You are on page 1of 7

Deviance

For sociologists, the term deviance does not mean perversion or depravity. Deviance is behavior that violates
the standards of conduct or expectations of a group or society. In the United States, alcoholics, compulsive
gamblers, and the mentally ill would all be classified as deviants. Being late for class is categorized as a
deviant act; the same is true of wearing jeans to a formal wedding. On the basis of the sociological definition,
we are all deviant from time to time. Each of us violates common social norms in certain situations (Best
2004). Is being overweight an example of deviance? In the United States and many other cultures, unrealistic
standards of appearance and body image place a huge strain on people—especially women and girls—based
on how they look. Journalist Naomi Wolf (1992) has used the term beauty myth to refer to an exaggerated
ideal of beauty, beyond the reach of all but a few females, which has unfortunate consequences. In order to
shed their “deviant” image and conform to unrealistic societal norms, many women and girls become
consumed with adjusting their appearances. Yet what is deviant in one culture may be celebrated in another.

Deviance involves the violation of group norms, which may or may not be formalized into law. It is a
comprehensive concept that includes not only criminal behavior but also many actions that are not subject to
prosecution. The public official who takes a bribe has defied social norms, but so has the high school student
who refuses to sit in an assigned seat or cuts class. Of course, deviation from norms is not always negative,
let alone criminal. A member of an exclusive social club who speaks out against a traditional policy of not
admitting women, Blacks, and Jews is deviating from the club’s norms. So is a police officer who blows the
whistle on corruption or brutality within the department. From a sociological perspective, deviance is hardly
objective or set in stone. Rather, it is subject to social definition within a particular society and at a particular
time. For that reason, what is considered deviant can shift from one social era to another. In most instances,
those individuals and groups with the greatest status and power define what is acceptable and what is
deviant. For example, despite serious medical warnings against the dangers of tobacco, made since 1964,
cigarette smoking continued to be accepted for decades—in good part because of the power of tobacco
farmers and cigarette manufacturers. Only after a long campaign led by public health and anticancer activists
did cigarette smoking become more of a deviant activity. Today, many state and local laws limit where
people can smoke.

Formal and informal social control


The sanctions that are used to encourage conformity and obedience—and to discourage violation of social
norms—are carried out through both informal and formal social control. As the term implies, people use
informal social control casually to enforce norms. Examples include smiles, laughter, a raised eyebrow, and
ridicule. In the United States and many other cultures, adults often view spanking, slapping, or kicking
children as a proper and necessary means of informal social control. Child development specialists counter
that such corporal punishment is inappropriate because it teaches children to solve problems through
violence. They warn that slapping and spanking can escalate into more serious forms of abuse. Yet, despite a
policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics that corporal punishment is not effective and can
indeed be harmful, 59 percent of pediatricians support the use of corporal punishment, at least in certain
situations. Our culture widely accepts this form of informal social control (Chung et al. 2009).

Romana Yasmeen, 161 0843 025 Page 1


Formal social control is carried out by authorized agents, such as police officers, judges, school
administrators, employers, military officers, and managers of movie theaters. It can serve as a last resort
when socialization and informal sanctions do not bring about desired behavior. Sometimes, informal social
control can actually undermine formal social control, encouraging people to violate social norms. Box 7-1
(page 156) examines binge drinking among college students, who receive conflicting messages about the
acceptability of the behavior from sources of social control. An increasingly significant means of formal
social control in the United States is to imprison people. During the course of a year, over 7 million adults
undergo some form of correctional supervision—jail, prison, probation, or parole. Put another way, almost 1
out of every 30 adult Americans is subject to this very formal type of social control every year (Sabol et al.
2009).

Sociological perspective on deviance


Why do people violate social norms? We have seen that deviant acts are subject to both informal and formal
social control. The nonconforming or disobedient person may face disapproval, loss of friends, fines, or even
imprisonment. Why, then, does deviance occur?

Functionalist perspective
According to functionalists, deviance is a common part of human existence, with positive as well as negative
consequences for social stability. Deviance helps to define the limits of proper behavior. Children who see
one parent scold the other for belching at the dinner table learn about approved conduct. The same is true of
the driver who receives a speeding ticket, the department store cashier who is fired for yelling at a customer,
and the college student who is penalized for handing in papers weeks overdue.

Durkheim’s Legacy Émile Durkheim ([1895] 1964) focused his sociological investigations mainly on
criminal acts, yet his conclusions have implications for all types of deviant behavior. In Durkheim’s view, the
punishments established within a culture (including both formal and informal mechanisms of social control)
help to define acceptable behavior and thus contribute to stability. If improper acts were not sanctioned,
people might stretch their standards of what constitutes appropriate conduct. Early explanations for behavior
that deviated from societal expectations blamed supernatural causes or genetic factors (such as “bad blood”
or evolutionary throwbacks to primitive ancestors). By the 1800s, substantial research efforts were being
made to identify biological factors that lead to deviance, and especially to criminal activity. Though such
research was discredited in the 20th century, contemporary studies, primarily by biochemists, have sought to
isolate genetic factors that suggest a likelihood of certain personality traits. Although criminality (much less
deviance) is hardly a personality characteristic, researchers have focused on traits that might lead to crime,
such as aggression. Of course, aggression can also lead to success in the corporate world, in professional
sports, or in other walks of life. The contemporary study of the possible biological roots of criminality is but
one aspect of the larger debate over sociobiology. In general, sociologists reject any emphasis on the genetic
roots of crime and deviance. The limitations of current knowledge, the possibility of reinforcing racist and
sexist assumptions, and the disturbing implications for the rehabilitation of criminals have led sociologists to
draw largely on other approaches to explain deviance (Sagarin and Sanchez 1988).

Sociologist Kai Erikson (1966) illustrated the boundary-maintenance function of deviance in his study of the
Puritans of 17th-century New England. By today’s standards, the Puritans placed tremendous emphasis on
conventional morals. Their persecution and execution of women as witches represented a continuing attempt

Romana Yasmeen, 161 0843 025 Page 2


to define and redefine the boundaries of their community. In effect, their changing social norms created
crime waves, as people whose behavior was previously acceptable suddenly faced punishment for being
deviant (R. Schaefer and Zellner 2011). Durkheim ([1897] 1951) introduced the term anomie into
sociological literature to describe the loss of direction felt in a society when social control of individual
behavior has become ineffective. Anomie is a state of normlessness that typically occurs during a period of
profound social change and disorder, such as a time of economic collapse. People become more aggressive
or depressed, which results in higher rates of violent crime and suicide. Since there is much less agreement
on what constitutes proper behavior during times of revolution, sudden prosperity, or economic depression,
conformity and obedience become less significant as social forces. It also becomes much more difficult to
state exactly what constitutes deviance.

Conflict perspective
Conflict theorists point out that people with power protect their interests and define deviance to suit their
needs. Sociologist Richard Quinney (1974, 1979, 1980) was a leading exponent of the view that the criminal
justice system serves the interests of the powerful. Crime, according to Quinney (1970), is a definition of
conduct created by authorized agents of social control— such as legislators and law enforcement officers—in
a politically organized society. He and other conflict theorists argue that lawmaking is often an attempt by
the powerful to coerce others into their morality (see also Spitzer 1975). This theory helps to explain why our
society has laws against gambling, drug use, and prostitution, many of which are violated on a massive scale.
(We will examine these “victimless crimes” later in the chapter.) According to conflict theorists, criminal law
does not represent a consistent application of societal values, but instead reflects competing values and
interests. Thus, the U.S. criminal code outlaws marijuana because of its alleged harm to users, yet cigarettes
and alcohol—both of which can be harmful to users—are sold legally almost everywhere. In fact, conflict
theorists contend that the entire criminal justice system in the United States treats suspects differently based
on their racial, ethnic, or social-class background. In many cases, officials in the system use their own
discretion to make biased decisions about whether to press charges or drop them, whether to set bail and how
much, whether to offer parole or deny it. Researchers have found that this kind of differential justice —
differences in the way social control is exercised over different groups—puts African Americans and Latinos
at a disadvantage in the justice system, both as juveniles and as adults. On average, White offenders receive
shorter sentences than comparable Latino and African American offenders, even when prior arrest records
and the relative severity of the crime are taken into consideration (Brewer and Heitzeg 2008; Sandefur 2008;
Schlesinger 2011).

The perspective advanced by conflict and labeling theorists forms quite a contrast to the functionalist
approach to deviance. Functionalists see standards of deviant behavior as merely reflecting cultural norms;
conflict and labeling theorists point out that the most powerful groups in a society can shape laws and
standards and determine who is (or is not) prosecuted as a criminal. These groups would be unlikely to apply
the label “deviant” to the corporate executive whose decisions lead to large-scale environmental pollution. In
the opinion of conflict theorists, agents of social control and other powerful groups can impose their own
self-serving definitions of deviance on the general public.

Feminist perspective
Feminist criminologists such as Freda Adler and Meda Chesney- Lind have suggested that many of the
existing approaches to deviance and crime were developed with only men in mind. For example, in the

Romana Yasmeen, 161 0843 025 Page 3


United States, for many years any husband who forced his wife to have sexual intercourse—without her
consent and against her will—was not legally considered to have committed rape. The law defined rape as
pertaining only to sexual relations between people who were not married to each other, reflecting the
overwhelmingly male composition of state legislatures at the time. It took repeated protests by feminist
organizations to get 163 changes in the criminal law defining rape. Beginning in 1993, husbands in all 50
states could be prosecuted under most circumstances for the rape of their wives. There remain alarming
exceptions in no fewer than 30 states, however. For example, the husband is exempt when he does not need
to use force because his wife is asleep, unconscious, or mentally or physically impaired. These
interpretations still rest on the notion that the marriage contract entitles a husband to sex (Bergen 2006). In
the future, feminist scholarship can be expected to grow dramatically. Particularly on topics such as white-
collar crime, drinking behavior, drug abuse, and differential sentencing rates between the genders, as well as
on the fundamental question of how to define deviance, feminist scholars will have much to say. We have
seen that over the past century, sociologists have taken many different approaches in studying deviance,
arousing some controversy in the process.

Crime: A sociological approach


Crime is a violation of criminal law for which some governmental authority applies formal penalties. It
represents a deviation from formal social norms administered by the state. Laws divide crimes into various
categories, depending on the severity of the offense, the age of the offender, the potential punishment, and
the court that holds jurisdiction over the case. Rather than relying solely on legal categories, however,
sociologists classify crimes in terms of how they are committed and how society views the offenses. In this
section we will examine six types of crime differentiated by sociologists: victimless crimes, professional
crime, organized crime, white-collar and technology-based crime, hate crimes, and transnational crime.

Victimless crimes
When we think of crime, we tend to think of acts that endanger people’s economic or personal well-being
against their will (or without their direct knowledge). In contrast, sociologists use the term victimless crime
to describe the willing exchange among adults of widely desired but illegal goods and services, such as
prostitution (Schur 1965, 1985). Some activists are working to decriminalize many of these illegal practices.
Supporters of decriminalization are troubled by the attempt to legislate a moral code for adults. In their view,
prostitution, drug abuse, gambling, and other victimless crimes are impossible to prevent. The already
overburdened criminal justice system should instead devote its resources to street crimes and other offenses
with obvious victims. Despite widespread use of the term victimless crime, however, many people object to
the notion that there is no victim other than the offender in such crimes. Excessive drinking, compulsive
gambling, and illegal drug use contribute to an enormous amount of personal and property damage. A person
with a drinking problem may become abusive to a spouse or children; a compulsive gambler or drug user
may steal to pursue his or her obsession. And feminist sociologists contend that prostitution, as well as the
more disturbing aspects of pornography, reinforce the misconception that women are “toys” who can be
treated as objects rather than people. According to critics of decriminalization, society must not give tacit
approval to conduct that has such harmful consequences (Melissa Farley and Malarek 2008). The
controversy over decriminalization reminds us of the important insights of labeling and conflict theorists
presented earlier. Underlying this debate are two questions: Who has the power to label gambling,
prostitution, and public drunkenness as “crimes”? And who has the power to label such behaviors as
“victimless”? The answer is generally the state legislatures, and in some cases, the police and the courts.

Romana Yasmeen, 161 0843 025 Page 4


Professional crime
Although the adage “Crime doesn’t pay” is familiar, many people do make a career of illegal activities. A
professional criminal, or career criminal, is a person who pursues crime as a day-to-day occupation,
developing skilled techniques and enjoying a certain degree of status among other criminals. Some
professional criminals specialize in burglary, safecracking, hijacking of cargo, pick-pocketing, and
shoplifting. Such people have acquired skills that reduce the likelihood of arrest, conviction, and
imprisonment. As a result, they may have long careers in their chosen professions. Edwin Sutherland (1937)
offered pioneering insights into the behavior of professional criminals by publishing an annotated account
written by a professional thief. Unlike the person who engages in crime only once or twice, professional
thieves make a business of stealing. They devote their entire working time to planning and executing crimes,
and sometimes travel across the nation to pursue their “professional duties.” Like people in regular
occupations, professional thieves consult with their colleagues concerning the demands of work, becoming
part of a subculture of similarly occupied individuals. They exchange information on places to burglarize, on
outlets for unloading stolen goods, and on ways of securing bail bonds if arrested.

Organized crime
A 1976 government report devotes three pages to defining the term organized crime. For our purposes, we
will consider organized crime to be the work of a group that regulates relations among criminal enterprises
involved in illegal activities, including prostitution, gambling, and the smuggling and sale of illegal drugs.
Organized crime dominates the world of illegal business just as large corporations dominate the conventional
business world. It allocates territory, sets prices for goods and services, and acts as an arbitrator in internal
disputes. A secret, conspiratorial activity, it generally evades law enforcement. It takes over legitimate
businesses, gains influence over labor unions, corrupts public officials, intimidates 165 witnesses in criminal
trials, and even “taxes” merchants in exchange for “protection” (National Advisory Commission on Criminal
Justice 1976). Organized crime serves as a means of upward mobility for groups of people struggling to
escape poverty. Sociologist Daniel Bell (1953) used the term ethnic succession to describe the sequential
passage of leadership from Irish Americans in the early part of the 20th century to Jewish Americans in the
1920s and then to Italian Americans in the early 1930s. Ethnic succession has become more complex,
reflecting the diversity of the nation’s latest immigrants. Colombian, Mexican, Russian, Chinese, Pakistani,
and Nigerian immigrants are among those who have begun to play a significant role in organized crime
activities (Chin 1996; Kleinknecht 1996).

White collar and technology based crime


Income tax evasion, stock manipulation, consumer fraud, bribery and extraction of kickbacks,
embezzlement, and misrepresentation in advertising—these are all examples of white-collar crime, illegal
acts committed in the course of business activities, often by affluent, “respectable” people. Edwin Sutherland
(1949, 1983) likened these crimes to organized crime because they are often perpetrated through
occupational roles. A new type of white-collar crime has emerged in recent decades: computer crime. The
use of high technology allows criminals to carry out embezzlement or electronic fraud, often leaving few
traces, or to gain access to a company’s inventory without leaving home. According to a study by the FBI
and the National White Collar Crime Center, over 300,000 Internet crimes are reported every year, ranging
from scams on online auction sites to identity theft (Internet Crime Complaint Center 2011). When Charles
Horton Cooley spoke of the self and Erving Goffman of impression management, surely neither scholar
Romana Yasmeen, 161 0843 025 Page 5
could have envisioned the insidious crime of identity theft. Each year about 14 percent of all adults find that
their personal information has been misused for criminal purposes. Unfortunately, with our society’s growing
reliance on electronic financial transactions, assuming someone else’s identity has become increasingly easy
(Vamosi et al. 2010). Identity theft does not necessarily require technology. A criminal can obtain someone’s
personal information by pick-pocketing or by intercepting mail. However, the widespread exchange of
information online has allowed criminals to access large amounts of personal information. Public awareness
of the potential harm from identity theft took a giant leap in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when
investigations revealed that several hijackers had used fraudulent IDs to open bank accounts, rent
apartments, and board planes. A law enacted in 2004 makes identity theft punishable by a mandatory prison
sentence if it is linked to other crimes. Still, unauthorized disclosures of information, even if accidental,
persist (Brubaker 2008). Sutherland (1940) coined the term white-collar crime in 1939 to refer to acts by
individuals, but the term has been broadened more recently to include offenses by businesses and
corporations as well. Corporate crime, or any act by a corporation that is punishable by the government,
takes many forms and includes individuals, organizations, and institutions among its victims. Corporations
may engage in anticompetitive behavior, environmental pollution, medical fraud, tax fraud, stock fraud and
manipulation, accounting fraud, the production of unsafe goods, bribery and corruption, and health and
safety violations (J. Coleman 2006). For many years, corporate wrongdoers got off lightly in court by
documenting their long history of charitable contributions and agreeing to help law enforcement officials
find other white-collar criminals. Unfortunately, that is still the case. The highly visible jailing of multimedia
personality Martha Stewart in 2004, as well as recent disclosures of “Wall Street greed,” may lead the casual
observer to think that government is cracking down on white-collar crime. However, an independent analysis
found that from 2000 through 2009, the number of white-collar crimes that were prosecuted increased only
modestly (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse 2009). The leniency shown to white-collar criminals
is not limited to the United States. Japan did not level a fine for insider trading on a major financial
corporation until 2012. The profit from the crime was about $119,000; the penalty was $600 (Fukase and
Inagaki 2012). Even when a person is convicted of corporate crime, the verdict generally does not harm his
or her reputation and career aspirations nearly so much as conviction for street crime would. Apparently, the
label “white-collar criminal” does not carry the stigma of the label “felon convicted of a violent crime.”
Conflict theorists don’t find such differential treatment surprising. They argue that the criminal justice
system largely disregards the crimes of the affluent, focusing on crimes committed by the poor. Generally, if
an offender holds a position of status and influence, his or her crime is treated as less serious, and the
sanction is much more lenient.

Hate crime
In contrast to other crimes, hate crimes are defined not only by the perpetrators’ actions, but by the purpose
of their conduct. The government considers an ordinary crime to be a hate crime when the offender is
motivated to choose a victim based on race, religion, ethnic group, national origin, or sexual orientation, and
when evidence shows that hatred prompted the offender to commit the crime. Hate crimes are sometimes
referred to as bias crimes (Department of Justice 2008). In 1990, Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics
Act, which created a national mandate to identify crimes based on race, religion, ethnic group, and national
origin. (Before that time, only 12 states had monitored such crimes.) Since then the act has been broadened
to include disabilities, both physical and mental, and sexual orientation. In addition, some jurisdictions
impose harsher sanctions (jail time or fines) for hate crimes than for other crimes. For example, if the penalty

Romana Yasmeen, 161 0843 025 Page 6


for assault is a year in jail, the penalty for an assault identified as a hate crime might be two years. In 2011,
law enforcement agencies submitted data on hate crimes to the federal government. The statistics included
official reports of more than 7,600 hate crimes and bias-motivated incidents. As Figure 7-2 shows, race was
the apparent motivation in approximately 47 percent of the reports. Although vandalism and intimidation
were the most common crimes, 40 percent of the incidents involved assault, rape, or murder. The vast
majority of hate crimes, although not all of them, are committed by members of the dominant group against
those who are relatively powerless. One in every six racially based hate crimes is an anti-White incident.
Except for the most horrific hate crimes, these offenses receive little media attention; anti-White incidents
probably receive even less. Clearly, hostility based on race knows no boundaries (Department of Justice
2011b).

Transitional crimes
More and more, scholars and police officials are turning their attention to transnational crime , or crime
that occurs across multiple national borders. In the past, international crime was often limited to the
clandestine shipment of goods across the border between two countries. But increasingly, crime is no more
restricted by such borders than is legal commerce. Rather than concentrating on specific countries,
international crime now spans the globe. Historically, probably the most dreadful example of transnational
crime has been slavery. At first, governments did not regard slavery as a crime, but merely regulated it as
they would the trade in goods. In the 20th century, transnational crime grew to embrace trafficking in
endangered species, drugs, and stolen art and antiquities. Transnational crime is not exclusive of some of the
other types of crime we have discussed. For example, organized criminal networks are increasingly global.
Technology definitely facilitates their illegal activities, such as trafficking in child pornography. Beginning in
the 1990s, the United Nations began to categorize transnational crimes; Table 7-3 lists some of the more
common types. Bilateral cooperation in the pursuit of border criminals such as smugglers has been common
for many years. The first global effort to control international crime was the International Criminal Police
Organization (Interpol), a cooperative network of European police forces founded to stem the movement of
political revolutionaries across borders. While such efforts to fight transnational crime may seem lofty—an
activity with which any government should cooperate—they are complicated by sensitive legal and security
issues. Most nations that have signed protocols issued by the United Nations, including the United States,
have expressed concern over potential encroachments on their national judicial systems, as well as concern
over their national security. Thus, they have been reluctant to share certain types of intelligence data. The
terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, increased both the interest in combating transnational crime and
sensitivity to the risks of sharing intelligence data (Deflem 2005; Felson and Kalaitzidis 2005).

Romana Yasmeen, 161 0843 025 Page 7