Inthe sociological perspective all behavior – deviance as well as conformity – isshaped by society.

Thereforethe society lays the foundation of deviance and that is how the title of thisdiscussion. The social foundations of deviance may be looked at from threedimensions:

1. Culturalrelativity of deviance

Nothought or action is inherently deviant; it becomes deviant only in relation toparticular norms.

Sociologistsuse the term deviance to refer to a violation of norms of culture. One may look at three basicprinciples:

  1. It is not theaction itself, but the reactions to the act that makes something deviant. In other words people’s behavior must be viewed from the framework ofthe culture in which it takes place.
  2. Different groups arelikely to have different norms therefore what is deviant to some is not deviant to others.
  3. This principle holdswithin a society as well as across cultures. Thus acts perfectly acceptable inone culture – or in one group within a society – may be considered deviant inanother culture, or in another group within the same society.

Sociologistsuse the term deviance non-judgmentally, to refer to any act to which people respondnegatively.

Whensociologists use this term, it does not mean that they agree that the act isbad, just because others judge it negatively. If we have to understand aparticular behavior, we must understand the meanings people give to that event.Consequently we must consider deviance from within a group’s own framework, forit is their meanings that underlie their behavior.

2. Who defines deviance?

Peoplebecome deviant as others define them that way. If deviance does not lie in theact, but in definition of the act, where do these definitions come from? Thesimple answer is that the definitions come from people. May be through trialand error process people determine the appropriate patterns of behavior for thesmooth functioning of their society. They themselves decide what is desirableand what is undesirable for having social order in their society. These areactually the social norms of the people. These norms are incorporated in themechanics of social control. The process may be a little different in a simpleand small society than in a complex and large society having ethnic variations.

3. Both rule making and rule breakinginvolve social power.

Eachsociety is dominated by a group of elite, powerful people, who make thedecisions for making rules, which become part of the social control system inthe society. The powerful group of people makes sure that their interests areprotected. The machinery of social control usually represents the interests ofpeople with social power.

A lawamounts a little more than a means by which powerful people protect their interests.For example the owners of an unprofitable factory have the legal right to shutdown their business, even if doing so puts thousands of workers out of work.But if a worker commits an act of vandalism that closes the same factory for asingle day is subject to criminal prosecution.


Whenwe think of deviance, its dysfunctions are likely to come to mind. Most of usare upset by deviance, especially crime, and assume that society would bebetter off without it. Surprisingly for Durkheim there is nothing abnormalabout deviance; in fact it contributes to the functioning of the society infour ways:

1. Deviance affirms cultural valuesand norms.

Livingdemands that we make moral choices. To prevent our culture from dissolving intochaos, people must show preference for some attitudes and behaviors overothers. But any conception of virtue rests upon an opposing notion of vice. Andjust as there can be no good without evil, there can be no justice withoutcrime. Deviance is indispensable to creating and sustaining morality.

2. Deviance clarifies moralboundaries and affirms norms.

Agroup’s ideas about how people should act and think mark its moral boundaries.Deviance challenges those boundaries. To call a deviant member to explain, sayin effect, “you broke a valuable rule, and we cannot tolerate that,” affirmsthe group’s norms and clarifies the distinction between conforming anddeviating behavior. To deal with deviants is to assert what it means to amember of the group. For example there is a line between academic honesty andcheating by punishing students who do so.

3. Deviance promotes social unity.

Toaffirm the group’s moral boundaries by reacting to deviants, deviance developsa “we” feeling among the group’s members. In saying “you can’t get by withthat,” the group collectively affirms the rightness of its own ways.

4. Deviance promotes social change.

Deviantpeople push a society’s moral boundaries, pointing out alternatives to thestatus quo and encouraging change. Groups always do not agree on what to dowith people who push beyond their acceptable ways of doing things. Some groupmembers even approve the rule-breaking behavior.

Boundaryviolations that gain enough support become new, acceptable behavior. Thusdeviance may force a group to rethink and redefine its moral boundaries,helping groups and whole societies, to change their customary ways. Today’sdeviance can become tomorrow’s morality.

Source: Introduction toSociology – Virtual University of Pakistan