Sociological Theories of Deviance: Definitions and Theoretical Perspectives

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  • 0:06 Deviance
  • 3:01 Durkheim's Theory
  • 5:30 Merton's Strain Theory
  • 7:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell
There is a diverse range of behaviors in society that goes against expectations and cultural norms. In this lesson, we define and go over some examples of the different types of deviance. We also discuss two sociological theories about deviance created by Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton.


Yesterday, Tyler walked into the 24-hour convenience store and robbed the cashier. Anna received a ticket for driving ten miles faster than the speed limit. Gretchen, who was just married, decided to keep her maiden name instead of taking her husband's surname. Of these three individuals, which would you label as a 'deviant?' Would it surprise you that all three would actually be considered deviants in our society?

Deviance is defined as any action that is perceived as violating a society's or group's cultural norm. Norms dictate what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behavior across cultures. One category of deviance is crime, which occurs when someone violates a society's formal laws. Criminal deviance spans a wide range of behavior, from minor traffic violations to arson to murder. Our previous examples of Tyler robbing a convenience store and Anna driving over the speed limit both fit into this category. However, laws make up only one piece of a complex system of countless rules - formal, informal, written, implied, etc. - to which we are expected to conform. Any act of nonconformity to these rules is considered deviant.

For example, something as simple as wearing sweat pants to work is an act of nonconformity to a (usually) informal rule/expectation, and it makes that someone a deviant. Small deviant acts like this are very common. How many people do you know (including yourself) that have forgotten to return a library book on time, ran a red light, or played hooky from work or school?

Nonconformity isn't always a negative instance of rule breaking. We can also include behaviors that fall into the category of 'overachievement' as deviant. What deviant actions - negative or positive - have in common is that they are different from the norm. Gretchen is clearly not performing an act of criminal deviance by choosing to keep her maiden name. However, taking the husband's surname is a norm in our society. Because she violated that norm, she is still performing a deviant act.

The concept of deviance is complex because norms vary across cultures, and what one group or society considers deviant, may not be considered deviant in another group or society. Sociologists study patterns of deviance and how they differ between cultures. Two of the most prominent sociological theories of deviance are Emile Durkheim's deviance theory and Robert Merton's strain theory. Let's look at the unique perspective of each theory.

Durkheim's Deviance Theory

First, in Durkheim's deviance theory, he argued not only that deviance is a natural and necessary part of society but that it's actually impossible not to have deviance in a functional society. He used a monastery as an illustration: to outsiders, monks are extremely peaceful and therefore live in a near-Utopian society. However, even there, deviance still occurs. It may be as seemingly innocent (to us) as missing morning prayer, but in their society, this deviant behavior goes against the rules they have created to bring order to their society. Breaking one results in negative social reactions.

Since deviance can severely disrupt social order, it may seem like a paradox that it can actually be a good thing in society. However, according to Durkheim, deviance performs four essential functions. First, it affirms cultural norms and values. Seeing someone suffer or be punished for a deviant act reinforces what society sees as acceptable or unacceptable behavior. Second, deviance clarifies moral boundaries and teaches us right from wrong. Third, it brings people together. People become united in their shared response to deviance, like when people across the U.S. united in shock and grief after the attacks of September 11. Finally, according to Durkheim, the fourth function of deviance is that it encourages social change. American history is full of individuals who pushed society's moral boundaries and promoted social change, like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

One example of how deviance can promote social change is the fact that Gretchen keeping her maiden name is not as much of a 'big deal' as it used to be. In the past, women who did not take their husband's surname after marriage were considered scandalous. Keeping their maiden names greatly contradicted an important norm in society. Over time, however, as society reevaluated the rights of women, this norm became less important. Although the number of women who keep their maiden names is still very low, those who choose to do so today are no longer shunned from society.

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