Sociology of Deviance Research Paper

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Deviance is the concept chosen by sociologists to encompass a variety of forms of human conduct that have been defined or reacted to by members of a social system as wrong, bad, immoral, illegal, or worthy of condemnation or punishment, and the sociology of deviance is the study of the social forces and processes involved in the formulation of such evaluative standards, violations of those standards, and reactions to such violations. The specific subject matter typically includes the study of behaviors defined as illegal (crime and delinquency) and forms of conduct that are disapproved or stigmatized by a sizeable proportion of members of a society such as suicide, mental illness, some forms of sexuality, and certain forms of alcohol and drug use. Although the concept has become a derogatory public term, sociologists originally adopted the concept as a more objective and neutral conceptual category than those in use by the public.



The discipline of criminology, defined as the study of law making, law breaking, and reactions to law breaking, and the sociology of deviance both encompass illegal conduct, but the sociology of deviance is unique in its concern for themes and principles that are supposed to apply to a variety of violations of shared standards. Indeed, the most significant scholarship in the early evolution of the sociology of deviance was Émile Durkheim’s ([1897] 1951) study Suicide.Although suicide has been treated as a crime in some societies at some times, it is not encompassed in contemporary categories of criminal conduct, and it is not studied by criminologists. However, suicide and suicidal behavior remain of interest in the sociology of deviance. Moreover, because it is not limited to behaviors defined by criminal statutes, the sociology of deviance encourages consideration of the possible relationships among different forms of deviance. For example, Durkheim hypothesized that homicide and suicide acted like two different “streams” of deviance with nations that had high suicide rates having low homicide rates. Similarly, when questions are asked about the relationships between such behaviors as criminal violence and noncriminal forms of deviance such as mental illness and alcohol use, a search for answers bridges the study of “deviance” and the study of “crime.” In short, the sociology of deviance encompasses the study of relationships among criminal and noncriminal violations of shared evaluative standards (norms) as well as the search for general principles or themes that apply to deviance in general.

Basic Themes and Theories

The most basic themes in the sociology of deviance include the observations that (1) the specific forms or instances of conduct that fall in such categories vary over time and among societies (cultural and temporal relativity), (2) there is greater social consensus on the impropriety of some forms of behavior than others (variable normative consensus), (3) some members and groups within the system have more influence on definitions and reactions to specific forms of deviance than others (power and moral enterprise), and (4) involvement in forms of disapproved conduct are not randomly distributed but are shaped by variable socialization, social learning, social control mechanisms, and other social influences and constraints. Every textbook on the sociology of deviance incorporates and builds on some version of these basic themes.

In addition to core themes, there is a general consensus on categories of distinct sociological theories of deviance. Three categories of theories concerned with “causes” of criminal and noncriminal forms of deviance that seek to explain measurable, observable variations in deviant conduct have dominated sociological discourse: (1) social disorganization, (2) cultural conflict-differential association, and (3) structural-cultural strain. Each of these three types of theories has distinct characteristics and each focuses on different features of society, groups, and categories of people in the attempt to explain real behavioral differences. In addition to these causal theories, at least two major types of perspectives have been critical of the focus on “causes” and the emphasis on measurable variations in conduct: (4) social constructionism and (5) radical and feminist theories.

When the concept of social disorganization was introduced, it was considered to be the underlying condition that explained the convergence of a variety of forms of deviant conduct in identifiable ecological territories. It was applied to the explanation of crime, delinquency, and other social problems by sociologists at the University of Chicago in the early 1900s. Rapid growth and change were viewed as “disorganizing” or “disintegrative” forces contributing to a breakdown in the teaching and learning of “social rules” (Thomas and Znaniecki 1927). Edwin Sutherland (1934) invoked the concept of social disorganization to explain increases in crime that accompanied the transformation of preliterate and peasant societies where “influences surrounding a person were steady, uniform, harmonious and consistent” to modern Western civilization, which he believed was characterized by inconsistency, conflict, and “un-organization” (p. 64). Although criminal and delinquent conduct were central to the development of the theory, Robert E. L. Faris (1948) extended the concept of social disorganization to explain “social pathologies,” including crime, suicide, mental illness, mob violence, and suicide.

By 1939, Sutherland (1939) had modified his theory and proposed an explanation that emphasized (1) conflicting definitions of appropriate and inappropriate conduct as key to the distribution of crime among social settings and (2) differential association with people communicating conflicting definitions explained variations in criminality. Sutherland’s systematic elaboration of a theory of both crime and criminality in a set of nine fundamental propositions earned him honors as the most influential theoretical criminologist of the twentieth century. Applied to delinquency, the central proposition of differential association was simply that “a person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law (Sutherland 1947:76). Although his propositions dealt with criminal and delinquent conduct, the theory emphasized normal mechanisms of symbolic interaction that applied to all forms of behavior (deviant and nondeviant). By the late 1930s, the notion that certain areas of cities were criminogenic because they were disorganized had been replaced by the notion that such areas were differentially organized. High-rate areas had different traditions or competing and conflicting subcultural traditions. With his work on Culture, Conflict and Crime in 1938, the criminologist Thorsten Sellin played a major role in reinforcing the shift away from social disorganization and toward conflicting subcultural norms in the explanation of crime.

A distinct theoretical tradition emphasizing a specific type of disorganization was elaborated by Robert K. Merton in 1938. Merton expanded on Durkheim’s argument that economic crises and fluctuations could drive people to suicide because rules regulating behavior become unstable, and ambitions get out of step with reality. Applying a similar logic, Merton argued that high rates of deviance are generated in anomic social systems where there is a strong emphasis on economic success coupled with inequality in opportunity to realize success legitimately. The pursuit of success by illegal “innovative” means is viewed as one adaptation to this form of disorganization. Illegal innovation in pursuit of commonly shared success goals is viewed as a common lower-class response to frustrated ambitions, but Merton argued that there are other ways to adapt as well. Some people might adapt to strain by giving up the pursuit of success goals and retreating through the use of drugs, suicide, or mental illness. Still others might rebel and attempt to change the system. The logic of Merton’s theory with its emphasis on widely shared goals coupled with unequal opportunity is the basis for designating it as a “strain” theory. Other theorists have followed the same logic introducing other forms of discrepancy between goals and means as a source of frustrated ambitions.

In one form or another, these basic theories have endured and are reflected in contemporary theories that assume real variations in measurable forms of conduct to be explained by measurable features of the social world. Modern “social control” and “self-control theories (e.g., Hirschi 1969; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990) share features with social disorganization theory in that they emphasize the absence of social and personal constraints as the crucial variables in the explanation of criminal and noncriminal deviance. Such theories focus on all forms of force and fraud and view noncriminal forms of rule breaking as early indicators of the absence of control. Modern social learning theory elaborates on Sutherland’s work (see Akers 1977, 1998; Akers and Jensen 2003, forthcoming), differentiating a variety of distinct learning mechanisms that have separable consequences for deviance. The mechanisms apply to both nondeviant behavior as well as to crime and delinquency and other forms of deviance. Finally, modern versions of Merton’s theory emphasize concepts such as “institutional anomie” (Messner and Rosenfeld 1997) and “general strain” (Agnew 1992), and both institutional anomie and general strain theorists attempt to specify different types of deviant responses to frustrating circumstances. New ideas have been introduced, but the basic explanatory frameworks provided by these three traditions have endured for more than six decades.

Constructionist, Radical, and Feminist Critiques

As noted above, these “causal” theories assume that there are real, observable variations in conduct that violate discernable shared norms that can be explained by measurable features of society, groups, and/or people. However, a popular perspective on deviance for the last 30–40 years focuses on the construction and application of deviant labels and their consequences for those so labeled. This perspective has been called “labeling theory,” “constructionist theory,” and “interactionist theory.” Although there is no one authoritative definition of the perspective, the basic characteristics are widely understood by sociologists. A very simple definition of social constructionism in the study of deviance is expressed in Rubington and Weinberg’s (2005) statement that social constructionists take deviance as “subjectively problematic” as opposed to “objectively given” (pp. 1–2). Goode (1994) proposes that “to the constructionist, definitions have no absolute, objective validity” and that “reality depends on perspective, and perspective is to a degree arbitrary” (pp. 32–33). Warren and Karner (2005) propose that “the logic of qualitative inquiry” is social constructionist and specify the two basic assumptions of that logic as embracement of the view that “the analysis of society is made from some standpoint or perspective that informs the analysis” and that “social constructionists use qualitative methods to try to understand the meanings that people bring to social worlds they inhabit and construct” (p. 4).

The typical approach to delineating the features of the constructionist perspective is to contrast it with an opposing, “traditional,” and “quantitative” alternative referred to under terms such as absolutism, realism, naturalism, or positivism. When taken to the extreme, the alleged positivist takes for granted that the problems or problem people studied are really “out there” and that people fall in such judgmental categories because they have violated widely accepted societal norms. Because these problems and problem people are assumed to be real, positivists ask what other measurable characteristics of people or their social world determined that reality. Although researchers adopting such methodological approaches may not see themselves as “positivists,” the quantitative search for “causes” and correlates of deviant behavior based on survey or agency data at the micro, meso, or macro level are generally defined by constructionists as the central feature of that epistemology.

The constructionist critique shares many features in common with another critique that emerged first in challenges by “radical criminologists” and later in challenges by advocates of “feminist” perspectives. Both British and American criminologists (see Taylor, Walton, and Young 1973, 1975; Platt 1975; Quinney 1975; Chambliss and Mankoff 1976) mounted radical challenges to traditional criminological theories and methods and located the source of societal problems in the capitalist political and economic systems. Crime among the disadvantaged was an outcome of their economic marginality. With little or nothing to lose, few promising alternatives, and continual pressures to prove one’s worth through material possessions, criminality becomes a relatively rational and attractive choice. Radical critics also believed that the focus of criminology on street crimes and the crimes of the powerless detracted from attending to more fundamental criminogenic problems in society such as inequality and racism. Like the constructionist, they challenged the value of data presumed to measure real behavioral differences and questioned the results of research using quantitative methodologies. A basic argument was that criminological research has served the interests of ruling classes to the disadvantage of other groups, and that the data and methods used were biased as well.

Feminist critiques have extended that argument and criticize the focus of research on males as well as the natural science methodologies dominating the sociological study of deviance. They extended the critique of traditional methods to include biases in the features of the female world studied by criminologists and deviance researchers (see Daly and Chesney-Lind 1988; Daly 1994; ChesneyLind and Shelden 2004). Radical critics chastise criminologists for ignoring “upperworld” crime and the differential enforcement of laws by social class. Feminist critics argue that female crime has been ignored and that many observed patterns are products of differential law enforcement by gender. They also argue that theories developed to explain male crime and delinquency ignore dimensions of the female world and female experiences that are relevant to the explanation of low rates for violence and serious property crime as well as survival strategies such as prostitution and running away.

Some critics of traditional emphases in the sociology of deviance have proposed that the subject matter should be conduct and social arrangements that violate “the historically determined rights of individuals” (Schwendinger and Schwendinger 1975). Rather than studying “nuts,” “sluts,” and “perverts” (Liazos 1972:132), radical critics of the normative definitions of deviance invoke a specific set of norms defining justice or “rights” as the most “objective” and “universal” standard for judging the severity of problematic behavior. Such definitions invoke notions of natural law in which humans have rights that can be used to determine justice and injustice, and such standards are viewed as universal. The range of situations encompassed by their rights perspective includes characteristics of social systems as well as individual conduct. For example, a social system in which punishment is affected by the power and resources that people or organizations have would be considered deviant from a rights perspective. If members of a social system are defined as having “rights” to a living wage, a social system where that right is ignored would be deviant. Those advocating a rights or justice perspective often emphasize inalienable, self-evident, or universal rights, and such rights may be defined as including nonhuman life.

Proposed Innovations

This brief introduction to major features of the sociology of deviance reveals a sociological specialty characterized by widely shared themes as well as continuity between classic versions of theories and more contemporary applications. There are often heated debates about the strengths and weaknesses of different concepts, methodologies, and key subject matter, but these features can be found for any area of specialization in sociology. Yet there are claims that the field is dying. Colin Sumner (1994) subtitled his overview of The Sociology of Deviance as “An Obituary,” and Joel Best (2004:ix) provides evidence that the use of the concept of deviance in general sociology journals has been declining since its peak in the 1970s. Goode (2004) proposes that concerns about “political correctness” have led many scholars to avoid the term deviance because it has become a public concept used to stigmatize and “pathologize” certain forms of conduct. Goode also states that he is “convinced that the field of the sociology of deviance is not as theoretically innovative as it once was and that “fewer influential ‘big’ ideas are being generated within its ranks” (p. 114).

Although there is no way to discern whether recent proposals will succeed as influential “big ideas,” three attempts to be theoretically innovative in the sociology of deviance in recent years will be outlined here because they deal with the scope of the concept of deviance and propose new or modified conceptions of deviance: (1) proposed expansion of the concept of deviance to include “admired deviance” and “positive deviance,” (2) Tittle and Paternoster’s (2000) elaboration of deviance as violations of “middle-class norms,” and (3) Tittle’s development of a “control-balance” theory encompassing a wide range of forms of deviance.

Positive Deviance, Admired Deviance, and Negative Deviance

Deviance textbooks routinely note that behavior that might be considered as conforming to social norms (e.g., striving for recognition, working hard, trying to please others) can result in expressions of disapproval and negative labels (nerd, geek, egghead, rate-buster, brown nose, etc.). Attempts to abide by norms governing appropriate appearance can move into the realm of deviance (e.g., eating disorders, steroid use, obsessions with cleanliness).

When forms of behavior, appearance, or expression that are socially approved take on properties or qualities that are disapproved or worthy of social condemnation, then they fall within the realm of topics encompassed by the study of deviance. Moreover, conduct that violates normative standards may be admired by certain audiences (e.g., clever con operations).

Recognition that conduct that is consistent with normative standards can be reacted to negatively and that conduct that appears deviant may be reacted to positively has become a central tenet in arguments for expanding the sociology of deviance to include “positive deviance” and “admired deviance.” Heckert and Heckert (2004) propose that “positive deviance” is “overconformity that is responded to in a confirmatory fashion” such as saints and Congressional Medal of Honor winners, and “deviance admiration” occurs when people positively evaluate deviance (e.g., outlaws, social bandits, Robin Hood). They argue that the category a person falls in will vary among groups with teachers admiring “gifted” students and peers regarding them as “rate busters.” They also propose that “it is important to analyze why underconformity or nonconformity can result in positive evaluations (deviance admiration) or negative evaluations, depending on the era, place, or social group involved” and that “the same is true for over-conformity” (p. 213).

Although the attempt to create a new typology in which evaluations are independent of “deviance” is clearly “innovative,” the concept of positive deviance has yet to be widely accepted as an advancement in the field for several reasons. First, Best (2004) argues that the wider the range of people and activities encompassed under the concept of deviance, the more difficult it will be to identify any common principles that would justify a sociology of deviance (p. 34). Second, the key questions that are raised as examples of the heuristic utility of such a typology, including admired and positive deviance, have been asked without such concepts. The fact that the same behaviors are reacted to differently by different groups is central to the shared theme of “relativity.” Conduct can be defined negatively but still be admired if there are other collective standards governing the way in which it is violated. Limiting deviance as a concept to disapproved behavior or normviolating behavior eliciting negative reactions does not preclude asking why some forms of approved behavior can come to be disapproved by certain groups in certain situations. Nor does it preclude asking how some forms of conformity can elicit positive evaluations from certain groups while others elicit negative evaluations. Third, the designation of positive deviance as overconformity that is positively evaluated and deviance admiration as underconformity or nonconformity that is positively evaluated leaves an important question unanswered. How are conformity, nonconformity, and underconformity to be determined? Heckert and Heckert appear to be reintroducing the statistical deviation conception of deviance that has been so widely rejected by sociologists. Determination of “over-” and “under-” conformity requires some sort of “social evaluation” unless they are to be determined in purely statistical terms. The meaning of “over” when attached to “conformity” is determined by evaluative standards or negative reactions, which places it under the traditional designation of deviance.

Another argument introduced as part of the rationale for the concept of positive deviance is the widely cited notion that deviance can serve positive functions. Deviance textbooks routinely draw on Durkheim’s arguments and Dentler and Erickson’s (1959) article on the functions of deviance in groups to highlight the irony that bad events can have “good” (functional) consequences. Crime is used as an example in that a criminal event can bring people together and enhance group solidarity. However, the logic of such arguments is rarely scrutinized and becomes part of an unquestioned academic folklore of the sociology of deviance. The sole exception is “The Function of Crime Myth,” in which Bob Roshier (1977) stresses the importance of maintaining distinctions between sociological concepts of deviance and social control. He proposes that the functions attributed to “deviance” turn out to be the functions of “social control.” The typical argument that crime or deviance serves functions in bringing the community together, enhancing solidarity, is a claim about the rejection of deviance (a form of social control), not the functions of deviance as defined independent of that reaction. It is the recurring response to a threat that is functionally explained, not the threat itself (see Jensen 1988).

“Middle-Class” Norms

Because “norms” are central to definitions of deviance as norm-violating behavior, there is considerable merit to recent attempts to more precisely define the standards that are violated. Such standards seem obvious when the focus is on serious crimes, killing of one’s self, use of harmful substances, and some forms of bizarre behavior indicative of mental illness. However, there has been little attention paid to delineating the types of norms violated. A major step in that direction is Tittle and Paternoster’s (2000) work on Social Deviance where they attempt to delineate “middle-class” norms and the behaviors that violate these norms. They propose 10 dominant norms: group loyalty, privacy, prudence, conventionality, responsibility, participation, moderation, honesty, peacefulness, and courtesy.

Their interpretation of each norm cannot be specified here, but the merits and problems in such a list should be addressed. One of the merits is that such a list facilitates recognition of the complications involved in determining whether specific instances of behavior fit in a category of normative violations. For example, group loyalty may call for behaviors that conflict with other “norms” such as honesty, conventionality, and responsibility. The sociology of deviance would benefit from a grounded specification of societal norms and their application to different situations.

The problem with such an attempt at this point in time is that no methodology for determining such normative standards has been attempted or proposed. Tittle and Paternoster (2000) do not provide any research data of any kind to justify their list. Moreover, they note that the lower class shares many, if not most, of these norms but provide no data to support any particular social distribution, nor any specific reason for calling them “middle class.” How do these “norms” compare with other normative systems such as Elijah Anderson’s (1999) Code of the Street? Code of the Street includes prohibitions against ratting and expectations for group loyalty as well as expectations that youth will physically defend themselves from affronts to their personal honor. Which “middle-class norms” are shared by males and females, blacks and whites, the advantaged and disadvantaged? Categorizing them as “middle class” will strike many sociologists as rather arbitrary.

Control Balance Theory

A feature of Merton’s typology of types of deviance that is often overlooked is that he defined conformity as goaloriented compliance with prescribed standards. Conformity to prescribed standards when no rational end appeared to be served was a form of deviance, “ritualism.” People who rigidly adhere to rules even when such conformity has little purpose (e.g., rigid adherence to bureaucratic rules, obsessive cleanliness, some forms of “mental illness”) fell in a “deviant” category. “Real” conformity was purposive behavior.

Charles Tittle (1995) has adopted a similar strategy in that he proposes six types of deviance that can be contrasted with “conscious recognition of the rules with studied obedience” (conformity): submission, defiance, predation, exploitation, plunder, and decadence. He argues that people are least likely to be deviant when their “control ratio” is balanced, that is, when the amount of control they wield is in balance with the amount of control wielded over them. Hence, when a person has no freedom of action and no way to exert control, deviance takes the form of “submission.” Submission is viewed by Tittle as deviance because the individual is not willfully obedient (e.g., battered wives who submit). In contemporary American society, submission is likely to be negatively evaluated.

Those people who are moderately controlled by others but have a small amount of autonomy are likely to be “defiant,” to express anger about their circumstances, or to willfully attempt to escape. Predatory deviance (e.g., theft, rape, assault) is more likely among those who are less subject to control but have some autonomy. All three of these (submission, defiance, and predation) occur among people with control deficits. In contrast, people who have power surpluses also engage in deviance, but it takes different forms. Those with small surpluses exploit others, those with modest surpluses plunder others, and those with the largest surpluses adopt decadent lifestyles.

Tittle supports his theory with examples and attempts to apply the theory to explaining variations among sociodemographic groups in types of deviance. At this point in time, appropriate operationalization of the concepts has not been established nor have the techniques for identifying covert forms of deviance such as submission been specified. However, Tittle’s theory does address issues that distinguish control-balance theory from theories of crime in that different forms of deviance are proposed to be generated by different combinations of the same underlying mechanisms.

Directions for the Future

The themes, theories, and issues discussed above provide the background for several proposals that the author believes will reinvigorate the sociology of deviance in the twenty-first century. The author believes that the best tactics for a revitalization include the following: (1) a “properties of deviant phenomena” approach to conceptions of deviance; (2) empirical demonstrations that the study of noncriminal deviance improves understanding of criminal conduct; (3) a more precise elaboration and application of basic sociological concepts, forces, and processes that justified the invention of a sociology of deviance; (4) expanded efforts to bridge specialties within sociology; and (5) a careful assessment of the qualitative-quantitative tensions in the field through an organized dialogue about methodology accurately representing both positivistic and qualitative approaches.

Properties of Deviant Phenomena

To this point, several different conceptions of “deviance” have been introduced, including statistical deviation, behavioral violations of norms, labeled people and conduct, violations of rights, positively and negatively evaluated over, non-, and underconformity, and violations of middle-class norms. Although sociologists do not intend for the concept to be an expression of personal disapproval, the fact that the public has come to use the term as a derogatory label has led some critics to question the value of the concept. Among sociologists, statements that a form of conduct violates widely shared norms are not intended to be an endorsement of public derogation and censure.

Unfortunately, many sociologists have contributed to the reification of the concept as a derogatory public term rather than a scholarly concept. A typical opening discussion in textbooks on “deviance” or “deviant behavior” approaches the concept not as a theoretical or organizing concept central to a scholarly field of study but as a reified term in popular culture. For example, one of the most popular textbooks on deviant behavior begins with an example of a badly overweight woman and asks whether she “is deviant for being overweight.” The question is answered by noting that “some people would say yes, but others would say no” and that “some would say that it is her tormentors . . . who are deviant” (Thio 2004:3). Such statements are lead-ins to the common observation that there is “a great deal of disagreement among people as to what they consider deviant” (p. 4). Such introductions can be traced back at least as far as J. L. Simmons’s (1969) work, where he reported the results of a study where he asked, “Who is deviant?” He found so many different answers that he concluded, “So deviance, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder” (pp. 3–4). Of course, to fully qualify as a form of deviance as defined by sociology, the phenomena so designated has to violate a widely shared social norm (i.e., there has to be more than one “beholder”). Direct questions about what is “deviant” reify the concept as a public category and ignore its scholarly origins.

Such initiations of students into the study of deviants, deviance, or deviant behavior are popular because they facilitate discussions of the wide range of people and behaviors that are disapproved or stigmatized by different “publics” and highlight the “relativity” of deviance. However, as a guide for the development of the sociology of deviance in the twenty-first century, the first recommendation to be made in this section is to reassert the disciplinary origins of the concept and to initiate a new discussion of relationship among different scholarly depictions of deviance. At a minimum, the study of public use of the term should be distinguished from sociological use.

Because some scholarly conceptions of deviance were generated in critical evaluations of deficiencies in the normative definition, different conceptions are viewed as competing with one another. For example, the “reactive” conception of deviance is depicted as “a property conferred upon that behavior by the people who come into direct or indirect contact with it” (Erickson 1966:6).

The focus is not on what offenders are “doing” or have done but on how people and conduct come to be defined or labeled in certain ways. This conception does lead sociologists to pay attention to issues that are ignored when the normative definition is the exclusive definition. The important subject matter is the invention, selection, and manipulation of beliefs that define conduct as bad, sinful, criminal, or the like and the selection of people into those categories. On the other hand, audiences are likely to confer some form of public label based on learned normative standards. The emphasis may be shifted, but normative standards cannot be dismissed as part of the process.

Instead of debating the “best” or most useful definition of deviance, it should be recognized that each conception highlights distinct issues and questions about properties of deviant phenomena. One of the most consequential advances in the physical sciences was the recognition that light can be analyzed as either waves or particles. Similarly, the phenomena encompassed under diverse conceptions of deviance have several distinct and variable properties. Reactivists and constructionists point to the types of group conflicts, negotiations, and decisions that are made in the process of designating episodes, events, behaviors, and people as instances of some type of deviance such as crime, sin, or evil. This “reactive” component of deviant phenomena can obey its own principles quite independent of the behavioral component. A normative perspective directs attention to a behavioral foundation in that actual conduct in violation of legal or social norms is one of the best predictors for designations of people as criminal by different audiences, and activities that violate widely shared norms as well as beliefs about rights have a long history of prohibition in legal codes. Yet the variable nature of legal and social norms as well as legal designations of rights precludes a stable yardstick for evaluating good and evil, justice and injustice. Self-evident human rights might provide a more universal standard for such decisions, but that approach does not eliminate disagreement on the exact nature of those self-evident standards nor on the proper adjudication among conflicting standards when rights are in conflict. Using the traditional definition of deviance (disapproved violations of shared norms) as an anchor, a variety of important questions can be asked without demanding a newer or broader definition of deviance. For example, instead of creating new categories of positive deviance or admired deviance, the focus should be on identifying the specific normative standards that define otherwise conforming behavior as inappropriate or lead to admiration of otherwise “deviant” conduct. Rather than creating a “typology,” sociologists should be asking how behavior that appears to conform to normative standards can come to be disapproved and should be seeking to discern the norms that are violated when people “over conform.”

One direction for research on the normative foundation for designations of deviant phenomena is a delineation of a specific category of norms that dominates public evaluations of social arrangements and personal experiences, “rights” or “justice norms.” The notion of “rights” as the foundation for defining the appropriate subject matter of the study of deviance and social problems does not negate the value of the traditional definition. In fact, the basic questions asked from a rights perspective do not require a new vocabulary. The view that there is a set of justice norms defining rights that are widely shared in human societies is an empirical question as is the suspicion that they vary systematically among categories of people and over time. Variations in the extension of such rights to nonhuman life have yet to be established.

Questions about the link between purely “statistical” deviation or variation and deviance as violations of shared normative standards can be asked without introducing any new definition. For example, most youth have shoplifted at some time, but are still likely to define such behavior as a violation of widely shared property norms. Yet there has been very little discussion or research on how norms are sustained when the vast majority of members of a system violate them. In their work on “Techniques of Neutralization,” almost half a century ago, Sykes and Matza (1957) proposed specific “situational excuses” that moderated or “neutralized” the constraining influence of more general norms. Their theory is one of the few that recognizes normative complexity and conflicting norms as important features of a widely shared cultural landscape. The delineation of the mechanisms that allow people to violate standards that they appear to share has received very little attention in more contemporary work. Similarly, the normative standards that transform statistically rare behavior at the “positive” pole of variation into disapproved behavior are yet to be investigated.

Bridging Forms of Deviance

Criminology has flourished as a distinct discipline because it focuses on behaviors that are defined by legal statutes and where there is considerable consensus on their “deviant” qualities. However, the sociology of deviance encompasses a wide range of behaviors and characteristics that are not encompassed by law and where there are quite variable opinions. Moreover, many of those noncriminal, but deviant behaviors, have their own “specialists.” In view of such specialization, the major task confronting the sociology of deviance is the development of theories that apply across types and/or the specification of the circumstances that structure the forms that deviance can take. In short, proponents of a sociology of deviance have to demonstrate that knowledge or information across types matters.

This argument is far from new and, in fact, was central to the classic founding scholarship in the sociology of deviance, Émile Durkheim’s ([1897] 1951) Suicide. Durkheim’s basic arguments about suicide have been modified and applied in one form or another to “deviance” in general and to crime in particular. The most cited work in criminology in the twentieth century was Hirschi’s (1969) Causes of Delinquency, and Hirschi drew heavily on Durkheimian ideas about the deviance-inhibiting consequences of moral and social integration. Merton (1938) also drew on Durkheim in the development of his structural-strain theory of deviance, and Agnew (1992) and Messner and Rosenfeld (1997) continue to build on a Mertonian framework.

However, such applications have been made without recognizing that Durkheim proposed that the explanation of some forms of deviance were caused by contrary circumstances. He specifically argued that homicide was generated by the circumstances that were the opposite of those generating suicide. Yet his ideas on suicide were extended to property crime, violence, and a variety of forms of force and fraud with no attempt to address the fact that he proposed contrary causal conditions.

The only sociologists who have followed Durkheim’s lead on this issue are various “stream” theorists who have proposed hypotheses about the “direction” of lethal violence (see Unnithan et al. 1994; Batton and Ogles 2003). Such ideas have not been central to criminology for the simple reason that self-directed lethal violence is not illegal. Yet if Durkheim’s speculation is correct, rates of homicide may not be independent of rates of suicide. Were that shown to be the case, then criminological models of murder would need to address other forms of noncriminal deviance to adequately explain homicide.

How might this reintegration and demonstration of the vitality of a sociology of deviance as an integrating discipline be accomplished? Given the enduring accolades of the Durkheimian tradition, one tactic would be to build on the basic framework suggested by his stream analogy. What forms of deviance flow together, and which represent separate streams? If they flow from a common source, what diverts them into separate streams? This analysis could begin with suicide and homicide since there is already a body of research literature dealing with this issue. How do the two forms of lethal violence relate to one another in modern times? What are the features of social systems that structure different rates of lethal violence? Is Durkheim’s speculation about religious passion as a source of high homicide rates but low suicide rates correct? By focusing on specific issues involving distinct forms of deviance, the importance of an integrated study of “disparate” forms of deviance may be revealed a few steps at a time.

The fact that a wide range of phenomena can be categorized under the same conceptual rubric does not mean that the explanations will be the same or that the forms of deviance will all be positively correlated with one another. Conceptual similarity does not mandate causal isomorphism. Consider two forms of “deviance” where the causal mechanisms at work would appear to be quite disparate, such as serial murder and suicide. They are both included in Tittle and Paternoster’s chapter on “individualized deviance.” Murder was categorized under violations of privacy in their violations of middle-class norms, and suicide was categorized under violations of norms of “participation.”Yet when constructing specific chapters in their book on social deviance, serial murder and suicide are categorized together because they are both instances of individualized deviance. There may be several theoretical and empirical reasons for dealing with these types of deviance in the same chapter but only one similarity is noted, and the relevance of their normative scheme for identifying communalities is never discussed. Other than their designation as “individualized,” possibilities of shared and distinct features of these different forms of deviance are not specified.

When shared properties of disparate forms of deviance are addressed, however, interesting new ideas begin to emerge. Does serial murder share more in common with suicide than other forms of murder? “Normal murders” generated in social situations of interpersonal conflict, sexual competition, and/or defense of honor and territory differ markedly from “abnormal murders” carried out in secrecy with sequences of isolated victims. Is serial murder distributed across states differently than normal murder? Is its distribution more similar to suicide than normal murder? Again, the sociology of deviance can reassert its independence and theoretical originality by addressing the relationships among different forms of deviance.

Specification and Application of Basic Sociological Concepts

One of the themes shared by all sociological perspectives on deviance whether positivistic, constructionist, or radical is that forms of disapproved conduct are shaped by variable socialization, social learning, and social control mechanisms among other forces. Such concepts are introduced rather casually, as if their specific meaning were firmly established. Yet “social control” is used to refer to Hirschi’s social bond theory of deviance, “reactions to deviance” (see Black 1979), and Jack Gibbs’s (1981, 1989, 1994) definition, in which social control refers to attempts by one or more individuals to manipulate the behavior of another individual or individuals by or through a third party (by means other than a chain of command).

Not only are there diverse conceptions of social control, but virtually no attention has been paid to distinguishing among the three “social” variables, socialization, social control, and social learning. In fact, “socialization” is the least discussed of the three in the sociology of deviance, Since John DeLamater’s 1968 discussion of the three forms of socialization and their relevance to distinct theories of deviance, there has been no attempt to clearly identify the meaning of the concept and how to distinguish it from other concepts. The concept can be more clearly specified, however, by adopting Gibbs’s strategy for defining social control. If socialization refers to “attempts” to do “something,” the key question becomes “What is being attempted?” Focusing on attempts to “socialize” someone else, a plausible definition would be that socialization refers to attempts to “teach” something to someone. A person may attempt to “learn” something from someone as well. Such attempts are social in two different senses. Just as social control refers to a type of interaction or relationship among people, socialization is “social” as well. However, socialization can be argued to be “doubly” social because it involves attempts to teach and/or learn something social as well.

Socialization refers to attempts to teach or learn the values and norms appropriate to social roles. Moreover, key social roles tend to be defined in terms of specific social institutions. For example, parents may attempt to teach a child how to be a “good” son or daughter, a “good” brother or sister, a “good” person, or a “good” citizen. Teachers attempt to teach students how to be a “good” student, a “good” citizen, and a “good” classmate. Ministers and religious personnel attempt to teach how to be a “good” Muslim, or a “good” Christian, a “good” Jew, and so on. The specific content of attempts to teach or learn rolerelated values and norms may differ or conflict with other role expectations. In addition, such attempts may not occur or/and some types of attempts may be more effective than others. Authoritarian parental teaching styles may be less effective than styles that allow two-way communication. Parents who engage their children in discussions of roles, norms, and values are likely to be more effective than those who demand unquestioning obedience.

If socialization is defined in such terms, then it can be distinguished from “social control” as defined by Gibbs, Hirschi, or Black, and from social learning as delineated by Akers. One of Gibbs’s types of control is “referential” control, where one party attempts to influence a second party by invoking “reference” to shared normative authority. In fact, he argues that “referential” control attempts are most likely to be successful when there is consensus on a normative framework. If socialization refers to attempts to teach or learn that normative framework, then socialization can affect attempts at referential social control as well as their probability of success. Similarly, socialization would be linked to two of Hirschi’s social bonds, “belief,” which is measured as acceptance of conventional normative standards, and “commitment,” which is measured in terms of pursuit of conventional value-laden goals. Finally, as defined here, socialization would be most specifically linked with Akers’s normative learning mechanism in social learning theory.

Establishing Links with Other Sociological Specialties

In addition to the integration of specialties dealing with distinct forms of deviance and a more precise differentiation of sociological concepts, the sociology of deviance can be revived by reasserting its links to other specialties within sociology itself. In a review of the empirical status of social learning theory, Akers and Jensen (forthcoming) argue that the links between various theories of deviance and basic sociological concepts characterizing sociology in general have been lost. One reason for this loss is the tendency for contemporary criminologists to fall in one of two camps, one emphasizing variations over time and space among societies and social units at the aggregate level (sometimes called “nonreductionist”) and the other gathering data from individuals, couching their theories as “social psychological.” Continual warnings about the “ecological fallacy” (Robinson 1950), the erroneous extension of findings about variations at the ecological level to variations among individuals, have discouraged sociologists and criminologists from attempting to bridge those levels. Sociological variables and processes that may vary over time and space are treated as virtually irrelevant to understanding variation in behavior among individuals. At the individual level, researchers may measure “moral beliefs,” or “social bonds” that explain variation in samples of individuals, while nonreductionists focus on aggregate properties of social systems such as inequality, welfare policies, and institutional weaknesses. There is virtually no effort by scholars operating in the two “traditions” to propose how transitions can be made between these levels, and those advocating a nonreductionist approach give the impression that the two cannot be bridged.

One means of reintegration would be to combine the development of theories that demonstrate the relevance of knowledge about one form of deviance for fully understanding other forms with specific attention, theoretically and empirically, to related concepts in other specialties. For example, Nachman Ben-Yehuda (1981a, 1981b, 1985) points out that the European witch craze falls under the rubric of collective behavior (i.e., a “craze”). However, not only is there little discussion of what type of collective behavior it was (e.g., a “panic” versus a “craze”), but the fact that it was carried out through courts means that it takes on the properties of attempted social control through institutional machinery, characteristics that would disqualify it as a form of “collective behavior.” On the other hand, when the relevance of concepts of deviance, social control, and collective behavior for understanding the early-modern search for witches are considered together, a new set of questions are likely to be asked. Can waves of court processing involve “paniclike” processes? Are such waves of processing responses to panic in the general public? Were the targets of attacks on witches women who engaged in witchcraft, women in competition with men, women who violated gender norms, or random victims? When such questions are asked, ideas from a wide range of sociological specialties need to be considered.

Bridging the Quantitative-Qualitative Divide

When the concept of a “panic” is introduced into the discussion of “deviance,” it not only raises questions that require bridging sociological specialties but also leads to further discussion of social constructionism. One of the most common types of evidence used to highlight the constructionist position is any indication of a tenuous or fabricated “reality” as the impetus for defining a social problem, defining problematic people, or applying definitions and labels to specific people. In fact, the most impressive “deconstruction” of a problem from such a perspective is a demonstration that the alleged reality is a total fabrication or a dramatic distortion of some real-world events. Socially constructed myths can be exposed when information on the actual events that prompt the moral enterprise defining a problem can be shown to be an overdramatization or an overreaction to those events.

A common research theme in constructionist research is to examine the role of the media or the use of the media by various interest groups in the invention or definition of a social problem. Social constructionists can make a strong case for the view that “reality depends on perspective, and perspective is to a degree arbitrary” by demonstrating disparities among measures of reality. For example, Shelden, Tracy, and Brown (2001) state that data on gang-related articles in newspaper and magazines “demonstrates that media reporting of events does not always conform to reality” (p. 3). The specific pattern leading to that conclusion was the decline in news coverage “in recent years,” coupled with “steady growth in the number of gangs and the number of gang members” in “surveys of law enforcement agencies.” The gang problem could be interpreted as declining in one source of subjective imagery while remaining constant, or even increasing, using data pertinent to an alternative “subjective” reality.

In fact, the concept of a “moral panic” was introduced by social constructionists to encompass situations where the public, political, and media reactions to a troublesome event or “problem” appears to far exceed the actual magnitude or any changes in the magnitude of the problem (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994a, 1994b). The rediscovery of the “gang problem” in the 1980s is depicted by McCorkle and Miethe (2002) under the rubric of Panic: The Social Construction of the Gang Problem, and their analysis emphasizes the fabrication of many aspects of the problem. News about cocaine use among athletes is depicted as a problem fabricated through media hype with little or no relation to actual drug use (Reinarman and Levine 1989). Similar arguments have been proposed for problems ranging from the search for Satanists and witches in preschools (Richardson, Best, and Bromley 1991) to child abuse data (Best 1990) to the “crack-baby panic” (Logan 1999).

Constructionists’positions can range from interpretations where the problem is a virtual fabrication to milder forms where variations in some “measurable” form of “real-world” phenomena are allowed to enter into the social construction of the social problem. For example, Ben-Yehuda (2001) proposes what he calls “contextual constructionism,” a constructionist position that allows consideration of an “objective” foundation for deviance and social problems: Contextual constructionism argues that while deviance and social problems are the results of “claim-making” activities, the so-called objective dimension can be assessed and evaluated by an expert based on some form of scientific evidence (

This contextual approach does open the door for integrating two styles of research. Whenever a claim is made that a particular situation is a moral panic or a fabricated problem, it is incumbent on those making such claims to clearly demonstrate that there was no surge or wave of real-world events that prompted a panic. Similarly, it is incumbent on sociologists using positivist methods to ask to what degree a public or media reaction was an “overreaction” to any discernible change in behavior. Both the claim that it was primarily a social construction as well as any counterclaim that there was sone form of “objective” foundation require attention to data of some kind.


This research paper began with a reminder of basic sociological principles or themes shared by scholars with otherwise divergent perspectives on specific definitions and the appropriate subject matter for the sociology of deviance. Every textbook in the sociology of deviance highlights similar broad themes, identifies basic epidemiological perspectives, and introduces critical perspectives that challenge traditional theories. Indeed, the issues that were identified as “in need of” attention for progress in the sociology of deviance are academic and scholarly, and the discipline can survive quite well without addressing them.

However, there are features of the field that need attention to reinvigorate “sociological” interest in the specialty and generate new theoretical and research issues. Instead of debating about the best definition of deviance, the focus should be on interrelationships among properties of deviant phenomena when conceived of in different ways. Moreover, there has been far too little attention to basic sociological concepts, how they differ, and where they overlap. Similarly, specific attention to the relation between the properties of phenomena of interest to scholars in the study of deviance and their properties when viewed through conceptual lenses from other fields of sociology (e.g., collective behavior, social control) could reinvigorate sociological interest in the field.

Given the popularity and growth of criminology as an independent and interdisciplinary field of study, the findings that would reassert the importance of a sociology of deviance would be empirical demonstrations that a full understanding of crime requires an understanding of other forms of noncriminal deviance. Indeed, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime is actually a general theory of deviance in that it proposes positive relationships between forms of noncriminal deviance or rule breaking and criminal force and fraud. The “latent trait” emphasized in their theory is a general propensity for rule breaking. Akers’s social learning theory has been a general theory of deviance from its beginning, and Merton’s theory was a theory of deviance as well. An exclusive focus on behaviors defined as criminal or delinquent is not consistent with the major theories.

Within the specialty, the most important issue for progress in the twenty-first century is a rapprochement between social constructionist perspectives and perspectives that assume some measure of real variation in forms of deviance over time and among people and territories. Whether this perspective is called “contextual constructionism” or some other term, the hypothesis that there are measurable “positivist” foundations for forms of conduct defined as problematic within a society should be part of a modified constructionist approach to the study of deviance. Instead of rejecting each other’s methods as inadequate for a proper understanding of deviance, a cooperative dialogue between quantitative and qualitative researchers may yield the types of new ideas that prominent theorists believe to be in such short supply.


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