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Deviance and Norms


Deviance is any behavior that violates cultural norms. Deviance is often divided into two types of deviant activities. The first, crime is the violation of formally enacted laws and is referred to as formal deviance. Examples of formal deviance would include: robbery, theft, rape, murder, and assault, just to name a few. The second type of deviant behavior refers to violations of informal social norms, norms that have not been codified into law, and is referred to as informal deviance. Examples of informal deviance might include: picking one's nose, belching loudly (in some cultures), or standing too close to another unnecessarily (again, in some cultures).

As the last two examples in the preceding paragraph illustrate, deviance can vary quite dramatically from culture to culture. Cultural norms are relative; this makes deviant behavior relative as well. For instance, in general U.S. society it is uncommon for people to restrict their speech to certain hours of the day. In the Christ Desert Monastery, there are specific rules about when the residents can and cannot speak, including a specific ban on speaking between 7:30 pm and 4:00 am. The norms and rules of the Christ Desert Monastery are examples of how norms are relative to cultures.

Picking one's nose is an example of informal deviance

Figure 1: Picking one's nose is an example of informal deviance

There are many scholars conducting fascinating research about deviance. For example, Dr. Karen Halnon of the Pennsylvania State University has examined how some people exercise informal deviance in the United States in recent years. She has focused on what she calls "deviance vacations" where people of certain socioeconomic status descend to lower strata. For instance, heterosexual white males may become drag queens on the weekend. It is a vacation because heterosexual white males can afford to descend temporarily and then return to the advantages of their true socioeconomic status. Other examples include white hip-hop acts like Eminem and Nu-Metal bands like Limp Bizkit that mimic lower or middle class people in order to use their socioeconomic credentials for profit, despite their true socioeconomic status.

Sociological interest in deviance includes both interests in measuring formal deviance (statistics of criminal behavior; see below) and a number of theories that try to explain both the role of deviance in society and its origins. This chapter will cover the theories of deviance used by sociologists and will also cover current crime statistics.

Theories of Deviance

Social-Strain Typology

Robert K. Merton, in his discussion of deviance, proposed a typology of deviant behavior. A typology is a classification scheme designed to facilitate understanding. In this case, Merton was proposing a typology of deviance based upon two criteria: (1) a person's motivations or her adherence to cultural goals; (2) a person's belief in how to attain her goals. These two criteria are shown in the diagram below. According to Merton, there are five types of deviance based upon these criteria:

Robert K. Merton's Deviance Typology

Figure 2: Robert K. Merton's Deviance Typology

  • conformity involves the acceptance of the cultural goals and means of attaining those goals (e.g., a banker)

  • innovation involves the acceptance of the goals of a culture but the rejection of the traditional and/or legitimate means of attaining those goals (e.g., a member of the mafia values wealth but employs alternative means of attaining her wealth)

  • ritualism involves the rejection of cultural goals but the routinized acceptance of the means for achieving the goals (e.g., a disillusioned bureaucrat - like Milton in the movie Office Space, who goes to work everyday because it is what he does, but does not share the goal of the company of making lots of money)

  • retreatism involves the rejection of both the cultural goals and the traditional means of achieving those goals (e.g., a homeless person who is homeless more by choice than by force or circumstance)

  • rebellion is a special case wherein the individual rejects both the cultural goals and traditional means of achieving them but actively attempts to replace both elements of the society with different goals and means (e.g., a communist revolution)


The structural-functionalist approach to deviance will argue that deviant behavior plays an important role in society for several reasons.

One of the more important contributions to society comes from actually drawing the lines between what is deviant and what is not.

Denoting a behavior or action as deviant clarifies the moral boundaries of a society. This is an important function as it affirms the cultural values and norms of a society for the members of that society.In addition to clarify the moral boundaries of society, deviant behavior can also promote social unity,

but it does so at the expense of the deviant individuals,

who are obviously excluded from the sense of unity derived from differentiating the non-deviant from the deviants. Finally, and quite out of character for the structural-functionalist approach, deviance is actually seen as one means for society to change over time. Deviant behavior can imbalance societal equilibrium; in returning societal equilibrium, society is often forced to change. Thus, deviant behavior plays several important roles in society according to the structural-functionalist approach.


The social-conflict approach to deviance views deviance, as it does with most things, as a power struggle. The power struggle when it comes to deviance is framed in reference to the deviant and the non-deviant. But it is important to understanding that, according to the socialconflict approach, the determination of what is deviant and what is not deviant is closely tied to the existing power structure of a society. For instance, laws in capitalist countries tend to reflect the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Laws that codify one's right to private property will tend to favor those with property and disfavor those without property (who might be inclined to take property). The social-conflict approach takes this idea to the next step by arguing that the powerful and wealthy are able to avoid being labeled deviant (see labeling theory below) by actually changing what is considered deviant so they are not included in that classification. In short, the social-conflict approach to understanding deviance argues that deviance is a reflection of the power imbalance and inequality in society.

Violent crimes are more likely to be reported to police than are property crimes

Figure 3: Violent crimes are more likely to be reported to police than are property crimes.

A clear example of how deviance reflects power imbalances is in the reporting of crimes. Wealthier individuals are more likely to commit property crimes, particularly crimes that are often referred to as white-collar crimes. Examples of white-collar crimes include source:

  • antitrust violations
  • computer/internet fraud
  • credit card fraud
  • phone/telemarketing fraud
  • bankruptcy fraud
  • healthcare fraud
  • insurance fraud
  • mail fraud
  • government fraud
  • tax evasion
  • financial fraud
  • insider trading
  • bribery and public corruption
  • counterfeiting
  • money laundering
  • embezzlement
  • economic espionage
  • trade secret theft

White-collar crimes are almost exclusively property-related. Property-related crimes are in contrast to violent crimes, which tend to be committed by individuals of lower socio-economic classes. The power balance comes into play when the percentage of each of these types of crimes is examined. Violent crimes are more likely to be reported as shown in the chart above. In addition to the higher likelihood of violent crimes being reported, a much larger percentage of people are in prison for committing violent crimes than for property crimes source.

Labeling Theory

Labeling Theory refers to the idea that individuals become deviant when two things occur:

  1. a deviant label is applied to them (e.g., loner, punk)

  2. they adopt the label by exhibiting the behaviors, actions, and attitudes associated with the label

This approach to deviance recognizes its cultural relativity and is aware that deviance can result from power imbalances. But it takes the idea of deviance further by illustrating how a deviant identity develops through the application and adoption of labels. Labeling theory argues that people become deviant as a result of people forcing that identity upon them and then adopting the identity.

Labels are understood to be the names associated with identities or role-sets in society. Examples of more innocuous labels might include father or lover. Deviant labels refer to identities that are known for falling outside of cultural norms, like loner or punk.

There are two additional ideas related to the labeling theory approach to understanding deviance. First, once a deviant identity is adopted, it is often the case that the past behaviors of the now deviant individual are re-interpreted in light of the new identity. The process of recasting one's past actions in light of a current identity is referred to as retrospective labeling. A very clear example of retrospective labeling can be seen in how the perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were re-cast after the incident took place. Much of their behavior leading up to the school shootings has been reinterpreted in light of the deviant identity with which they were labeled as a result of the shootings.

Another important element of labeling theory involves the idea of stigma. Stigma, according to Goffman (1963) refers to the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance because of some mark of infamy or disgrace or a label that is often difficult to hide or disguise. Stigma extend the idea of labeling theory by illustrating how individual characteristics can be the basis for attaching labels that can be life-altering. A good example of a stigma that is now increasingly difficult to hide is the publishing of convicted sex offender identities and information on websites (see here for an example). The stigma is the past behavior - the sex offense - but this identity is relatively easily hidden as it impossible to pick a sex offender out of a crowd. By pushing the sex offender identity into public purview, sex offenders, regardless of current behavior, are stigmatized; they are stuck with a deviant identity that overwhelms any other identity they may have. In sum, labeling theory argues that the application of labels (role-sets) to individuals is an important element leading to deviant behavior.

Click to read more about Deviance Theories, read the article which was written by GEORGE S. BRIDGES and SCOTT A. DESMOND, and was published in Encyclopedia of Sociology - ISBN 0-02-864853-6

Crime Statistics

Correctional populations in the U.S., 1980-2003

Figure 4: Correctional populations in the U.S, 1980-2003; (data: Bureau of Justice Statistics)

Crime statistics are usually aggregations of data collected by governments for the reporting of incidents of criminal activity. They are useful for a number of reasons, beyond simply giving an awareness of the extent of criminal activity. Presented below are statistics on criminal activity and the criminal justice system for both the U.S. and selected nations around the world (for comparisons). The statistics included in this section were chosen to provide a sampling of how crime statistics can be useful beyond simply reporting incidents of criminal behavior.

It is important to understand that crime statistics do not provide a perfect view of crime. Government statistics on crime only show data for crimes that have been reported to authorities. These crimes represent only a fraction of those crimes that have been acted upon by law enforcement, which in turn represents only a fraction of those crimes where people have made complains to the police, which in turn represents only a fraction of the total crimes committed.

Incarceration Rates and Populations

One of the more interesting features of the U.S. is the extensive number of people who are currently in the correctional system. This first chart breaks down the correctional system population by the status of individuals in the correctional system, including:

Comparison of International Incarceration Numbers, total people in prison; selected countries, 2002

Figure 5: Comparison of International Incarceration Numbers, total people in prison; selected countries, 2002; (data: United Nations)

  • prison
  • probation
  • jail
  • parole

While the population of the United States is the third largest in the world (behind China and India), the percentage of the population that is in prison is the highest in the world, as illustrated by the next two charts.

This chart is informative for illustrating just how many people are in prison in the U.S. But it could also be seen as misleading because it does not take into consideration population size, as does the next chart.

Comparison of International Incarceration rates per 100,000 people; selected countries, 2002

Figure 6: Comparison of International Incarceration rates per 100,000 people; selected countries, 2002; (data: United Nations)

This chart, in combination with the previous one, illustrates that not only does the U.S. have a lot of people in prison in sheer numbers but in terms of percentage of the population (in the chart it is shown as rates per 100,000 people), the U.S. also has a very high percentage of its population in prison.

Comparing incarceration rates by countries goes beyond just reporting incidents of criminal activity (incidents of crime are not much higher in the U.S. than elsewhere) by highlighting differences in the correctional systems of countries. Countries differ in the restrictiveness of their laws and prison sentences. Differences of these types are seen when comparing incarceration rates and populations.

Two additional characteristics of the U.S. correctional system are worth highlighting. First, the U.S. has a relatively high recidivism rate, recidivism referring to the frequency of repeat offenses. Sixty-seven percent of prison inmates will be convicted on another charge within three years of having been released. This statistic is revealing of the nature of the prison system in the U.S.: it is more interested in keeping people who commit crimes away from the rest of the population than it is in reforming individuals (re-socialization) to make them productive members of society.

Percent of released prisonners rearrested within 3 years by offense, 1994

Figure 7: Percent of released prisonners rearrested within 3 years by offense, 1994; (data: Bureau of Justice Statistics)

Another interesting characteristic of the U.S. is the sheer amount of money that is spent in the correctional system. Policing the nations streets is the most expensive component of the correctional system, followed by housing prison inmates. The judicial process is the least expensive, but the combined expenses of all three elements total over $100 billion annually.

Direct expenditures by criminal justice function, 1982-2001

Figure 8: Direct expenditures by criminal justice function, 1982-2001; (data: burea of Justice Statistics)


Violent Crime rates by gender, 1973-2003, per 1,000 people

Figure 9: Violent Crime rates by gender, 1973-2003, per 1,000 people; (data: Bureau of Justice Statistics)

Another way crime statistics can go beyond simply reporting incidents of criminal activity is in highlighting differences between different groups. One clear difference in criminal activity is seen in the number of violent crimes committed by gender. While the difference has narrowed in recent years, men are still more likely to commit violent crime than are women.

Another telling crime statistic that is traditionally seen as highlighting power imbalances is the number of rapes in society. While the focus of this chapter is not on exploring the motivations behind rape, the number of rapes in the U.S. and internationally can be seen to reflect power imbalances (social-conflict approach) between men and women.

Rapes per 1,000 people, 1973-2003

Figue 10: Rapes per 1,000 people, 1973-2003; (data: Bureau of Justice Statistics)

This first chart shows rape rates in the U.S. The number has declined in recent years.

Comparison of International Rapes Rates per 100,000 people; selected countries, 2002

Figure 11: Comparison of International Rapes Rates per 100,000 people; selected countries, 2002; (data: United Nations)

This chart compares rape rates from select countries around the world.


Percentage of Prisoers on death row by race, 1968-2003

Figure 12: Percentage of Prisoers on death row by race, 1968-2003; ( data: bureau of Justice Statistics)

Another way crime statistics can highlight power imbalances is by examining difference between racial groups. This first chart depicts the percentages of prison inmates in the U.S. on death row by race. It may not seem to stand out at first, until the viewer is reminded that blacks make up only 12% of the U.S. population. In other words, blacks are over-represented in the death row population in the U.S., which some would argue is illustrative of racial discrimination in the U.S.

This next chart depicts differences in violent crime rates not by the race of the person who committed the crime but by the race of the victim. This chart illustrates that, once again, blacks are over-represented in relation to their percentage in the population. Blacks are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than are whites.

Violent crime rates by race of victim, 1973-2003

Figure 13: Violent crime rates by race of victim, 1973-2003; (data: Bureau of Justice Statistics)


The next three charts explore homicide rates. This first chart tracks homicide rates in the U.S. for the past 100 years. There has been an obvious increase over time, whether that increase on the chart represent an actual increase in homicide or an increase in such confounding factors such as stricter law enforcement, an increased willingness to report crimes, or changes in the definition of homicide itself.

Homicide Rates in the U.S, 1900-2002

Figure 14: Homicide Rates in the U.S, 1900-2002; (data: Bureau of Justice Statistics)

The second chart highlights differences in homicide rates between countries. The U.S. does not have the highest homicide rates in the world, but the rates in the U.S. are still relatively high.

Comparison of International Homicide Rates per 100,000 people; selected countries, 2002

Figure 15: Comparison of International Homicide Rates per 100,000 people; selected countries, 2002; (data: United Nations)

This last chart highlights differences in homicide rates by the age of the victim. Of particular interest is the fact that homicide rates for youth between 14 and 17 years old have actually passed the homicide rates for individuals over 25. While the homicide rates for those over 25 have since surpassed those of individuals between 14 and 17, the numbers remain close.

Homicide rates by age, 1970-2003

Figure 16: Homicide rates by age, 1970-2003; (data: Bureau of Justice Statistics)

Social Control

Social control refers to the various means used by a society to bring its members back into line with cultural norms. There are two general types of social control:

  • formal social control refers to components of society that are designed for the resocialization of individuals who break formal rules; examples would include prisons and mental health institutions

  • informal social control refers to elements of society that are designed to reinforce informal cultural norms; examples might include parental reminders to children not to, well, pick their nose

Some researchers have outlined some of the motivations underlying the formal social control system. These motivations include:

  • retribution - some argue that people should pay for the crime they committed

  • deterrence - some argue that punishments, e.g., prison time, will prevent people from committing future crimes

  • rehabilitation - some argue that formal social controls should work to rehabilitate criminals, eventually turning them into productive members of society

  • societal protection - finally, some argue that the motivation for formal social controls is nothing more than removing the deviant members of society from the non-deviant members.

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MS Human Genetics; employed as a genetic counselor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

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