Deviance is a statistical term but it’s also an area of study in sociology, psychiatry, psychology and criminology.
In the social sciences deviance is about trying to understand why people break social norms and what this means for the individuals who live in and, together, comprise society. At least, that would be a good beginners definition. But in reality the social sciences dig much deeper and ask some tough questions about the why’s and how’s of deviance.
For starters, the social understanding of normality and abnormality varies dramatically across cultures and throughout history. What’s okay here is not necessarily okay there. And what’s okay now was not necessarily okay back then.
In the West, studies indicate that, on the whole, our correctional institutions do not really correct criminal offenders. On their release from prison, many resume a life of crime and become repeat offenders.
Interestingly enough, some functionalist sociologists say that society needs or, at least, indirectly benefits from crime and high recidivism rates. Criminality keeps large sectors of the labor force employed, especially those connected to law enforcement and the justice system, as well as those businesses that benefit from selling crime deterrent products (e.g. alarm and surveillance systems, locks, encryption and anti-theft software).
Also, the pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested that deviance serves another positive social function. It forces us to realize just what our rules and regulations are. And in so doing, deviance actually strengthens the social bond among the majority who, so they believe, are not deviant.
Imagine, for instance, taking a ride in an elevator. Suddenly a stranger takes their shirt off and asks you to rub their shoulders. Our society does have a place where this kind of behavior is socially acceptable among strangers—namely, the massage and physiotherapy clinic. But it is not acceptable on the elevator! And if someone tried to do that, most of us would instantly know that it wasn’t, and this knowledge would reinforce our sense of belonging to the larger clan. That is, society.
Other thinkers say that to passively accept the supposed functional aspect of deviance is to deny the possibility of a world without crime or, at least, one in which crime is not pandemic to society.
Postmodern thinkers like Michel Foucault note the relativity of the term deviance and suggest that its meaning is derived through social power. For Foucault, power discursively marks off the deviant from the normal individual. In so doing, the deviant becomes marginalised—that is, deprived of the goods, opportunities, rights, privileges and other pleasures that the normal person is entitled to. This process may occur somewhat automatically when different professionals become consciously (or unconsciously) convinced of their own unshakeable authority in determining the normal, the moral and the legal.
However, corruption theorists point to the hypocrisy of societies that incarcerate low-status, petty criminals with tough sentences while government leaders and business elites caught engaging in illegitimate activities are usually given a proverbial slap on the wrist.
Others believe that deviance is largely a genetic problem. That is, criminals inherit bad genes and there’s not too much that can be done about it. To counter this claim, many sociologists say that learning and cultural deprivation have much to do with the making of a deviant.
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