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Chapter 6: Deviance, Crime and Social Control

6.1 Social Control and the Relativity of Deviance

Social Issues in the News

“Attack Leaves Voter, 73, in Pain and Fear,” the headline said. A 73-year-old woman had just voted in the primary election in Boston, MA. As she walked home, two men rushed up, grabbed her purse and knocked her down. She later said, “In this situation, you don’t think too much. Only, you get scared when people try to take everything from you.” A neighbor who came to the victim’s aid recalled, “I heard a woman in distress, screaming for help. I just jumped out of bed and looked out the window. And I could see an elderly person on her knees, crying.” The police later arrested a 19-year-old suspect. The city’s district attorney said of the crime, “It’s despicable. Only a coward would attack a 73-year-old woman from behind. He’s brought shame to himself and his family, and he can count on an extremely aggressive prosecution.” (Ellement, 2008)

This terrible crime was just one of millions that occur in the United States each year. A central message of this book so far is that society is possible because people conform to its norms, values and roles. This chapter has a different message: that people often violate their society’s norms and are sometimes punished for doing so. Why do they commit acts of deviance? What influences their chances of being punished? How do behaviors come to be defined as deviant? Recalling this book’s emphasis on changing society, how can deviance be reduced? Another equally important question is whether or not deviance is always undesirable? These are questions that sociologists research and theorize about, and which are discussed in this chapter.


is behavior that violates social norms and which typically arouses negative social reactions. Some behavior is considered so harmful that governments enact written laws that ban the behavior. is behavior that violates these laws and is certainly an important type of deviance that concerns many Americans.

The fact that deviance can arouse negative social reactions reminds us that every society needs to ensure that its members generally obey social norms in their daily interaction. refers to ways in which a society tries to prevent and sanction deviant behavior and other attempts at compelling conformity. Just as a society like the United States has informal and formal norms, so does it have informal and formal social control. Generally, is used to control behavior that violates informal norms (or folkways), and is used to control behavior that violates formal norms (or mores). We typically conform to informal norms because we fear risking the negative reactions of other people. These reactions, and thus examples of informal social control, include anger, disappointment, ostracism, and ridicule. Formal social control in the United States typically involves the legal system (police, judges and prosecutors, corrections officials) and also, for businesses, the many local, state, and federal regulatory agencies that constitute the regulatory system.


Officials such as police, judges and corrections officials are responsible for formal social control, while informal social control is enforced by our agents of socialization and people we encounter.  Photo by Benjamin Cruz from Pexels

Social control is never perfect, and so many norms and people exist that there are always some people who violate some norms. In fact, Émile Durkheim (1895/1962), stressed that a society without deviance is impossible for at least two reasons. First, the collective conscience is never strong enough to prevent all rule breaking. Even in a “society of saints,” such as a monastery, he said, rules will be broken and negative social reactions aroused. Second, deviance serves several important functions for society, which are discussed later in this chapter. Because Durkheim thought deviance was inevitable for these reasons, he considered it a normal part of every healthy society.

Although deviance is normal in this regard, it remains true that some people are more likely than others to commit it. It is also true that some locations within a given society have higher rates of deviance than other locations; for example, U.S. cities have higher rates of violent crime than do rural areas. Still, Durkheim’s monastery example raises an important point about the : whether a behavior is considered deviant depends on the circumstances in which the behavior occurs and not on the behavior itself. Although talking might be considered deviant in a monastery, it would certainly be considered very normal elsewhere. If an assailant, say a young male, murders someone, he faces arrest, prosecution, and, in many states, possible execution. Yet if a soldier kills someone in wartime, he may be considered a hero. Killing occurs in either situation, but the context and reasons for the killing determine whether the killer is punished or given a medal.

Deviance is also relative in two other ways. First, it is relative in space: a given behavior may be considered deviant in one society but acceptable in another society. For example, sexual acts condemned in some societies are often practiced in others. Second, deviance is relative in time: a behavior in a given society may be considered deviant in one time period but acceptable many years later, and vice versa. In the late 1800s, many Americans used cocaine, marijuana, and opium, because they were common components of over-the-counter products for symptoms like depression, insomnia, menstrual cramps, migraines, and toothaches. Coca-Cola originally contained cocaine and, perhaps not surprisingly, became an instant hit when it went on sale in 1894 (Goode, 2008). Today, of course, these drugs are illegal in most states. The relativity of deviance in all these ways is captured in a famous statement by sociologist Howard S. Becker (1963, p. 9), who wrote several decades ago that:

deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules or sanctions to an “offender.” The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.

This insight raises some provocative possibilities for society’s response to deviance. First, harmful behavior committed by corporations and wealthy individuals may not be considered deviant, perhaps because “respectable” people engage in them. Second, prostitution and other arguably less harmful behaviors may be considered very deviant because they are deemed immoral or because of bias against the kinds of people (i.e., poor) thought to be engaging in them. These considerations yield several questions that need to be answered in the study of deviance. First, why are some individuals more likely than others to commit deviance? Second, why do rates of deviance differ within social categories such as gender, race, social class, and age? Third, why are some locations more likely than other locations to have higher rates of deviance? Fourth, why are some behaviors more likely than others to be considered deviant? Fifth, why are some individuals and those from certain social backgrounds more likely than other individuals to be considered deviant and punished for deviant behavior? Sixth and last but certainly not least, what can be done to reduce rates of violent crime and other serious forms of deviance? The sociological study of deviance and crime aims to answer all of these questions.


Key Terms

Crime – behavior that violates the laws of a society.

Deviance – behavior that violates social norms and which typically arouses negative social reactions.

Formal social controlthe means used to control behavior that violates formal norms.

Informal social controlthe means used to control behavior that violates informal norms.

Relativity of deviance – the idea that whether a behavior is considered deviant depends on the circumstances in which the behavior occurs and not on the behavior itself.

Social control – refers to ways in which a society tries to prevent and sanction deviant behavior and other attempts at compelling conformity.


Continue to 6.2 Explaining Deviance


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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez, Rudy Hernandez, Aliza Robison, Pamela Smith, and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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