Introduction to Sociology/Deviance
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Theories of Deviance
- 3 Crime Statistics
- 4 Social Control
- 5 Current Research
- 6 Notes
- 7 Recommended Reading
- 8 References
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.
Current research on deviance by sociologists takes many forms. For example, Dr. Karen Halnon of Pennsylvania State University studies how some people exercise informal deviance. Her research focuses 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
While the focus of this chapter is on sociological explanations of deviance, there are explanations from other disciplines as well. For instance, recent research in neurology and psychology finds that boys with conduct disorder have differences in their brain structure and that those differences exist during childhood and adolescence. These differences likely contribute to their deviant behavior.
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:
- 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)
What makes Merton's typology so fascinating is that people can turn to deviance in the pursuit of widely accepted social values and goals. For instance, individuals in the U.S. who sell illegal drugs have rejected the culturally acceptable means of making money, but still share the widely accepted cultural value in the U.S. of making money. Thus, deviance can be the result of accepting one norm, but breaking another in order to pursue the first.
The structural-functionalist approach to deviance argues that deviant behavior plays an important role in society for several reasons. First, deviance helps distinguish between what is acceptable behavior, and what is not. In a sense deviance is required in order for people to know what they can and cannot do. It draws lines and demarcates boundaries. 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 clarifying 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 the process of returning societal equilibrium, society is often forced to change. Thus, deviant behavior serves several important functions in society.
A clear example of how deviance reflects power imbalances is in the reporting and tracking of crimes. White-collar crimes are typically committed by individuals in higher social classes. Examples of white-collar crimes include:
- antitrust violations
- computer, credit card, phone, telemarketing, bankruptcy, healthcare, insurance, mail, and government fraud
- tax evasion
- insider trading
- bribery and public corruption
- money laundering
- economic espionage
- trade secret theft
As of 2009, the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics do not provide clear statistics on white-collar crime, like they do with other types of crime. Most of the statistics provided are estimates of losses resulting from white-collar crime, which include:
- unclear amount of money lost from corporate crime, but totalling in the billions
- at least $50 billion lost every year in the U.S. from health care fraud
- unclear amount of money lost from financial institution fraud, but totalling in the billions
- unclear amount of money lost from money laundering, but also totalling in the billions
- at least 10% of government funds for domestic programs may be lost to fraud every year, totalling in the billions
- unclear amount of money lost from insurance, telemarketing, and investment fraud every year, but also totalling in the billions
That such crimes are not tracked more clearly suggests that there is less of an emphasis placed on prosecuting white collar crime than there is on prosecuting other types of crime (property and violent crime) in the U.S. It may also be the case that it is difficult to collect such statistics, but that is also likely due to the fact that a system for tracking such crimes has not been put into place because such crimes are not seen as warranting the same amount of attention as exists for other types of crimes.
That white-collar crimes are less likely to be tracked, less likely to be reported, less likely to be prosecuted, and are more likely to be committed by people in higher social classes suggests that the way crimes are punished in the U.S. tends to favor the affluent while punitively punishing the less affluent. Additionally, men benefit more from white-collar crime than do women, as they are more likely to attempt these crimes when they are in more powerful positions, allowing them to reap greater rewards.
Labeling Theory refers to the idea that individuals become deviant when two things occur:
- a deviant label is applied to them (e.g., loner, punk)
- 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 re-casting 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 re-interpreted 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 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.
Crime statistics are usually 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 complaints to the police, which in turn represents only a fraction of the total crimes committed. However, it should also be noted that television presents an unrealistic picture of the frequency of crime, particularly violent crime. Heavy viewers of crime dramas on TV (e.g., CSI, Law & Order, etc.) estimate that there are 2 1/2 times as many real world deaths due to murder than do non-viewers. Thus, while crimes are under-reported, they do tend to receive disproportionate attention in the media, leading people to think that crime is more prevalent than it actually is.
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. One explanation for this is the increasingly punitive approach of the criminal justice system. According to Western (2007), those who break laws in the U.S. today are twice as likely to be imprisoned as criminals a generation ago. While debated, the percentage of prison inmates who have been wrongly convicted of crimes is estimated to be somewhere between less than 1% all the way up to 9%, which could mean hundreds of thousands of prison inmates are actually innocent. The figure to the right breaks down the correctional system population by the status of individuals in the correctional system, including:
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 map below.
This map illustrates that the U.S. has both a lot of people in prison in sheer numbers but also as a percentage of the population. 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.
The U.S. has a relatively high recidivism rate (recidivism refers to the frequency of repeat offenses). More than half (some estimate around 67%) of prison inmates will be convicted on another charge within three years of having been released and return to prison. 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 attempting to reform or resocialize individuals to make them productive members of society. One factor that contributes to the high recidivism rates is the social stigma that accompanies having been convicted of a felony in the US. van Olphen et al. (2009) found that individuals convicted of drug offenses were very likely to be reincarcerated, largely due to punitive punishments that accompanied their "convicted felon" stigma. For instance, they were often denied access to public housing and food stamps, which led many of the participants in the study to sell drugs to survive, leading to future arrests and convictions. The lack of help given to convicts released from prison increases the odds of those convicts returning to prison. Another factor that significantly increases the odds of convicts returning to prison is their return to their former neighborhoods. Convicts who move away from their old neighborhood are substantially less likely to commit another crime; distancing themselves from the social environment that encouraged their criminal activity in the first place reduces their odds of reincarceration. Finally, the stigma associated with spending time in prison leads to substantially worse physical and mental health for ex-cons, including higher rates of chronic illness, disability, psychiatric disorders, major depression, and anxiety.
A relatively recent innovation in criminal justice that has been shown to moderately reduce recidivism rates is "drug courts," or alternative sentencing systems that mandate treatment and therapy rather than jail time for drug offenses. Drug courts appear to reduce recidivism by somewhere between 8 and 10 percent. That drug courts reduce recidivism is not all that surprising consider there is an actual intent to modify behavior rather than simply removing individuals from society.
Another interesting characteristic of the U.S. is the amount of money that is spent on the correctional system. Policing the nations streets is the most expensive component of the correctional system, followed by housing prison inmates. The average annual cost for one federal prisoner exceeds $20,000. The judicial process is the least expensive, but the combined expenses of all three elements total over $200 billion annually (when you combine state, local, and federal expenditures).
Even though billions of dollars are spent on the criminal justice system every year in the U.S., the financial outlays actually account for only part of the cost of mass incarceration. Millions of additional jobs and even lives are lost as a result of the stigma that follows prison inmates when released (which also explains the high recidivism rate). Convicted felons are barred from working in certain industries, have limited access to educational opportunities, and have limited access to welfare and housing benefits from the government. All of these problems combine to concentrate former inmates in poor urban neighborhoods that have limited opportunities to move out of criminal circles. Reducing the consequences of felony convictions and providing occupational and drug counseling would go a long way toward alleviating the high recidivism rates.
Another way crime statistics can go beyond simply reporting incidents of criminal activity is in highlighting differences between different groups. One difference in criminal activity is seen in the number of violent crimes committed by gender (see chart). While the difference has narrowed in recent years, men are still more likely to commit violent crimes 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 between men and women as men are far more likely to rape women than vice versa. The figures below and to the right show that rape rates in the U.S. have declined in recent years and also compare rape rates from select countries around the world.
Regardless of one's views on the War on Drugs in the U.S., one thing is certain, the war disproportionately targets African Americans. Since the inception of the war on drugs in 1980, 31 million drug related arrests have been made. African Americans are no more likely to use drugs than are whites, but between 1980 and 2003, the arrest rates for African Americans for drug offenses has risen at three times the rate as it has for whites, 225% vs. 70%. The reason: drug use and trafficking in the inner-city as opposed to suburbs has been the focus of the war. Additionally, penalties for using drugs that are more often found among minorities have traditionally been harsher than for drugs used by whites. Crack and powder cocaine are very similar in effect, but possession of crack cocaine carries harsher penalties and is more likely to be used by blacks, who account for nearly 80% of crack convictions, than whites. These laws were enacted in 1986 and mandated minimum sentencing - 5 years for possessing five grams of crack; 10 years for 10 grams. But the thresholds for powdered cocaine were 100 times as high - 500 grams of powdered cocaine got you just 5 years. The discriminatory prosecution of African Americans for drug offenses is just one way in which the criminal justice system in the U.S. works against African American equality.
The criminal justice system in the U.S. has a significant impact on the life chances of racial and ethnic minorities, in particular, people of African descent. Serving time in prison has become a normative event for young, lower-class African-American males. The average African-American, male, high-school dropout born in the 1960s in the U.S. had a nearly 60% chance of serving time in prison by the end of the 1990s. (This probability drops precipitously for college-educated African-Americans.) A disproportionate percentage of African-Americans are in prison; African-Americans make up 12% of the U.S. population but nearly 46% of prison inmates. The long-lasting effects of criminal conviction and imprisonment (convicted felons are barred from many jobs), results in the disenfranchisement of many African-Americans - time spent in prison is time spent away from education and on-the-job training. As a result, many African-Americans end up unskilled and with criminal convictions and felony records.
Some scholars argue that the disproportionate imprisonment of African-Americans in the U.S. actually countermands the achievements of the civil rights movement. The criminal justice system in the U.S. is arguably a massive machine that results in the production of racial inequality. In fact, the inequality in the prison system is unmatched by that in other elements of society, as the following ratios indicate:
- ratio of African-American unemployment to European-American unemployment - 2 to 1
- ratio of African-Americans born to unwed mothers compared to European-American children born to unwed mothers - 3 to 1
- ratio of African-American infants who die compared to European-American infants who die - 2 to 1
- ratio of African-American to European-American wealth - 1 to 5
- ratio of African-American incarceration rate to European-American incarceration rate - 8 to 1
Another result of the disproportionate imprisonment of African-Americans in the U.S. is that imprisoned African-Americans are not included in calculations of unemployment rates. African-American are substantially more likely to be unemployed than European-American, but most statistics do not include prison populations.
Another illustration of the disparity in punishment in the US based on race is tied to the death penalty. Only 10% of individuals in the US sentenced to death are ever actually executed, but which ones are executed is intimately tied to race. Individuals convicted of killing a European-American are five times more likely to be executed than individuals who killed a racial or ethnic minority. This suggests that the criminal justice system in the US values white victims above minority victims.
All of these elements combined lead to the conclusion that one of the most racially disparate elements of U.S. society is the criminal justice system.
The chart below tracks homicide rates in the U.S. for the past 100 years. There has been an increase over time, though it is not clear whether that increase represents an actual increase in homicides or an increase in confounding factors, such as: stricter law enforcement, an increased willingness to report crimes, or changes in the definition of homicide itself.
The U.S. does not have the highest homicide rates in the world, but the rates in the U.S. are still relatively high compared to other countries (see chart).
Homicide rates also vary the age of the victim, as shown in the chart below. Note the similarity in homicide rates between the 14-17 age group and 18-24 age group.
High Crime Neighborhoods
Traditionally people have thought of crime being the result of negative characteristics of a neighborhood (e.g., low incomes, high residential turnover rates, etc.). However, there is some evidence to suggest that crime and the negative characteristics that were believed to cause high crime reinforce each other. This research finds that higher crime rates actually leads to more concentrated poverty, declining retail presence, and more residential turnover. This findings suggests that it is crime that drives away businesses and residents who have more money to safer areas, which then concentrates poverty and crime in that area.
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 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
Video Games and Deviance
Another area of current research that is of great interest to many people is the alleged effects of violent video games on behavior. Karen Sternheimer explains that a lot of the concern around video games is illustrative of the social construction of deviance. According to Sternheimer, "Politicians and other moral crusaders frequently create "folk devils," individuals or groups defined as evil and immoral. Folk devils allow us to channel our blame and fear, offering a clear course of action to remedy what many believe to be a growing problem. Video games, those who play them, and those who create them have become contemporary folk devils because they seem to pose a threat to children." (p. 13) The assumption is that playing violent video games will lead children to act out violently. However, there is a growing body of literature that is either inconclusive on this issue or that contradicts this assumption: it does not appear as though playing violent video games results in violent behavior.
The reason why the assumption that playing violent video games is not accurate is because it decontextualizes violence. Those who claim violent video games lead to violence fail to realize that violence is context dependent and most players of video games are fully aware of this. Individuals who play video games recognize that violence in the context of the game is okay and that it is not okay to be violent outside of that context. Additionally, many of the studies that have claimed to have found a connection between playing video games and violent behavior have failed to control for other influences on violent individuals, influences that are more likely to translate into violent behavior: neighborhood violence and instability, family violence, and even mental illness. Seldom is a connection made between adult shooting sprees in the workplace (which are far more common than school shooting sprees) and video games. Instead, people look toward contextual influences like those described above (i.e., job loss, family problems, etc.). In other words, violent video games are the folk devils for violent behavior in children, but not for adults.
Finally, the video game explanation is also illustrative of social-conflict and racial discrimination. Seldom is the explanation of a black violent offender's behavior playing violent video games. The assumption is that black culture encourages violence; as a result, violent behavior by young black men is not "shocking," so it does not require a folk devil to explain it. This is, of course, discriminatory. In contrast, it is generally white, middle-class violent offenders whose behavior is explained by alleging a video game connection. The fact that these violent offenders are white and middle class threatens the "innocence and safety of suburban America," (p. 17) which means it requires a folk devil culprit, absolving white, middle-class America of the blame.
One area of current research into deviance that highlights the socially constructed nature of norms is tattoos. In 2003 a survey found that 15% of the U.S. adult population had at least one tattoo; that number jumps to 28% for adults under 25. However, tattoos are a very complicated illustration of the intricacies of deviance. Many of the individuals getting tattoos do not fit the stereotypes of individuals who get tattoos (e.g., soldiers, sailors, bikers, etc.); many of those tattooing their bodies are high-achieving students. Additionally, tattooing is on the rise among women - 15% of women have tattoos while 16% of men do. Intriguingly, men and women get tattoos for different reasons. For men it is to reinforce their masculinity and for women it is to enhance their femininity. This differences illustrates another way in which gender is an action.
Another interesting aspect of tattoos is their changing meanings. While it is probably not the case that the meaning (think symbolic interactionism) of tattoos to those who get them is changing (tattoos have traditionally been used to express one's self or commemorate events), how tattoos are viewed is changing. In the early 1900s tattoos were so stigmatized that they could literally result in prosecution and served as evidence of ill intent and disrepute. Such extreme stigmatization is no longer the cause, probably because 88% of Americans know someone with a tattoo. As a result, tattoos are decreasingly seen as deviant. But tattoos also illustrate that deviance is not determined by the action but by those perceiving the action. While a tattoo may mean one thing to the person with the tattoo, it is still the case that others interpret the tattoo in a multitude of ways, and those don't always align with the intended meanings. Still today, tattoos are often equated with: drug use, troublemakers, and gang affiliation. This is probably why many people who get tattoos get them in locations that can easily be covered in regular business attire - that way they can still pass when not in the company of those who are more understanding of their tattoos. Tattoos, then, illustrate the sociological understanding of deviance quite well.
Two additional theories that might be discussed in future versions of this text include:
- differential association
- deviant subcultures theory
This article in the New York Times Magazine on stopping the transmission of violence in gang retributions offers a fascinating insight into both gang life and measures being taken to curb gang violence.
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