Sociology Of Deviance Essay, Research Paper
Quit often in our day-to-day lives we hear the word “deviance , but never truly know the concepts behind it. It is not a complicated term although it is one with many theories behind it giving a vast variety of interpretations of just what deviance is and is not. Questions arise as to its relativity. Of course, no one can proclaim deviance is not relative, as deviance is behavior that does not follow common perceptions. An important sociological concept states that people conform, or perform to societal expectation or norms (Brown, 1965). Conformity provides order in the society. Thus, when someone is doing something that the rest of society find unacceptable, or out of the ordinary, he or she is considered deviant.
While the definition of deviance may appear obvious, this is not necessarily the case for the sociology community. The sociology of deviance contains definitions of an extensive nature, which are branched off into several perspective groups. For example, sociologist Erving Goffman applies the concept of stigma, or more commonly, labeling; stating that ones behavior and actions deemed deviant are applied by others (Turner, 1996). Howard Becker s definition seems to be commonly accepted as an adequate description of this concept, asserting that deviance is whatever a social audience reacts against or labels as deviant. However, another sociologist, Erdwin Pfuhl, believes that the label deviant depends on a group s notion of actions and conditions that should and should not occur. This view also suggests that labels of deviance can change within different societies and times. One might ask why there are so many interpretations of deviance. The answer is rather simple. Due to its relative nature, people will interpret activities quite differently (Clinard, 1998). For instance, within certain sub- cultural groups it is normal to smoke marijuana. Yet, to the larger society, it is considered deviant. This is true even though there are large amount of people within the society using drugs recreationally. However, if the society were to legalize it, such as was done with alcohol, it would be sanctioned and therefore not be judged as deviant among the mass majority. A look at deviance through various perspectives will help shed light on different angles that relate to the concept.
Functionalism is a perspective advocated by such famous sociologists as Merton and Durkheim, viewing deviance as a clarification of moral boundaries, affirmation of norms, and promoter of social unity and social change. Merton s strain theory states that members of a society are socialized to desire certain goals, but many people are unable to achieve these goals in socially acceptable or legitimate ways. Sociologists, Cloward and Ohlin, address illegitimate opportunity structures and state that when legitimate means to achieving goals are not accessible to some members of society, the seek out illegitimate opportunity structures as a way of achieving goals (Turner, 1996).
Durkheim has examined the area of religion to look at moral interpretations of social organisms. In other words, while people who practice religions or philosophies believe they are doing so because it is the true religion, Durkheim sees the religion as fulfilling a social function. Durkheim observed that a believer is stronger and feels within himself a force that can endure things that are put forth in life (Jones, 1986). Durkheim saw religious beliefs as away to a way to dodge being labeled deviant. Durkheim was also aligned with William James who suggested that religious beliefs rested upon real experiences (1986). Durkheim also believed that religion was necessary. It is difficult for a society to live through transition and moral mediocrity as he has described in some of his work (1986). Even in Suicide his theory stated that religious people are less prone to particular deviant activity. Durkheim also relied on his theory of Anomie to explain a great deal of deviant behavior.
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Anomie draws upon the notion that the fragmenting effect of modern industry, village, kinship, and social authority, leaves a society without a set structure of norms. The widespread chaos may cause a break down of existing norms: it further reduces an individual s sense of belonging (Sev er, 1993). The original definition of Anomie included the idea of social isolation and disorganization, but Merton limited the concept to certain types of social disorganization (1993). Although Merton proposed this view as a general theory, later sociologists have attempted to redefine the concept (1993). A more modern advocate of the Anomie, is Alain Touraine, a well know contemporary sociologist who has written on a wealth of subjects; synthesized in his writings is the concept of Anomie. He states that student protest during the 1960 s and early 1970 s was partially attributed to aspects of the Anomie theory (1996).
In looking at deviance through the functionalist perspective one can see the earlier concept of deviance, as based on norms, acceptable. Deviance serves as a function that is perhaps necessary in society. For instance, rights of passage in any society may be considered deviant to another culture or to the society itself under certain conditions. Lets say that at a bachelor party, a man about to be married may be forgiven for his acts of deviant behavior. These behaviors may not be acceptable under any other conditions, but society sanctions rituals and rights of passage. This is most often expressed in group solidarity as opposed to individual behavior. Sometimes the function is latent in that it may not be seen right away or not be expressed in a direct cause and effect relationship.
The societal reaction perspective includes several theories of deviance, including labeling of the social construction of deviance. In looking at how society views deviant behavior, one also may credit reaction with causing deviance itself. For example, consistent with the labeling theory, a boy that we will call Derrick is considered bad when he is six years old, and goes through school under that label. Later, his second grade teacher is made aware of his misbehavior as a young child, and treats him as if he were still deviant. Derrick has been stigmatized at an early age due to label. The labeling theory is one way to explain how deviance is socially constructed.
According to Howard Becker, the notion of deviance is always socially constructed or that social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance; by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders , they become deviants (Turner, 1996). He further defined the term outsiders , as those who are judged by others to be deviant from others deemed normal members of the group; also, the person that is viewed as deviant may see the people making the rules as outsiders (1996).
Becker proclaimed that specific social groups create those social rules. He also established that we live in highly differentiated societies that are split along lines of social class, ethnicity, occupation, and culture. The resulting differences cause the development of divergent sets of rules that may conflict with, and perhaps contradict one another (Turner, 1996). Deviance is thus created by responses of people to different types of behavior; rules created and maintained to label behavior as deviant are not universally agreed upon (1996).
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The social reaction to deviance is significant. If a behavior is accepted it would not be considered deviant, nor would a person be treated differently. The way society views a behavior affects the continuation of that behavior or other related conduct. As discussed earlier, the definition of deviance is relative and in some sense, society constructs those various definitions as well. In looking at the labeling theory, the concept derived from a group of theorists who began to explore why, and how certain acts are deemed as criminal or deviant, and why others are not ( Labeling, 1997). They also wondered what made certain people criminal or deviant, and rather than look at criminals as evil persons, they saw them simply as individuals who had a criminal status placed upon them by both the justice system and the community ( 1997). In that respect, criminal acts are not in and of themselves, significant and of themselves significant, but the social reaction to them that is.
Deviance and the control of it were thought to involve a process of social definition, which elicits the response from others to an individual s behavior ( Labeling, 1997). This is crucial in terms of how an individual views himself. Becker said the following in 1963; Deviance is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender. The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied; deviant is behavior is behavior that people so label ( 1997, p.PG).
Labeling theory looks at the reaction of others and the subsequent effects of such reactions, which create deviance ( Labeling, 1997). When it becomes know that a person has engaged in deviant behavior, he or she is segregated from the larger society and labeled with names such as: whore, thief, abuser, and junky (1997).
In looking at this perspective today, one can see hoe social reaction is key to labeling. Women who had sex before marriage in the 1950 s, where considered wild . It was such a label that was attached and considered deviant. Today, because there are not many single adult women who remain virgins until the day of their wedding, the term wild does not carry the weight it once did. While some labels are obsolete, other labels are very much in vogue.
Today, we commonly distinguish people with politically correct labels, and do so to take the edge off the label. Instead of calling a person short, we could call them vertically challenged, or calling a child who cannot read, as being learning disabled, but the truth is hardly disguised. The person who is short will be called names, and the child who cannot read, will be placed in a special class and more than likely, be called stupid. The social reaction will be the same, and labels, even if they sound good, are still detrimental in accordance with the labeling theory.
In view of some critical perspectives, or social theories, which focus on social change, several critical perspectives emerge. Stephen Pfohl, for example on his theories of madness and powerlessness, seem to turn the world, and sociology for that matter, upside down. Pfohl notes that the new ritual technologies point to a radical expanse in the spaces through which capitol does its magic (1999). He states that because of this, boundaries of perception radically change, as there is an adjustment of reality as one enters a process of unlimited scope (1999). There is a sense of open system, where no one can find any perceptible, objective limits (1999). Due to the postmodern condition, social systems are changing rapidly, perhaps too rapidly for the average person to integrate. This may lead to an inability to understand boundaries and new norms. The Internet, for example, has created a new market for pornographers. In fact, pornography is now considered more acceptable in some societies were it was formerly taboo. Thus, things that had once not been acceptable, or considered deviant, are now part of cultural norms.
If the system is out of control, one must address the concept of system as a grounding element. Talcott Parsons defines systems as being a complex of interdependencies between parts, components, and processes, which involve other, defined relationships, and include interdependency between it and the surrounding environment. This concept may be applied to a variety of things such as those within the boundaries of social, biological, and mechanical labels (McLeish, 1993). Furthermore, numerous theorists commonly use the term social system, which is only one of many types (1993).
Talcott Parsons essentially defined systems for sociologists in the fifties and sixties, and also embraced core beliefs within his model (McLeish, 1993). Parsons noted that there are four exsisting sub-systems in any system, namely, adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and pattern maintenance (1993). This theory suggests that the system must be autonomous even if it is seemingly dependant on another system. It must adapt, have a purpose, and get along with others, as well as maintain itself in order to survive. However, critical theorists like to say that the system is not working, and in fact, everything is disorganized. One might compare this to the theory of anomie and the theory of chaos (1993).
Along with some of Pfohl s assertions, one might view the world and everyone in it as crazy. Pfohl often likes to say something along the lines of, We are doing the wrong dance. The proper dance for our time is to the siren song of the Mad Hatter, the insane asylum, the Marquis de Sade. (qtd. In Harowitz, 1993, p. 132). The concept is rather interesting but if one were to accept the premise that there is no order, and no systems, there would be no basis on which to evaluate society.
In looking at a variety of perspectives on deviance, several things become clear. Deviance is relative. One would have to accept the concept of order and the social system, if one were to accept deviance. Clearly, when a teenager decides his dye his or her hair blue and pierce a nostril, which is a sign of conformity. Many older individuals may look at those persons and consider it the epitome of deviant behavior. On the other hand there is probably no greater evidence of conformity than to look at adolescent behavior when trying to be accepted. It is quite ironic that the greatest evidence for the existence of conformity and stability is in deviance itself. The motivation for deviance in fact, is something due to conformity when someone wants to be accepted into a subcultural group. In any event, one can conclude that there is a rational order to every society, and that it simply gets of coarse and occasionally changes. Society has been around a great deal longer than technology, and social systems will not likely change simply due to innovations. It may appear that post modernism may have in fact made a significant change, but the differences are only minor when one looks at the big picture.
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Brown, Roger Social Psychology. New York Free Press, 1965.
Horowitz, I. L. (1993). The end of sociology? Public Interest,
Jones, R.A. (1986). Emile Durkheim An Introduction to Four Major Works. Beverly Hills, CA. (excerpts reprinted The Durkheim Pages. (1999, January 7). [Online] Available
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Kerr, C. (1996). On Alain Touraine. Society, 33, 66.
Labeling Theory Criminological Theory Main Page. (1997, November 20). Criminological Theory [Online] Available