Issues in the Study of Deviance
-The book is about any behavior or characteristic that is improper. It’s also about the rule makers and enforcers.
-Deviance and its control are central aspects of social life.
Why Study Deviance?
-This has to do with living the apparently more exciting or interesting lives of others, or investigating them and discovering that our
own lives are preferable.
-Vicarious living is a habit that our culture reinforces.
-Vicarious experience as a research motivation, however, can distort our understanding of deviance. This results in a concentration
on violent, sexual, crazy deviance and a lack of attention to the more frequent forms like cheating and exploiting.
-Sometimes an interest in reform is personal.
-Sometimes the interest is more abstract and professional but still oriented toward changing something.
-Reform as a research motivation also has dangers. 1) Our search for reform policies can outrun our tested knowledge. 2) The belief
that understanding means excusing often interferes when reform is the motivation. 3) Reform impulse also ignores the fact that
many kinds of deviance are not as harmful as they are made out to be.
Self Protection and Sophistication
-We like to know what goes on behind the facades of social life. Being knowledgeable about this type of behavior can make us feel
wiser and safer. It can also give us the ability to recognize that some deviants are not as harmful as they reputations imply, thus we
don’t have to become caught up in the moral panics about things that are better left alone.
Understanding Oneself and Others
-Some may enjoy having a deviant image once in a while. Some seek a more permanent identification with deviant lifestyles and
images. Learning about the choices of others can make our own choices clearer.
-Curiosity is an important reason to study deviance. The study of deviance is challenging because many kinds of deviance are
presented to us as only distorted images (examples of hiding evidence of deviance, development of camouflages to avoid detection,
etc). This leads to misunderstanding and illusions. Though, with good research, his can be overcome.
Perspectives on Deviance
-People don’t always agree about which behaviors are deviant or about how deviant they are.
-Context is also important.
-Even within the same context, the range of what is “normal” varies by social class, gender, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, age,
political power of those involved, and it changes over time.
-Significant variations occur in the views of people with differing religious beliefs and social backgrounds, and waves of concern
(moral panics) over particular kinds of infractions are discernable over the course of history.
Academic Views of Deviance
-Apart from Sutherland, before the 60’s, little attention was paid to white-collar criminals and cheats.
-Deviance was treated as absolute (something real in itself) rather than as something constructed (something that depends partly on
the attitudes of those who put the label on it and “make” the deviant by naming him/her.
-Sometimes, however, academics have tried to establish their own absolute standards (Marxian an Humanist writers for example
who believe that deviance is found wherever human actions are exploitive or threaten the dignity and quality of life of others.
-After the 60’s, there has been increased activism on the part of the formerly marginalized “deviant” populations (clack, gay, etc.)
who resist the double marginalization of being treated as outsiders by academics as well as the public. The idea that deviance is
relative to the situation and the observers has become more commonly accepted.
-As long as people are still being disciplined, deviance will remain a suitable subject for research.
-A useful definition is one that is objective, basic, noncircular, and distinctive.
-A purely objective definition points to empirical features of the subject, to what is physically present and can be seen, heard, and
measured. It is free of moralistic or emotional evaluations, and this value-neutrality is difficult to achieve.
-The problem with objective approached to deviance is that the actual assignment of deviance labels by society is never purely
objective. Deviance carries a negative moral evaluation as an intrinsic part of its popular meaning, and the label of “deviant” is
sometimes applied to people on the basis of very flimsy or even manufactured evidence.
A Basic Definition (No Assumptions)
-A basic definition points to the phenomena that we want to study without making any unnecessary assumptions about them.
-Useful definitions are noncircular. One way of avoiding circularity is to find something distinctive about deviance; something that is
present in every case and that distinguishes deviance from other kinds of behavior.
-Deviance is often equated with atypicality or deviation from a common centre. This can be represented in the bell (or Gaussian)
curve or normal distribution. Characteristics that are counted as most common are deemed normal, while behavior that varies from
this norm (usually measured in standard deviations) is held to be deviant. However, not all curves in society are normal curves.
-Another type of curve often found in social life is the J-curve of institutional conformity.
-The assumption that curves are, or should be, normal (or J-shaped) has sometimes distorted conclusions about whether a behavior
differs from the norm and is deviant.
-The statistical method is simple and apparently objective, but it is not a reliable way of distinguishing deviance. Harmfulness
-It is often thought that deviance is distinctly harmful. These harms often associated with deviance tend to be physical (bodily harm,
functional (harm to the working of the system), or ontological (disruption of faith in the system, fears of chaos and disorder).
-Physical harm is the easiest to demonstrate. Functional harm occurs when deviance has a negative effect on the way that a
particular system works. The least easy to explain is ontological harm.
-For at least 3 reasons, however, harmfulness does not distinguish or define deviance. 1) The evidence that deviance is harmful is
often exaggerated or even entirely inverted by those who want to control it. 2) In many cases, the greatest harm of deviance is the
cost of its suppression (ex. Policing of deviance typically results in increasing restrictions on everyone’s social freedom. Also, when
those entrusted with the control of deviance are themselves corrupted or ignorant, we have a problem of deviant controls). 3) Many
kinds of deviance are demonstrably less harmful than other things not so labeled.
-Thus, despite the fact that claims about its distinctive rarity or harmfulness almost always accompany claims that an act or
appearance is deviant, we cannot use this as a reliable defining characteristic of what deviance is.
-Many current definitions of deviance are in line with Merton’s ideas that deviant behavior refers to conduct that departs significantly
from the norms set for people in their social statuses.
-One way of looking at the normative definition of deviance is to look for the normative standard that governs behavior (Ex. Loyalty
-At the same time, the breaking of rules isn’t enough, in itself, to produce the designation of deviance.
-Although deviance violates standards, not all violations of standards are treated as deviance, even when a rule is unambiguously
-Although some people who violate the rules may be called deviant, others may be ignored, tolerated, or even admired. The deviant
may even be identified by an overly rigid and robotic adherence to regulations.
-In addition, behavior that violates rules is not deviant if the individual is not subject to these particular rules. Similarly, behavior that
violates rules may not be deviant if the situation has been set apart from the usual rules.
-A second problem with the normative violation definition is that being deviant does not mean one escapes from all demands
concerning the behavior.
-A third problem with the use of normative standards to define deviance is that the most visible regulations are not always the most
powerful codes of behavior operative in a particular situation.
-Some norms enjoy widespread, active cultural support, while others are regularly ignored. Norms and rules routinely contradict
-The written rules, religious precepts, and even laws of the land do not always represent the effective “common values” of society. In
other cases, the written laws lag behind changing customs.
-Thus, although all deviance violates some normative standards, violating norms is not enough to establish that deviance has
-Deviance is sometimes defined in terms of the social response it evokes. We can look at the issue of response under 4 headings
(negative response, tolerant