Deviance Notes – First Semester
Readings: September 9 – 18 : Chapter one.
Objective/Subjective Dichotomy – Objectivist approach
Defining deviance used to be a simple task.
o Criminality. Now researchers are moving toward a broader notion of
deviance overweight people and welfare recipients.
The term “normal” can be used to describe a person who is non-deviant or also
referring to a behaviour or person that conforms.
So a deviant person can be seen as an individual who is non-conforming or not
normal (not the norm).
Objective views of deviance claim that the presence of certain characteristics
defines deviance; that is, behaviours or people with those characteristics are
deviant, and those lacking such characteristics are normal.
Subjective views of deviance claim that there is no shared, observable
characteristic that can clearly tell us who or what is deviant, and who or what is
normal. Instead, someone must tell us who is deviant in Canadian society.
Objectivism: Deviance as an act.
o The traits that have been most frequently postulated include statistical
rarity, harm, negative societal reaction, and a normative violation.
Statistical rarity (objective side): if a behaviour or characteristic is not typical, it
is deviant. Problems with this? How we define „rare‟ presents a problem. There
are some behaviours that are not statistically rare, but still perceived as being
unacceptable in the larger society, and are subjected to control efforts. Lastly,
some things that are statistically rare (like being left handed) are not considered
Harm (objective): If an action causes harm, then it is deviant. I.e. physical harm
and emotional harm Harm may be directed not at a human being, but at society
itself; I.e. certain behaviours or people may constitute social harm because they
interfere with the smooth running of society as a whole, i.e. criminals.
o Finally harm may be directed at something far more abstract and ethereal
than a person or society; harm may occur in the form of a threat to the way
we understand the world and our place in it. E.g. Abstract notion of harm:
a Muslim women does not cover her head, she may be seen by other
Muslims as threatening their belief system
Societal Reaction (objective): People may respond to others in a variety of ways.
If the responses in societies „masses‟ are primarily negative (such as dislike,
anger, hatred, stigmatization, and teasing) rather than positive (like admiration),
then the person or act being responded to is deviant. Seeing this negative social
evaluation enables us to determine who or what is deviant.
o Many questions. Why does society react negatively to some actions,
characteristics, or people? Whose reaction counts? How many individuals negative reactions must exist before we can say that „society‟ is reacting
Normative Violation (objective): A characteristic or behaviour is deviant if it
o This general statement is shared between objectivists and subjectivists,
however, the manner in which normative violation is integrated into a
definition of deviance varies among deviant specialists working in the
o Objectivist: norms now are perceived as culturally specific rather than
universal and people who violate the norms of the society they live in are
seen as deviant.
o “Absolute moral order”
Norms as standards or expectations of behaviour, can refer to informal, everyday
behaviours, such as rules of etiquette, choice of clothing, and behaviours in the
college classroom. These kinds of informal behaviour are also referred to as
Mores are those standards that are often seen as the foundation of morality in a
culture, such as prohibitions of incest or homosexuality. If you violate these
norms, you may be thought of as immoral or even evil. These are also formal
In a given society, the majority of citizens agree upon norms. However, deviance
specialists working in the subjective side of the objective/subjective dualism find
this view of social norms problematic.
Given the multiplicity of individuals, groups, and sets of expectations that coexist
in a society, normative consensus is difficult to determine.
Some deviance specialists agree that “the agreed upon norms of society can be
found in its criminal law”. For example: prostitution, white collar crimes, gang
behaviour, homicide, etc. But this is not always the case. Look at marijuana. The
majority of citizens and police boards, the Canadian Centre on Substance abuse,
etc. believe it should be decriminalized. In this case, the „consensus‟ seems to
contradict the law rather than support it.
The Consensual View of Law, wherein the law is perceived as arising out of
social consensus and then equally applied to all, is one of the possible views of
crime and law.
Criminologists who utilize conflict law perceive the law as a tool used by the
ruling class to serve its own interests, and believe that the law is more likely to be
applied to the powerless in society (such as the lower-class). If youth of the
middle class or lower class were to commit a crime, lower class youth are more
likely to be entered into the justice system while middle-class youth will be let go
with a warning.
The interactionist view also presents a non-consensual view of criminal law. In
this view, it is suggested that society‟s powerful define the law at the behest of
interest groups, who appeal to those with power in order to rectify a perceived
We can see through these views that criminal law is based on more than a simple
consensus over what society‟s norms are. The normative objectivity of the law has also been critiqued on the question of the
situational applicability of broad social norms. Ex: Murder. But deviance depends
on the situation: self-defense, capital punishment, military action in wartime,
Some deviance specialists step into this debate over the degree of consensus
involved in social norms by proposing that there are some norms that do have
higher levels of consensus. Thio utilizes the concepts of high-consensus
deviance and low consensus deviance to distinguish between forms of deviance
that have differential levels of support in the broader society. Within the law,
certain laws are characterized by relatively more consensus than are others.
Limitations are associated with each of the objective definitions of deviance
(normative violation, harm, statistical rarity, and negative societal reaction).
These limitations have caused a large-scale shift toward the subjective side.
Subjectivism: Deviance as a label
While objectivists suggest that deviance can be recognized by the presence of a
particular characteristic, subjectivists say that we cannot recognize deviance when
we see it; someone has to tell us that a person, behaviour, or characteristic is
deviant. There is no singular trait that is shared by all deviant people throughout
history and across cultures, other than the fact that people with some influence on
society have said they are deviant.
Becker claims that deviance lies in the reaction rather than the act
The objective use of negative reaction focus on a societal reaction particular
behaviours/characteristics are deviant in our society and we can see this through
negative societal reaction.
In contrast, early subjectivist use of negative reaction is more abstract. Any
behaviour may be reacted to negatively, such that we will never know how a
particular act will be responded to.
Consequently, the dominant moral codes of a society serve as the foundation for
determining who or what is deviant. “Lists” of right/wrong,
appropriate/inappropriate, moral/immoral that predominate a particular society are
enforced in multiple ways. Moral codes are shaped by the interests and actions of
groups that hold some level of power but the less powerful groups in society are
able to participate in the negotiations of moral boundaries (through voting, etc.).
Subjectivity and the “Social Construction” of Deviance
The social construction of deviance: In other words, there is nothing inherent in a
behaviour/characteristic that makes it deviant; a particular behaviour or
characteristic is deviant only id the dominant moral code of a specific society at a
certain time in history say that a behaviour is deviant.
Social constructionism refers to the perspective proposing that social
characteristics (e.g. “thin,” “delinquent”) are creations or artifacts of a particular
society at a specific time in history, just as objects (e.g. houses and cars) are
artifacts of that society; consequently, a person, a behaviour, or a characteristic
that is considered “deviant” in one society may be considered “normal” in another
society or at another time in history. There are different types/levels of constructionism. 1)Radical/Strict and
Radical constructionists: belief that “there is no essential reality to the social
world at all, that if everything and anything is simply looked at in a certain way,
that is the way it is.”
Contextual: emphasize the process by which certain social phenomena come to be
perceived and reacted to in particular ways in a given society at a specific time in
Viewing social constructionism as a process implies that what is of sociological
significance is not the individual behaviour or characteristic itself, but rather: (a)
its place in social order, (b) the roles assigned to people who exhibit the behaviour
or characteristic, and (c) the meanings attached to that behaviour or characteristic.
The way deviance is socially constructed emerges from several ongoing
multilevel processes. First is sociocultural levels (beliefs, norms, values,
ideologies influence social construction), second is institutional levels
(government, education, religion, science), third is interactional levels
(relationships), and last is individual level (thoughts and feelings).
Transcending the objective/subjective dichotomy
On the objective side of dualism, deviance specialists claim that there is a shared
trait that all deviants have in common, a trait that enables us to recognize
deviance when we see it. Although statistical rarity, harm, and a negative societal
reaction have each been identified as a shared trait, the defining characteristics of
deviance that is most often identified is that of normative violation. On the
subjective side, deviance specialists claim that there is no shared trait among
deviants; instead a person, behaviour, characteristic is deviant is enough important
people say so. Through t