Deviance Essay

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Generally speaking, deviance is behavior that a group or society considers inappropriate. Approaches to deviance are primarily biological, psychological, or sociological. Typically, biological and psychological approaches view deviance as a result of a defect or character flaw within the individual. Sociological explanations accept that individuals have free choice but emphasize that often societal forces shape one’s choices, including the choice to engage in deviant behavior.

Every group or society attempts to regulate its members’ behavior and actions through norms of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Such general norms, often classified as folkways or mores, with the latter deemed more important and carrying strict penalties for violators, find enforcement through both positive and negative sanctions. Positive sanctions are rewards for acceptable behavior, while negative sanctions are punishments for undesirable behavior.

Because of the highly relative nature of societal norms from society to society and through time, deviance is a highly relative concept. For example, U.S. society today does not view premarital intercourse by a female as a violation of significant norms and thus cares little for any punishment. More traditional cultures, such as in the Middle East, consider this as highly deviant behavior punishable by death, even if government criminal laws may prohibit such punishment. Various studies show that the public considers a wide range of behaviors as deviant, depending on the respondents’ culture and socioeconomic status.

White-Collar and Corporate Crime

Deviance exists at all socioeconomic levels. Typically, property crimes correlate more often with the lower class, and white-collar and corporate crime is more characteristic of the middle and upper classes. White-collar crime refers to the violation of law by individuals of high social position as part of their day-to-day professional activities. Typical types of white-collar crime include insider trading and financial fraud and also can include an attorney who deliberately over-bills clients or doctors ordering unnecessary tests for fees. The most popular examples in the media focus on the illegal activities of corporate executives who defraud their own companies, the public, and often the government. Enron’s top executives provided an extreme example in which fraudulent activities led to the ultimate collapse of one of the largest U.S. corporations.

Corporate crime differs from white-collar crime in that the corporation as an institution engages in deliberate violations of law. Victims of such crime include consumers, government, and employees. Common examples of corporate crime include environmental pollution through inappropriate disposal of waste, the sale of products known to be unsafe, and various forms of financial fraud. In extreme cases corporations have even violated international laws governing national sovereignty to protect their financial interests when threatened. For example, International Telephone & Telegraph in the 1970s collaborated with the Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. It then installed Augusto Pinochet, one of Latin America’s most brutal dictators.

Both white-collar and corporate crime is committed primarily for financial gain. What distinguishes these types of deviance from others is that the perpetrators often do not see themselves as committing crimes. Rather, they see themselves as industry innovators persecuted for their business success. Ex-Enron chief executive officer Jeffrey Skilling, convicted of fraud and insider trading, consistently characterized his activities as innovative rather than illegal.

Drugs and Deviance

Another major area concerning deviance relates to drug abuse and efforts by law enforcement to curb distribution. Drug abuse is not limited to illegal substances such as heroin and cocaine. It also includes abuse of over-the-counter and prescription drugs, most commonly pain medications. Reasons for drug abuse are varied, ranging from escapism to recreational use. Drug abuse occurs throughout all socioeconomic levels, but social class is a factor in the type of drug used. For example, professional and middle- to upper-class abusers typically use cocaine, whereas lower-class abusers more commonly use crack, a cocaine derivative.

A major issue related to drug abuse is how society determines which drugs are legal. This question is often not answered based on the actual effects of the drug but rather the perceived harm. For example, tobacco and alcohol are legally available in the United States, but marijuana is not. Compared with other illegal substances, marijuana use is not addictive, and its negative health impacts are more comparable to legalized tobacco than to other illegal drugs. Moreover, marijuana has been found to have various positive effects especially for medicinal use, such as treating loss of appetite associated with cancer therapies, and as an effective painkiller without the severe side effects of prescription drugs. Although tobacco and alcohol kill many times more people than all illegal drugs combined, they are nonetheless legally sold. The reason often given for this contradiction is that society’s reaction to a drug is based on perception and moral beliefs rather than scientific evidence.

Functions of Deviance

Not all deviance is necessarily negative. For example, one can be a deviant but for a noble cause, such as those who engaged in civil disobedience to promote racial equality in the 1960s. Emile Durkheim was one of the first social scientists to recognize that deviance could also have functional benefits for society at large. First, identifying deviance sets the moral boundaries between right and wrong. Second, by defining deviance we also define acceptable norms and values. Third, the concept creates a sense of group cohesion in terms of “us versus them.” Finally, deviant behavior often functions as a mechanism for change by challenging existing ways of thinking. For example, art is often shocking in that it challenges our way of thinking about various issues.

Major Perspectives

Historically, people viewed deviance as a result of demonic possession, biological defects, and psychological problems. Seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, residents saw lesbians and assertive women as deviants, attributing their behavior to witchcraft or demonic position, and so burned them to death. In late 19th-century Italy, Cesare Lombroso, a physician, hypothesized that deviance had biological origins. As such, he believed that deviants could be identified by common physical characteristics, such as low foreheads. Lombroso reached these conclusions by examining the body types of prison populations without realizing that such traits were common in the general population. By the mid-20th century, William Sheldon believed criminality could be predicted by body structure. In contrast, psychologists identify internal psychological problems as the cause of deviance, but in the second half of the 20th century, sociological explanations of deviant behavior became more widely accepted.

Positivist Perspectives

The positivist perspective, generally associated with the natural sciences and law enforcement, defines deviance as intrinsically real and makes three assumptions about it. The first is absolutism, the belief that something intrinsically real regarding the deviants’ behavior sets them apart from conventional society. Second is objectivism, the reality that deviance can be objectively studied and quantified, such as with statistical police reports. Third is determinism, the belief that variables outside of the deviant’s control will cause the deviant act. Examples of positivist theories would include Robert Merton’s strain theory, Edwin Sutherland’s social learning theory, and control theory, exemplified by Hirschi’s social bond and self-control theory.

Strain Theory

This positivist theory exemplifies the sociological perspective called structural-functionalism. Merton had argued that every society encourages its citizens to pursue certain legitimate goals, such as wealth, with corresponding legitimate means, such as obtaining an education and a career. However, some people may experience a disconnect between the legitimate means and goals and thus experience strain, prompting five modes of adaptation (responses). First is conformity, when the goals and means are accepted (e.g., a college graduate pursuing wealth through a career). Second is innovation, where a person “innovates” new illegitimate means toward the goal (e.g., becoming a drug dealer or prostitute). Third is ritualism, by which a person accepts the means but cares little about the goal (e.g., doing enough to keep a job without extra effort or interest in obtaining promotions and bonuses). Fourth is retreatism, where the individual rejects all legitimate means and goals, (e.g., by becoming a hermit or severe drug user). Fifth is rebellion, when a person rejects both means and goals and replaces them with his or her own alternative set (e.g., the hippies of the 1960s who rejected American materialism in favor of a natural way of life).

Social Learning Theory

Differential association is an interactionist sociological perspective which treats deviance as a socially learned behavior through interaction with deviants. Edwin Sutherland argued that individuals associating more with people who have deviant ideas than with conformists are more likely to become deviant themselves. This is more likely to occur within small primary groups. Associating with deviants is only a first step, however. A person must also identify with the deviants and act accordingly before becoming one of them.

Control Theory

Control theory argues that conformity results from social controls placed on the individual by society. Travis Hirschi argued that everyone has an innate tendency to deviate from social norms. However, if our bond to society is strong, we will choose to conform. Accordingly, people bond to society in four ways, namely (1) attachment to conventional people; (2) commitment to conformity by investing in conventional activities such as an education; (3) involvement in conventional activities, which reduces the time available for other activities; and (4) a belief in the validity of the existing social rules.

Constructionist Perspectives

This more recent perspective, which emerged in the 1960s, sees deviant behavior as a social construct, determined by how society reacts to certain behaviors, which in and of themselves are not intrinsically bad or good, such as getting a tattoo. Constructionists also make three assumptions regarding the nature of deviance. First is relativism, the belief that deviance is not intrinsically real but rather a socially imposed label upon that behavior. Second is subjectivism, the idea that there is nothing objective regarding deviant behavior, thereby requiring its study from the subjective perspective of the deviants themselves. Third is voluntarism, a view of deviant behavior as a result of free will without external causes. Examples of constructionist theories include labeling, relativist, phenomenological, and power theory.

Labeling Theory

Labeling theory fits within the sociological perspective of symbolic interactionism. This theory argues that what is important is neither the cause nor the deviant act in itself but the meaning that people attach to it, who applies the label, and the resultant consequences on the labeled and labelers. According to this theory, those with power define and impose the label of deviant or conformist on others who may or may not actually deserve it. The labeled, in turn, may eventually come to accept the deviant label in a self-fulfilling prophecy. A person who commits an initial deviant act (primary deviation) will face societal sanctions even though the person may not see himself or herself as a deviant at the time. If the person repeats the behavior (secondary deviation), society will impose harsher penalties and eventually stigmatize the violator as a deviant. The violator may eventually come to accept the label and continue the expected deviant behavior.

Conflict, Marxist, and Power Theory

Conflict theorists argue that deviance results from differences in either social class or culture. Marxists believe that capitalism, as an economic system and in its coercive control over the working class, induces deviant behavior caused by alienation from production, society, and oneself. Conflict theorists maintain that the wealthy and powerful elite of a society define as deviant any behavior that poses a threat to their wealth or privileged social position. For example, laws protecting private property benefit the rich and their extensive wealth more than they do the working class, who may not have any property. Power theorists argue that the extent of one’s power determines the type of deviant action. For example, the powerful— encountering weaker social controls—have a greater deviant opportunity because of their skills and position in society. Combined with higher expectations of success, this may cause feelings of relative deprivation and a stronger deviant motivation. Thus the powerful are more likely to engage in more profitable white-collar and corporate crime. The powerless, who face greater social controls and who have fewer skills and lower positions, are more likely to engage in less profitable blue-collar crime like robbery.

Deviance is difficult to define because of the relative nature of societal norms governing behavior. In general, a high social consensus exists regarding some forms of deviance, such as murder and rape. In these cases, the focus tends to be placed on prevention, deterrence, and containment of the deviant. In other instances, a lower degree of social consensus exists as to what is deviant. These cases generally involve behaviors regulated by informal codes of everyday behavior, such as cell phone use in public places.


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