AskDefine | Define deviant

Dictionary Definition

deviant adj : markedly different from an accepted norm; "aberrent behavior"; "deviant ideas" [syn: aberrant] n : a person whose behavior deviates from what is acceptable especially in sexual behavior [syn: pervert, deviate, degenerate]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Of or pertaining to a deviation; characterized by deviation from an expectation or a social standard.
    At the trial, the extent of his deviant behavior became clear.


of or pertaining to a deviation


  1. A person who deviates, especially from norms of social behavior.
    He was branded as a deviant and ostracized.
  2. A thing, phenomenon, or trend that deviates from an expectation or pattern.
    As the graph shows, the March sales trend is the deviant.


person who deviates
thing that deviates


  • Random House Webster's Unabridged Electronic Dictionary, 1987-1996.

Extensive Definition

Deviance describes actions or behaviors that violate cultural norms including formally-enacted rules (e.g., crime) as well as informal violations of social norms (e.g.nose-picking). Sociologists and criminologists study how these norms are created, challenged, and enforced.
The sociology of deviance contains a number of theories that seek to accurately describe trends and patterns that lie within social deviance to help better understand societal behavior. There are three broad sociological classes describing deviant behavior: structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory.


A Structural-Functionalist perspective believes that deviations come from the formation of norms and values which are enforced by institutions. Deviations are not deviant by nature, but are caused when institutions arbitrarily institute particular prescriptions or proscriptions. Therefore, deviation is simply what is defined as not normal by norms, values, or laws. Theorists from this school study how institutions on a macro level affect deviance.

Durkheim's anomie

Emile Durkheim was a nineteenth century French sociologist who studied suicide and the role of institutions in suicide. When he studied the connections between suicide and people's lives, he noticed that social integration and social regulation rates were inversely correlated with suicide rates. Suicidal people tended to have less, "to bind and connect them to stable social norms and goals." However, those who were well integrated into society and those who were well regulated (good social bonds) tended to have the lowest suicide rates.
There are two dimensions of the social bond which are social integration and social regulation, and they are for the most part independent (in other words, the rate of integration does not determine the rate of regulation, and vice versa, but both affect the social bond). Social integration is the attachment to groups and institutions, while social regulation is the adherence to the norms and values of the society. Those who are very integrated fall under the category of "altruism" and those who are very unintegrated fall under "egoism." Similarly, those who are very regulated fall under "fatalism" and those who are very unregulated fall under "anomie". Durkheim's strain theory attributes social deviance to extremes of the dimensions of the social bond. Altruistic suicide (death for the good of the group), egoistic suicide (death for the removal of the self due to or justified by the lack of ties to others), and anomic suicide (death due to the confounding of self-interest and societal norms) are the three forms of suicide that can happen due to extremes. Likewise, individuals may commit crimes for the good of an individual's group, for the self due to or justified by lack of ties, or because the societal norms that place the individual in check no longer have power due to society's corruption.
Two dimensions of the social bond:
  • Integration (Attachment to groups, and strength of ties)
    • Altruism (+)
    • Egoism (-)
  • Regulation (The attachment to norms of society)
    • Fatalism (+)
    • Anomie (-)
  • Mechanical Solidarity
  • Organic Solidarity
+economic anomie +domestic anomie

Merton's strain theory

Robert K. Merton discussed deviance in terms of goals and means as part of his strain/anomie theory. Where Durkheim states that anomie is the confounding of social norms, Merton goes further and states that anomie is the state in which social goals and the legitimate means to achieve them do not correspond. He postulated that an individual's response to societal expectations and the means by which the individual pursued those goals were useful in understanding deviance. Specifically, he viewed collective action as motivated by strain, stress, or frustration in a body of individuals that arises from a disconnection between the society's goals and the popularly used means to achieve those goals. Often, non-routine collective behavior (rioting, rebellion, etc.) is said to map onto economic explanations and causes by way of strain. These two dimensions determine the adaptation to society according to the cultural goals, which are the society's perceptions about the ideal life, and to the institutionalized means, which are the legitimate means through which an individual may aspire to the cultural goals.
Merton expanded on the idea that anomie is the alienation of the self from society due to conflicting norms and interests by describing 5 different types of actions that occur when personal goals and legitimate means come into conflict with each other. When an individual accepts the goals and means together, he is working under conformity. (Example: White collar employee who holds a job to support a family.) When an individual accepts the goals but uses illegitimate means in order to achieve them, he commits crimes in order to emulate the values of those who conform; in other words, they must use innovation in order to achieve cultural goals. (Example: Drug dealer who sells drugs to support a family.) An individual may lose faith in cultural goals but still feel obligated to work under the routines of legitimate daily life. This person is practicing ritualism. (Example: A white collar employee who holds a job, but has become completely discontent with the American Dream.) Individuals may also reject both goals and means and fall under retreatism, when they ignore the goals and the means of the society. (Example: Drug addicts who have stopped caring about the social goals and use drugs as a way to escape reality.) Finally, there is a fifth type of adaptation which is that of rebellion, where the individual rejects the cultural goals and the institutionalized means, but seeks to redefine new values for society. (Example: Radicals who want to repair or even destroy the capitalist system in order to build a new social structure.)

Symbolic interactionism

Deviance comes from the individual, who learns deviant behavior. The deviant may grow up alongside other deviants or may learn to give excuses for deviance. The focus is upon the consciousness and the mind of the individual as opposed to the institutions from where the norms come from.

Sutherland's differential association

In his differential association theory, Edwin Sutherland posited that criminals learn criminal and deviant behaviors and that deviance is not inherently a part of a particular individual's nature. Also, he argues that criminal behavior is learned in the same way that all other behaviors are learned, meaning that the acquisition of criminal knowledge is not unique compared to the learning of other behaviors.
Sutherland outlined some very basic points in his theory, such as the idea that the learning comes from the interactions between individuals and groups, using communication of symbols and ideas. When the symbols and ideas about deviation are much more favorable than unfavorable, the individual tends to take a favorable view upon deviance and will resort to more of these behaviors.
Criminal behavior (motivations and technical knowledge), as with any other sort of behavior, is learned. Some basic assumptions include:
  • Learning in interaction using communication within intimate personal groups.
  • Techniques, motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes are all learned.
  • Excess of definitions favorable to deviation.
  • Legitimate and illegitimate behavior both express the same general needs and values.

Neutralization theory

Gresham Sykes and David Matza's neutralization theory explains how deviants justified their deviant behaviors by adjusting the definitions of their actions and by explaining to themselves and others the lack of guilt of their actions in particular situations. There are five different types of rationalizations, which are the denial of responsibility, the denial of injury, the denial of the victim, the condemnation of the condemners, and the appeal to higher loyalties.
The denial of responsibility is the argument that the deviant was helplessly propelled into the deviance, and that under the same circumstances, any other person would resort to similar actions. The denial of injury is the argument that the deviant did not hurt anyone, and thus the deviance is not morally wrong, due to the fundamental belief that the action caused no harm to other individuals or to the society. The denial of the victim is the argument that possible individuals on the receiving end of the deviance were not injured, but rather experiences righteous force, due to the victim's lack of virtue or morals. The condemnation of the condemners is the act by which the deviant accuses authority figures or victims for having the tendency to be equally deviant, and as a result, hypocrites. Finally, the appeal to higher loyalties is the belief that there are loyalties and values that go beyond the confines of the law; friendships and traditions are more important to the deviant than legal boundaries.
The Neutralization Theory says that criminals rationalize actions by neutralizing the definitions of crime. There are 5 major types of neutralization:
  • Denial Of Responsibility: Propelled helplessly into crime.
  • Denial Of Injury: Crime does not hurt anyone, not morally wrong.
  • Denial Of The Victim: Victim did not receive injury but rather, rightful force.
  • Condemnation Of The Condemners: Condemners are hypocrites, deviants as well.
  • Appeal To Higher Loyalties: Loyalty to a higher power than law, like friendship.

Labeling theory

Frank Tannenbaum and Howard S. Becker created and developed labeling theory. Tannenbaum's "dramatization of evil." Becker said that "social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance." Labeling theory suggests that deviance is caused by the deviant person being negatively labeled, internalizing the label, and acting according to the label. As time goes on, the "deviant" takes on traits that define what a real deviant is supposed to do and takes on the role of such a label by committing deviations that conform to the label. Individual and societal preoccupation with the deviant label lead the deviant individual to follow a self-fulfilling prophecy of conformity to the ascribed label.
This theory, while very much a symbolic-interactionist theory, also has elements of conflict theory as the dominant group has the power to decide what is deviant and acceptable, and enjoys the power behind the labeling process. An example of this theory is a prison system that labels people convicted of theft, and because of this they start to view themselves as thieves.

Primary and secondary deviation

Edwin Lemert developed the idea of primary and secondary deviation as a way to explain the process of labeling. Primary deviance is any general deviance before the deviant is labeled as such. Secondary deviance is any action that takes place after primary deviance as a reaction to the institutions.
When an actor commits a crime (primary deviance), however mild, the institution will bring social penalties down on the actor. However, punishment does not necessarily stop crime, so the actor might commit the same primary deviance again, bringing even harsher reactions from the institutions. At this point, the actor will start to resent the institution, while the institution brings harsher and harsher repression. Eventually, the whole community will stigmatize the actor as a deviant and the actor will not be able to tolerate this, but will ultimately accept his or her role as a criminal, and will commit criminal acts that fit the role of a criminal.
Primary And Secondary Deviation is what causes people to become harder criminals. Primary deviance is the time when the person is labeled deviant through confession or reporting. Secondary deviance is deviance before and after the primary deviance. Retrospective labeling happens when the deviant recognizes his acts as deviant prior to the primary deviance, while prospective labeling is when the deviant recognizes future acts as deviant. The steps to becoming a criminal are:
  1. Primary deviation.
  2. Social penalties.
  3. Secondary deviation.
  4. Stronger penalties.
  5. Further deviation with resentment and hostility towards punishers.
  6. Community stigmatizes the deviant as a criminal. Tolerance threshold passed.
  7. Strengthening of deviant conduct because of stigmatizing penalties.
  8. Acceptance as role of deviant or criminal actor.

Control Theory

A theory that stresses how weak bonds between the individual and society free people to deviate. By contrast, strong bonds make deviance costly. This theory asks why do people refrain from criminal behavior, instead of why people commit criminal behavior, according to Hirschi. The control theory developed when norms emerge to deter deviant behavior. Without this "control" deviant behavior would happen more often. This leads to conformity and groups. People will conform to a group when they believe they have more to gain from conformity than by deviance. If a strong bond is achieved there will be less chance of deviance than if a weak bond has occurred. Hirschi argued a person follows the norms because they have a bond to society. The bond consists of four factors: commitment, attachment, belief, and involvement, these are positively correlated. When any of these bonds are weakened or broken they will be more likey to perform deviance (e.g. you would be less likely to deviate after working hard to get your PhD because the risk would be too great.)
More contemporary control theorists, such as Robert Crutchfield take the theory into a new light, suggesting labor market experiences not only affect the attitudes and the "stakes" of individual workers, but can also affect the development of their children's views toward conformity and cause involvement in delinquency. This is still an ongoing study as he has found a significant relationship between parental labor market involvement and children deliquency, he has not empirically demonstrated the mediating role of parents or children's attitude. The research will try to show a correlation between labor market stratification and individual behavior (juvenile behavior).

Conflict theory

Conflict theorist generally see deviance as a result of conflict between individuals and groups. The theoretical orientation contributes to labeling theory in that it explains that those with power create norms and label deviants. Deviant behavior is actions that do not go along with the socially prescribed worldview of the powerful, and is often a result of the present social structure preventing the minority group access to scarce resources. Power conflict theorists see the manifestations of power into certain institutions as what cause deviance. The institution's ability to change norms, wealth, status, etc come into conflict with the individual's self. Since it explains deviance as a reaction due to conflict between groups and individuals due to scarce resources, it does a great job of explaining deviance by poor citizens, etc. However, it does not do such an excellent job in explaining white-collar crime. This theory also states that the powerful define crime. This raises the question: Whom is this theory functional to? In this theory, laws are instruments of oppression. In other words, tough on the powerless and less tough on the powerful.


Marx himself did not write about deviant behavior but he wrote about alienation between the proletariat as well as between the proletariat and the finished product which causes conflicts and thus deviant behavior.
· Many Marxist writers have used the theory of the capitalist state in their arguments. For example, Steven Spitzer utilized the theory of Bourgeosie control over social junk and social dynamite; George Rusche was known to present analysis of different punishments correlated to the social capacity and infrastructure for labor. He theorized that throughout history, when more labor is needed, the severity of punishments decreases and the tolerance for deviant behavior increases. Jock Young, another marxist writer, presented the idea that The modern world did not approve of diversity but was not afraid of social conflict. The late modern world, however, is very tolerant of diversity but is extremely afraid of social conflicts, which is an explanation for the political correctness movement. The late modern society easily accepts difference, but it labels those that it does not want as deviant and relentlessly punishes and persecutes.
--Michael Fouclault believed that tourture had been phased out from modern society due to the dispersion of power, there was no need anymore for the wrath of the state on an deviant individual. Rather, the modern state takes praises itself for its fairness and dispertion of power which, instead of controling each individual, controls the mass. He also theorized that institutions control people through the use of disipline; For example, The modern prison (more specifically the panopticon) is a template for these institutions because it controls its inmates by the perfect use of discipline.
--Fouclault theorizes that, in a sense, the postmodern society is characterized by the lack of free will on the part of individuals. The hyper-fatalistic and extreme structural function view that it is, institutions of knowledge, norms, and values, are simply in place to categorize and control humans.

Other theories

The Classical school of criminology comes from the works of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. Beccaria assumed a utilitarian view of society along with a social contract theory of the state. He argued that the role of the state was to maximize the greatest possible utility to the maximum number of people and to minimize those actions that harm the society. He argued that deviants commit deviant acts (which are harmful to the society) because of the utility it gives to the private individual. If the state were to match the pain of punishments with the utility of various deviant behaviors, the deviant would no longer have any incentive to commit deviant acts. (Note that Beccaria argued for just punishment as raising the severity of punishments without regard to logical measurement of utility would cause increasing degrees of social harm once it reached a certain point.)
The Italian school of criminology contends that biological factors may contribute to crime and deviance. Cesare Lombroso was among the first to research and develop the Theory of Biological Deviance which states that some people are genetically predisposed to criminal behavior. He believed that criminals were a product of earlier genetic forms. The main influence of his research was Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution. Lombroso theorized that people were born criminals or in other words, less evolved humans who were biologically more related to our more primitive and animalistic urges. He stated that little could be done to cure born criminals because their charcateristics were biologically inherited. Over time, most of his research was disproved. His only theory that still holds true today is that all criminals seem to have a severe lack of intelligence

Social foundations of deviance

Deviance varies according to cultural norms. It is dependant upon beliefs, people who are deviant are only so because that is what others consider them to be. The breaking and making of rules involves social power.

Functions of deviance

  • Deviant acts can be assertions of individuality and identity, and thus as rebellions against group norms
Deviance affirms cultural values and norms, it also clarifies moral boundries, promotes social unity by creating an us/them dichotomy,encourages social change,and provides jobs to control deviance

Cross-Cultural Communication as Deviance

Cross-Cultural Communication is a field of study that looks at how people from different cultural backgrounds endeavor to communicate. All cultures make use of nonverbal communication but the meanings of nonverbal communication vary across cultures. In one particular country, a non-verbal sign may stand for one thing, and mean something else in another culture or country. The relation of cross-cultural communication with deviance is that a sign may be offensive to one in one culture and mean something completely appropriate in another. This is an important field of study because as educators, business employees, or any other form of career that consists of communicating with ones from other cultures you; need to understand non-verbal signs and their meanings, so you avoid offensive conversation, or misleading conversation. Below is a list of non-verbal gestures that are appropriate in one country, and that would be considered deviant in another.
These are just a few signs of non-verbal cross-cultural communication that one should be aware. Cross-Cultural communication can make or break a business deal, or even prevent an educator from offending a student. Different cultures have different ways of communicating with one another and when different cultures are mixed as we are here in the United States, it is important to understand cultures of others.

Types of deviance

A taboo is a form of behavior considered so deviant by the majority, that to speak of it publicly is condemned, and almost entirely avoided. Examples of such behavior can include coprofeeeeilia, murder, rape, incest, necrophilia, child molestation or even something as commonplace as defecating or urinating.

Deviance in literature

Many works of literature provide allegories of the conflict between character and society, in which the character does not conform to the society's norms and is therefore alienated, ostracized, or even discriminated or persecuted. Examples: 1. The Stranger (novel)


See Also

deviant in German: Devianz
deviant in Estonian: Hälbiv käitumine
deviant in Spanish: Sociología de la desviación
deviant in Persian: کج‌رفتاری
deviant in French: Déviance
deviant in Italian: Devianza (sociologia)
deviant in Hebrew: סטייה
deviant in Hungarian: Deviancia
deviant in Japanese: 逸脱
deviant in Polish: Dewiacja społeczna
deviant in Vietnamese: Lệch lạc
deviant in Ukrainian: Девіація соціальна

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1