Deviance Sociology

In sociology deviance is defined as the violation of a social norm which is likely to result in censure or punishment for the violator. Behind this seemingly simple and clear cut definition, however, lurks a swarming host of controversies. A perusal of course curricula verifies that most sociologists who teach a course on deviance divide the field into two distinctly different perspectives: constructionist approaches and explanatory theories. The constructionist approach sees deviance as ‘‘subjectively problematic,’’ that is, ‘‘in the eye of the beholder,’’ and takes as its primary task an understanding of how judgments of deviance are put together, and with what consequences. Explanatory theories regard deviance as ‘‘objectively given,’’ that is, a syndrome like entity with more or less clear cut, identifiable proper ties whose causal etiology can be explicated by the social scientist. Each perspective has its own mission, agenda, enterprise, and methodology. And though these two approaches define deviance in superficially similar ways, their definitions point to sharply divergent universes of meaning. The enterprises in which these perspectives are engaged are in fact linked only by the objectively similar nature of their subject matter; conceptually and theoretically, they are worlds apart.


Constructionist Theories of Deviance

The majority of sociologists of deviance are constructionists; that is, they argue that their mission is to understand how deviance is created or defined subjectivistically and culturally. They argue that what is important about deviance is the dynamics and consequences of its social construction rather than its objectivistic or essentialistic reality or its causal origin. Sometimes referred to as the western or the Chicago/California School (Ben Yehuda 1985: 3–4; Petrunik 1980), the proponents of constructionism tend to adopt symbolic interactionism as their theoretical inspiration, use participant observation as their principal methodology, and typically focus on ‘‘soft’’ or low consensus deviance – that is, acts that may or may not be crimes, but if they are, stand a low likelihood of arrest and incarceration, behavior that tends to be punished predominantly through the mechanism of informal social control. Constructionism seeks to shift the focus of deviance researchers away from the objective nature and causes of deviant behavior per se to the processes by which phenomena and per sons ‘‘come to be defined as deviant by others’’ (Kitsuse 1964).

The term deviance is used principally by sociologists rather than the lay public; to the extent that laypeople use the term, its meaning differs markedly from that used by the sociologists. To the constructionist, the concept is defined or constituted by particular reactions from observers or ‘‘audiences,’’ real or potential, inferred as a result of what persons do or say when they discuss or discover something they regard as reprehensible. In other words, it is a ‘‘definition in use.’’ According to this definition, deviance is implicit in all social interaction; one does not have to name it to see it in action. And the reactions that constitute deviance are universal, transhistorical, and transcultural; they are found everywhere humans congregate. The phenomena – the behavior, beliefs, or conditions – that have generated this reaction differ from one time and place to another, but identification and condemnation of the norm violator is a fixture in all societies and social groupings throughout history. Hence, the fact that laypeople do not use the term deviance says nothing about its sociological purchase. The fact is deviance is a fundamental sociological process, as essential to human existence as identity, social structure, status, and culture. All human collectivities establish and enforce norms; in all collectivities these norms are violated; as a consequence, the enforcement of norms (‘‘social control’’) constitutes the life blood of all social life.

The constructionist approach defines deviance (or ‘‘social deviance’’) as a normative violation that is regarded among specified collectivities as reprehensible and, if made public, is likely to elicit negative reactions against the violator (such as censure, condemnation, punishment, scorn, stigma, and social isolation) from members of such collectivities. These collectivities are referred to as ‘‘audiences.’’ The issue of audiences addresses the question, ‘‘Deviance to whom?’’ The ‘‘to whom?’’ question indicates that definitions of what constitutes a normative violation vary from one collectivity to another. Audiences need not literally witness the violation in question; they may be told about it or they may be potential audiences whose reactions may be inferred from their ongoing talk, that is, stated beliefs and attitudes. An even more radically constructionist definition of deviance is the strict constructionist or ethnomethodological definition, which argues that deviance does not exist in the absence of literal, concrete labeling or condemnation (Pollner 1974). No condemnation, no deviance. By the lights of this definition, ‘‘secret deviance’’ is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Many sociologists believe that such a definition would paralyze the study of deviance, since the overwhelming majority of behavior, beliefs, and conditions that would generate disapproval in most collectivities are never detected or sanctioned. Moreover, it excludes behavior, beliefs, and conditions that the person enacting, holding, or possessing them knows would discredit him or her in the eyes of others, but are kept secret from them (Goffman 1963: 41). Very few sociologists adopt the ‘‘strict’’ constructionist or ‘‘hard’’ reactivist definition of deviance, hence it is not discussed here.

As indicated above, to the constructionist, persons violate norms not only by engaging in certain acts but also by holding unacceptable attitudes or beliefs and possessing undesirable characteristics; attitudes, behavior, and characteristics constitute the ‘‘ABCs’’ of deviance (Adler & Adler 2003: 8). In addition, in certain collectivities, the presence of a ‘‘tribal’’ outsider, that is, one who possesses what is considered in those circles an ‘‘unacceptable’’ or ‘‘inappropriate’’ racial, national background, or religious membership, will elicit hostile or other negative reactions (Goffman 1963: 4). Constructionist sociologists also study false accusations of deviance, since that generates condemnation, a defining element in their definition of deviance (Becker 1963: 20). The fact that the person who elicits negative reactions is not ‘‘at fault’’ or ‘‘to blame’’ is irrelevant to a sociological definition of deviance. The fact is, people can be, and are, punished for entirely involuntary – or nonexistent – normative violations over which they had no control or choice.

To the constructionist, ‘‘deviance’’ refers to the negative reactions, actual or potential, that are likely to follow the discovery of an act, belief, or trait that is regarded as reprehensible in a particular collectivity or to a particular audience. (That collectivity can include, but is not coterminous with, the entire society.) A given person becomes a deviant to the extent that he or she is stigmatized within or by the members of a given collectivity or audience. In Becker’s well known formulation: ‘‘social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders.’’ According to this definition, then, the deviance of a person, that is, whether he or she can be regarded as a deviant ‘‘is not [solely] a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender.’ The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied’’ (Becker 1963: 9).

Constructionists emphasize that the two defining building blocks of deviance mentioned above – the violation of a norm and the negative reactions to the normative violation – do not necessarily occur together, as Becker (1963: 19–22) has pointed out. In fact, the punishment or condemnation of the norm violator is influenced by contingencies, one of which is who engages in the violation. The ancillary characteristics of the rule violator can influence whether and to what extent others react negatively to the infraction; these include, among others, age, race, sex, socioeconomic status, and – perhaps most important – degree of intimacy between the violator and the person evaluating the supposed infraction. In addition, if there is a victim, just who is victimized by the act may determine whether and to what extent the actor is punished or condemned. Moreover, to repeat, false accusations represent a case in which someone did not violate a norm but attracts censure anyway. To the constructionist, an accusation of deviance that is successfully lodged against an innocent party represents a case of sociological deviance, whether baseless or justified. Here we have an instance of a deviant person who did not engage in deviant behavior. Whether or not such accusations are successful, the literal facticity of the charge is only one of the many reasons why it succeeds or fails.

It is axiomatic to the constructionist that deviance is a social convention, ‘‘relative’’ to time and place, and that an act, belief, or trait that is non normative in one collectivity or setting may be normative in another. Even more fundamental, independent of the issue of normative valuation, the constructionist position argues that the very categories that constitute what is defined as deviant are constructed variously in different societies, indeed even within different collectivities in the same society. The same partners who are regarded as incestuous in society A are acceptable, even mandatory, marital partners in society B (Ford & Beach 1951), hence the very definition or conceptualization of what constitutes ‘‘incest’’ is a social construct, not an objective reality. In ritual contexts, same sex intercourse among the Sambia is not regarded as ‘‘homosexuality’’ at all, although it would be so regarded nearly everywhere else (Herdt 1987). In most quarters in the western world, the use of one mind altering substance (alcohol) is not conceptualized as ‘‘drug use,’’ but the use of another such substance (marijuana) is so regarded. Hence, to the constructionist, behavior and other phenomena that are outwardly and objectively ‘‘the same’’ are not sociologically the same; conceptually, they may belong to entirely different categories or universes of meaning. In short, social and cultural relativism, both in terms of conceptualizing categories of phenomena and in evaluating representatives of these categories, is the foundation stone of the constructionist approach to deviance.

Constructionists divide into more ‘‘radical’’ and more ‘‘moderate’’ camps. For the radical constructionists, the issue of the cause or ‘‘etiology’’ of deviance or its constituent components is entirely irrelevant, even illusory. Seeking the cause or causes of deviance and its constituent elements is a fool’s errand, most in this camp would say. If deviance is socially created, there is no objective or essential common thread independent of the label that ties it all together – in effect, there is no ‘‘there there’’ – and hence, any attempt to explain its causality is by its very nature futile. In contrast, the moderate constructionists argue that seeking an explanation for deviance is secondary to and to some degree separate from their mission; phenomena labeled ‘‘deviant’’ may or may not share an objective common thread, but their etiology is not the deviance specialist’s central mission. Interestingly, however, some sociologists who study the social construction of deviance also examine the etiological impact of one or more legal or social constructions on the commission of deviant behavior. For instance, some conflict theorists (who are mainly interested in the role of power and social class in the construction of the law) are also interested in how power and class influence behavioral violations of the law (Messerschmidt 1993); some labeling theorists, who typically look at the social construction of deviance labeling, argue that labeling may influence further, and more serious, deviant behavior (Scheff 1966).

Constructionists distinguish between ‘‘societal’’ deviance, which is the violation of the norms of the society at large, and ‘‘situational’’ deviance, which is the violation of the norms that apply within a particular context (Plummer 1979: 97–9). Hence, widespread agreement on the legitimacy of the norms in the society is not necessary to define situational deviance – although it is to define societal deviance – since the concept is always relative to specific con texts. In other words, a particular audience defines deviance; something is deviant to a particular audience in a particular context. If tattooing is normative among Hell’s Angels, it is not deviant to them; if it is non normative among fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews, it is deviant to them. The fact that tattooing is or is not deviant in the society at large is irrelevant to the issue of its normativity within specified social circles. Hence, ‘‘deviance’’ does not exist as an abstraction; it takes on relevance only within specified collectivities and in specified social contexts. Of course, one of these collectivities may be the society at large, which is how ‘‘societal’’ deviance is defined.

To the advocates of the constructionist approach, social control is the core of any socio logical understanding of deviance. Social control is defined as any and all efforts to ensure conformity to a norm. Humans are irrepressible; all of us have a tendency to violate some of the norms. To engage in normative violations is tempting both because they more surely than conformity secure for us what we value, and because many of the things we have been told we cannot have are intrinsically rewarding (Gottfredson & Hirschi 1990). Hence, efforts to ensure conformity to the norms may be found in all collectivities, both historically and trans societally. These include positive efforts such as rewards, and negative efforts such as punishment; formal efforts such as arrest, and informal efforts such as an insult or a slap in the face; and internal efforts, through the process of socialization, as well as external ones, such as censuring someone for engaging in a non normative act. Hence, while the state plays a major role in social control, it is only one of a wide range of agents dedicated to ensuring conformity. The many faces of social control represent the flip side of deviance; social control is an effort to deal with and suppress normative violations, as well as encourage by rewarding normative conformity. And it is the many efforts of social control that define and constitute deviance.

Nearly all constructionist definitions of deviance and social control include the component of power. Collectivities that control more of society’s resources tend to have relatively more power to influence deviance defining social institutions, including the law and its enforcement. Members of relatively low status collectivities are more likely to find their behavior, beliefs, and traits defined and reacted to as deviant than those who have higher status and more power. Collectivities that have more power tend to have more influence on, in addition to the law, the content of the media as well as the educational, religious, and political institutions, all of which, in turn, influence definitions of right and wrong and hence what is considered deviant. Power over subordinate collectivities does not, however, ensure their conformity or agreement among members of those collectivities that dominant definitions of right and wrong are just or righteous. As we saw, humans are rebellious and irrepressible; smaller, non mainstream collectivities everywhere construct their own rules of right and wrong, independent of those of the most powerful strata of society. In all societies, the dominant institutions, regardless of how hegemonic they may seem, are incapable of intruding into each and every aspect of the lives of all human collectivities and groups within their scope. Still, power is a factor in the social construction of norms – and hence, in defining what is deviant. This is especially the case for ‘‘societal’’ deviance. It is often the case that the powerless are subject to the norms of the powerful, whereas it is rarer that the powerful are subject to the norms of the powerless. This is more likely to be true, however, of formal definitions of crime than of informal definitions of deviance.

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Explanatory Theories of Deviance

The second approach to deviance encompasses explanatory theories. Explanations of deviance attempt to account for why non normative behavior occurs. (Some explanatory formulations turn the equation around and ask why normative – but for them, the logic is the same.) Their driving question is: ‘‘Why do they do it?’’ (or, alternatively, ‘‘Why don’t they do it?’’). Explanatory theories always take crime or deviance as the dependent variable and the explanatory factor they focus on as the independent or causal variable. Not all explanatory theories seek explanations of deviance in general; in fact, most attempt to explain one or more of its constituent components, such as mental disorder, drug abuse or addiction, crime, juvenile delinquency, white collar crime, embezzlement, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and so on. For the most part, adopting an explanatory paradigm entails examining deviance through the natural science model, an approach that is commonly referred to as positivism or, sometimes, methodological (as opposed to substantive) positivism (Hirschi & Gottfredson 1994). Positivism is characterized by empiricism, that is, reliance on the data of the five senses; abstraction, that is, the tendency to generalize beyond specific cases; the tendency to seek cause and effect explanations of phenomena in the material world; and, most important for our purposes, essentialism or objectivism. The last of these is the tendency to regard phenomena as pregiven entities, those that are internally consistent, containing one or more ‘‘common threads’’ that may be found more or less everywhere, or at the very least within a given society. For instance, the explanatory approach is comfortable referring to and studying the ‘‘epidemiology’’ of deviance (Crews 2001) – that is, the distribution of ‘‘deviance’’ in the population – whereas constructionists are likely to reject the very basis of such an enterprise. Explanation presupposes objectivism, since explanations are predicated on the existence of one or more common threads shared by the phenomena being explained. In other words, to the approach that seeks explanations, deviance and its constituent components are a specific type of action – in medical terms, a ‘‘syndrome’’ – and not merely a convention or a social construction. And because it is a type of action, possessing internal coherence, it is the mission of the sociologist to account for it – that is, render a causal explanation of its origin. (Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990: 49) discuss the contradiction between substantive positivism’s acceptance of the legalistic definition of crime and their adoption of the natural science model, which presupposes objectivism.) Sociologists who seek explanations for deviance usually study behavior (or psychic conditions that presumably cause behavior), only very rarely beliefs, and practically never physical traits. They take for granted, assume, or hold in abeyance the social construction of definitions of deviance. For them, social control is interesting only insofar as it influences or causes deviant and criminal behavior, which is what they aim to explain in the first place (Hirschi 1969; Gottfredson & Hirschi 1990).

Although most do not articulate it in this fashion, many explanatory theorists would argue that societies tend to criminalize or penalize actions that are most harmful and disruptive both on a micro and a macro level, that is, both interpersonally and with respect to the viability of the society as a whole. For example, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990: 15) define crime as ‘‘force or fraud in pursuit of self interest.’’ Rejecting the central tenet of constructionism, sociologists who seek explanations argue that it is incorrect to argue that ‘‘deviance’’ is relative to time and place. Though explanatory theorists would admit that while many customs and conventions do indeed vary the world over and throughout history, certain behavioral syndromes have identifiable, universal properties. For instance, even though mental disorder and illness, crime and delinquency, and alcoholism may be thought of, and persons characterized by them dealt with, differently in different societies, nonetheless, each has a common thread and hence a common etiology (Nettler 1974). Clearly – as with the constructionists – explanatory theorists may be divided into more ‘‘radical’’ and more ‘‘moderate’’ camps. The radical explanatory theorist argues that deviant categories are universal everywhere and for all times, and hence a universal explanation of deviance can be devised (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). The moderate explanatory theorist says that deviance is shaped by the societies in which it occurs, and hence explanations of deviance and its components may apply only within each society. But both camps look for cause and effect explanations of behavioral syndromes that share one or more common, internally consistent components or elements.

For instance, practitioners of one explanatory theory, ‘‘self control’’ theory, adopt a ‘‘non relativistic position on the causes of crime.’’ This is the case, they say, because their theory does not regard deviance, crime, and delinquency as the products of unique cultures, peoples, settings, historical periods, or even variable legal definitions. Instead, self control theory assumes that the causes of crime are the same everywhere and at all times. In short, they argue, the mission of the sociologist of deviance, crime, and delinquency is to explain these phenomena, and in order to accomplish this mission it is necessary to conceptualize them essentialistically and objectivistically, that is, as possessing common, universal elements or components. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), two major advocates of this theory, use the term deviance throughout their theoretical discussion of crime. Crime, they argue, ‘‘is only part of a much larger set of deviant acts’’ (p. xvi). And they insist that a common explanation can be found for the constituent elements of crime and deviance, such as violence, white collar crime, reckless behavior, illicit, impulsive sex, and drug abuse.

To repeat, all explanatory theorists are aware that definitions of right and wrong are relative from one society to another; all criminologists that seek explanations for crime are aware that laws criminalizing certain acts vary the world over. But accounting for that variation, they would say, is not the sociologist’s mission. Moreover, they would argue, in spite of this variation, there are common threads running through the most fundamental of society’s norms and laws. Societies outlaw certain actions for a reason, and that is because the acts societies outlaw tear at the social fabric. Even if sociologists were to confine their analysis to a single society, the same logic applies: certain behaviors demand an explanation because of their internal consistency, and one aspect of that consistency, many argue, is the harm and disruption these behaviors cause to the social order. Explaining phenomena bearing an internal consistency, a common thread, underlies all efforts to explain or account for crime, delinquency, violence, mental disorder, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and prostitution. Such behaviors (or psychic conditions) demand an explanation because they are ‘‘different’’ from law abiding or ‘‘normal’’ behaviors and conditions. And the way they are different, many explanatory theorists argue, is that these behaviors are disordered, pathological, harmful, and/or exploitative. This approach is even less concerned about the fact that the lay public may not use such terms, or, when they do, mean different things by them from what the social scientist intends. To the scientifically inclined theorist, it is what the scientist says that counts, not the lay public.

In the most radical of explanatory arguments, the term deviant refers to a person with one or more specific, essentialistic or indwelling conditions that manifest themselves in specific actions. Certain people enact seriously deviant and criminal behavior, behavior that harms and exploits others and tears at the fabric of the society, because they are ‘‘different’’ from the rest of us. For instance, in one formulation, the overlap between the social deviant and per sons characterized by the psychiatric terms ‘‘psychopath,’’ ‘‘sociopath,’’ and ‘‘antisocial personality disorder’’ is considerable (DeLisi 2003). Even in less radical formulations, criminals and deviants are persons primed to act in a certain fashion because they are certain kinds of persons. Other factors in addition to their characteristics may influence their deviant behavior, but with this approach individual characteristics are crucial.

Most sociological theories that attempt to account for the enactment of deviant behavior argue that the essentialistic, indwelling factors that cause (or inhibit) crime are to be found in actors’ environments, not in their individual traits or preconditions. These factors include the degree of social disorganization in the neighborhood in which people live; anomie, or society’s cultural and social malintegration; bonding with conventional others; and differential association with others who espouse positive definitions of normative violations. Here, the explanatory factor producing a particular and ‘‘different’’ kind of behavior is shifted from specific kinds of persons to specific kinds of social arrangements and the actor’s place in them.

Opportunity theories, including routine activity theory, dispense altogether with explaining the propensity or tendency of individuals to engage in deviant or criminal acts, as well as the sociocultural environments that may influence actors to commit deviant and criminal acts, and focus entirely on the situation or context within which certain types of acts are likely to take place. Crime is committed to the extent that a motivated offender is in juxtaposition with a suitable target in the absence of a capable guardian (Cohen & Felson 1979). In this sense, then, the factor determining the criminal act is the context or situation – the opportunity to commit the crime. What accounts for the untoward behavior – in this perspective, nearly always crime, and usually economic crime – is neither a particular kind of person nor a particular kind of social arrangement, but particular kinds of opportunities, those that maximize potential rewards and minimize cost, of which punishment is a major component.

Most forms of crime that explanatory theorists study may be referred to as ‘‘hard,’’ serious, or high consensus deviance. Positivistic sociologists who see their mission as explaining or accounting for the origins of crime tend to be criminologists. All sociologists of deviance discuss and refer to the work of criminologists, but very few criminologists identify any longer with the field of the sociology of deviance. (This is less true of the UK than the US. For instance, in Understanding Deviance, 2003, Downes and Rock make little distinction between ‘‘deviance’’ and ‘‘crime.’’) Criminologists typically study deviance only by implication, that is, conceptually and theoretically, but not as members of an intellectual community. As an identifiable field, the explanatory study of crime is separate and distinct from the field that is referred to as the sociology of deviance – and has been for more than a generation. Much the same can be said of sociologists who attempt to explain the etiology of the behavioral components of deviance, such as mental disorder, drug abuse, and alcoholism: they are sociologists of behavior that is regarded as deviant, but most do not adopt a ‘‘deviance’’ perspective, and few belong to the intellectual community of the sociology of deviance. This intellectual split between these two camps – the constructionist and the explanatory theorists – as well as the departure of criminologists from the field of the sociology of deviance, have resulted in a smaller, less influential, and possibly less theoretically innovative school of deviance studies. The long term impact of this split has yet to be determined.

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