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Sociology Class

Deviance and Social Control


Something is deviant if the audience or the society in which the act occurs states that it is deviant.  For instance, is abusing one’s wife deviant?  It depends on the specific society’s norms.  Is interracial marriage deviant?  It depends on the time in history one is in.  The “audience” (or society) defines what is deviant and what is not.

Is This Deviance Or Conformity?

Every year on Halloween night in a small town in Central California something happens.  If you ask those who live in this town about their town they would say, “Nothing really exciting ever seems to happen in our community” or “This is a very law-abiding place…”  But on Halloween night every year the high school boys break a dozen laws.  These boys are described as “beer-saturated boys.”  These boys collect a surplus of spoiled fruit, vegetables, and eggs in the back of their pick-up trucks and use the “ammunition” or “rotten produce” to battle.  Strangely the police are absent even though they know this is going to occur.  The town folk say that this is just a “mischievous prank” and that “boys will be boys.”  Is this deviance?  Would this be considered deviant if it happened in your community?  What if a high school boy decided not to participate?  Would that be deviance?

One year the boys changed it up a bit.  They filled the back of their pick-up trucks with manure and spread it all down the main street of the town.  What do you think happened?  The “boys were dismissed from school for the day to clean up the town.”  So was this considered deviance?  Did the society define what was deviance by the sanctions issued?  As you can see the audience (the town) defined what was deviant and what was not.

Explanations of Deviance


Some say that biology can explain deviance.  Some say that a person with an extra Y chromosome (XYY) or that has a specific body type is more likely to be deviant.  Cesare Lombroso (founder of biological positivism) researched what he called the atavistic criminal or born criminal.  He studied the skulls of violent criminals and compared them to skulls of “conformists” or those who did not break laws.  He described violent criminals as having “enormous jaws, high cheek bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of orbits, handle-shaped for sensile ears…”  Basically he was describing people that look like primitive man.  He stated in his findings that 90% of the time individuals who had such appearances were violent criminals.  His work was highly criticized and he eventually modified his theory to state that this was the case 40% of the time.  One note on Lombroso, he contributed a lot to research and research methods as he was one of the first to use control groups…we don’t want to bash him too much!  Since this is a sociology class we will not focus on the biological perspective as there is not evidence that people are born deviant.


Psychologists look inside the person to explain deviance.  Studies have indicated that those with personality disorders or a chemical imbalance are more likely to engage in criminal activity.  Again, since this is a sociology class we will not focus on the psychological perspective.

Sociology (the perspective we will focus on)

So, how does a sociologist explain deviance and criminal behavior?  A sociologist looks outside the person and at the person’s external environment to explain deviance.  The following are our five key theories of deviance or the five key sociological explanations of why individuals or certain groups are deviant and engage in criminal activities.  The goal here is to understand why individuals are deviant, not excuse the behavior, but to understand.  We will now discuss the sociological perspective (theories) of deviance.  Each of these theories stem from one of the three main social theories (which I have noted with each theory).

Sociological Perspectives of Deviance


Differential Association Theory (Edwin Sutherland, 1924, 1947; part of symbolic interactionism)

This theory states that people learn deviance or conformity by the groups they associate with.  Our agents of socialization and role models (those key players in our lives) teach us to be deviant or to be conformists.  Our agents of socialization include our family, friends, community, neighbors, and subculture just to name a few.  Therefore, if several of one’s family members have committed crimes and have served time in prison it is more likely that the individual will also engage in criminal activity and serve time in prison (as they have socially learned these norms).  The idea is that a person is learning (social learning), by observing the role models/agents of socialization in his or her life, to be deviant and how to behave in society and in his or her environment.  If a person grows up in a community in which gang membership and deviance is the norm that individual is more likely to join a gang and commit crimes due to his or her association with those in his or her community/society.  The Todd and Jury research noted in this section of the Openstax textbook provides some research data on this issue and how individuals learn deviance from their parents and other role models.

Control-Bond Theory (Walter Reckless, 1973;part of symbolic interactionism)

There are two parts to this theory.  1) Individuals have two sets of controls.  Individuals have inner controls, such as their conscience and moral values (for example, that little voice inside our head that says “don’t yell in the library”) which tell individuals the difference between right and wrong.  Outer controls, such as one’s parents, the police, and the law, also play a role in whether or not an individual is deviant. 2) The more tightly bonded one is to his or her family and the society in which one lives the less likely he or she is to commit deviant acts.  Deviant acts are more likely if social bonds are weak or broken.  For example, if a person has an absent father (broken bond) and his or her mother works two jobs and is never home (weak bond; lack of outer controls) and the individual “hates” the police because “they are just out to get me” (weak or broken bond with society; lack of social controls) he or she is more likely to be deviant.  Social research indicates that boys that have absent fathers (weak or broken bond with fathers) are more likely to engage in deviant behaviors and even commit crimes (a majority of males in prison had an absent father/broken or weak bond with their fathers).  If a person has weak outer controls then he/she will in turn have weak inner controls.  The goal is for parents to provide their children with outer controls in hopes that these will in turn become their inner controls as they mature (teaching them self-control).  Attachmentscommitments, involvements, and beliefs are also an important part of this theory.  The more attachments (to others and society), commitments (to legitimate groups in society; think Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other groups), and involvements (think involved in school, sports, community, etc.) one has the more likely he or she will be a conformist and abide by the norms of society.  When one has a lack of attachments, commitments, and involvements he/she is more likely to be deviant.  Beliefs refer to one accepting (or not accepting) the beliefs that the greater society has (accepting the beliefs=bonded to society; having different beliefs=broken bond with society).

Labeling Theory (part of symbolic interactionism)

Labeling theory states that “the labels that people are given affect their own and others’ perceptions of them” (Henslin).  The idea is that if a person is labeled a particular way over time he or she may become the label (Remember the “stupid kid”/child that was called stupid and self-fulfilling prophecy from our previous lecture?).

The “Saints and the Roughnecks”, a study by Chambliss, is the classic example of labeling theory (Chambliss, 1973/2007).

Chambliss reports here on his observations of two groups at Hanibal High School. The first of these, the Saints, was a group of kids who were defined as “good.” They came from good families and were, apparently, well behaved. In fact, as Chambliss describes these kids in their last years of high school, they were delinquents of the first order. They played hooky nearly every day but did so by trickery and ruse. Outwardly, toward those in authority, they were obedient and differential. They did not talk back. In addition to being secret truants, they were very heavy drinkers, and vandals, they consistently abused automobiles, drove drunk, stole, and played various not-so- innocent pranks. By any standards, they were delinquents.

The school also had another group, the Roughnecks, who were defined as the “bad” boys. In fact, they did not do as much as the Saints but they were defined as troublemakers. The police responded to these troublemakers and they to the police, in terms of their definition. One can argue that both were bad, but had different labels attached. 

Outcomes over time are reported. More than ten years after graduation, the Saints had all made out well; they had become lawyers, businessmen, successes. The outcomes for the Roughnecks are the opposite. (A few of them succeeded, but more through chance than anything else). Two of
the Roughnecks ended up in prison for murder, for example.  This is a simple telling of the importance of labels.

(Source: Henslin, 1988)

How was each group labeled?  What were the long term effects of the labeling?  How did social class play a role in how they were labeled?  Social class affects perceptions of others’ behaviors.  If a person comes from a respected middle-class family and he/she broke a norm or law would we think differently than if the person came from a lower class family that was not respected?  The significance of labels and reputations are emphasized.  We can see that labels can become part of one’s self-concept.  If a person is labeled a “thug” by his or her peers, the police, the community, teachers, their siblings, and/or by the society what do you think that person will become?  The self-fulfilling prophecy (becoming the label; accepting the label) can be the outcome.    How do reputations play a role in labeling?  In some instances one’s family, community, and/or subculture causes others to label him or her, treat him/her accordingly, and can have long term self-fulfilling outcomes.  Secondary deviance and master status can also be the outcome.

Secondary deviance: person’s self-concept changes once labeled deviant – fulfill the role of a deviant

Master status: chief characteristics of an individual – see themselves as “convicts”

In some instances individuals reject labels via techniques of neutralization: denial of responsibility (denying that one is responsible), denial of injury (denying that anyone was hurt by the act), denial of victim (view that those who were hurt were victims, that they got what they deserved), condemnation of the condemners (denying the right of others to judge, that they are hypocrites), and appeal to higher loyalties (loyalty to the gang is more important than following the norms of society).

Strain Theory (Robert Merton, 1956, 1968; part of structural functionalism)

Every society notes the desired cultural goals for the given society.  For instance, in the United States high status, wealth, and material possessions (cars, shoes, houses, etc.) are some of the cultural goals.  Each society also has the accepted institutionalized means for achieving the cultural goals.  There are accepted institutional means for achieving the cultural goals in our society (education, employment, hard work).  Individuals who are blocked from the institutionalized means to reach the cultural goals may utilize illegitimate means to obtain goals as a consequence of their frustrations.  These individuals become what we call innovators (Henslin).  For example, if a person desires a nice car but is living in poverty does he/she automatically think “if I graduate high school, go to college, graduate from college, get a job, save my money, then I can get the nice car”?  Or, does the individual steal the car and have it immediately?  Or, does he/she sell drugs to obtain the material goal(s)?  The idea is not that this is desirable but that some individuals living in poverty do not have access to legitimate means to get to the societal goals.  They can also lack the role models to teach them legitimate means (differential association; see how the theories interact?); however, they still desire the cultural goals.  Strain theory is a consequence of poverty and the illegitimate opportunity structure (not having access to legitimate means is built into the structure of society, built into the institutions in society).  If a mother living in poverty steals food to feed her children she is using illegitimate means to achieve a goal – she is suffering from the strain of poverty.

The Modes of Adaptation (Strain Theory)

  • Conformity (conformist): accepting the cultural goals and the institutionalized means to achieve the goals (going to school, getting a job, purchasing items)
  • Innovation (innovator): accepting the cultural goals but rejecting the means and adopting illegitimate means (selling drugs, stealing)
  • Ritualism (ritualist): rejecting the cultural goals but accepting the institutionalized means (go through the motions such as going to school but do not try to be successful in their education or follow the rules of their job but do not try for promotions)
  • Retreatism (retreatist): rejecting the cultural goals and rejecting the institutionalized means (abusing alcohol or drugs which hinder success)
  • Rebellion: rejecting the cultural goals and replacing them with different goals and rejecting the institutionalized means and replacing them with different means (example: revolutionaries)

Rational-Choice Theory/Exchange Theory

In every situation individuals weigh their options and make the logical choice or rational choice (according to their perspectives).  Individuals weigh the risks and rewards before each choice they make.  If the overall risk is low and there is a reward one may choose to be deviant and go against the norms and/or laws of society.  Individuals also try to avoid pain, punishment, or embarrassment.  For example, if an individual is in poverty and is having a difficult time feeding his/her children on a daily basis what choices will he/she make?  He/she may know that stealing is wrong but he/she weighs that with the fact that his/her children are starving and decides to steal food.  If a person lives in a neighborhood full of gangs is it a rational choice for him/her to also join the gang even though he/she knows that the activities are illegal?  What would be the risk of not joining the gang?  Would he/she avoid pain, punishment, and embarrassment by joining a gang?  Would gang membership actually act as protection?

In order to understand this theory it is important to put yourself into others’ shoes and understand that what might not seem logical/rational to you might very well seem logical/rational to another individual given the socialization they have experienced and the environment they have grown up in.


What is recidivism?  What is the recidivism rate?  We see a trend in our society in that those that are arrested and spend time in prison just continue the cycle over and over (once out of prison they continue the deviant behaviors, are rearrested, and end up back in prison).  How do the theories of deviance explain the recidivism rate?  Think about how we can use the theories to explain why this occurs.  Do we have a problem in our society of deterrence?  Do we not create enough fear so people will refrain from breaking the law?  Do we not invest enough in education, the proactive approach, to help prevent criminal activity?  Does our society focus on the reactive approach rather than a proactive approach?  This issue correlates to the lack of a focus on rehabilitation we have within the system.

Juvenile Delinquency 

A hot topic today is the issue of juvenile delinquency.  Many feel that juveniles who commit some of the more violent or serious offenses should be treated, tried, and convicted as adults.  As a sociologist I have to question this.  What do you think studies have shown us about the recidivism rate for juvenile tried and convicted as adults?  As a sociologist I have to disagree with this (note that I have not had anyone I care about hurt by a juvenile delinquent and maybe I would feel differently if that was the case).  Studies comparing juveniles who have been tried as juveniles and placed in a juvenile detention centers with those tried as adults and placed in an adult prisons have some very unpleasant findings (note both groups were convicted for similar violations).  The juveniles tried and convicted as adults are much less likely to be rehabilitated and much more likely to become “career criminals.”  Being placed in an adult prison is what has been called a “Harvard for juveniles,” teaching them to be “better criminals.”  Those placed in juvenile detention centers are more likely to be rehabilitated and not be part of the recidivism rate.  Think about how you feel about this issue.

Application Example

Read the following study (Wall Street Journal) and apply our theories of deviance.

  • Sample: 250 juvenile court judges
  • Research method: questionnaire
  • Major research question: Can we predict chronic offending juveniles?

The judges were asked to state whether they can predict the recidivism of the juveniles that come before their courtroom and what the characteristics are of those who will be chronic offenders.  All of the judges stated, “Yes” they could predict which juveniles they would see before their courtroom again and again.  Note that juvenile court judges receive a file of information on each juvenile before the juvenile comes before their courtroom.  The following were the specific characteristics the judges stated as being those of chronic juvenile offenders (recidivists):

  1. Conviction of a crime before 13 years of age
  2. Low family income/poverty
  3. Rated as a “troublemaker” and “bad student” by teachers
  4. Poor school performance (bad grades)
  5. Have a convicted sibling and/or parent
  6. Have an absent father or low paternal involvement

Ask yourself:

What theories of deviance are can we apply to each of these examples (strain theory, labeling theory, control-bond theory, differential association theory)?  What theory is playing the major role in this situation? Think of labeling theory, are these judges labeling the juveniles?  How do you thin this impacts how they interact with the juveniles and their rulings and the sanctions they give?  Look at each of the examples and apply the social theories included in this lecture to the examples. 


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