Deviance in Sociology: Definition, Theories & Examples

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  • 0:02 Deviance
  • 0:53 Theories & Examples
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Moffitt

Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.

Deviance is defined as the recognized violation of cultural norms. Learn more about the definition and some of the major theories attached to deviance and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Deviance

When most of us think of deviant behavior, we think of someone who is breaking the law or acting out in a negative manner. 'Different' or 'unexpected' are words often used to describe deviance from a sociological perspective. For our purposes, deviant means departing from the norm, and to a sociologist, that can be biased toward the positive or negative. While there are crimes that are certainly deviant because they are outside the norm (such as murder, rape, etc.), there are also crimes that are not deviant. Take speeding for example. It isn't at all unexpected to see someone speeding. From a sociological perspective, speeding would not be considered deviant in most cities in the United States.

Speeding is not generally considered deviant.
Police Car

Theories and Examples of Deviance

Deviance, like conformity, is shaped by society. In general, there are three social foundations of deviance: structural functionalism, symbolic interaction and social conflict.

Structural Functionalism

Emile Durkheim is considered the 'father' of the structural-functional perspective. In this perspective, society is seen as a complicated system where stability is promoted when complex parts work together. Durkheim made the surprising statement that deviance has many positive functions for a society. For example, he believed that deviance can actually bring people together in a society. Remember how patriotism surged after 9/11? This could be considered deviant because such an extreme level of patriotism was outside the norm. This is just one example of how even the most deviant of actions can help bring people together and can clarify cultural norms and values.

A second structural functionalist, Robert K. Merton, developed strain theory. Merton believed that the strain theory between our culture's emphasis on wealth and the limited opportunity to get rich gives rise (especially among the poor) to theft, the sale of drugs and other street crime. Merton would call those who use unconventional means (selling drugs) to achieve culturally-approved goals (financial security) innovators. Conformists pursue those conventional goals through approved means, such as going to college and getting a good job.

Symbolic Interaction

The symbolic-interaction approach explains how people define deviance in everyday situations. One theory in particular, labeling theory, asserts that deviance and conformity are not the result of what we necessarily do, but how others respond to what we do. As a part of this theory, there is a primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance refers to passing episodes of deviant behavior that most people participate in. Secondary deviance is when someone makes something out of that deviant behavior and is given a negative social label that changes a person's self-concept and social identity. We call this negative label a stigma.

To demonstrate labeling theory, imagine two 16-year-old girls. Both girls are good students, good athletes and have never been in trouble with the law. Occasionally, both girls will have a few drinks with their friends on the weekend or during school breaks (primary deviance). Let's further assume that one of the girls gets caught drinking by the police. She is arrested, kicked out of sports and has to go through alcohol counseling. The deviant act is the same - the difference is that one of them got caught and someone else made something out of her deviant behavior (secondary deviance).

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