Positivist Theories of Deviance Essay

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Sociologists define deviance as the violation of a norm that, if discovered, typically results in punishment, scorn, or stigmatization of the offender. The normative violation can include acts, beliefs, and traits or characteristics. In the social sciences, positivism is usually defined as the natural science approach to social life. This means that the methods by which scientists study the world of biology, chemistry, and physics can be applied — taking their different subject matter into account, of course — to the social and political worlds.

The sociological positivist theories that attempt to explain or account for normative violations include but are not limited to social disorganization theory; anomie theory; learning theory; social control theory; and self-control theory.

Social Disorganization Theory

During the 1920s, the sociology faculty at the University of Chicago developed a perspective that has come to be called the Chicago School, or social disorganization theory. These researchers thought the cause of deviance to be the instability of entire neighborhoods and communities. Regardless of their individual characteristics, people who live in such communities have higher rates of non-normative behaviors than persons residing in more stable communities. What makes for unstable or disorganized communities is a lack of social control. By the 1940s, the Chicago School had become regarded as obsolete. But by the late 1980s, social disorganization theory experienced a rebirth of interest, and is now a major perspective in the study of deviance.

Anomie Theory

Closely associated with the early work of Robert Merton (1968), the anomie perspective was a structural theory of crime and delinquency. Modern societies, Merton reasoned, especially the United States, offered their residents substantial opportunities. But while status goals, like materialism and wealth, are stressed, access to these goals is limited and legitimate ways to achieve those goals are not stressed. So while some groups will be successful in achieving goals, others will be frustrated in their search for success. As a result, some will turn to illegitimate means by which to reach their success goals.

Learning Theory

There are a number of learning theories of deviance, but one of the most respected is criminologist Edwin Sutherland’s (1947) theory of differential association. Crime and other forms of deviance are the result of learning criminal norms. Sutherland, like other learning theorists, believed that the most powerful learning takes place in small, intimate groups among people who know one another well, such as close friends. Sutherland called the content of most of this learning ”definitions favorable to violation of law.” In other words, the content of the learning was a justification or motivation to commit a crime. Crime is neither inherited nor inevitable. Rather, it is acquired from others in a process of communication and interaction.

Social Control Theory

Social control theory, or more conventionally just control theory, asserts that deviance is not so much learned or the result of societal pressure as simply not controlled (Hirschi 1969). Most of the control in this theory is the individual’s bond with society. The closer the bond, the less likely that person will commit a deviant act. There are several elements of the bond, including attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. Control theory generated a good deal of research and was a leading positivist theory in the 1970s and 1980s.

Self-Control Theory

Self-control theory, developed by Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi (1990), is a theory with both learning and control elements. Self-control theory posits that through the general socialization process, some people fail to develop self-control over their behavior. They are therefore more likely to engage in risky acts, including crime, and other behavior that overlooks or neglects the long-term consequences of continuing to engage in that behavior.


  1. Gottfredson, M. & Hirschi, T. (1990) A General Theory of Crime. Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, CA.
  2. Hirschi, T. (1969) Causes of Delinquency. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  3. Merton, R. K. (1968) Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press, New York.
  4. Sutherland,    H.   (1947)   Criminology,   4th edn. Lippincott, Philadelphia.

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