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Defining Deviance

Defining deviance is not a straightforward problem.


How about a list of deviant behaviours or identities? Problem: that list is too long and its not clear what belongs and what doesnt!

We can collapse that list into more general categories.


Crime (excluding suicide) Mental disorders Sexual deviance Substance abuse Physical disorders Suicide Etc. (impoliteness, dressing oddly, being American, and so on and on)

We can attempt to define deviance instead of classifying it.


Clearly, any attempt to classify will result in a virtually endless list. Defining a concept is more appropriate as the definition can comprise many examples. We will review five definitions of deviance.

Definition 1: The Statistical Definition


Deviance is any behaviour or condition that represents a departure from majority and/or average experience. This is a very concrete and clear definition. Problem 1: This definition is overly inclusive: It makes everyone deviant. Problem 2: Most people determine deviance according to what ought to be, not what is.

The Absolutist Definition


Deviance is any aberration from a given, absolute set of standards of conduct, such as standards imposed by religious or psychiatric authority. Problem 1: There is almost always disagreement over absolute standards. Problem 2: Even if one standard is absolutely true, it tells us nothing about sociologically-relevant topics such as the social organization of deviants. Problem 3: That absolute truth may in fact be in the hands of a tiny minority and it would be odd to charge that all nonfollowers are deviant.

The Reactivist Definition


From Howard Becker: The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label. Problem 1: the definition asserts that unobserved behaviour cannot be deviant. Problem 2: it also asserts that the label deviance has nothing to do with the behaviour per se but only the process of defining something as deviant.

The Normative Definition


Deviance is a violation of a norm, a sociallyshared standard of conduct. Norms are social properties that suggest what persons should/should not do as well as what behaviours are normal in certain situations. This is the most popular sociological definition of deviance- main criticism is that norm is an inherently vague and relativistic concept.

The Legalist Definition


This definition provides a concrete benchmark for a normative view of deviance: Deviance is an act that breaches a law. Problem 1: Not all deviant acts are illegal. Problem 2: Not all illegal acts are deviant.

Some last words on norms


A norm is not necessarily a rule. Rules are often imposed by those in power, not socially shared. Violations of rules is, in the case of sports for example, perfectly acceptable and not deviant. Violation of norms is always deviant. An individuals negative response to an act is not what makes the act deviant. Norms are, again, social things, not matters of individual taste or intolerance.