Deviance describes behaviours that are “straying from the norm.” Just as norms change over time, so do conceptions of deviance. There is considerable disagreement among and within social groups about what is deviant; like other elements of a culture, deviance can be contested. The disagreement among groups about whether or not something is deviant (e.g., marijuana use, same-sex marriage) is also known as conflict deviance.
Overt characteristics of deviance are actions or qualities that explicitly violate cultural norms (e.g., vandalism of a car). They contrast with covert characteristics of deviance, which are the unstated qualities that make a group a target for negative sanctions (e.g., ethnic background, age, sex). Deviance is typically defined by those who define the norm—most often members of the dominant culture, as discussed in Chapter 3.
Essentialism argues that there is something natural and universal to social phenomena such as deviance, making them objectively true. In contrast, social constructionism suggests that elements of social life, including deviance and social categories like “race” or gender are not universal or natural, and are instead created by society. Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman, for example, examined the interplay of social constructionism and essentialism in his study of stigma and deviance. Stigmata (plural of stigma) are human attributes that are seen to discredit and marginalize a person’s social identity. Goffman categorized physical deformities as bodily stigmata. These attributes exist physically, yet their negative value is often socially constructed. Body modifications (e.g., dieting, tattooing, cosmetic surgery) can be viewed as enhancement or deformations. Further, Goffman defined moral stigmata as blemishes of an individual’s character (e.g., alcoholism). Finally, according to Goffman, tribal stigmata are constructed through group association (e.g. being a member of a racialized group or religion).
The other is an image constructed by the dominant culture to describe subcultures or used by a colonizing nation to describe the colonized. The image of the other may be mystical or exotic but always carries an implication of inferiority. Once a deviant behaviour has been associated with otherness, it is often subject to negative sanction, whether the behaviour is damaging to society or completely benign. Notions of “the other” intersect with concepts such as ethnocentrism, colonialism, stereotyping, essentialism, prejudice, sexism and homophobia.
“The other” and their behaviours are frequently the source of moral panic, which is a campaign designed to arouse concern over an issue or group. Moral panics are usually instigated by moral entrepreneurs, who are individuals or groups who try to convince others of the need to take action around a social problem that they claim to have found.
Racializing deviance is the act of linking certain forms of deviance with particular ethnic groups, which makes ethnic background a covert characteristic of deviance. It entails treating these ethnic groups differently because of the assumed connection between their ethnicity and deviant or criminal actions. While Canada formally promotes multiculturalism, there is still pressure on those who are culturally different from the mainstream to assimilate, or become the same as the dominant culture. Not assimilating the dominant culture can become viewed as deviant. Racial profiling is a method of racializing deviance whereby authorities target specific people for differential treatment or closer scrutiny based solely on ethnicity, religion, or skin colour, rather than on actual suspicious behaviour.
In a patriarchal society (one dominated by men), men are treated as normal, while women are seen as inherently deviant. Values and practices associated with masculinity are normalized through customs, laws, and culture production. In a patriarchal society, images of women are often constructed in ways that reflect misogyny, the hatred or contempt for women. The concept of patriarchal construct means social conditions being structured in a way that favour men over women.
Poverty is often considered a covert characteristic of deviance. Jeffrey Reiman, a philosopher who has written extensively about the American justice system, argues that the criminal justice system is biased against the poor and that it gives the impression that most crime is committed by poor people. This class bias is found at all stages of the criminal justice system, from defining crime to sentencing. When compared to their middle- and upper-class peers, lower-class people generally have reduced access to social resources (financial means, knowledge and ability to navigate the legal system, and influential social connections), leading to an overrepresentation in crime statistics and incarceration. Furthermore, individuals from lower-class backgrounds face limitations when it comes to impression management, which is the ability to control the flow of personal information to manipulate how others see you.
Homosexuality is defined as deviant in many places around the world, but its social construction differs across cultures in terms of what social sanctions are applied. Many countries have laws against homosexual behaviour, though in several countries only male homosexuality is explicitly illegal. Same-sex marriage has been legal across Canada since 2005, but it remains an issue of conflict deviance. Where homosexuality is regarded as deviant, this perception can be used to determine gender roles according to a mentality known as the ideology of fag. People adopting this ideology use terms like “gay” or “lesbian” pejoratively as negative sanctions against behaviour that does not conform to their own gender role expectations.
Disability is a form of deviance, though negative sanctions against disability are typically acts of ignorance rather than punishment. Homes and public infrastructure are typically not designed to accommodate people with physical disabilities. People with disabilities have also been explicitly targeted for punishment, including involuntary sterilization of those deemed “mentally inferior,” for example under the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act (1928–1972).
It is important to keep in mind that not all deviant behaviours are necessarily criminal. The discipline of criminology studies patterns in criminal behaviour to learn more about how we can predict and prevent crime. There are three central theories on the causes of criminal deviance: strain theory, subcultural theory, and labelling theory. Strain theory, developed by Robert Merton, states that an individual’s deviant behaviour develops out of the strain or conflict between pressure to achieve success (i.e., attain the American dream) and the real-life circumstances that prevent this success. Working to refine Merton’s theory, Albert Cohen developed subcultural theory. Cohen’s research identified a delinquent subculture among teenage gang members where the values of middle-class institutions are inverted as a response to status frustration, which is the failure to succeed in these institutions, particularly school. But deviant behaviour is not always the result of opposition to mainstream society. Howard Becker’s labelling theory states that subcultural values, beliefs, and practices become defined as deviant by mainstream society. When a marginalized group is labelled as deviant, members of the group as well as mainstream society may internalize that label and incorporate it in their interactions.
Sociological study of criminology had focused on crimes solely committed by the poor until criminologist Edwin Sutherland coined the term white-collar crime to refer to crimes committed by high-status people in the course of their jobs. Clinard and Quinney (1973) further refined the concept of white-collar crime by distinguishing between occupational crimes, or crimes committed by individuals for personal gain in the course of their occupations, and corporate crimes, or crimes committed for the benefit of the corporation.
After reading chapter six, you will be able to:
- Compare and contrast deviance and crime.
- Explain why deviance is contested, using examples.
- Distinguish between overt and covert characteristics of deviance, using examples.
- Explain the intersection of deviance with markers of inequality, such as class, race, sex, sexual orientation, and disability.
- Summarize three central theoretical approaches to explain criminal deviance.