Deviance Research Paper

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The term ‘‘deviance’’ usually refers to some behavior that is inconsistent with standards of acceptable conduct prevailing in a given social group, although the term has also been used to designate personal conditions, ideas, or statuses that are stigmatized or disreputable. Social scientists disagree, about a precise definition of deviance because they use different approaches in trying to determine exactly what the standards of conduct or the acceptable statuses and conditions are in a given group (Gibbs, 1981). At least five ways of conceptualizing deviance are used.

Conceptualizations of Deviance

The Statistical Approach

One way of defining standards of conduct and deviance from them is to observe how people in a particular group actually behave (Wilkins, 1964). Accordingly, if a large proportion of people in a group smoke cigarettes, smoking is ‘‘normal’’ while failure to smoke would be atypical, or deviant. With a ‘‘statistical’’ perspective, sky diving, eating snails, and murder are all deviant in the United States since they are all unusual. On the other hand, highway speeding, ‘‘fudging’’ on one’s income tax, and pilfering small items from employers are all conforming behaviors since they are currently committed by a fairly large proportion, if not a majority, of the population.

A statistical approach rests on a common observation: many people assume that something that ‘‘everybody does’’ cannot be in violation of conduct standards. Indeed, a frequent justification (or rationalization) for conduct that is being threatened with sanctions is to claim that everybody else or at least most others do it. And, many people decide what is appropriate by watching what others do.

Even though a statistical approach appears to correspond with the everyday thinking of many laypersons, it is not widely used by social scientists. Scholars have found that statistical patterns only superficially reflect how social groups formulate standards of conduct. Most people in the United States, for example, would feel uncomfortable classifying behaviors like church tithing, abstinence from all alcohol use, and maintenance of premarital sexual virginity (all atypical behaviors) as ‘‘deviant.’’ There is an underlying agreement that even though they are unusual, these behaviors are somehow ‘‘good,’’ acceptable, even desirable, and that they are to be encouraged as ways of behaving. Similarly, most people feel discomfort in thinking of adultery, lying to one’s spouse or sweetheart, or pilfering from an employer as appropriate, even though they are frequently committed by a large proportion of the populace. Yet, most can easily endorse the inappropriateness of acts that are atypical in a negative way—more evil, unacceptable, or undesirable than the average. Therefore, most students of deviance contend that despite some tendency for people to refer to statistical guidelines, normative standards mainly revolve around notions of rightness and wrongness or with what people think others ‘‘ought’’ to do.

The Absolutist Approach

A second approach applies ideal conduct standards set down by a social scientist (or group of social scientists) to all groups and individuals under study. A social scientist decides what is good, useful, or just, and then measures deviations from those evaluative criteria. For example, some theorists (functionalists) view societies as interdependent mechanisms; all parts that work together for maintenance of the society are regarded as essential and in that sense ‘‘good’’ or nondeviant. But a society may contain dysfunctional (dangerous or destructive) elements (see Gross), which are regarded as deviant. Most who use this approach assume that societies will usually condone inherently good behaviors and condemn those that are inherently bad. Indeed, it has been argued that contemporary societies exist because throughout evolutionary history they practiced and condoned useful behavior while avoiding and condemning dangerous behavior. Presumably, social groups that failed to do this did not survive the ravages of time (Parsons).

Functionalists assume that an investigator can, through logic and research, actually determine what is good for a society. For example, incest is thought to be dysfunctional (Davis; Murphy) because if widely practiced, it could lead to biological deterioration of the population, destruction of orderly social relations, and disruption of the mechanisms for efficient child rearing. According to some, therefore, incest is inherently and obviously deviant because it is socially dangerous. Most members of any existing society presumably will disapprove of incest and will refrain from practicing it because only those societies that in the past developed and enforced social rules prohibiting incest would have survived to be represented in the contemporary world. Similar arguments can be made for murder, rape, assault, homosexuality, child abuse, mental illness, and other behaviors.

Other absolutist thinkers employ a different rationale. Radical, Marxist, and humanist scholars often maintain that a sensitive informed researcher can apply absolute moral standards to behavior in any given society or specific situation to decide whether various activities are unjust or evil (deviant) (Schwendinger and Schwendinger). Some believe that any exploitation of one person or a category of persons for the benefit of another, or any conduct that threatens the dignity and quality of life for specific people or humanity as a whole, is inherently evil, and thereby deviant (Simon). Others contend that any behavior causing people to suffer or violating any person’s right to self-actualization and freedom is inherently immoral, or deviant (Platt). Marxist scholars, for instance, point up the exploitative nature of economic relations in capitalistic societies and regard this inherent exploitation, along with the selfish and insensitive acts it breeds, as deviant or ‘‘criminal’’ because it corrupts human qualities (Bonger; Quinney, 1970, 1980). Similarly, humanists regard racial discrimination as deviant because it deprives a whole group of people of equal rights and human dignity.

Absolutist approaches to deviance are not widely used because of their subjectivity. Trained (sensitized), careful observers disagree about what is good or bad for society, what is contrary to human dignity, and what is fair or unfair. And what one observer believes to be functional for a society another may find dysfunctional. It has even been argued that a certain amount of deviance itself may benefit society. Dealing with deviance may help a group differentiate its members, crystalize the norms so group members will know how to behave, provide a means for tension to be reduced, keep the mechanisms of social control in good working order so that they will be efficient in true emergencies, and generate cohesion as the members of a group unite in opposition to deviance (Cohen, 1966; Dentler and Erikson). Since there is no reason to believe that the values or insights of social scientists are in any way superior, more desirable, or defensible than those of anyone else, or that the values of any particular social scientist are any more justifiable than those of another social scientist, an absolutist approach in the study of deviance cannot be used in a consistent and meaningful way.

The Legalistic Approach

A third way of identifying conduct standards and deviant behavior is to simply use illegality as the criterion of whether a given activity is in violation of behavioral norms. Accordingly, if the law prohibits an act, it is deviant; and if the law requires an act, failure to perform it is deviant. If the law is silent about, or permits, an act, then that act is considered consistent with conduct standards, or conforming.

The rationale for a legal criterion of deviance differs depending on how the law is viewed. Some contend that the law expresses collective sentiment indicating that particular activities are dangerous or threatening enough to require efforts at control (see Tittle, 1994). Although recognizing that law making is a political process, which often reflects conflicting interests and the clash of power, some nevertheless believe that, in the main, law reflects popular sentiment as well as efforts to promote the public good.

Others see the law as an instrument by which the powerful maintain their elite positions and protect their privileges, but these scholars accept illegality as the appropriate criterion of behavioral standards because they believe conformity and deviance are inherently whatever people powerful enough to impose their own views say they are. Accordingly, norms (or conduct standards) are ‘‘definitions of the situation’’ imposed upon a social group by power elites (McCaghy; Quinney).

Still others view law as a combination of popular sentiment and elite desires. They contend that some law expresses consensus among the population (such as laws prohibiting assault, murder, child abuse) while other laws reflect the desires of special interests (such as laws prohibiting importation of competitive products, requiring licenses to provide certain services, or denying the right of laborers to strike). For these scholars, whether law is collectively or particularistically oriented is irrelevant; in both instances, law expresses coercive potential—a key element of behavioral norms. Thus, the conduct rules that matter are those that can be enforced. Since the law reflects behavioral rules backed up by power of enforcement, it necessarily encompasses conduct norms—at least those worth social scientists’ study.

A legalistic approach is straightforward and usually easily applied (since a scholar need only refer to the codification of laws), and it hinges on an extremely important element of social life— the exercise of political power. Moreover, a related body of inquiry—criminology—almost exclusively uses a legalistic approach to define its subject matter. Yet the legalistic conceptualization is not generally used for the larger study of deviance, of which crime may be a part. For one thing, not all societies have a clearly defined body of written statutes that can be identified as law. Primitive societies, for example, have deviant behavior but no formally written law that defines it as such (Malinowski; Hoebel). Using a legalistic approach in nonliterate societies assumes the resolution of a prior definitional problem—what is law?

In addition, in any society many of the activities that are illegal nevertheless appear to be normatively acceptable. For instance, despite legal prohibitions on the sale of tobacco products to minors, in many places such products are easily available to minors in vending machines and minors are officially allowed to smoke in designated areas by many schools. Moreover, it is rare for the police to arrest anyone for selling tobacco to minors; and most people may not regard such sale as bad, dangerous, or abnormal (although public opinion about this appears to be undergoing a change). Thus, laws are often out of synch with actual behavior and public sentiment, sometimes because society changes without the laws being changed or repealed and sometimes because laws result from political action by interest groups whose agendas may not correspond with views of the general public.

By contrast, many activities that appear to be inconsistent with general conduct standards are not illegal. It is not a crime to lie to one’s spouse or sweetheart although evidence suggests that a large proportion of the people disapprove of it (Tittle, 1980). Similarly in some places it is not illegal to operate a topless bar, yet such establishments frequently meet with scorn, protests, and sometimes violent opposition by neighbors. Further, legal statutes rarely prohibit eating human flesh although it is clearly outside the bounds of acceptable conduct in contemporary societies.

Finally, despite the importance of the legal realm, conduct norms are not limited to that realm but instead are ubiquitous at all levels of social life from the interpersonal to the societal. A legalistic approach, therefore, narrowly focuses attention on one tier of a multi-tiered system.

The Reactive Approach

A fourth way of defining deviance is by social reaction (what people do about behavior or a condition). According to this approach, when social reaction to some behavior is condemnatory, punitive, or simply disapproving, it indicates that the behavior is in violation of behavioral standards prevailing in that group and is therefore deviant. One variation of the reactive approach emphasizes the ‘‘typical’’ reaction to a class of behaviors. Another stresses social reaction to particular instances of behavior while assuming that this particular reaction implies nothing about the deviance of the entire class of behaviors of which the particular case is an instance. Such basic differences are complicated by questions concerning which part of the social system must react negatively to qualify something as deviant. Some emphasize negative reactions by official agents and functionaries, but others accord more importance to informal reactions by a collective social audience.

Probably the best-known reactive approach to deviance is that embodied in the ‘‘labeling perspective’’ (Tannenbaum; Becker; Schur; Gove). Labeling theorists do not agree about their focus, and they are sometimes ambiguous in presentation. Nevertheless, most scholars agree that the predominant concern of the labeling perspective is legal reaction to specific acts, particularly the reaction of agents of the criminal justice system (such as police) to particular instances of behavior disapproved by power holders, whose interests are embodied in the legal codes (Gove). Accordingly, some labeling proponents recognize no categories or classes of deviant behavior. To them, murder, rape, child abuse, or smoking marijuana are not necessarily deviant. Rather, specific acts of murder, rape, child abuse, or marijuana use may or may not be deviant depending upon whether officials arrest the perpetrator and label him/her as deviant. When labeling occurs, the particular act of murder, rape, child abuse, or marijuana use is deviant; otherwise, it is not.

Some labeling theorists are more restrictive in what they define as deviant. They maintain that an act is not deviant unless and until a collective social audience has accepted the label of deviant for the act and/or the perpetrator. It is said that a label attached by officials must ‘‘stick’’; that is, it must be recognized by a social audience and serve as the vehicle through which the group attributes bad character to the actor, or attributes badness to the act (Becker; Kitsuse).

Another variant of the reactionist approach accepts the generally deviant nature of some categories of behavior. Accordingly, if a social collectivity or its chief representatives typically react negatively to some behavior or typically attach a stigma to those who are caught, that kind of behavior is deviant even if a particular perpetrator escapes being labeled. For instance, if a social group usually shows its condemnation of some class of behaviors by punishing specific acts of that class or if it usually attributes bad character to those who commit such acts, then theorists would assume that in that social group those behaviors are deviant. Using this approach, apprehension, punishment, or group attribution of bad character for a specific act may be treated as problematic but such actions are not essential for a given act to be deviant.

Still another variation of the reactive/labeling approach does not limit itself to behavior but includes as deviance, statuses, states of being, or physical conditions (Lemert). According to this approach, ‘‘deviance’’ inheres in disreputable or pejorative statuses, styles of life, or physical attributes; therefore, deviance is a condition not a behavior or set of behaviors. Accordingly, race, gender, poverty, and criminality have all been identified as stigmatized ‘‘deviant’’ statuses while physical handicaps, unattractive appearances, speech impediments, and small statures have been designated as stigmatized conditions qualifying as deviant. Although most approaches to deviance raise issues about how and why particular acts or categories of acts come to be deviant and why individuals come to commit acts that are deviant or that are likely to be regarded as deviant, this particular approach poses different questions—how stigma comes about and how people who are targets of stigma react to, or manage, the deviant identity associated with it.

The reactive approach has been widely used, and during the 1960s and 1970s was the dominant orientation. Even now many people associate the study of deviance exclusively with the reactive approach. This popularity stemmed partly from the key idea that deviant acts or conditions are those disapproved, either by officials or by group members, or in one version of this approach, are considered important enough by key functionaries of the social system to warrant attention. The reactive approach was also popular because of the appeal of the larger labeling argument, from which many of the reactive conceptualizations sprang. The notion that deviant behavior and stigmatized conditions are highly problematic intrigued many. Moreover, the contentions of the labeling school that deviance is a creation of the very forces intending to do something about it and that designating acts as deviant represents unequal power in action, with large consequences for those labeled and for society, meshed with the ideological bent of many social scientists of the time.

In due course, however, numerous problems caused the reactive approach to lose its dominance. Among other concerns, many behaviors that appear to be in violation of conduct standards are not necessarily the focus of negative reactions, especially not official reactions. For instance, adultery in the United States is almost never dealt with by the police or the courts, and it rarely results in a deviant label for the actor. Even when there are citizen complaints, the police normally refuse to make arrests. Yet surveys show that most people believe adultery to be wrong, bad, or inappropriate, and it is thought by many social scientists to have crucial implications for a major social institution—the family.

Furthermore, the police frequently arrest people, and courts sometimes impose severe penalties, for behaviors that are not widely disapproved and do not seem to have much impact on society (such as marijuana use during the 1960s). Third, the narrower reactive definitions created unusual conceptual inconsistencies. If murder is regarded as deviant only when discovered and reacted against by official agents, then it must also be regarded as conformity if the perpetrator escapes punishment—regardless of the number of group members who may disapprove of it, how socially dangerous it might be, or how many people do it. Moreover, according to this kind of reactive definition, deviance can only be studied on a case-by-case basis after the fact, thereby making generalization or consideration and explanation of categories of deviance impossible.

Finally, practical application of some reactive definitions has proven difficult. Empirically ascertaining when labeling has occurred (is an arrest a labeling act, or must one be convicted?) or when a label sticks (how do we know the boundaries of a social audience, how many must accept the label, what constitutes stigma?) renders some versions of the reactive approach almost completely unworkable (see Gove). Furthermore, those reactive definitions that focus on disreputable statuses and conditions raise limited questions leading to repetitious research about the importance of power in the stigmatization process and about the way various stigmatized people manage their identities. In addition, evidence and logical critiques have eroded the luster of labeling theory, which had earlier energized reactive approaches (Gibbs, 1966; Gove; Hagan, 1973; Mankoff; Wellford).

The Group Evaluation Approach

A fifth method of identifying conduct standards and deviance is by the beliefs or opinions of group members. Accordingly, deviant behavior is that regarded as unacceptable, inappropriate, or morally wrong in the opinion of the members of a group. One problem is deciding how many people in a group must believe some behavior to be unacceptable for it to qualify as deviance, although it is generally assumed that a significant consensus exists among group members about rightness or wrongness and about how people ought to behave. If this assumption is correct, social disapproval indicates that some behavior is outside acceptable standards of conduct. And such disapproval would suggest deviance regardless of the typicality or prevalence of the behavior, whether anything is actually done about the offense, or whether the shared concepts about rightness or wrongness grew out of common experiences or out of careful socialization by particular interest groups with an investment in promoting specific ideas.

A group evaluational definition of deviance has never been the dominant approach although it is conceptually clear, has intuitive meaning, permits deviance to be treated meaningfully as a continuous variable expressing the extent to which different behaviors are disapproved, and provokes many sociologically relevant questions—such as why some people do disapproved things, why and how social processes sometimes produce shared opinions of disapproval, why general opinions sometimes change, and why social processes sometimes come to activate collective responses to behavior but not at other times. Perhaps the major reason for under use of the group evaluational approach is its assumption that all group members’ opinions are of equal value. Research shows that the opinions of some are more important than the opinions of others because some people can implement their opinions with coercive action, and some are more influential in persuading others to their points of view. In addition, some question the usefulness of a conceptualization of deviance that treats as a violation of conduct standards some acts about which nothing is done and for which no sanctions are brought to bear. Furthermore, efficient application of this approach requires survey data—public opinion information about perceptions of conduct. Such information is rarely available for all the acts that one might want to consider as potentially deviant, and in some societies no survey data about any behavior are available. Finally, this approach assumes that the boundaries of groups are clear enough to permit scholars to ascertain the thoughts of most people within those boundaries about the appropriateness of various behaviors. In reality, however, group boundaries are often ambiguous, particularly in a heterogeneous society with overlapping subcultures and diverse group identities.

The Synthetic Approach

Some scholars merge different definitions of deviance in an effort to produce more effective, though more complicated, ‘‘integrated’’ approaches. For example one synthetic definition (Tittle and Paternoster) combines the reactive and the group evaluation approaches because they pose especially salient questions about social behavior—do most people believe it is wrong and are there usually negative sanctions associated with the behavior? Deviance is defined as any type of behavior that the majority of a given group regards as unacceptable or that typically evokes a collective response of a negative type. In this definition, ‘‘unacceptable’’ means the behavior is disapproved, or regarded as wrong, inappropriate, bad, or abnormal—in short, behavior that a group evaluates negatively. ‘‘Majority’’ means that over half of the people in a specified, bounded group regard the behavior as unacceptable. Although this is an arbitrary cutoff point, it is used because the main objective is to array behavior on a continuum from very nondeviant (hardly anybody considers it unacceptable) to very deviant (almost everybody in the group considers it unacceptable), with any particular act falling somewhere on the continuum. Collective response of a negative type implies that the majority of the specified group typically does something to express its displeasure, or the officials who possess coercive power over the members of the group typically respond to the behavior in a way that expresses negative evaluation. Whether synthetic, integrated conceptualizations become widely accepted remains to be seen.

The Relativity and Importance of Deviance

Most students of deviance regard it as a socially constructed phenomenon; that is, things regarded as deviant have no inherent pejorative qualities but instead are the objects of social processes in a given context that result in negative attributions. With the exception of those who employ an ‘‘absolutist’’ definition, scholars note that what is deviant behavior varies from group to group, from one time to another, and from one status to another.

Explaining such differences, including differences in legality, has been of prime concern to students of deviance because they believe the processes affecting social attributions of deviance are fundamental to the maintenance and operation of social groups. Émile Durkheim, regarded by many as the father of studies of deviance, called attention to a shifting scale of attribution by which societies adjust their conceptions of unacceptable conduct to the volume of specific behaviors that exist and can be managed. He pointed out that even saints recognize deviant behavior among themselves, although what they regard as deviant is usually quite saintly from the point of view of the outside world. Studies show that groups sometimes shift standards downward, expanding the supply of deviant behavior or enhancing the evilness of acts that were previously regarded as trivial (Erikson). The standards are also sometimes moved upward, reducing the number of things that are regarded as unacceptable or transforming behaviors that were once regarded as bad into acceptable conduct. This general process has been called ‘‘the elasticity of evil’’ (Cohen, 1974) or, when it specifically involves acceptance of things previously thought of as intolerable, ‘‘defining deviancy down’’ (Moynihan). Because transforming deviance into conformity or vice versa is a major means by which social change occurs, students of deviance try to understand the process and the conditions under which conceptions of deviance change.

In addition, Durkheim and his followers believed that the process of identifying and doing something about deviant behavior is normal, even essential for group emergence and maintenance. Much like pain is unpleasant but essential for the human body to protect itself from truly destructive conditions, so is deviance essential for group survival. Although scholars have not been able to demonstrate that identifying and managing deviance is necessary for social organization, they have shown that such processes are ubiquitous so that what is or is not deviant is highly variable, often in predictable ways. As a result, almost all students of deviance reject the idea that deviance is inherent to particular behaviors; rather, they see it as a quality conferred upon some behaviors or individuals by groups as they go about the business of social organization.

Moreover, the fact of being deviant is thought to influence whether people do it or not. For that reason most students of deviance have concluded that one cannot simply explain behavior that happens to be deviant in a given group and expect the explanation to apply to all such behavior in all contexts. Some go even further, arguing that specific forms of deviance in a given social setting, such as addictive drug use, cannot be explained in the same way that other forms of deviance in that context, such as fraud, are explained, nor can acts of crime be explained the same way acts of noncriminal deviance are explained. Such contentions have spawned a controversy concerning the potential value of general theories as opposed to theories aimed explicitly at one or another form of deviance. This controversy also bears on the relationship between criminology and studies of deviance.

Relationship between Deviance and Crime

To a large extent, criminology and studies of deviance have developed along separate tracks although they show much overlap. Criminologists have typically limited themselves to issues about legality, crime, or crime-related phenomena. Students of deviance, on the other hand, have studied crime as well as a wider range of behaviors or conditions that are deviant by one or another of the definitions reviewed but are not necessarily illegal, such as suicide, alcoholism, homosexuality, mentally disordered behaviors, stuttering, and even such behaviors as public nose picking or flatulence, sectarian religious behaviors, and body mutilation. Hence, it is difficult to distinguish criminology clearly from studies of deviance (Bader et al.).

Many criminologists concede that illegal acts are not fundamentally different from legal but deviant acts, except by the fact of illegality itself, which is largely an arbitrary designation by legal functionaries. At the same time, students of deviance readily acknowledge that many deviant acts are also illegal and they have found data about crime especially useful because it is more systematic than most data concerning legal forms of deviance. Recognizing this overlap is obvious among those deviance scholars who employ a legalistic definition of deviance, but almost every comprehensive treatment of deviant behavior, regardless of the definition used, includes a subsection on criminal acts that are also deviant. Furthermore, both camps have raised similar questions and have come to share a common set of theories for explaining the phenomena in their domains. Among other issues, criminologists as well as students of deviance want to explain why the acts they study are deviant or criminal; they want to describe and explain the distribution, frequency, prevalence, and change in the occurrence of various criminal or deviant acts; they want to explain why and how criminal or deviant acts are committed; they want to explain how social groups manage and respond to crime and deviance and how people who are accused or guilty of crime or deviance respond to being accused or managed; and they want to understand how criminal or deviant phenomena affect and are affected by other aspects of social life.

Because of the overlap between crime and deviance, some scholars now regard distinctions between criminology and deviance studies as false and counterproductive, and they have called for a merger of the subject matters. Since all definitions of deviance, except the legalistic one, portray deviant behavior as a more inclusive concept, merger might imply subsuming criminology under the umbrella of deviance studies. Under that conceptualization, criminal behavior would be treated as a special case of deviant behavior—that which is prohibited in law, thereby meriting the possibility of officially imposed sanctions that legal forms of deviance escape. On the other hand, some contend that criminology has already preempted deviance studies so that deviance as a separate subject matter no longer exists or matters (Sumner), and still others contend that the two fields should clearly differentiate themselves by allocating legally related phenomena exclusively to criminology, leaving other forms of disapproved behavior to deviance studies (Bader et al.).

There are two main intellectual barriers to merging criminology with studies of deviance. First, some criminal behavior in some places (such as gambling) is not deviant, at least by most definitions of deviance, so would be subject to criminological study but not to study by students of deviance. The political processes that produce laws can result in behaviors being declared illegal although the conduct is not deviant by any definition except a legalistic one. How those political processes unfold and how enforcement might fare when illegality does not match social reality are of great importance to some criminologists. In addition, some behaviors are deviant at the time they become illegal but later become nondeviant without the law having been changed. Therefore, those intellectually opposed to merger might note that subsuming criminology under deviance studies would exclude some of the more interesting aspects of criminology.

A second intellectual obstacle to conceiving of crime and deviance as one subject matter hinges on disagreements about the nature of human behavior. Some criminologists and some students of deviance contend that all forms of behavior, including specific acts or types of crime or deviance, are more or less distinct, requiring unique explanations. By observing a plethora of differences, such as whether committed by males or females, blacks or whites, young or old, in some circumstances rather than others, whether legal or not, whether regarded as especially serious or not, whether violent or simply immoral, whether committed with planning or spontaneously, and the like, some conclude that specific behaviors have few similarities that would justify their being explained by the same theories. This orientation has generated a large number of explanations of specific behaviors, such as predatory crime (Braithwaite), common juvenile misdeeds (Hagan, 1989), embezzlement (Cressey), mental illness (Scheff), homicide by females (Ogle et al.), and many others.

Challengers, however, contend that various deviant behaviors are only superficially different because similar underlying causal processes operate in most if not all forms of deviance. They often use the analogy of focusing so closely on individual trees that the forest is overlooked. In addition, those who advocate general theory contend that it is necessary in order to achieve scientific goals of explanation and prediction based on assumptions about unity in nature; and that general theory is more parsimonious because specific accounts already overlap, often in unrecognized ways. The generalist orientation has led to a number of theories that aim to account for wide ranges of deviance in a variety of circumstances. These general accounts usually take one of two forms.

One form of general theorizing assumes a universal causal process that generates different forms of deviance under different conditions. The theories attempt to identify that causal process and specify the conditions under which it produces one form of deviance rather than another (some examples are: Akers; Gottfredson and Hirschi; Agnew; Tittle). A second approach to general theory assumes that different causal processes operate at different times and under different conditions. The theories merge several causal processes by specifying when or why one or another will come into play to produce a given form of deviance at a specific point in time or in a given circumstance (some examples are: Braithwaite; Conger and Simons; Elliott et al.; Thornberry).

The generalist orientation clearly implies that crime and deviance are one entity. However, no general theory has yet been generally accepted as better than specific, focused accounts. Therefore, debates concerning the intellectual benefits of general theory and the relative advantages of differentiating criminology and studies of deviance will continue.

The main barriers to conceptualizing deviance and crime as a single entity are not intellectual, however—they are ideological and practical. Criminologists claim a more central role in addressing issues of acute public concern and they position themselves more favorably to receive government funds for research and to offer useful advice for controlling crime. Indeed, criminology has traditionally been identified with practical concerns. In addition, because they regard many forms of deviant behavior that are not illegal as unworthy of serious attention, some criminologists resist identity as students of deviance. Finally, by focusing on illegal conduct and limiting themselves to modern, politically, and geographically demarcated societies, criminologists avoid some of the problems encountered by students of deviance who struggle to identify group boundaries, to measure opinions of group members, or to document disapproval of various behaviors. Students of deviance, on the other hand, often resist the idea that they are also criminologists, maintaining that criminological study is too narrowly focused on behaviors arbitrarily designated by simple acts of legislative bodies. By so limiting itself, criminology ignores a large domain of phenomena crucial for understanding human behavior and social organization. Some students of deviance also regard criminology as a handmaiden of government, committed to preventing acts that are contrary to the interests of powerful groups who influence the content and enforcement of the criminal law.

Perhaps the major practical barrier to criminology and studies of deviant behavior becoming one subject matter is the tendency of criminologists to orient themselves concretely while students of deviance are relativistically oriented. Assuming that concepts of serious illegality are largely invariant across time and place (Wellford), most criminologists have focused on explanations of criminal behavior or its distribution, with only a minority showing concern with explaining variations in the law. Students of deviance, however, have traditionally emphasized variations in social attributions of deviance and have mainly tried to understand why something is or is not deviant in a given place and time, with only a minority being concerned with explaining behavior itself.


Deviance generally implies pejorative departures from social standards of one kind or another. However, there are many conceptualizations of deviance and how it is conceptualized affects what and how deviance is studied. One key unifying theme is the relativity of deviance. Because much deviance is also illegal, there is great overlap between criminology and deviance studies. Some contend that the two areas of study should be regarded as one, but there are intellectual and practical barriers to such a merger. A related issue concerns whether various forms of deviance can be explained with large general theories or requires special ad hoc accounts. Much work remains to be done before the key questions about deviant behavior can be answered.


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