Social Norms and Deviance in Society


Deviance involves the rebellion from the generally accepted social norms. An individual is said to be deviant if he/she is found culpable of violating either the formal or informal rules prevailing in a certain society. Formal rules comprise primarily of the officially enacted laws. Informal rules are the rules that prevail in a society but are not provided for in the official laws. Deviance varies from one society to the other. Knowledge from Sociology has come in handy to explain social deviance for a better understanding.

Various theories have been used to elaborate deviance from a sociological perspective. Besides, sociology has suggested various social controls that can be used to contain deviance. These controls are purposefully developed to make sure that individuals remain within the context of their cultural norms. However, social deviance has undergone a lot of changes due to modernism. These changes have largely been contributed by the advancement of technology like the worldwide use of social media which has virtually converged people in one place.

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This has led to the emergence of modern forms of social deviance. As a result, there is a growing need to view social deviance with a modern approach.


Deviance is deviating away from social customs. In the context of sociology, deviance involves breaking either formal rules or informal rules in society. Formal rules are those rules that are officially recognized as law. When individuals break the formal rules, the act is called formal deviance and examples include but not limited to theft, murder, rape, assault, and robbery (Downes, Rock, & McLaughlin, 2018).

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While many of the crimes appear deviant, it is not every crime that is considered deviant. For instance, over speeding while driving may not be considered as deviance in some cultures. On the other hand, informal rules entail the rules that are commonly followed by human beings without necessarily having to be law. Where an individual violates informal rules, the act constitutes informal deviance. Informal deviance differs from one culture to another. What is seen as informal deviance in one culture, may be acceptable in another culture. Examples of informal deviance are; spitting unnecessary, belching loudly, standing closer to someone in a manner that is irritating, and where an individual picks his or her nose in public (Downes, Rock, & McLaughlin, 2018). In sociology, there have been various attempts by sociologist and theorists to elaborate on the whole issue of social deviance. This paper will focus on the inner details of societal deviance in the context of the discipline of sociology.

Theories of Deviance

Deviance is one of the things that must be experienced in society due to the diversity in the nature of humans. Sociologists have developed various theories to aid in the understanding of deviance. These theories are;

Social-Strain Typology

Proposed by Robert K. Merton, this approach is used as a scheme to aid in the understanding of a concept. Merton's typology relied on two principles; 1. Someone’s motivation or his/her commitment to cultural objectives, 2. Someone’s belief in the means of achieving his/her objectives (Abrams, 2018). Out of the two criteria, Merton proposed five forms of deviance. One is conformity. It is accepting the cultural objectives as well as the means of achieving the objectives. For example, a banker. The second form of deviance is ritualism which is rejecting social objectives but accepting the ways of achieving the objectives. For example, a person who goes to work daily but inside his/her mind does not believe in the objectives of his/her organization. The third type is innovation. In this form of deviance, an individual accepts social objectives but rejects the means that are legit for the attainment of objectives. For example, gang members want to be wealthy, but do not wish to follow the right path to achieve wealth (Abrams, 2018). The fourth form of deviance is rebellion. This is a total rejection of both social objectives and the ways of achieving the objectives. However, in rebellion, individuals will always come with an alternative to act in place of the rejected objectives and means. An example is a revolution. In the fifth place is retreatism which is almost similar to rejection because it is the rejection of social objectives and the means of attainment. The only difference is that in retreatism, an individual deviates from the social norms and is not ready to find an alternative. A perfect example is a person who voluntarily chooses to stay homeless (Abrams, 2018).

Structural Functionalism

This theory argues that deviance is an important aspect in society because it helps in distinguishing between the right and the wrong behaviors. In the absence of deviance, members of society will not know the acceptable behavior and the unacceptable form of conduct. Structural functionalism defines the limits of social conduct and it helps in the affirmation of cultural norms as well as values. Besides, this theory suggests that deviance is in one way or another an ingredient for the unity of the society. However, unity is achieved at the detriment of those individuals who are deviant. These individual are secluded in a bid to separate the deviants from non-deviants. Also, deviance is perceived as a driver of change in the society in the sense that it triggers an imbalance in the societal equilibrium. When society is striving to achieve to return to the equilibrium, a change is often inevitable (Abrams, 2018).

Labeling theory

This theory holds the belief that a person turns deviant based on the occurrence of two things;

  1. The society labels such a person with suggestive words that insinuate deviance such as a loner.,
  2. The person adopts the labeling and starts behaving in the way the society has labeled him/her (Michelle Lee Inderbitzin, Kristin Ann Bates, & Gainey, 2013).

This theory attempts to explain that the society can at times contribute to deviance. It demonstrates that a person can unwillingly become deviant as a result of the society identifying such a person with a label that indicates deviance. Labels are the names that are related to a person's identity or the role that is played by an individual in the society. According to this theory, an individual can also be more deviant based on what society labels him/her according to past behaviors. For instance, an individual who once committed murder could become a serial killer if the society labels him/her as a murderer. Another crucial element in this theory is stigma. An individual is on the verge of being stigmatized by the society based on a negative label attached to him or her (Michelle Lee Inderbitzin, Kristin Ann Bates, & Gainey, 2013). Even worse, labeling does not take into consideration the past and the present behaviors of an individual. A person might be secluded based on a wrong that he/she did in the past despite undergoing reforms. Labeling, therefore, another catalyst of social deviance.

Conflict theory

This theory argues that there is a huge gap between how different crimes are treated. This creates power imbalances in the society which in turn bleeds deviance. For instance, there is less emphasis on the prosecution of the perpetrators of white-collar crimes than it is with other crimes. White collar misconducts comprise of money laundering, tax evasion, counterfeiting, and economic espionage amongst other forms of crime (Abrams, 2018). While these crimes are perpetrated on a daily basis, much of their records are not kept by the investigating agencies. This is because there is no defined system to track these crimes unlike in other forms of crime. As a result, white collar crimes are hard to follow and prosecute the perpetrators. Even worse, the people behind these crimes are often those with high status in the society and they enjoy networks with people in powerful positions. This indicates that there are biases in how the privileged are treated from the underprivileged. Thus, the underprivileged develops the feelings of maltreatment and this forces them to become deviant. According to this theory, power imbalances and inequality are the key sources of criminal behaviors. The poor engage in crime because they need money for their survival. Additionally, the poor do not have the knowledge to manage their finances and can lead to an endless cycle of crime and poverty (Abrams, 2018).

Deviance and Control

The members of the society have the capability to tame deviance. This starts at the family level. For example, where a child portrays disobedience, the parent can control the deviance through applying sanctions. Sanctions can either be negative or positive. Positive sanctions involve the rewarding of those individuals that stick to the cultural norms. On the other side, negative sanctions involve the punishment of those people that deviate from the norms. Social control is the use of sanctions to remedy deviance. By nature, each society is committed to controlling deviance. Social control maintains the social order (McIntosh & Rock, 2018).

In sociology, sanctions also exist formally or informally. Formal sanctions officially enforce the violations of norms. For example, a student will be expelled from the school after being found guilty of engaging in exam malpractices. Similarly, a worker who is accused of insubordination can be fired by the management. In the same line, formal sanctions can be positive (McIntosh & Rock, 2018). For instance, a hardworking student may receive a gift for beating the rest of the students academically to encourage hard work among the students. Informal sanctions involve the control of the social deviances that are not recognized by law. For instance, a personal scratching his/her nose in public will be subjected to informal sanctions such as being avoided by people or get disapproving looks. There are also informal sanctions that are positive informal sanctions such as when a person helps an elderly to cross the road, he/she might receive a smile from others or a thumbs up.

Sanctions do not always cover social control in its totality (McIntosh & Rock, 2018). In this respect, there are other four ways of controlling deviance namely;

Penal social control – This is the use of punishment to control deviant behaviors.

Compensatory social control – This is where a perpetrator is required to pay an amount that is equivalent to or higher than the damage caused to prevent a future repetition of the act.

Therapeutic social control – Deviant individuals are undertaken through a process of therapy to ensure that they go back to the accepted norms.
Conciliatory social control – The aim of this style of deviance control is to reconcile the rival parties and restore togetherness and cohesion to previously damaged social relationships.

Emerging Trends in Social Deviance

The dynamism of human nature has led to the acceptance of some behaviors and lifestyles that were formally treated as deviant. For instance, American people no longer view tattoos as deviance like it was perceived some decades ago. In addition, society members that are attracted to the same sex are no longer seen as deviants in some societies like it used to be in the past (Downes, Rock, & McLaughlin, 2018).

Globalization has brought a lot of changes in the way social deviance is defined during the current dispensation. Besides, the rapid growth of technology has led to the emergence of new forms of social deviance. The growth of social media has alienated individuals especially the young from their cultural norms to adopting new norms of the online society. Social media has brought the world together in what can be termed as ‘global village' (Downes, Rock, & McLaughlin, 2018). This has given rise to a new global culture known as cyberculture. As a result, some deviant individuals have resorted to gaining fame through controversy by either posting sensitive content against the social order.


In conclusion, it is clearly evident that social deviance is part and parcel of society. This is because of the varying nature of human beings. Although society has tried to mitigate deviance, it also plays a big role in aggravating deviance. Seclusion of the deviant people and the mistreatment of the less privileged are one of the causes of deviance that emanate the acts of the society at large. Some social deviances like revolutions have positively led to substantial changes in society. Contrastingly, some deviant behaviors have led to disunity in society such as rape and murder. The society should apply social controls to limit deviance. However, these controls should be in line with the modern development of social deviance as discussed earlier in this research paper.


Abrams, D. (2018). Deviance | sociology. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from
Downes, D., Rock, P., & McLaughlin, E. (2018). Understanding Deviance: A Guide to the Sociology of Crime and Rule-Breaking. In Retrieved from
McIntosh, M., & Rock, P. (2018). Deviance and social control. Routledge.
Michelle Lee Inderbitzin, Kristin Ann Bates, & Gainey, R. R. (2013). Deviance and social control : a sociological perspective. Los Angeles ; London: Sage.

Updated: Jul 20, 2021
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Social Norms and Deviance in Society. (2020, Sep 03). Retrieved from

Social Norms and Deviance in Society essay
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