Last Updated on October 16, 2022 by Karl Thompson
Deviance refers to rule-breaking behaviour of some kind which fails to conform to the norms and expectations of a particular society or social group.
Deviance is closely related to the concept of crime, which is law breaking behaviour. Criminal behaviour is usually deviant, but not all deviant behaviour is criminal.
The concept of deviance is more difficult to define than crime. Deviance includes both criminal and non-criminal acts, but it is quite difficult to pin down what members of any society or groups actually regard as deviant behaviour. Downes and Rock (2007) suggest that ambiguity is a key feature of rule-breaking, as people are frequently unsure whether a particular episode is truly deviant or what deviance is. Their judgement will depend on the context in which it occurs, who the person is, what they know about them and what their motives might be.
Societal and Situational Deviance
Plummer (1979) discusses two aspects of defining deviance, using the concepts of societal deviance and situational deviance.
Societal deviance refers to forms of deviance that most members of a society regard as deviant because they share similar ideas about approved and unapproved behaviour – murder, rape, child abuse and driving over the alcohol limit in the UK generally fall into this category.
Situational deviance refers to the way in which an act being seen as deviant or not depends on the context or location in which it takes place. These two conceptions of deviance suggest that, while there may be some acts that many people agree are deviant in one society, those acts defined as deviant will vary between groups within a society. Whether or not an act is seen as deviant often depends on:
The historical period – definitions of deviance change over time in the same society as standards of normal behaviour change. For example, cigarette smoking used to be very popular, now it is illegal to smoke in restaurants or buses.
The place or context – nudity is often seen as deviant in public (though in itself it is never criminal), but rarely in private; playing loud music is deviant on public transport, but not at music festivals, and drinking to excess is deviant almost anywhere, but not necessarily in pubs or clubs.
The social group – What may be regarded as unacceptable at a societal level may be regarded as acceptable in small groups or even whole age cohorts – binge drinking and sexual promiscuity are two such examples.
The context dependency of deviance
The context dependency of deviance simply refers to the idea that deviance is socially constructed – whether or not an act is seen as deviant depends on the historical period, the place, and the group witnessing the act.
The context dependency of deviance can be illustrated by a simple example:
Wearing a mini skirt is Deviant in Saudi Arabia:
But its clearly not on Tik Tok in Western Culture…
Task: Try to come up with your own examples which illustrate the Context Dependency of Deviance.
Discussion Question: Is there any act which is inherently deviant (deviant in every context)?
This material forms part of the introduction to the Crime and Deviance option within A-level Sociology
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