Deviance and Social Control


Simply defined, "deviance" is the violation of social norms.


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Groups, as we have seen constantly try to enforce conformity on their members through the use of sanctions-- both positive and negative; formal and informal.  In this section of the course, we'll address how and why people deviate from social norms.

Deviance is the violation of a social norm.  Generally, "deviance" is regarded in a negative light, but there are many "positive" sides to deviance.  For example, ice cream lovers in the United States have come to regard "Ben and Jerry's" ice cream as one of the best brands on the market.  But the founders of this product,  Ben and Jerry,  are generally regarded as "deviants" in the minds of the "established" corporate society.  This is because they ran their highly successful business in a very unusual manner, trying to create the most pleasant work environment possible.  Of course, Ben and Jerry do not consider themselves to be "deviant" at all.  According to their perspective, it is the establishment that is "deviant," creating stressful conditions for workers while top management receives an unfair share of the profits.   (Ben and Jerry's, the Inside Scoop by Chico Larger).  Check out the Ben and Jerry's web site and look for the company's mission statement: 

Ben and Jerry's

Definition of Concepts: Deviance and Crime:

Stated very simply, deviance as a violation of a norm;  while crime is defined as a violation one specific type of norm, a law.  By definition then, it would seem that "society" considers all crime to be deviant behavior.  However, members of society may not consider a specific crime to be deviant at all.  A speeding violation, parking ticket, etc. are classified as misdemeanors under the criminal code of Virginia, and you can go to court for them-- but we don't regard the offenders (the people who commit these violations) as deviant. 

On the other hand, there are individuals and groups in society whose behavior may be regarded as very deviant according to the norms of the "larger" society.  But these individuals and groups are not "criminals" because they are breaking no laws. (For example, you may want to ask your parents or grand parents what they think about body piercing. What are their opinions of pierced ears; lips, noses, nipples, etc.?)

Deviance is Defined Within the Social Context:

Emile Durkheim made a very strong and controversial claim in The Rules of Sociological Method.  He said that  NO ACT IS INHERENTLY DEVIANT IN AND OF ITSELF. DEVIANCE IS DEFINED SOCIALLY AND WILL VARY FROM ONE GROUP TO ANOTHER. Obviously, then, the group in a given society that has a lot of power will have a major role in defining what acts are deviant. But for this to work most people must acknowledge that power. That is, they they must recognize or feel that that power is legitimate that the state, or those in control have authority over them. This is an important distinction between force and coercion (i.e. raw power without recognition or consent of the people) and legitimate authority where people recognize and acknowledge the power over them. 

Certainly, we can understand and agree with this when examining the broad varieties of societies (industrial and pre-industrial) that exist in the world today.  Cannibalism is socially approved in some societies, while it is taboo in others-- But what about behavior that affects society on an international level?

      • (The late) Ayatollah Khomeini's (and Iran's continuing) "edict of death" against Salman Rushdie for writing Satanic Verses -- Is Rushdie a criminal?  Whose laws did Rushdie violate?  (In Iran he's condemned to death; In Britain he suffers nothing more than literary criticism).
      • Are the Shite Moslems who (five years ago) killed Robert Stethem, the navy diver, during the TWA hijacking criminals? Or, for that matter, can we even label them deviant?
      • If we want to carry this further, can we say that Adolph Hitler or Joseph Mengeler were criminals?  Whose norms did they violate?  What laws did they break?  (Certainly not their own!)  The Nazi's were found guilty of war crimes at Nurenburg, but by whom? The Allies! Would the Nazi's have ever found themselves guilty of crimes against humanity, had they won the war? Of course not!  (Fortunately) the allies had the power and were able to enforce their definition of crime (and deviance) upon the vanquished. (The Nazi's would never consent to the Allies claim of authority over them).


This raises the interesting question Are there any universal laws?  It seems that in every society murder is a crime-- (But there are a very wide set of circumstances under which killing is permitted.  What one society considers to be murder, another will consider to be justifiable homocide.  For example, in one society in the middle east a woman can be beheaded for adultery.  What American court would levy this sentence?!)

But there are some laws on the books that large numbers of people don't recognize or pay any attention to. While Americans would consider it both a crime and deviant to murder someone, many don't think that a person should be arrested for smoking marajuana. (It's not the smoking that he or she will be arrested for, it's the possession of the illegal substance, itself). They don't consider it deviant.  It doesn't violate norms, in their opinion. (The same can be said for many of the old "blue laws" still on the books). If the public no longer considers an act to be seriously deviant, chances are that it will be removed from the law books. We can still consider people who claim to be witches "deviant" (or weird) for example, but practicing witch craft is no longer unlawful (as it once was in Salem, Massachusetts).  Another example is prohibition in the 1920's. Although the 18th Ammendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed on December 18, 1917  prohibiting the sale, manufacture, transportation, and importation of intoxicating liquor,  many (it seems) continued to drink and public sentiment was against prohibition which was repealed by the 21st Ammendment in 1923.

The Effects of Deviance on Society

As we have noted, deviance is generally perceived to be disruptive in society.  It can weaken established social norms, and create division and disorder. But it also has other functions which are not necessarily harmful and may actually be beneficial to society.

      • It is one way that social change occurs. If a deviant act becomes more accepted it soon may be considered legitimate. For example, many companies used to have dress codes for their workers-- (Managers were required to dress-up, suits, etc.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s more and more managers were showing up to work informally dressed.  Soon, companies began to implement "casual days."  Today, many American corporations have done away with the business suit altogether). Most fine restaurants have also relaxed dress codes today.
      • Deviance helps people adjust to change. It provides examples of alternate lifestyles and eases the shock of social change because "deviants" introduce these changes gradually.  Over time individuals get used to seening different styles of dress, behavior, etc.
      •  Deviance has a way of promoting social solidarity by distinguishing "us" form "them." In this way it increases social cohesion in the larger society by establishing social boundaries defining what is acceptable behavior.

1.     Laws passed against witchcraft in New England in the 1600s provide an example of how powerful people in the community were able to use deviance  to their own advantage. Puritans strengthened the community's religious solidarity by blaming "witches" for the troubles the communty was experiencing. Once these "witches" were identified, they were executed.  Members of the community "closed ranks" and obeyed their religious leaders, lest they be accused of witchcraft and be burned at the stake!  (Read  Kai T. Erickson's Wayward Puritans for an excellent account of this).

2.     The late, Ayatolla Khomeni used a different kind of witch-- one he called the "Great Satan" (the United States) to rally Iranians against western modes of dress and behavior. American society represented the antithesis of all that was "good" in the eyes of Khomeni and his followers.

      •  Deviance provides a way in which some individuals and groups can introduce their agendas to the rest of society, and elevate their own personal status while doing it. Parents Anonymous is a group in Richmond that has gone to extrodinary efforts to publicize the problems of child abuse and provide a mechanism to stop it by providing a support network city-wide. Their efforts in publicizing this form of deviance (and crime) have done a service for the city, (and its parents) as well as providing status to their own organization.




Who Are Society's Deviants?

Who are the deviants in our society?  To some extent we all are. We break rules every day.


Who Are Society's Criminals?


The same can be said about crime. Most of us break laws frequently.  Studies that asked respondents to report what they themselves had done (self-reported) indicate that between 75 to 95 percent of Americans did something serious enough that could get them at least a year in prison.


(According to the 2004-05 Statistical Abstract of the United States,  there were over 6.6 million people in jail, or prison, on probation or on parole in this country in 2002).  <>


This raises an interesting question:  If we all perform deviant acts and even break laws from time to time, who gets caught? Which groups are most likely to be caught (or arrested) for criminal activity in the United States? Let's look at some basic demographic (or population) categories.  

      • The young: Over 55 percent of all arrests for serious crimes in this country are committed by people under 25 years old (2003 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics).  In 2003, 15 percent of all arrests for violent crime were made on people under 18 years old.
      • Males: 73 percent of all people arrested in 2002 for serious crimes were male. We socialize our men to be aggressive and the courts are more lenient on females so even if they are arrested, they are more apt to get lighter treatment if they do come to trial.  However, the percentage of women arrested for serious crimes has been on the increase.
      • City residents: Crime rates are related to the size of the community. In 2002, according to the Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 86 percent of all Violent Crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) and Property Crimes (burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft) occur in this nation's metropolitan areas. 
      • Minority status: Black Americans comprised approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet 27 percent of all arrests in that year were made against Blacks compared to 70 percent for whites (who comprised about 74 percent of the population).  (FBI, 2004) Generally speaking Blacks are more likely to be arrested and when tried in court, blacks get longer sentences. Somewhat similar trends can be observed for other racial minorities.

Here are some statistics taken from the Bureau of Justice Statistics web site on the characteristics of the U.S. incarcerated population:

Characteristics of jail inmates <>


·        Women were 12% of the local jail inmates in 2002, up from 10% in 1996.

·        Jail inmates were older on average in 2002 than 1996: 38% were age 35 or older, up from 32% in 1996.

·        More than 6 in 10 persons in local jails in 2002 were racial or ethnic minorities, unchanged from 1996.

·        An estimated 40% were black; 19%, Hispanic, 1% American Indian; 1% Asian; and 3% of more than one race/ethnicity.

Conviction Offense

·        Half of jail inmates in 2002 were held for a violent or drug offense, almost unchanged from 1996.

·        Drug offenders, up 37%, represented the largest source of jail population growth between 1996 and 2002.

·        More than two-thirds of the growth in inmates held in local jails for drug law violations was due to an increase in persons charged with drug trafficking.

·        Thirty-seven percent of jail inmates were convicted on a new charge; 18% were convicted on prior charges following revocation of probation or parole; 16% were both convicted of a prior charge and awaiting trial on a new charge; and 28% were unconvicted.

Criminal History

·        Fifty-three percent of jail inmates were on probation, parole or pretrial release at the time of arrest.

·        Four in 10 jail inmates had a current or past sentence for a violent offense.

·        Thirty-nine percent of jail inmates in 2002 had served 3 or more prior sentences to incarceration or probation, down from 44% in 1996.

Substance Use and Treatment

·        Half (50%) of convicted jail inmates were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the offense, down from 59% in 1996.

·        Three out of every four convicted jail inmates were alcohol or drugs-involved at the time of their current offense.

·        Alcohol use at the time of the offense dropped from 41% (1996) to 35% (2002), while drug use dropped from 35% to 29%.

·        Average sentence length of inmates serving their time in a local jail increased from 22 months in 1996 to 24 months in 2002.

·        Time expected to be served in jail dropped from 10 months in 1996 to 9 months, in 2002

Family background

·        Thirty-one percent of jail inmates had grown up with a parent or guardian who abused alcohol or drugs

·        About 12 percent had lived in a foster home or institution.

·        Forty-six percent had a family member who had been incarcerated.

·        More than 50% of the women in jail said they had been physically or sexually abused in the past, compared to more than 10% of the men.



Theories of Deviance (and Crime)

Biological Theories  American popular culture contains themes that play upon physical and mental abnormalities as determinants of deviance and crime, (especially in the large number of "slasher" movies that abounded in recent decades).  During the first half of this century,  there were many attempts to develop biological theories of crime.  Here are a few examples:

Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909) Body Types and Phrenology  (Lombroso's text, Crime: Its Causes and Remedies), published in 1911, was very popular in its time.  An Italian physician ( and prison doctor) he was the founder of the field of "criminal anthropology" (Gould, 1996).  After an extensive examination of prisoners' physiology he advanced a theory that criminals were atavists-- that is, throw-backs to an earlier evolutionary human form.  Furthermore, these individuals displayed discernable physiological characteristics that could be used to identify them as deviant.  Eventually this theory was debunked when further research was unable to support the claim that prisoners differed in physical characteristics from the the general population of non-criminals.  (In short, he failed to use a control group in his research). 


William Sheldon; Theory of body types and crime (1940's and 1950s).  Sheldon's work advanced the somatotype or "body build" school of criminological theory.  Based upon a study of juvenile delinquents in Boston, MA, Sheldon concluded that the delinquents tended to have muscular and athletic builds.  he linked this with a tendency toward violent behavior.  However his theory was refuted by further research which failed to link mesomorphic characteristics with the criminal population.  When control groups were used, criminals were no more likely to be mesomorphs than the non-criminal population.

        • endomorph:  heavy-set; corpulent
        • mesomorph:  muscular, medium build
        • ectomorph:  thin, frail, tall, slight build


Sheldon's Theory


Chromosomes and Crime (XYY)  In the 1960s with the further development of the science of genetics, attention shifted to the role that genetic structure might plan in pre-disposing people to deviance and crime. It had been noted that a small proportion of males have an extra "Y" chromosome-- These individuals are sometimes referred to as "super males."  (normal males = XY; normal females = XX)  Some research (which was later refuted) suggested that these "super males" were disproportionately represented in the prison population.  (Again, these findings were based on studies that lacked proper control groups).  It was hypothesized that the extra Y chromosome predisposed them to violent behavior.  Media attention was focused on the theory when it was incorrectly reported that Richard Speck, convicted in 1966 of murdering eight student-nurses in Chicago, possessed this syndrome.  (It was later determined that he did not).  It was further determined that XYY males are no more likely to commit violent crimes than the normal population of males.  But, this case stimulated an interest in possible genetic bases for deviance that continues today.


Sociological Theories:


Functionalism  American sociologist, Robert K. Merton developed a theory that focused on strain in society that emerges when individuals and groups desire approved social goals (the good things in life), but find themselves unable to attain them through socially approved means.  For example, a college education may be the first step in achieving material success in life, but many individuals find this avenue closed to them.  As a result, they may send money off to one of several "diploma mills" in this country that will happily print a "sheep skin" with whatever degree they desire on it!  Merton's theory uses "neutral" terminology to describe people who violate social norms to achieve socially approved goals.  In the above example, our person holding a "fake" degree would be classified as an "innovator."



Merton's Anomie Theory ("Crime and Anomie", 1938)

        • innovators (They cannot achieve success through normal channels, so they "innovate"!
        • conformists  (By definition, these people are not deviants).
        • ritualists (They abandon socially approved goals, but continue to obey social norms).
        • retreatists (Hermits-- they "retreat" from society).
        • rebels  (Activists-- they actively work to overthrow society-- rejecting both means and ends).



Accepts Socially Approved Norms of Success

Rejects Socially Approved Norms of Success

Uses Approved Means to Achieve Goals



Uses Non-Approved Means to Achieve Goals





Merton's theory is broad enough to handle all categories of deviance, ranging from cheating on tests to pre-meditated murder, but are there any problems with it?


Symbolic Interactionism


Cultural Transmission School (Shaw and McKay 1929):  Deviant behavior is learned behavior-- passed down from generation to generation.  Why does the crime rate in certain city neighborhoods remain high through a succession of ethnic and racial groups that live in them?

Sutherland's Differential Association Theory  (Sutherland, 1939)  advanced a theory that specified how cultural transmission takes place, identifying a few key factors:

          • intensity of contacts with others
          • age at which contacts take place
          • ratio of contacts deviants/non-deviants

The Societal Reaction Approach (Labelling Theory)

"primary" vs "secondary" deviance

Chambliss's "Saints and Roughnecks" 

Sykes and Matza's "Techniques of Neutralization"  as justifications for deviant behavior.

Conflict Perspective

The role of power and privilege in the criminal justice system. (class example: "Pinto Madness")

Types of Crime:

The Text:  Professional; Organized; White-Collar and Technology Based; Victimless


FBI Index Crimes:  There are 8 Index Crimes.  The first four are often called violent crimes against person.  The second four are called property crime. 


The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program  (From the FBI Web cited below).

“The Uniform Crime Reporting Program classifies offenses into two groups, Part I and Part II crimes.  Each month, contributing agencies submit information on the number of Part I offenses (Crime Index) known to law enforcement; those offenses cleared by arrest or exceptional means; and the age, sex, and race of persons arrested.  Contributors provide only arrest data for Part II offenses.

The Part I offenses, those that comprise the Crime Index due to their seriousness and frequency, are defined below:

Criminal homicide—a.) Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter:  the willful (nonnegligent) killing of one human being by another.  Deaths caused by negligence, attempts to kill, assaults to kill, suicides, and accidental deaths are excluded.   The Program classifies justifiable homicides separately and limits the definition to:  (1) the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty; or (2) the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.  b.) Manslaughter by negligence:  the killing of another person through gross negligence.  Traffic fatalities are excluded.  While manslaughter by negligence is a Part I crime, it is not included in the Crime Index. 

Forcible rape—The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.  Rapes by force and attempts or assaults to rape regardless of the age of the victim are included.  Statutory offenses (no force used—victim under age of consent) are excluded. 

Robbery—The taking or attempting to take anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person or persons by force or threat of force or violence and/or by putting the victim in fear. 

Aggravated assault—An unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury.  This type of assault usually is accompanied by the use of a weapon or by means likely to produce death or great bodily harm.  Simple assaults are excluded. 

Burglary (breaking or entering)—The unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or a theft.  Attempted forcible entry is included. 

Larceny-theft (except motor vehicle theft)—The unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession or constructive possession of another.  Examples are thefts of bicycles or automobile accessories, shoplifting, pocket-picking, or the stealing of any property or article which is not taken by force and violence or by fraud.  Attempted larcenies are included.  Embezzlement, confidence games, forgery, worthless checks, etc., are excluded. 

Motor vehicle theft—The theft or attempted theft of a motor vehicle.  A motor vehicle is self-propelled and runs on the surface and not on rails.  Motorboats, construction equipment, airplanes, and farming equipment are specifically excluded from this category. 

Arson—Any willful or malicious burning or attempt to burn, with or without intent to defraud, a dwelling house, public building, motor vehicle or aircraft, personal property of another, etc.” 

Source: FBI. <>