Deviance: Is It In the Eye of the Beholder?
Deviant behavior is described as actions or behaviors that violate cultural norms including formally enacted rules as well as informal violations of social norms. This paper will examine what the various types of deviance and will present the important theories of deviance. There is often the argument that deviance is in the eye of the beholder but after research I found out that it is not quite true. Deviance is an established abnormality in individuals and society and sociologist have been seeking to find solutions for it for decades by applying various theories upon this abnormality. There are seven major theories of deviance that are further followed by sublistings of variations on themes. These theories are differential association, anomie, Marxian conflict, social control theory, labeling, utilitarian/deterrence and routine activities.
Deviance is also broadly categorized into three basic forms of rule breaking behavior; good, odd and bad behavior. It is now realized that though many acts maybe deviant they may still not constitute bad or criminal behavior. But they are still socially reprimanded because of their nature such as highly inappropriate modes of dress. There is the absolutist stand in viewing deviance and the relativist stand. The absolutist stand places all blame of the deviant act upon the individual while the relativist stand is more lenient in taking into account the larger picture that considers societal factors and other influences in causing deviant behavior. The modern day sociologist is considered to be a relativist who believes in taking the middle road when analyzing deviant behavior. According to Shur (1965), ‘The societal reaction to the deviant, then, is vital to an understanding of the deviance itself and a major element in—if not a cause of—the deviant behavior’.
Deviance: Is It In the Eye of the Beholder?
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When it come to an attempt to ascertain whether or not deviance is in the eye of the beholder, the fact is that all the research that is related to deviance only proves that it is a phenomena that is not in the eye of the beholder but a valid and recognized form of socially abnormal behavior. In any given society of the world, deviance is an established of behavior that breaks out of the recognized norms and requires to be corrected in order for the normal flow of social life to progress. Deviance describes actions or behaviors that clearly violate cultural norms including formally and informally enacted rules as well as informal and formal violations of these rules, regulations and norms. This paper will try to depict how deviance is seen, created, challenged and enforced.
Deviance is an act defined as the deliberate violation of the cultural norms of a given society. The most prevalent form of deviance is crime of any sort or the violation of societal norms enacted by a society that have been formally enacted into criminal law (What is Deviance?) Deviance has been recognized as an integral part of every society and hence is studied as a sociological science. In being studies as a science of society, there is little doubt that deviance should be considered to be in the eye of the beholder. The sociology of deviance is based on the study of deviant behavior as the recognized violation of cultural norms. It also deals with the creation and enforcement of those norms. It is important to understand that certain deviant behaviors may not be recognized as such by all societal standards. In other words, not all societies have rules that would disallow all forms of behavior. But still every society does have its own set of social rules that when broken, constitute deviance for the members of that particular society. Rather on the contrary, deviance is defined in relative terms with different societies having different ways to view the same behavior (Sociology of Deviance).
Many of the theories that are related to deviance and criminal behavior are simple and uncomplicated stating one or two explanatory principles that apply to all instances of the particular form of deviance that is being explained. These are also called simple theories that are conventionally classified into six or seven major categories and have sublistings of variations on themes. The categorical schemes that are most popular are related to strain, learning, labeling, control, opportunity, psychodynamic and biological. According to Pearson and Weiner (1985) the simple theories that are most important are differential association (Sutherland and Cressey 1978), anomie (Merton,1975), Marxian Conflict (Bonger 1916; Quinney 1970), social control (Hirschi 1969), labeling (Becker 1963; Gove 1975, 1980; Schur 1971), utilitarian/deterrence (Andenaes 1974; Becker 1968; Cornish and Clarke 1986; Gibbs 1975; Tunnell 1992; Zimring and Hawkins 1973) and routine activities (Cohen and Felson 1979) (Tittle, 1995).
Sutherland and Cressey’s theory of differential association is considered to be one of the most prominent social learning theories. Sutherland’s research was focused on white collar crime, professional theft and intelligence and disputed the notion that crime was a function of people’s inadequacy in the lower classes. He did not consider crime to stem from individual traits or from socioeconomic positions but to be a function of a learning process that could affect any individual regardless of culture. The acquisition of behavior is a social learning process rather than a political or legal process. Consequently the skills and motives that are conducive to crime are learned as a result of contact with pro-crime attitudes, values, definitions and other related pattern of criminal behavior. The basic principles of differential theory are that criminal behavior is learned, learning is a byproduct of interaction, learning occurs within intimate groups, criminal techniques are learned, perceptions of legal code influences motives and drives, differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority and intensity, the process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal with anticriminal and criminal influences involve all of the mechanisms that would be involved in any other learning process and that criminal behavior is an expression of the general needs and values but it is not excused by those general needs and values because non-criminal behavior is also an expression of the same needs and values (Seigel, 2005).
The theory of anomie was presented by Robert Merton and it explains the occurrence of crime as well as wider disorder and deviance. This theory is considered to be a wide ranging and essential sociological explanation for deviance. Merton borrows the term anomie from Durkheim and rejects individualistic explanations of crime and criminal behavior stating them to be socially learned. He also says that there are social structural limitations imposed on access to the means to achieve these goals. The focus of his work is on the position of the individual within the social system rather than on personality characteristics. He says, “Our primary aim lies in discovering some social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in the society to engage in non-conformist conduct” (Burke, 2005).
This theory is based on the work of Karl Marx and views a dominant class as being in control of the resources of society, using its power to not only create institutional rules but entire belief systems that support this power. The theory looks at the structure of society as a whole in trying to develop explanations for deviant behavior. According to this theory the economic organization of capitalist societies is responsible for producing deviance and crime. Since this scenario causes certain groups in society to have access to less resources in capitalist society they are hence forced into deviance and crime to sustain themselves. The high rate of economic crimes such as theft, robbery, prostitution and drug selling is explained by conflict theorists to be the result of the economic status of these groups. Contrary to emphasizing values and conformity as a source of deviance, as done by functional analyses, the conflict theories view deviance as the direct result of power relationships and economic inequality (Andersen, Taylor, 2006).
The theory of social control was offered by Hirschi and it evolved from many previous contributions. The primary concept of the theory is the ability to deviate from normative behavior. Many people do not engage in deviant behavior because of their bond to society. Social bond was also conceptualized by Hirschi on the basis of the attachment of the individual to others, commitment to conventional lines of action, involvement and belief in legitimate order. These four components were regarded by Hircshi as being independent and having a generally negative association with the chances of engaging in deviant behavior. It was his opinion that when the elements of social bond were weakened, the probability of delinquency and deviancy increased (Weis, Crutchfield, Bridges, 2001).
Labeling theory is considered important in the study of deviance since it focuses not only on crime but also the situation surrounding the crime. It goes beyond viewing the criminal as a robot like person whose actions are predetermined by also recognizing that crime is often the result of complex interactions and processes. Decisions to commit crimes and other acts of deviance involve the action of a variety of people that include peers, victims, police and other key characters. Additionally, labeling also fosters crime by guiding the actions of all parties involved in these criminal interactions. Actions that are considered insignificant and innocent when committed by one person are considered provocative and deviant when committed by another who has been labeled a miscreant. On the same note, labeled individuals may also be quick to judge, take offense and misinterpret the behaviors of others due to their past experiences (Siegel, 2004). Sociologist clam that when a person becomes known as a deviant, and is ascribed deviant behavior patterns, it is as much, if not more, to do with the way they have been stigmatized, then the deviant act they are said to have committed. As a matter of fact, labeling theory has subsequently become significantly dominant in the explanation of deviance.
This theory is also often referred to as rationale choice or “economic” theory. The main idea of the theory is that all human acts are decisional and that any behavior is more easily understood in terms of relative costs and benefits. When the cost of any behavior exceeds the benefit or utility for any individual he or she will in all likelihood forgo it. But when the benefits exceed the cost, the behavior will follow. Hence if one could learn the costs and benefits of different courses of actions it would make it easy to explain and predict what will happen (Tittle, 1995).
The theory of routine activities asserts the fact that high crime rates in the US have always been a part of normal life. The main concept of the theory are taken from the insights of a number of other perspectives on crime and victimization such a the free-will basis of human action or rational choice and empirical studies that reflect that patterns of crimes and victimization differ in time, in location and in the social distance between the victim and the offender. The key claim of the theory if that the patterns of victimization and crime are the result of the everyday interaction of the potential offenders, suitable targets, and guardians. It is the interaction of these three variables within geographical space and in time that eventually determines the rates of crime and delinquency in modern society (Beirne, Beirne, Messerschmidt, 1999).
Deviance is broadly categorized into three basic forms of rule breaking behavior; good, odd or bad behavior. Deviance that could be considered good or even admirable but which still breaks out of social norms is something akin to heroism such as putting one’s own life in danger in an attempt to save the life of another person. There are many behaviors that may be considered odd even though they may not be criminal. They are considered odd because they are different than behavior that is shown by other people. Examples of this deviance range from outlandish or inappropriate modes of dress, mildly eccentric behavior such as a person who sees nothing wrong in sharing their house with 50 cats to outright madness. Bad behavior is what the name implies it to be; law breaking or criminal behavior that in some way is seen as being something more than simply outlandish or eccentric. The different kinds of behavior in this category constitute crime, violence, crimes against property and the like dependant on the time and place at which they take place (Types of Deviance).
Though the definition of deviance and the different ways of interpreting it have undergone much research over the years, the fact that there is indeed such behavior in every society that clearly deviates from the norms of that society and hence constitutes deviant behavior hasn’t changed. According to Rock (1973), “The common sense definition has not changed: the absolutist orientation still prevails. Not so for social science. Sociologists in particular now realize that, contrary to common sense, the identification of and reaction to deviance in everybody’s life is no different from other areas of life: these processes hinge on one person’s interpretation of another person’s deeds. The chief difference between interpretations in other areas of life and those in deviance lies in the use of a moral yardstick when deviance is interpreted. To be sure, what is seen a deviant is part of everyday knowledge of common-sense reality. But it is a socially constructed reality” (Rosenberg, 1983).
Because most of the world does have a socially constructed view of deviance, it makes people view the act and not the actor. Societies, heritages, morals passed down from generations, and religious preferences have all blinded individuals from using their own personal judgments and common sense. My interest in this particular topic had a lot to do with my free will of judgment in reference to how I myself viewed deviance and although I guide my kids into what is believed to be right and wrong, I also teach them to make their own decision on what they consider to be deviant in their eyes. As times change, so does the world and although some things are more acceptable, values remain the same. However, if one really wants to understand the way deviance is viewed, created, challenged and enforced, one has to take a much deeper view. It is not enough to focus on the individual deviant and the means of society trying to transform a behavior into some acceptable “normal” thing; one also needs to examine those who insist on this transformation and who have defined it as deviant in the first place. In some cases, it may be the actual values or the way people judge and label deviant behaviors that is more deviant than the acts or behaviors itself.
In conclusion, after examining the types of deviance and the different theories of deviance it can be surmised that it won’t be logical to say that “deviance is simply in the eyes of the beholder”. Deviance is a recognized social ill. It also needs be mentioned here that there are two ways in which sociologists view deviance; the absolutist way and the relativist way. The absolutist are not willing to cut any slack at all in the discussing of deviance being an effect of environment, society and other factors related to it laying all blame of the deviant behavior entirely on the individual. To the contrary, the relativists are the ones who present their case in a manner akin to “so deviance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…almost every conceivable human characteristic or activity is pariah in somebody’s eyes” (Simmons, 1969).
In modern times most of the sociologists are relativists where they claim that human action is neither inherently deviant nor inherently nondeviant but dependant of the effects of the environment and society as well. However, in determining the validity of deviance it is best to adopt a middle position which is neither strictly absolutist nor strictly relativist. Given the growing diversities of societies all over the world, it is only by adopting this middle path can one truly judge deviant behavior and seek plausible solution to it by applying the theories of deviance upon them. According to Schur (1965), ‘The societal reaction to the deviant, then, is vital to the understanding of the deviance itself and a major element in—if not a cause of—the deviant behavior’. In my opinion, deviance is in the eyes of the beholder nonetheless, it is still a societal ill that first needs to be treated as such before solutions can be sought to remedy it.
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Burke, R. H. (2005) An Introduction to Criminological Theory. Pp. 100 (Willan Publishing 2005)
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