The definition of deviancy, its origin, as well as its negative connotations, seems to shifts from behavior to behavior.
Deviance at times seems benign and morally neutral and simply to challenge normative categories of identity, in the case of homosexuals, atheists, and women who are single and/or working. All of these categories have existed as Foucaultian character 'types' in the form of modern media stereotypes, as portrayed as the media, even though they could also be easily classified as acts or as belief systems. A woman's desire to work is technically an 'act' but cultural stereotypes attach assumptions to this decision -- such as the idea that a woman who works is callous and uncaring about her children. A homosexual is technically someone who engages in same-sex sexual activity but has been characterized as effeminate, overly sexual, predatory, or 'less than a man' although the only real deviant, contingent characteristics of a homosexual is same-sex desire.
But in other cases, deviancy may potentially threaten the social order, such as safety, in the case of individuals who kill or steal. While certain environmental characteristics may explain such behavior, it is more difficult for society to engage in relativistic analysis about these actions and still remain functional. But even in these cases, it is important to reflect that there is a subjective, constructed aspect to such 'deviance.' In the American south during the Jim Crow era, men who lynched African-Americans were not considered deviant, although today we would consider them murderers. The Victorians attempted to create constructs of individuals with particular physiology, behaviors, and characteristics who were intrinsically murderous, or a murderous 'type,' in the way that individuals who were gay were said to be a certain 'type.' While it is arguably harder to view how society could function without a stringent definition of what constitutes murder, even the definition of a murderer is far more fluid than one might initially suspect.
Taking a positivist approach to deviance, whereby the 'act' is seen as inherently bad and worthy of punishment in a trans-cultural fashion is problematic. In the case of homosexuality, which today is said by most gay people to be mainly biologically rather than culturally or psychologically constructed, the cause is uncertain and cannot be easily 'dealt' with (Goode 2008). And although some individuals are threatened by the presence of homosexual acts, there is no clear reason why this 'deviance' should be eliminated at all. Also, even if the expression of sexuality is socially constructed, the specific types of desires and choices manifested by individuals are so complex in their origin, it is impossible to imagine eliminating a form of sexual expression and identity in a positivist fashion.
The failure of positivism
Even more obviously asocial actions, such as violence, are embedded in a web of biology and social license that the positivist is hard-pressed to explain. For the positivist, social control is a rational process, but deviant behavior is not consciously chosen: "Two actions that are superficially and mechanically similar may mean very different things to the participants as opposed to the individuals who react to the participants and what they are doing. i.e. homosexuality. So, what something is, is entirely dependent on how it is interpreted by the relevant audience, including the actor" (Goode 2008). A 'normal' person who grows up in a world where violence is normal may act violently. Soldiers in wartime are encouraged to defend their country, even when their actions in other contexts would be profoundly damaging to society. One cannot distill the action from the context and say it is deviant.
Constructivists would also point out, contrary to the positivist position, that even within the same society the definitions of deviance are in flux depending on where the behavior is manifest. This is also true for sexual behaviors: amongst artists, homosexuality is often tolerated, even by the mainstream public, as can be seen in the public embrace of gay actors, talk show hosts, and musicians. However, the tolerance of a gay politician or even a teacher at an elementary school might be less all-encompassing. Tolerance of deviance can thus vary amongst subcultures as well. And higher social status, higher levels of wealth, and esteem can all cause what might be considered 'deviant' in one person to be seen as merely eccentric in another.
When a particular group is arbitrarily defined as deviant, this can have negative consequences for society as well as the individual. Homosexuality, when treated as deviant can create a 'class' of individuals who are estranged from society. Socially estranged classes of individuals are often more likely to engage in other kinds of deviant behavior. This is the "distinction between primary deviance, the initial rule-breaking act, and secondary deviance, the labeled person's response of defense, attack or adaptation to the problems caused by the social reactions to their initial deviance" (Secondary deviance, 2010, Sociology index). Another good example of this might be individuals who are defined and treated as deviant because of their ethnicity, race, or religion. One reason some groups might have a higher rate of criminality than other groups is due to labeling theory -- when the primary 'deviance' is inscribed upon them based upon arbitrary factors such as their appearance, their subsequent alienation yields them to embrace secondary forms of deviancy, such as a criminal identity. "When this does happen and a person is engaging in secondary deviance, it can be said that they are following a deviant (or moral) career - a set of roles and expectations shaped largely by the reactions of others" (Secondary deviance, 2010, Sociology index). The label of deviance thus creates additional behaviors and makes multiple layers of deviance part of the individual's identity. While it is difficult to imagine a functional society where no 'deviance' at all is conceptualized, the relativistic nature of most categories of deviance is a reminder of the need for tolerance and compassion when dealing with categories of difference that do not have a negative impact upon others.
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