Deviance Theory & Types

Caroline Ntara, Erin Long-Crowell, Jennifer Levitas
  • Author
    Caroline Ntara

    Caroline Ntara has over 10 years of experience teaching Economics and Business courses at high school, college and university levels. She is finalizing a Doctorate in International Trade and Business at Monarch Business School Switzerland. She has an MBA in International Business and a bachelor's degree in Economics. Her certifications include CPA and TEFL/TESOL.

  • Instructor
    Erin Long-Crowell

    Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

  • Expert Contributor
    Jennifer Levitas

    Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

Learn about social deviance and identify two types of deviance. Explore Durkheim's deviance theory, Merton's strain theory, and the functionalist theory of deviance. Updated: 11/27/2021

Table of Contents


Social Deviance: Definition and Explanation

Social deviance refers to a behavior that is found offensive and unacceptable in a social group. Social deviance can be formal, where individuals break laws and guidelines of land or informal, where an individual is just deviant from unwritten norms. The concept of social deviance has been present in most societies where different customs and standards are maintained.

Social deviance can be minor, like speeding or not giving a child a middle name. Consequently, it can be a significant criminal act like murder or theft. It is also vital to indicate that social deviance is not necessarily a negative act. An act like overachievement in school can be considered as social deviance but a positive one.

Lastly, social deviance varies across different cultures in the world. Norms in cultures are relative, which makes social deviance also relative. An action can be permissible in one culture but a taboo in another. Besides, deviance is defined within a culture, and since different cultures differ, social deviance varies within them. The causes of social deviance include:

  • Poverty
  • Lack of religious morality
  • Broken family and poor socialization
  • Lack of basic facilities.
  • Rejection by society
  • Mass media influence
  • Parentless child

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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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Poverty can lead to social deviance.


Types of Deviance

As aforementioned, there are two types of deviance, formal and informal deviances.

  • Formal deviance- involves the violation of legislated laws. Examples of this type of deviance include murder, rape and robbery.
  • Informal deviance- involves the abuse of informal social norms. These informal social norms include rules of life that are unwritten but breaking them is wrong. Examples of informal social deviances include belching audibly, peeping into another person's phone and picking out items stuck in teeth in public.

Peeping into someones phone without permission is informal social deviance.

friends messages

Sociological Theories of Deviance

There are different theories of deviance that are present. These theories use social conditions, situations, and pressures to explain social deviance. Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton are major theorists known for their contribution to social deviance.

Durkheim's Deviance Theory

Emile Durkheim established that deviance is a characteristic of a society that is difficult to avoid. Durkheim also indicated that deviance is a critical aspect in society that calls for change and innovation. According to him, people need to deviate from social norms for changes to occur in communities. Though he advocated for incremental change, Durkheim was confident that social change resulted from society positively responding to deviant conduct. Besides, to Durkheim, the positive response was a way for societies to amend the law to accommodate more individuals further.

Durkheim was the theorist that established that deviance varied from one society to another, and all cultures have a form of deviance in them. Durkheim also indicated that there are four vital functions of deviant behavior in society. These functions are:

  • Deviance elucidates cultural values. This function means that when there is an observable deviant behavior, it makes the norms of a culture more understandable and relatable to the people they affect. For instance, deviant behavior like theft makes a cultural value like hard work clearer as individuals will be urged to work for their property to avoid coveting other people's property.
  • Responding to deviance determines societal moral conduct. In this function, Durkheim established that when members of society responded to deviant behavior, their morality could come out clearly. For example, when a community reacts to murder accordingly, it would be depictable that society supports life and does not entertain killing.
  • Deviance response brings members of society together. This function insinuates that when individuals in a society note a deviant behavior and deal with it, it unifies them and outcasts those not conforming to the societal norms.
  • Lastly, deviance improves social change. This function indicates that through deviance, members of a society can consider some deviant behavior and amend its laws to accommodate it.

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  • Activities
  • FAQs

Activities for Social Deviance

Activity 1:

In the lesson, you read that deviance is not a term that only applies to criminal behavior, but also a term that applies to behavior outside of the norm. Think of an instance in your own life where you might be considered to have engaged in deviant behavior. For example, a teenage boy may be in a ballet class full of girls. There is nothing wrong with this, certainly, but it is outside of the norm and as such is considered deviant in today's society. Write a reflective journal entry on a behavior of yours that is outside the norm, thus technically considered deviant.

Activity 2:

Deviant behavior can be beneficial in that it can lead to necessary and important social change. Think of three behaviors over the last century that would once have been considered deviant but today are considered normative. For example, a woman exercising at a gym used to be deviant. Gyms were for men with big muscles who grunted. However, more and more women joined gyms, and it is no longer considered nonnormative, or deviant, for a woman to belong to a gym. Indeed, this has ushered in beneficial social change as our population has become more health conscious and aware of the benefits of exercise. In two to three paragraphs, describe three behaviors that were once considered deviant but are now considered typical.

What are the three theories of deviance?

The three theories of deviance include Emile Durkheim's deviance theory, Merton's strain theory of deviance and the functionalist theory of deviance.

What is an example of social deviance?

Social deviance can be as serious as crimes like murder, rape and robbery (fomral deviance) to actions such as belching loudly in public, peeping through another person's email or phone messages and removing dirt from teeth in public(informal deviance).

What are the main causes of social deviance?

The causes of social deviance can be linked to societal issues. These issues can influence social behavior. The following are causes of social deviance:

  • Poverty
  • Lack of religious morality
  • Broken family and poor socialization
  • Lack of basic facilities.
  • Rejection by society
  • Mass media influence

What is meant by social deviance?

Social deviance can be defined as any behavior that a society finds offensive. Such behavior can cause condemnation, disapproval, hostility and punishment. The social groups or society in general does not accept the behavior and those who commit any such actions face the wrath of societal judgement.

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