Sociological Viewpoints on Deviance and Social Control
Part 1. Sociological Definitions of Deviance

The diversity of deviant phenomena

What is deviance? This question is a good place to begin an analysis of the sociological field of deviance and the phenomena it investigates. You can probably give numerous examples of people or behavior that strike you as immoral, weird, evil, illegal, sick, or, in a word, deviant. Your answers might be similar to those obtained in a survey by J. L. Simmons, in which he asked a sample of 180 persons in 1965 to "list those things or types of persons whom you regard as deviant." Table 1-1 shows the responses given by 10 percent or more of Simmons' sample. In addition to this list of the "top 14" deviants, a few of Simmons' respondents also placed such persons as career women, junior executives, girls who wear makeup, and know-it-all professors in the category of "deviant."

  Table 1-1. Most frequent responses by a public sample to the question "what is deviant?"  
  Response Percent Mentioning  
  Homosexuals 49  
Drug addicts 47
Alcoholics 46
Prostitutes 27
Murderers 22
Criminals 18
Lesbians 13
Juvenile delinquents 13
Beatniks 12
Mentally ill 12
Perverts 12
Communists 10
Atheists 10
Political extremists 10
  Source: Adapted from J.L. Simmons, Social Problems 13 (Fall 1965).  


Many of the responses obtained in Simmons' study refer to major forms of deviant phenomena that capture a great deal of public attention and have been the subject of intensive investigation by sociologists in the field of deviance. Other answers to Simmons' question refer to phenomena that neither you nor most other people would define as deviant. For instance, you would probably be unlikely to consider girls who wear makeup as deviant (but how would you evaluate the person who gave such an answer?).

What should impress you most about the findings of Simmons' study is the incredible diversity of the social phenomena that people classify as deviant. Social definitions of deviance not only vary markedly across different segments of the general public but they also change across time. How many of us today, only a few decades since Simmons' study, would include beatniks or atheists in our top 14? How many of us would place homosexuals, drug addicts, or alcoholics at the very top of our lists of deviants? Further research of the kind conducted by Simmons would be required for an adequate answer to these questions, but an informed guess would be that some important changes have occurred in public definitions of these and other forms of deviance (see Thielbar & Feldman, 1978).

Two definitions of deviance

If at this point you can appreciate the sheer diversity of phenomena that are considered deviant by the general public, you can also appreciate the difficulties confronting sociologists when they themselves attempt to answer the question "what is deviance?" Sociological efforts to define deviance are less concerned with particular kinds of deviance than they are with what all forms of deviance have in common. What sociologists seek in a definition of deviance is an abstract concept that can be applied to deviant phenomena in general.

The choice of definitions for central concepts is extremely important in any area of scientific study, and the field of deviance is no exception. The choice of a certain definition of deviance amounts to a decision to study those phenomena that fit under the definition and to ignore phenomena excluded by the definition. In other words, a definition of deviance defines the boundaries of this field of study.

Not only do conceptual definitions direct scientific attention to particular phenomena but they also limit attention to only selected aspects of those phenomena. Since the empirical world-that reality we observe through our senses-is infinitely complex, any empirical phenomenon can be viewed in any number of ways. Concepts simplify the task of studying the empirical world by restricting attention to particular, selected features of phenomena that scientists agree are most useful for scientific purposes. Concepts represent mutual agreements among scientists to look at certain phenomena in certain ways.

Conceptual definitions, being agreements to adopt a particular perspective on reality, are not true or false. However, these agreements are hardly arbitrary. Depending on the scientific problem at hand, some definitions will be more useful than others. For instance, many geneticists have agreed to define and classify human "races" according to the distribution of various blood proteins in different human populations. This concept of race has proven useful for investigating various biological problems relating to human inheritance. Such a definition of race is useless to sociologists involved in the study of race relations. Instead, sociologists define race in terms of social distinctions made between groups of people in various societies that may have little or no relationship to biological inheritance, but have great significance for understanding racial prejudice and discrimination. Needless to say, geneticists have not found sociological definitions of race to be particularly useful in their work.

Returning to our initial concern, "what is deviance?," we can now refine this question to ask "which way of defining deviance is most useful for its study?" Sociologists simply do not agree among themselves on a conceptual answer to this basic question. In fact, disagreement over the utility of competing sociological definitions of deviance lies at the heart of much of the controversy in the contemporary field of deviance.

Although sociologists have proposed a number of different definitions of deviance, many of these differences are minor and represent little more than variations on a broader conceptual theme. Most of the disagreement over the concept of deviance appears to boil down to a choice between two alternative definitions: a normative definition versus a relativistic definition of deviance. The normative definition is the older of these two sociological conceptualizations. According to this definition, deviance refers to behavior that violates social norms or to persons that engage in such behavior. Only in the past few decades has this traditional definition of deviance been seriously challenged by sociologists who favor the relativistic alternative. According to the relativistic definition, deviance refers to behavior or persons that are defined as deviant by social audiences. This definition is termed relativistic because it views persons or their behavior as deviant only relative to the way other people react to them.

You might wonder why the distinction between these two definitions is a source of considerable controversy between sociologists in the field of deviance. Although differences in the wording of these definitions may seem subtle and of little consequence, each conceptualization focuses attention on quite different aspects of deviant phenomena. The normative definition narrows in on persons who engage in norm-violating behavior. The relativistic definition emphasizes not the deviants themselves but the social audiences that define them as deviant. These two conceptualizations also raise different questions for research and theorizing on deviance. The normative definition suggests the importance of identifying who breaks norms and explaining why they commit deviant acts. The relativistic definition, on the other hand, indicates a need for research and theory on how social audiences go about defining others as deviant. Simmons' (1965) study of public definitions of deviance is a good example of the kind of research inspired by a relativistic definition.

Thus, the normative-relativistic distinction refers to much more than a mere disagreement over words. These terms identify two distinct perspectives for the study of deviant phenomena. Although sociologists within the normative perspective and those within the relativistic perspective sometimes go their separate ways studying different research problems, their divergent points of view on the same phenomena often bring them into direct disagreement with one another. Their competing descriptions and competing explanations of empirical events have generated a good deal of intellectual excitement and controversy in the field of deviance. Now that you have been introduced to these two sides of the sociological point of view on deviance, we can begin to take a closer look at what each side has to offer.

©2004 Adapted from pp. 3-28 of James D. Orcutt, Analyzing Deviance. Next Page Index Page