inclined to commit deviance in densely populated areas due to a sense of anonymity.

Consequences of Deviance

Individuals and society as a whole suffer significant consequences from deviation:

Individual Consequences

1. Stigmatization:

An individual’s self-esteem and mental well-being can be negatively affected by stigma, isolation, and discrimination associated with being labeled as deviant. Social exclusion and difficulties in forming meaningful relationships can result from stigma associated with deviant identities.

2. Legal Punishment:

Defiance of the law may result in legal consequences such as fines, probation, or imprisonment. These legal consequences can have long-lasting impacts on someone’s employment opportunities and social mobility.

Societal Consequences

1. Social Cohesion:

Deviance can strengthen societal norms and strengthen social cohesion when people come together to condemn and regulate it. In society, rejecting certain actions or beliefs as deviant reinforces the boundaries of acceptable behavior and strengthens the sense of collective identity.

2. Social Change:

The deviance of existing norms can sometimes lead to social change, as has been seen with civil rights movements, feminist movements, and advocates for marginalized communities. Historically, civil disobedience, resistance, and protest have been instrumental in bringing about positive social changes.

Deviance and Culture

Cultural and historical context determines the nature of deviance, which means what is considered deviant in one culture may be normal or even praised in another. According to cultural relativism, norms and values vary across societies and should not be imposed on others based on their standards.

As cultural norms are deeply ingrained and shape individuals’ perceptions of right and wrong, behavior from a different culture may cause misunderstandings, conflicts, or even cultural clashes.

Deviance and Crime

Deviance encompasses a broader range of behaviors that violate social norms, while crime specifically refers to acts that are prohibited by law. Though deviance and crime are related concepts, they are not synonymous. The act of deviance is not necessarily criminal, and it is not always criminal in certain cultural or historical contexts.

It is common in some cultures to consider some religious practices or customs deviant by those outside the culture, but legal and accepted within it.

Deviance and Social Control

In societies, social control mechanisms are used to manage and regulate deviant behavior. They can be formal, involving institutions such as the legal system and law enforcement, or informal, depending on social norms, customs, and peer influences.

Efficacy and fairness of social control methods are the subject of ongoing debate. It is argued that formal systems of social control, such as the criminal justice system, disproportionately target marginalized populations and perpetuate social disparities.

Social shaming and online harassment, among other informal methods of social control, can suppress dissent and perpetuate groupthink, according to others.

Deviance and Technology

Technology has contributed to new forms of deviant behavior, including cyberbullying, cybercrime, harassment online, and espionage. As traditional methods of regulating behavior in virtual spaces are not as effective in the online world, social control poses unique challenges.

Internet anonymity can encourage individuals to commit deviant acts without fear of immediate social repercussions. As a result of this anonymity, law enforcement and the justice system may have difficulty tracking and holding people accountable for their actions.

Further, rapid information dissemination and the ease of joining online communities can reinforce and normalize deviant ideas and behaviors. Misinformation and radicalization online can exacerbate deviant behaviors.

An understanding of deviance requires examining its cultural, social, and psychological dimensions. Deviance is a complex and dynamic concept that plays a crucial role in shaping societies and individuals. By recognizing the contextual nature of deviance and its causes, we can better address the challenges it presents and work towards fostering a more inclusive, just, and cohesive society.

Social control mechanisms play an important role in shaping behavior and maintaining social order when addressing deviance. Individual and structural factors should be considered.

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Bijisha Prasain

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