Positive Deviance Essay

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Dodge (1985: 17) formally introduced positive deviance into the sociology of deviant behavior to broaden the field beyond simply negative deviance – the ”offensive, disgusting, contemptible, annoying or threatening.” Sagarin (1985) immediately contested the term, calling it an oxymoron, initiating a ”fiery debate” over the concept’s viability, leading to ”at least nine different ways” in which the term was portrayed (West 2003).

The key issues centre on positive deviance’s normative and reactivist dimensions. If conforming to normative expectations is a continuum of social behavior, then negative (under-conformity) and positive (over-conformity) deviance are the outliers. For Dodge (1985: 18) positive deviance encompassed ”those persons and acts that are evaluated as superior because they surpass conventional expectations.”

In reactivist terms, under-conformist behavior receiving reactions of condemnation (e.g. theft, terrorism) is negative deviance while the same action gaining supportive responses (e.g. theft by Robin Hood, liberationist struggle) connotes positive deviance.

Positive deviance also described over-commitment to positively valued behaviors resulting in negatively perceived practices (e.g. fully committed to athletic training – using steroids, striving for a svelte body – turning to bulimia).

Sagarin (1985: 169) was also concerned that positive deviance collapsed together two ends of a continuum with ”nothing in common” and would so broaden studies of deviance that they would lose coherence and specific focus. Others countered that even when studies in deviance stay with traditional issues, positive deviance (over-conformity and/or positive reactivist) provides a necessary interrelated, analytic counter-point that sheds critical light on negative deviance.


  1. Dodge, D. L. (1985) The over-negativized conceptualization of deviance:   a  programmatic exploration. Deviant Behavior (6): 17-37.
  2. Sagarin, E. (1985) Positive deviance: an oxymoron. Deviant Behavior 6: 169-81.
  3. West, B. (2003) Synergies in deviance: revisiting the positive deviance debate. Online: Electronic Journal of Sociology.

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