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by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

What is deviance?

The word “deviance” is related to the root for “deviate” which means to wander off track.  In sociology, our concern is just as much with what keeps people on the line as it is about people getting off it.

A deviation is a violation of a social norm.  The question then is just as much, “Why do we have and observe social norms?” as “Why do we break them?”

What is the difference between deviance and crime?  Both are violations of social norms. A crime has an added characteristic in that a law has been passed against it, making it a crime or criminal offence.  Not everything illegal is criminal; a parking ticket is not a criminal offence; driving while intoxicated is.


We start our search by considering control.  Social organisation means that people behave in predictable patterns, with variety, perhaps, but within some boundaries.  So the sociological question is how are people kept within those boundaries?

When people see individuals behaving outside the norm, in both senses (mathematical and sociological), they tend to do things that not only reflect their judgement, but also tend to be aimed at affecting the individuals engaged in the deviation.  One response is to exclude them from some social interaction.   Punishment.  This can amount to bigotry, and can include removing rights of the individuals.  Another response is to engage in behaviour aimed at bringing the deviant individual in line, to change her or his behaviour so as to conform to the norms of the community.

The behaviour of other people can be a set of forces that keep us in line.  Their responses to our actions can be as positive and negative sanctions,  rewards and punishments.  Carrot and stick.  If we act within their boundaries of expectations and preferences, we are rewarded, and if we stray we are punished.

Because we are socialised the way we are, our assumptions about what other people are thinking affects how we act.  Those sanctions, positive and negative, can work on us not even by how others respond, but because of our assumptions about how others might respond.

The difference between deviance and crime is that crime is a social deviance for which a law has been passed to forbid it, and for the state to punish someone who breaks the taboo.  That difference is basically the difference between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft.  Not every law is fair or based upon the will or consensus of the whole population, and some actions may be technically illegal yet accepted among the norms of the people.  Some laws are not removed long after they outlast their usefulness.  It is still the law in Vancouver that horses have the right of way over motor vehicles and pedestrians.  Punishment is the common legal response, but punishment is not a way to end crime, even in the individual being punished.  See Criminal Sentences.


After I first was introduced to sociology, I took a course in deviance.  I thought I might learn what a deviant is, how s/he got that way, and what society did about it.  I was surprised to discover that it was not so important what a deviant was as who had the power to label someone as a deviant.

What constitutes a deviant, where the lines are drawn, differs from culture to culture, therefore from community to community.  The boundary judgements belong to the judgmental dimension, values.

If everyone in the community has exactly the same notion of whether a person is a deviant or not, then the labelling process would be straight forward.  No disagreement.  But it is very rare to find even two persons in a community with the same precise set of values, let alone everybody in the community.

Where there are differing ideas about where to draw the lines, the community may recognize the authority of one person or one category of persons, to decide.  The person doing the identification has the power.

One mechanism for identifying and responding to persons to be labelled as deviates is the medicalization of deviance.  This is a mental manipulation which takes the eccentric and suggests that the reason for the aberration is rooted in disease, or at least incomplete health.  It puts a biological origin on to the situation, an all too common approach in this day of biological explanations for what are social conditions or situations.   Medicalization of deviance often is a mechanism for putting the power of identifying a deviate onto those trained in medicine, again putting a biological “cause” onto deviance.

Who has the control and how is it manifested?  Who us a deviate?  What is a deviate?  These are key questions here.

One element of differentiating different kinds and degrees of breaking norms is what is represented by the difference between harmless eccentricity versus dangerous crimes.  The social response, along a continuum between those extremes, is a continuity or spectrum also.


Another aspect of deviation is its role in social change.  Urbanization itself is social change, and urban communities tend to change more rapidly than rural ones.  However social change may come about, whoever is first is a deviate − by definition.  Invention, discovery and innovation are all social deviations at first, until they become the accepted social norms.

The classical example about which we learn in secondary school is Galileo, when he was declared a heretic by the Catholic church, for suggesting that the earth is not necessarily the centre of the universe, because it goes around the sun.

As mentioned in Notes on Religion, the concept of nothing as a positive entity and goal was heretical to the church leaders in the Middle Ages. The Arabs brought the concept of zero along with their numbering system from India.  The first Europeans to use these were seen as deviants, heretics and criminals in their own communities.

In urban industrial and post industrial societies, we value social change and new inventions, if they are useful.  We therefore value creativity more than in rural societies.  Greater creativity causes greater deviance, and faster social change.  It produces more variety of values, which in turn allows for increased accusations of deviance, and greater culture conflict between sub cultures in a community.  For many reasons, cities have more deviants than villages or rural areas, per population.

Overall, the sociological concern with deviance is not a question of definitions but one of power.

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Last update: 2012.10.12

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