What is Deviance? Definition, Types, Views, and More

What is Deviance?

Deviance refers to the belief, attitude, or behaviors offensive to one’s society. Deviant behavior is both negative and positive as well.

Social deviance is any attitude or act (behavior) that violates socio-cultural rules and norms that may include violation of a formally enacted law (e.g. crime) as well as violation of informally enacted social norms (e.g. rejecting folkways). In other words, social deviance is an absence of conformity to social norms. Deviance is not always punishable, and it is not necessarily bad. For e.g. deviance can be as minor as picking one’s nose in public, traffic rules violation, or as major as committing a murder.

Deviance is defined by its social context and processes. Each society defines what is deviant and what is not, and definitions of deviance differ Widely between societies. An act that may be considered deviant in one society at some period of time may be normal for another society or at another period of time.

For e.g. In Nepal, some decades ago, girls wearing paints was socially considered deviant but now it’s normal. It means the process of social change and the context today define whether the act is deviant or not. For e.g. fighting during a Hockey game is normal while fighting in school is deviant behavior.


According to sociologist William Graham Summer, “deviation is the violation of established contextual, cultural, or social norms whether folkways, mores or codified law.”

This definition consists of three important terms:

  • Folkways are norms based on everyday cultural customs concerning practical matters like how to hold a fork, what type of clothes are appropriate for different situations, or how to greet someone politely.
  • Mores are more serious moral injunctions or taboos that are broadly recognized in a society, like the incest taboo.
  • Codified laws are norms that are specified in explicit codes and enforced by government bodies.

What is Crime?

Sometimes there is confusion between what is a crime and what is deviance. So then, what is a crime, lets clarify.

Crime refers to an act of violation (break) of the law and is subject to official punishment.

Normally, crimes are classified into two types based on their severity.

  • Violent crimes: The crime against a person that involves the use of force or the threat of force. For e.g. Rape, murder, and armed robbery fall under this category.
  • Nonviolent crimes: The crime that involves the destruction or theft of property, but does not use force or the threat of force. For e.g. car theft, stealing a wallet, vandalism, etc.

Types of Deviance

Different scholars have classified deviance into different types. Among them, John Hagen (1994) classified deviant acts in terms of their perceived harmfulness and the degree of norms violated, and the severity of punishment to them.

  • Consensus crime: The most serious act of deviance that is generally regarded as morally intolerable, injurious, and subject to harsh penalties/punishments are consensus crimes. For e.g. Acts like murder and sexual assault.
  • Conflict crime: The acts which may be illegal but are fewer disagreements about is seriousness are conflict crimes. For e.g. prostitution, smoking marijuana, etc.
  • Social deviation: The acts which are not illegal in themselves but are widely regarded as serious or harmful are social deviations. For e.g. abusing the staff or behaviors arising from mental illness and addiction.
  • Social diversions: The acts that violate norms in a provocative way but are generally regarded as distasteful but harmless, or for some, regarded as cool are social diversions. For e.g. like riding skateboards on sidewalks, overly tight leggings, facial piercings, etc.

Next, Sociologist Edwin Lemert identified two types of deviance that affect identity formation.

  • Primary deviance: It is a violation of norms that do not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others. For e.g. Speeding is a deviant act, but receiving a speeding ticket generally does not make others view you as a bad person nor does it alter your self-perception about your own image. Individuals who engage in primary deviance still maintain a feeling of belonging in society and are likely to continue to conform to existing social norms/laws.
  • Secondary deviance: It is an extreme violation of norms that results in long-term effects on the individual self-image or interactions with others occurs. The person may take on the role of a deviant and start to act as a rebellion against society. For e.g. a high school student who is scolded and beaten down by teachers develops to become a ‘troublemaker’. As a result, the student instead of conforming to school rules start to act more aggressive and deviant by breaking more rules.

Differences between Crime and Deviance

Crime is a violation of officially enacted laws.Whereas deviance is a violation of social rules
and norms.
Agents of control for crime are the police
and judiciary.
Whereas agents of control for deviance
are societal pressure and fear of Gods.
Governments have the power of punishment to
tackle crime.
Neither government nor society has any coercive
power to deal with deviant behavior.
Crime is always criminal in nature.Whereas it can be criminal or non- criminal.
Violation of law makes deviance, a crime.Whereas deviance is not considered as severe
as a crime.

Approaches (views) to explain deviance or anomie are;

Structural Functionalism

According to the structural-functionalist Durkheim, the deviation is the normal and the necessary part of the organization. He stated four important functions of deviance.

  • Deviance affirms cultural values and norms. Any definition of virtue (good) rests on an opposing idea of vice (bad). There can be no good without evil and no justice without crime.
  • Deviance defines moral boundaries, people learn right from wrong by defining people as deviant.
  • A serious form of deviance forces people to come together and react in the same way against it.
  • Deviance pushes society’s moral boundary which, in turn, leads to social change.

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