Deviance in Sociology: Definition, Theories & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published August 31, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Key Points

  • Deviant behavior is any behavior that does not conform to societal norms. There are many different types of deviant behavior, including impoliteness, violence, and substance abuse. These behaviors may or may not be criminal.
  • While some forms of deviant behavior may be considered harmful or dangerous, others may simply be seen as odd or unusual.
  • In some cases, it can be seen as a positive thing. For example, many cultures encourage their members to challenge the status quo and push boundaries in order to create change.
  • Durkheim suggested that modern industrial societies were consequently characterized by moral confusion or ‘anomie’. This means that some members of society were more likely to challenge and reject shared values and norms of behavior and this ‘normlessness’ often resulted in crime and deviance.
  • Anomie theory has since been further developed by other theorists, such as Robert Merton, who used it to explain deviance in his strain theory.
  • The main tenets of modern anomie theories are that: (i) People conform to societal norms in order to gain rewards or avoid punishment; (ii) When there is a discrepancy between the goals people want to achieve and the means available to them to achieve those goals, anomie results, motivating deviance.

What is Deviant Behavior?

Deviance is a behavior, trait, or belief that departs from a social norm and generates a negative reaction in a particular group. In other words, it is behavior that does not conform to the norms of a particular culture or society. It includes those behaviors that attract negative responses and social controls. It also involves crimes committed in the society. 

What is considered acceptable or rude varies depending on the culture you are in. For example, eating with your left hand in Arab nations is considered rude.

Some behaviours are acceptable from certain age groups and some activities are illegal for some age groups.

For example, some people who engage in deviant behavior do so in order to challenge existing social norms and bring about change. Additionally, deviance can also be a way for people to express themselves and their individuality.

Examples

Any behavior that breaks the law or goes against societal norms can be considered deviant. One example of deviant behavior is drug use. Using illegal drugs is considered deviant behavior in most social groups.

Committing acts of violence, such as assault or murder, is also considered deviant behavior. Other examples of deviant behavior include but are not limited to: theft, vandalism, graffiti, public intoxication, loitering, and littering.

Truancy can be considered to be a form of deviance. Truancy is a behavior where a student regularly avoids school without the knowledge of their parents or teachers.

Because deviance is socially constructed (not naturally occurring but created by the society in which it is found), there are no actions which in themselves are inherently abnormal or universally condemned by all societies at all times. Deviance is thus situational and contextual.

For example, while stealing is considered deviant behavior in most societies, it is not considered deviant in some indigenous cultures where "stealing" is seen as a way to redistribute resources.

Similarly, while arranged marriages are the norm in many cultures, they would be considered deviant in Western cultures where individuals have the freedom to choose their own partners.

Some behaviours are acceptable from certain age groups and some activities are illegal for some age groups.

Ultimately, what is considered deviant behavior varies from culture to culture, and even from one social group to another. While deviance in society often has negative connotations, deviance in culture is not necessarily bad.

Formal Deviant Behavior

Formal deviant behavior is defined as behavior that violates formally enacted laws. This type of deviant behavior is often criminal in nature, and can result in punishments such as fines, imprisonment, or even death.

Examples of formal deviant behavior include but are not limited to: murder, robbery, assault, rape, and child molestation (Griffiths et al., 2012).

Informal Deviant Behavior

Informal deviant behavior is defined as behavior that violates informal social norms. This type of deviant behavior is often seen as more minor than formal deviance, and typically does not result in legal punishment.

Instead, people who engage in informal deviant behavior may be ridiculed or ostracized by their peers.

Examples of informal deviant behavior include but are not limited to: littering, jaywalking, public intoxication, and loitering (Griffiths et al., 2012).

Although informal deviant behavior is often seen as less serious than its formal counterpart, it can have serious consequences. Showing up late to work , for example, is an act of informal deviance that can result in dismissal from one's job.

Subcultural Deviant Behavior

Subcultural deviant behavior is defined as behavior that violates the norms of a particular subculture. A subculture is a social group within a larger culture that has its own distinct values, beliefs, and behaviors.

Examples of subcultural deviant behavior include but are not limited to: gang violence, drug use, and prostitution.

While subcultural deviant behavior is often seen as criminal or harmful, it can also be a way for people to express their identity and solidarity with others in their group.

For example, many gangs use violence as a way to establish their turf and protect their members, as well as to create a shared sense of identity as "strong" and ready to take action (Copes & Williams, 2007).

Serial Deviant Behavior

Serial deviant behavior is defined as a pattern of repeated deviant behavior. For example, being convicted of multiple crimes. For example, a teenager who shoplifts every time they enter a department store for the excitement is committing serial deviant behavior.

Those who habitually show informally deviant behavior can also be considered to exhibit serial deviant behavior.

For instance, someone who belches loudly and stands unnecessarily close to others may develop an image characterized by this unacceptable behavior, resulting in social punishment (Chercourt, 2014).

Situational Deviance 

Situational deviance is defined as behavior that is considered deviant in a particular situation but not in others.

For example, public nudity is considered deviant in most public places, but is expected on nude beaches. Similarly, using profanity is only considered deviant when it occurs in settings where cursing is not allowed or frowned upon, such as at work or school (Chercourt, 2014).

Even within these settings, the attitudes of those around the person committing the deviant act influence how deviant the behavior is considered to be. 

While some forms of situational deviance may be seen as harmless or even humorous, others can have serious consequences.

For example, while being inebriated in many situations may be interpreted as entertaining or humorous by others, driving under the influence of alcohol can result in accidents, injuries, and even death.

Sociological Explanations Of Deviance

Social Strain Typology (Robert K. Merton)

The social strain typology is a theory of deviance that was developed by sociologist Robert K. Merton. The theory suggests that there are four types of deviant behavior: subcultural, serial, situational, and cultural.

Merton's theory is based on the idea that there is a tension between goals and means in society. Goals are the things that people want to achieve, such as wealth or success. Means are the ways in which people go about achieving these goals, such as working hard or getting an education.

When people cannot achieve their goals through legitimate means, they may turn to deviant behavior in order to get what they want. For example, someone who wants to be wealthy but cannot legitimately earn enough money may turn to theft or robbery.

The social strain typology is a helpful way of understanding why people engage in deviant behavior. It also helps to explain why some forms of deviance are more common than others.

For example, subcultural deviance is more likely to occur in poor neighborhoods where legitimate means of achieving goals are limited. Serial deviance is more likely to occur in individuals who have a history of engaging in deviant behavior.

And situational deviance is more likely to occur when people find themselves in situations where they are tempted to break the rules.

Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalism is a sociological theory that views society as a system of interconnected parts that work together to promote stability and order. The theory is based on the idea that societies are organized in a way that allows them to meet the needs of their members.

Durkheim suggested that modern industrial societies were consequently characterised by moral confusion or ‘anomie’ – some members of society were more likely to challenge and reject shared values and norms of behaviour and this ‘normlessness’ often resulted in crime and deviance.

The functionalist perspective argues that deviant behavior serves a positive function for society by providing a safety valve for people who cannot cope with the demands of everyday life.

For example, people who engage in minor deviant behaviors, like rudeness or angry outbursts, may be less likely to commit more serious crimes, such as murder or rape (Parsons, 1985).

The functionalist perspective also argues that deviant behavior can lead to social change. For example, people who challenge the status quo and push boundaries may help to bring about positive changes, such as increased equality or improved working conditions.

Gandhi, for example,  is often credited with helping to end British rule in India through his deviant behavior of leading peaceful protests and civil disobedience.

The public punishment of criminals also reinforces social conformity by reminding members of society about what counts as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. In other words, it functions to socially control society by reinforcing the rules.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory is a sociological theory that views society as a system of power relationships that are in conflict with one another. The theory is based on the idea that social order is maintained through coercion and force, rather than consent or agreement.

Conflict theorists argue that deviant behavior is a result of social inequality. They believe that people who have less power in society are more likely to engage in deviant behavior as a way of challenging the existing order. For example, people who are poor or members of minority groups may turn to crime as a way to get the resources they need to survive (Bartos & Wehr, 2002).

This theory originates from the work of Karl Marx, who argued that social conflict is a necessary part of economic change. Marx believed that capitalism would eventually lead to a revolution in which the working class would overthrow the ruling class and establish a more egalitarian society.

While conflict theory has its origins in Marxism, it has been adapted and expanded by other sociologists, such as Max Weber and Randall Collins. Conflict theory is now used to explain a wide variety of social phenomena, including crime, violence, and discrimination (Bartos & Wehr, 2002).

Labeling Theory

Labeling theory is a sociological theory that views deviance as a result of the way society labels people. The theory is based on the idea that people who are labeled as deviant are more likely to engage in deviant behavior.

Lemert was one of the first to define the concept of primary and secondary deviance (1951). Primary deviance is deviant acts that occur without labels put on the person commiting the act.

For example, a teenager who drinks alcohol socially at a party and is caught, but only gently reprimanded by their parents, has committed primary deviance.

Secondary deviance, meanwhile, is a result of the labels that are put onn someone for committing deviant acts.

A person moves from primary deviance (the thing that gets him/her labeled in the first place) to secondary deviance (a deviant identity or career).

The importance of the distinction between primary and secondary deviance is that everyone commits primary deviance acts from time to time, with few social consequences.

Labeling theory argues that the act of labeling someone as deviant causes them to be seen as different from others. This difference can lead to discrimination and social exclusion, which can in turn lead to further deviant behavior.

For example, someone who is labeled as a criminal may have difficulty finding a job or housing. As a result, they may turn to crime in order to make ends meet. Or, someone who is labeled as mentally ill may be excluded from social activities and  have difficulty making friends. This isolation can lead to further mental health problems (Becker, 2018).

Labeling theory has been used to explain a wide variety of deviant behaviors, including crime, mental illness, and drug use. The theory has been criticized for its lack of empirical evidence, but it remains an influential perspective in sociology.

What are some of the main causes of deviant behavior?

Some of the main theoretical perspectives that sociologists use to explain deviance include functionalism, conflict theory, and labeling theory. Sociologists have found that deviant behavior is often a result of social inequality.

For example, people who are poor or members of minority groups may turn to crime as a way to get the resources they need to survive.

Additionally, people who are labeled as deviant by society may be more likely to engage in deviant behavior due to discrimination and social exclusion.

What is the difference between deviant and criminal behavior?

Deviance is behavior that violates social norms and arouses negative social reactions. Crime is behavior that is considered so serious that it violates formal laws prohibiting such behavior.

Not all deviant behavior is criminal. For example, social norms around clothing styles for hairstyles may vary from place to place. So, someone who wears unconventional clothes or has an unconventional haircut may be considered deviant in one community but not in another.

Similarly, people who break minor laws, such as jaywalking or littering, may be considered deviant but not criminal. Similarly, not all criminal behavior is deviant.

For example, breaking a law against selling alcohol on a Sunday does not involve committing an act of deviance in a society where selling and consuming alcohol is acceptable.

Is deviant behavior a form of non-conformity?

Deviance is a concept that describes non-conformity to social norms, values and civic expectations. Hence, it is a form of non-conformity. Nonetheless, not all non-conformity is deviant.

Social norms vary from place to place, so what is considered deviant in one society may not be considered deviant in another. Additionally, social norms change over time, so something that was once considered deviant may become acceptable (and vice versa).

For example, tattoos and piercings were once considered deviant but are now widely accepted. Nonetheless, in a place where they remain uncommon, they may be non-conformist.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Aug 31). Deviance in Sociology: Definition, Theories & Examples. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/deviance-examples-sociology.html

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