Deviance in Society the Sociology Essay

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For example, the young woman knows it is wrong because her friends have spoken to her in the past about how awful stealing is. They have seen her steal before and told her that she is wrong. Among her friends, she is known as a thief. Deviance here has less to do with self-determination than the judgment of others. It is this external judgment of the audience that acts as the social control, if it works, and social reaction makes someone a deviant outsider. Becker (1963) says, "Social groups create deviance by making rules whose infractions constitute deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders" (1963, p. 9). Wanting not to be stigmatized as an outsider creates the social control that keeps people conformist. In this view, the woman would choose not to steal if she were concerned about avoiding stigmatization. In our example, she is not.

Labeling does not ignore socio-economic conditions. Grove (1975) writes, "In general, it is their formulation that those on the margin of society, particularly those who have little power and few resources, are those who are least able to resist a deviant label and are therefore most likely to be channeled into a deviant role" (p. 5). It is noticed that labeling wants to talk about how people develop solidified patterns of deviancy, like self-fulfilling prophecies, that are almost irreversible. They speak of being processed as deviants and passing through degradation ceremonies by which they acquire inferiority and deviant self-image. With such explanations, both of the thieves might be caught and socially typed as deviant. Their struggle would become how to cast off the label and overcome social exclusion. In the labeling perspective, however, they have little chance since the stigma encourages repetition of the deviant behavior.

The labeling view falls into the camp of interactionist approaches (see Rubington & Weinbert, 1968). It is interpretative more than objective. The interactionist paradigm presupposes, as Matsueda (1992) has written, that "the social order is the product of an ongoing process of social interaction and communication" (p. 158). The meaning of an act must be assigned, not found, and multiple meanings of a behavior are possible. Yet meaning is always negotiated together in a social process. Warren and Karner (2005) describe two assumptions on which labeling logic is based -- that "the analysis of society is made from some standpoint or perspective that informs the analysis" and that "social constructionists use qualitative methods to try to understand the meanings that people bring to social worlds they inhabit and construct" (p. 4). One of the advantages of this approach is that it sees conformist and deviant behavior in term of social integration. Every interaction must be studied with reference to shared meanings, expectations, and reflected appraisals that are built and applied through interaction. These are not predetermined. The normative view does not adequately grasp this because it focuses on how invisible social structures influence people toward deviance in an almost unalterable way.

Let's change our example once again. The young wealthy woman enters a grocery store in her upper class neighborhood. This time she does not steal a soda, but she stands before the display and proceeds to unscrew the tops of the soda bottles, breaking their safety seal. At first, she is alone in the aisle so no one sees her. Then someone notices and gives her a dirty stare. She has been stigmatized for her abnormal behavior in the interaction between witness and perpetrator. The audience responds with censure because the meaning of the woman's action is understood as non-normative. It threatens public safety in her view. When the witness asks her what she is doing, the young woman replies that she is making a statement against the oppressive and unethical soda pop companies that fill children with corn syrup and exploit developing nations. Yet she is not socially or economically disadvantaged. Her values are just different from those in her neighborhood, where criticism of a successful corporation is anathema.

Labeling theory would say that unscrewing caps of soda bottles is deviant because it has been exposed to a stigmatizing gaze. But can it explain the woman's deviance? She acts without personal gain or from subcultural pressure. Her principle is the subversion of corporations, an ethical motive. She feels justified, and her ethics launch her above the social control of stigma. She is not interested in whether or not others agree with her. She believes that the more people are informed of corporate immorality, the more they will stop seeing such subversions as deviant. Labeling theory does not explain this behavior. It merely points out the ways in which the stigma of labels is applied to censure behavior.

More compelling than either of these major theories is some view that takes such value-oriented actions in a different direction. For example, sometimes violations of normative behavior can be admired. This notion of "positive deviance" is interesting. It happens often today that someone works hard to please others or gain recognition only to be labeled as a brown nose or geek. This is an advancement over classical labeling theory, for it shows how even acceptable behavior can draw negative responses. But the example of the anti-corporate woman points to something else. Heckert and Heckert (2004) explain positive deviance as "overconformity that is responded to in a confirmatory fashion" (p. 213). Falling into this category are saints and war heroes who are praised for their abnormal devotion. The example is not this, but she is similar. Positive deviance occurs also when an act normally viewed as censurable is positively evaluated or admired. For example, social bandits like Robin Hood or Che Guevara committed crimes but received the approval of popular society. In some sense, these heroes fuse the normative and labeling perspectives. The young anti-capitalist, from this point-of-view, could be considered deviant or not depending on one's perspective. This kind of fusion points toward an inclusive and integrative model that would be instructive for the sociology of deviance. The best model will be one that understands social forces and human choice, that grasps cultural and gender diversity, that pushes for social justice rather than relies on normative views of deviance, and that can successfully explain different kinds of deviance.


Bartollas, Clemens. 2007. "Juvenile Delinquency." In 21st Century Sociology: a Reference Handbook (vol. 1). Bryant, C.D., & Peck, D.L., Eds, pp. 425-433. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference.

Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press.

Best, Joel. 2004. Deviance: Career of a Concept. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Bryant, C.D., & Peck, D.L., Eds. 2007. 21st Century Sociology: a Reference Handbook (vol. 1). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference.

Erickson, Kai T. 1962. "Notes on the sociology of deviance." Social Problems 9: 307-314.

Gibbs, Jack P. 1981. Norms, Deviance, and Social Control: Conceptual Matters. New York: Elsevier.

Goode, Erich. 2004. "The 'Death' Macguffin Redux: Comments on Best." Deviant Behavior 25: 493-509.

____. 2007. "The Sociology of Drug Use." In 21st Century Sociology: a Reference Handbook (vol. 1). Bryant, C.D., & Peck, D.L., Eds, pp. 415-424. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference.

Gove, Walter R., Ed. 1975. The Labelling of Deviance: Evaluating a Perspective. New York: Halsted Press.

Henslin, James. M., Ed. 2007. Down to Earth Sociology: Introductory Readings (14th Ed.). New York: Free Press.

Jensen, Gary F. 2007. "The Sociology of Deviance." In 21st Century Sociology: a Reference Handbook (vol. 1). Bryant, C.D., & Peck, D.L., Eds, pp. 370-79. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference.

Kaplan, Howard B., and Johnson, Robert J. 2001. Social Deviance: Testing a General Theory. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

Lemert, Edwin M. 1972.…[continue]

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