Sociology of Deviant Behaviour (Part I) – Week 20 Reading Activity Study Guide
By: Katie Jacob and CC Wannan
Reading/Working Session #1:
The first part of this week’s reading questions what one means by the term “deviant
behaviour”—what should sociologists focus upon when they are going to examine deviant
behaviour? Before you begin reading the en- cyclopedia entries or pages 204-14 of
Sociology and the Contemporary World, take a minute to write out what you think
sociologists could focus upon when they study “deviance.”
From my knowledge of what deviance means, before reading the book or any encyclopedia
terms, is straying from the norms or accepted ways of acting. So in terms of sociology, it
would mean straying from society’s norms. Sociologists could focus on the obvious
question of why people feel the need to stray from what is socially acceptable.
Now read Erich Goode’s entries “Deviance” and “Deviance, Crime and” as well as the
material on pages 204-8 of Sociology and the Contemporary World. When you reach the end
of the section, stop for a minute and consider your original “definition” of what sociologists
should focus upon—would you still argue the same thing or something different? If it is
different, why and how have you changed your mind?
I would change the focus so that deviant behaviour is looked at within the context of the act
and in the historical period of the act. Additionally, looking at the act from a subjective view
is important in determining if an act or thought is actually deviant. There is nothing simple
about establishing whether or not an act is deviant.
Deviant behaviour is ...
- Inseparable from issues of conformity and social control;
- Focuses on actions and ways of being that elicit moral condemnation within
particular social contexts during specific historical periods;
- The way Durkheim treated his study of suicide is the way sociologists first
approached deviant behaviour sociologically.
On the basis of Goode’s entries, what is the difference between “deviance” and “crime?”
What is Goode’s definition of a crime?
According to Goode’s, a crime is an action the violation of which activates formal social
A crime is a specific type of deviance. All crime is a type of deviance, but not all deviance is
a crime. What is meant by “social deviance” and “situational deviance?” Can you provide an example
of each that is different than Goode’s?
Social deviance – is made up of acts, beliefs, and traits that are regarded as objectionable on
a widespread basis, in the society taken as a whole. The standard by which the
unacceptability of the act, belief or trait is judged is vertical and hierarchical. Violations of
such standards may be referred to as “high-consensus” deviance (things like rape, murder,
theft, etc.) An example of my own is arson.
Situational deviance – is made up of those actions, beliefs and traits that are endorsed or
tolerated in some contexts, settings, locales, or social sectors that are elsewhere regarded
as normative violations. Usually “low-consensus” deviance is found here and the judgment
is horizontal rather than vertical. Instead of hierarchical, society can be likened to a mosaic
because as you move from one group or social circle to the next, the classifications of what
is right or wrong, deviant or conventional, changes. Examples of these are inconspicuous
tattoos or smoking marijuana occasionally. An example of my own is swearing at your
You will find that almost every discussion of deviant behaviour includes the notion of
“norm” at some point in the analysis. Steven Dandaneau notes that “there is perhaps no
other sociological concept more regularly used nor one about which more has been written
and discussed” although, he continues, despite its “elemental” importance to sociology, it
remains somewhat vague and “oft-debated” (p. 426). Read through his entry “Norms” and
when you have finished, note what you feel are the most important aspects that a young
sociologist should keep in mind when thinking of norms. In the space below, write out what
you feel the best definition of norm might be:
Most important aspects to keep in mind:
- How was the norm originally established?
- Is it a norm that was suppressed, rejected, or altered by actors?
- Is it a historical norm or did an individual that simply classifies it as a norm create
Norms is a set of informal rules that guide social interaction. They are the do’s and don’ts of
social life. In the past they were more established and well known, but in the 21 century,
individuals will be more likely to choose their own norms which sets their own course
towards what they believe to be true, right and good. Now turn to Robert Meier’s entry “Deviance, Normative definitions of.” Does this entry
change your conception of norm? In the third paragraph of the entry, Meier (p. 142) notes
that “[norms] are situationally bound”—what does that mean?
All that I would change would be the addition of “a norm as a social expectation.” That’s a
good way to phrase it, which changed my understanding of a norm. “Norms are
situationally bound,” means that based on the situation you’re in, whether a child is at a
playground or in church, determines how they should act. For example, running and yelling
on the playground is seen as a norm, but would not be appropriate at church.
Downes also notes, in the next paragraph, that: “Norms are an absolutely essential
component of the social order” (p. 142). Why, do you think, does he make that claim—what
does it mean? How is that relevant to the study of deviant behaviour?
He makes that claim because norms are implicitly learned through the process of
socialization and within families as well as with friends, peers, and the community. To have
social order, people must know the norms of how to act in situations in a way that does not
trigger a negative reaction from the people surrounding them, which could label a person
as deviant. This is relevant to deviant behaviour because norms regulate behaviour. People
give others the opportunity to label them as deviant when they express unacceptable
beliefs, violate behavioural norms, when they possess certain physical traits regarded as
undesirable, or when they violate appearance norms.
Now return to Sociology and the Contemporary World; pages 204-8 indicate that the idea of
deviant behaviour is not as clear and obvious as one might initially expect. After you have
read this introductory section to chapter five, answer the questions below:
What does it mean to say that “deviance is socially designated behaviour?” What is the
difference between “ordinary deviance” and “extreme deviance?”
Saying that “deviance is a socially designated behaviour” means that deviance is a social
process in which particular practices are designated as deviance.
Ordinary deviance – types of deviant behaviour that most people engage in from time to
time such as driving over the speed limit or acting against group norms.
Extreme deviance – goes well beyond accepted boundaries of a group or society such as
assaulting someone at a bar or hate mongering which results in condemnation from almost
everyone in the group or community. Sociologists distinguish between the “objective elements” and the “subjective elements” in
deviant behaviour; what do each of those terms mean and why might the subjective
elements be more important than objective elements?
Objective elements – consists of the actual thoughts and actions of individuals.
Subjective elements – the response by others to those thoughts and actions.
The subjective elements are more important than the objective elements because it is the
subjective ones that are the most significant in determining whether or not an idea,
thought, or action is deviant. When influential individuals or a group as a whole view an
idea, thought or action as unacceptable, bizarre or immoral the action is socially designated
as deviant. The objective elements just have to be there – but the subjective elements are
needed to determine whether the action is deviant.
The material on pages 208-11 focuses upon Durkheim’s study of suicide. Durkheim, as you
know from first term, was interested in how order was possible as societies changed from
relatively homogeneous rural societies to increasingly heterogeneous, industrialized, urban
ones. Suicide, Durkheim argued, is related to how fully a person is integrated into society.
Social solidarity, social integration, and social control are all dominant themes in
Durkheim’s sociology and they are all central to his work on suicide.
Because suicide rates are highest among those who are least integrated into society,
Durkheim’s Suicide is also a classic in the sociological study of deviant behaviour—the
deviant is the person who is insufficiently integrated into society, lacks a strong association
with the dominant collective consciousness of a society, is insufficiently controlled in his or
her actions to conform to the dominant value systems. This “social control” perspective is
one of the long-standing perspectives in the sociology of deviant behaviour and dominated
socio- logical analyses throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
The material on pages 211-14 overviews Merton’s theory of “social strain.” The key points
to focus upon are Merton’s notions of means and ends; the way one chooses a particular
means to a specific end and the typology of behaviours that emerges from this analysis.
This typology of action allows for 5 possibilities—one of them is conformist and the other
four are “deviant” forms of action (though not necessarily illegal). Complete the following
table: Means Goals Type of Behaviour
Accepts means Accepts goals Conformist
Accepts means Rejects ends Ritualistic
Rejects means Accepts ends Innovator
Rejects means Rejects ends Retreatist
Rejects means Rejects ends Rebel
The four “deviant” forms are deviant by definition—they do not conform to one or both of
the dominant means and the dominant end thus they have to be termed “deviant.” Is this
the best way to define deviant behaviour?
Merton paid no attention to the meanings that individuals attached to their actions at the
micro level of human agency. A subjective analysis needs to be integrated into his model in
order to critically define an action, thought or idea as deviant behaviour.
The last two entries for this work session are “Deviance, Theories of” and “Deviance,
Positivist Theories of.” On the basis of the material you have read to this point, consider the
five different positivist theories of deviance that Robert Meier outlines. Which of the
explanations of deviant behaviour that you have encountered thus far seems to be the most
accurate and useful. In the space below, indicate what that theory is (or theories are) and
its strengths. Which theory seems the least useful—indicate why you feel that way.
Five different Positivist Theories:
1) Social Disorganization Theory – researchers thought the cause of deviance to be the
instability of entire neighbourhoods and communities, regardless of their individual
characteristics – lack of social control
2) Anomie Theory – structural theory of crime and delinquency- some people will
achieve their goals while others will find it hard to achieve success – some will turn
to illegitimate means to find success.
3) Learning Theory – crimes and other forms of deviance are the result of learning
criminal norms – learning takes place in small groups among people who know each
4) Social Control Theory – deviance is not so much learned or the result of societal
pressure as simply not controlled – has to do with the individuals bond with society
– the closer the bond, the less likely that person will commit a deviant act.
5) Self-Control Theory – through the general socialization process, some people fail to
develop self-control over their behaviour – more likely to engage in risky acts that
neglect the long-term consequences. I think that the Learning Theory is most accurate, as we do learn and exhibit behaviours
from our close friends that we know well. The least useful theory is probably the social
control theory because it just seems far-fetched. Someone could feel a close bond with
society but still commit deviant acts. It seems like a narrow perspective in analyzing
Reading/Working Session #2:
Beginning in the 1950s, it became clear that not everyone subscribed to the same set of
dominant values (or the same collective representations or norms)—that societies were
made up of a number of different communities and groupings which had their own core
values and norms which differed from the dominant value system. The notion of a
dominant culture gave way to perspectives that focused on different sub-cultures within
larger social formations. While reading the material on pages 214-16, note what Albert
Cohen’s contribution is to the study of deviant behaviour and the existence of “subcultures”
and then how Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin took Merton and Cohen’s work further.
Once you have read the material in Sociology and the Contemporary World, read through
the two entries “Sub-Culture,” and “Sub-Cultures, Deviant.” In the space below, define a
“subculture” and indicate why the study of subcultures is important for the sociological
understanding of deviant behaviour.
- Focused on delinquent youths
- Emphasized the importance that group association and culture played in the
transmission of behaviours that would be identified as deviant or criminal by those
who worked within the legal system.
- Argued that delinquent sub-cultures had an elaborate set of values and normative
- What is important is the sub-culture a child identifies with that ultimately
determines the path they follow.
- Three particular identifications – corner boys, college boys, and delinquent boys.
Cloward and Ohlin: