Sociology and Deviance

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 5 November 2016

Sociology and Deviance

“Becoming a deviant involves a social process of definition”. The purpose of this essay is to show how this sociological perspective can assist in understanding drug taking in society. In the essay I will discuss the notion of deviance and will demonstrate that people do not become deviants on the strength of their behaviour alone, but by the sanctions of a society whose norms that the offender has deemed to have violated. I will examine approaches to deviance through biological, psychological and sociological methodologies and while the examination of the theories is necessarily brief, it will interrogate some of the main theories related to deviant behaviour in society. The essay will employ Howard Becker’s labeling theory as the major method of understanding deviance, whilst the issue of drug abuse will be used as the specific deviant behaviour. I will also demonstrate that the notion of deviance in society is subject to change according to location and time.

Deviance can be defined as behaviour which violates social norms or expectations of behaviour in particular circumstances (Lofland 1969, p. 1). It is important to understand that deviance does not necessarily constitute illegal activity, though whilst at times this may be the case, it is also true that behaviour which may be considered deviant in one setting is perfectly acceptable in another. The processes which dictate whether an act is deviant or not are often determined within a social or historical context (Henry 2009, p. 2), which by their very nature are fluid and subject to change. For example, smoking cigarettes on aeroplanes was once considered normal, whereas today, such an act would be considered deviant behaviour and render the smoker liable for prosecution. In an attempt to explain deviant behaviour, theorists offer various explanations, including arguments from a biological and psychological perspective, which suggest that causes of deviant behaviour are to be found within the individual (Aggleton 1987, p. 15).

Cesare Lombrosso (1835-1909), an Italian criminologist during the nineteenth century, postulated that criminals were marked by particular physiognomic features or abnormalities that predisposed them to deviant behaviour; he “believed the criminal to be an immoral person who had not evolved to the same social and biological level as other people”, and that they “were born with a strong tendency toward lawbreaking”(Vito and Maahs 2012, p. 81). Lombrosso theorised that this propensity toward criminality was an inherited trait, his theory of atavism suggested that criminal types represented “a lower position in the evolutionary order” (O’Brien and Yar 2008, p. 11).

Another approach to understanding deviance is based on psychological causes which suggest that deviant behaviour has its roots in the personality traits of the individual (Anderson and Taylor 2008, p. 169). For example, violence, from a psychological perspective, may be related to unresolved issues from childhood, or the crime of murder may be said to be the outworking of an aggressive personality; or the act may have been committed by a person who is morally flawed. Essentially then, what we see in biological and psychological theories suggest that the causes of deviance emanate from within the individual. In contrast to these views, sociologists have developed a range of theories which address the causes of deviance from various sociological perspectives.

Sociologists offer a number of theories to explain deviance, however, they are yet to arrive at a definition which is universally agreed upon (Clinnard and Meier 2011, p. 74). Emile Durkheim’s (1858-1917) functionalist perspective suggests that deviance is a cultural creation which is essentially an affirmation of cultural norms and values. He postulates that deviance is beneficial for society as it drives social change without which a society would enter into atrophy or stagnation (Parrish 2010, p. 269). In response to biological explanations for deviance, Robert Merton (1910-2003) challenges this approach in citing the variations between societies in the extent and types of deviance. Working from a functionalist perspective, Merton expands upon Durkheim’s work in using his notion of anomie as the basis for his theory on deviance.

“Merton theorised anomie is directly related to culture (which includes goals) and social structure (which includes means) and observed deviance occurs when there exists a disconnect or disjunction between the two” (Franzese 2009, p. 36). For example, modern society places a great emphasis around consumerism, for some however, financial constraints exclude them from achieving socially desirable goals of consumption. Zygmunt Bauman describes such a situation during the London riots of 2011, which he argues was undertaken by defective and disqualified consumers who engaged in deviant behaviour in order to fulfil these otherwise unattainable goals (Roarmag 2011).

Another way of understanding deviance is through Howard Becker’s labelling perspective, which holds that “Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders” (1963, p. 9). Essentially then, the sociology of deviance speaks to the processes that divide society into different types of people and the social effects of these processes.

In all of this it is important to note that there is no suggestion that the act itself is inherently deviant, but rather the transgressing of socially determined norms has placed the transgressor in a position outside the boundaries of social acceptability, (Shepard 2010, p. 182) and therefore the person is considered to be deviant in the eyes of normal society. The notion of deviance is culturally assigned to particular behaviours in particular settings. For example, smoking marijuana in the main street of an Australian city is considered a deviant act, however, the same activity taking place as a spiritual activity in India may be perfectly acceptable. The other consideration is deviant behaviour relative to time. The use of marijuana in the USA for example was legal before the 1930s and therefore was not considered deviant behaviour. Today, it is punishable by law.

How then are we socialised ? What are the key socialising agents that provoke individuals within society to engage in behaviour which is seen by the majority as deviant ? In using drug culture as an example, the principal claim of this essay is that the socialising agents of drug users have come from a learned behavior, a behavior that had been taught from the interaction amid sub cultures, alternative beliefs and learning techniques that are not the regular teachings of a particular culture and not endorsed in the normative society. This is demonstrated through the studies conducted by Howard Becker on marijuana use. Becker held the belief that in the same way that people learn to become anything in society, some learn to become drug users by way of a specific formula:

An individual will be able to use marijuana for pleasure only when he (1) learns to smoke it in a way that will produce real effects; (2) learns to recognize the effects and connect them with drug use; and (3) learns to enjoy the sensation he perceives (1953).

Becker, in conducting interviews with fifty marijuana users, argued that the learning process of drug use requires the individual to overcome certain fears and insecurities associated with the effects of the drug in order to progress from novice to experienced user. The transformation from new user to experienced user is summed up by Becker as he recounts an episode in which a new user was overcome by fear and hysteria. An experienced user who witnessed the episode exclaimed “She’s dragged because she’s high like that. I’d give anything to get that high myself. I haven’t been that high in years” (1953). In this statement we see clear evidence that Becker’s theory of learned drug use holds true. Clearly, the experienced drug user was at one time a novice, who had progressed through Becker’s hypothesised three step process and thus become transformed into an experienced drug user.

The process that Becker describes and the resulting transformation of the individual demonstrates that drug use has become normalised for that person; to the extent that they become what Becker refers to as an outsider, who at the extreme “develop full – blown ideologies explaining why they are right and why those who disapprove of and punish them are wrong” (1963 p. 9). So essentially then, though the person may have been a normal functioning member of society prior to undergoing the transformation to drug user, this new status now affords them to being perceived as a social deviant. This is known as labeling theory, when a person engages in activities that are considered to be contrary to social norms of a particular location, agencies of social control, such as the police, teachers and others in positions of power apply these labels to which the person designated as deviant comes to accept, unless they cease the deviant activity.

Whilst the initial act of using the drug is referred to as primary deviance, when the labeled person accepts this deviant label and identifies themselves primarily as deviant, having adopted a lifestyle around the deviant behaviour, this is known as secondary deviance (Shepard 2010, p. 183). Secondary deviance then has the effect of deviance amplification, where the deviant behaviour becomes a greater part of the persons identity and as they become “re-socialised into a deviant role”.

At this point their behaviour exhibits a reaction to the problems created as a consequence of the societal response to their deviance and they become increasingly “locked within their deviant role” (Siegel and Welsh 2009, p. 181). So in this example of the drug user, secondary deviance can be so powerful that it becomes the “person’s master status, the one considered the most significant in a persons social identity” (Mooney et al. 2012, p. 7). Merton alluded to this scenario as a self fulfilling prophecy (Samaha 2006, p. 90).

What is deviance? How do people become deviants? Who decides what deviance is? Why does deviance occur and in what ways does it impact society ? These are questions that have been asked by sociologists for many years and questions that this essay has attempted to answer. It has been shown through a variety of methodologies, such as biological, psychological and sociological, that various explanations can be arrived at. This essay has not attempted to suggest that one methodology offers a definitive understanding of deviance in society, it has demonstrated however, that in interrogating different approaches, each will provide a unique explanation that adds to an overall understanding of the issues of deviance in society.

What the essay has shown beyond doubt, is that deviance is behaviour that violates the norms or expected behaviours of a given society. That said, this can vary in as much that it is subject to cultural settings and time. The ways in which deviance can be played out in the life of an individual has been demonstrated in the case study on drug use. Through the lens of Howard Becker’s labeling theory, the specific ways in which deviant behaviour violates the norms of society has been demonstrated. Finally, it has been shown that deviance, in the words of Becker, “is not a quality of the act a person commits but rather a consequence of the application of rules and sanctions to an offender”… Deviant behaviour is that which people in positions of power in society have so labeled.


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