Sociological Viewpoints on Deviance and Social Control
Part 2. The Normative Perspective on Deviance

Deviance as norm-violating behavior

In its definition of deviance, the normative perspective offers sociologists a straightforward formula for reducing the bewildering diversity of deviant phenomena to a common denominator. The concept of norm violation appears to be a simple, objective criterion for determining what is deviant and what is not. The normative definition of deviance is especially appealing to many sociologists because it is based on one of the most familiar terms in their scientific vocabulary, social norms. This term refers to rules or expectations for behavior that are shared by members of a group or society. The concept of social norm has been honored by a long tradition of sociological theory and research that views consensus as a basic fact of organized social life. According to this sociological tradition, consensus or shared agreement exists in all organized groups and societies about what behaviors are appropriate and expected of members. This consensus is expressed through social norms-shared rules that channel behavior in various areas of social life into orderly and predictable patterns. Sometimes, of course, behavior deviates from these normative patterns. Such behavior, according to the normative definition, is deviant behavior; and deviants are those people who violate the normative consensus of organized society.

Some of the different kinds of social norms that sociologists study and deviants violate are suggested by the responses from Simmons' (1965) study in Table 1-1. Murderers have broken a very general social norm that applies to nearly all members of society and refers to expected behavior in virtually all situations: Thou shalt not kill! This is also an example of a legal norm that has been formally enshrined into law. Criminals are another category of deviants who have violated legal norms. However, it is not illegal to be an alcoholic in American society. This is an example of a deviant whose behavior violates a general moral norm relating to appropriate patterns of alcohol use. Similarly, atheists who speak their convictions violate a general moral norm of many social groups: Thou shalt believe in God! Other social norms are very specific and consist of expectations for the behavior of only certain people in certain situations. Students, for instance, can be defined as juvenile delinquents for violating the specific legal norm that Thou shalt not play hooky from school! Finally, it should be pointed out that some of the answers obtained by Simmons, such as girls who wear makeup or know-it-all professors, do not refer to violations of widely shared norms. Therefore, according to the normative definition of deviance, people who behave in these ways would not be considered deviant (and many of us can rest easier!).

One of the principal merits of the normative definition is its apparent objectivity. Social norms are characteristics of groups and societies that can be identified through empirical research. Norms can be inferred from observations of the characteristic patterns of behavior in a group or society. Or, norms can be determined directly by asking people what rules and expectations for behavior they share with other members of their group or society. Thus, objective, scientific research, instead of the personal values of the social scientist, determines the standards used to define deviant behavior.

In practice, however, sociologists within the normative perspective usually bypass the study of social norms and move directly to the study of norm violators. In so doing, the normative perspective often relies on the legal norms specified by the criminal law or on the scientific standards used in other fields such as psychiatry as guidelines for identifying deviance. But, more typically, many forms of deviance appear to be so obviously in violation of important moral norms that there is little reason to question the applicability of the normative definition of deviance.

When we read in the newspaper about cases where a number of people have been slain by a gunman or where school children have been assaulted by a child molester, we don't pause to wonder whether these behaviors violate social norms. These are cases where deviance is objectively given by the very nature of the acts themselves (Rubington & Weinberg, 1978). It seems unimportant and even strange to ask "what norms have been violated here?" Instead, we ask "who could do such a thing?" Or "why do they do it?" These last two questions are the very issues that are of greatest concern to the normative perspective on deviance.

This is not to imply that sociologists in the normative perspective are motivated by sensationalism in their studies of deviance. Most forms of deviance studied by this perspective are much less dramatic than mass murder or child molestation. Rather, these cases illustrate why the attention of the normative perspective focuses directly on deviants rather than on the social norms they violate. Certain forms of behavior appear, by their very nature, to be inherently and objectively deviant. By virtue of engaging in such behavior, the deviant also seems to stand out as a person who is inherently and objectively different from the rest of us. This way of looking at deviants and their behavior leads naturally into the two basic analytical problems of the normative perspective on deviance: describing the characteristics of deviants (who could do such a thing?) and explaining the causes of deviant behavior (why do they do it?).

Describing the characteristics of deviants

When a newspaper reporter investigates a particular case where someone has violated an important social norm and asks "who could do such a thing?," he or she is typically seeking a different kind of description than would a sociologist who is describing the characteristics of deviants. Reporters tend to focus on the unique and unusual characteristics of individual deviants. Sociologists in the normative perspective, on the other hand, usually have little interest in specific details about individual deviants. Instead, the efforts of these sociologists are primarily directed toward the description of general characteristics that are useful in distinguishing most deviants from most nondeviants. For the normative perspective, then, the question of who is deviant is not directed at any particular individual but at the distinguishing characteristics of deviants in general.

Much of the descriptive work conducted by sociologists in the normative perspective has been based on data taken from the official records of agencies that deal with deviants, such as law enforcement statistics or the admissions records of psychiatric hospitals. These records, of course, are based on large numbers of cases where important norms have been violated and would appear to be a good source of general information on the characteristics of deviants. Information from these records is often used to compare deviants to nondeviants on such variables as occupation, race, or area of residence. The distinguishing characteristics of deviants can be described by noting which characteristics show up with greater frequency in the official records than in the general population. For instance, persons who are in low-status occupations, who are black, or who live in slum areas of cities are overrepresented in arrest statistics (Clinard & Meier, 1979) and in first admissions to psychiatric hospitals (Rose & Staub, 1955; Eaton, 1980).

Although the normative perspective has for years relied on official records as a major source of descriptive data, these sociologists have also had to find ways of getting around the limitations of secondary data that were originally gathered for non-sociological purposes. Thus, sociologists sometimes conduct interviews or administer questionnaires to deviants in order to gather primary data that are directly relevant to sociological purposes. Sometimes this research is conducted on people who are known to have violated social norms, such as prisoners or mental patients. Other research is based on more general samples where people are classified as deviant according to their self-reported involvement in norm-violating behavior in answer to questions during the interview or on the questionnaire. All of these techniques for gathering primary data, which are generally known as survey techniques, make it possible to measure and describe characteristics that are important to sociologists rather than to official agencies.

Whether based on official records or on survey data, the accumulated results of descriptive research are used by the normative perspective to derive empirical generalizations—statements describing general differences between the characteristics of deviants and nondeviants on certain social variables. In this way, sociologists arrive at very general answers to the question "who could do such a thing?" An empirical generalization about who is deviant does not by itself give sociologists an answer to the question of why such persons engage in deviant behavior. However, descriptions of deviants do provide important clues in the search for theoretical explanations of deviant behavior within the normative perspective.

Explaining the causes of deviant behavior

The normative definition of deviance sorts social behavior into two categories: conforming behavior and norm-violating behavior. Faced with a choice between these two alternatives, most people in most situations will conform. At least this is the assumption made by the normative perspective on deviance. Behavior that conforms to norms shared by members of organized society is expected and rewarded. Thus, conformity is unproblematic, both to sociologists in the normative perspective and to members of society. The problems arise when behavior goes against the heavy odds in favor of conformity. Some people do choose to behave in ways that violate expectations and run the risk of punishment by organized society. Why do they do it? What causes these people to make such a "bad" choice of behaviors?

In attempting to answer these questions, sociologists in the normative perspective usually do not see the deviant's choice as a free one. Deviant behavior is usually explained as a forced choice determined by factors that cause the deviant to act differently from the rest of us. The central problem of this perspective is to develop theories that state, in very general terms, exactly what those determining factors are.

Sociologists, of course, are not the only scientists interested in the explanation of deviant behavior. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and biologists also share an interest in this problem. However, theories of deviant behavior in those disciplines tend to emphasize different determining factors than do sociological explanations. Nonsociological theories tend to locate the causes of deviant behavior within the deviant individual. These theories view deviant behavior as a product of pathology or deficiencies in the personality or biological constitution of the deviant. Sociological theories of deviant behavior, on the other hand, locate the causes of deviant behavior in the social environment of the deviant. Sociologists look to distinctive features of the deviant's social relationships or to pressures and disorganizing influences in society for factors which produce deviant behavior. Where other scientific theories focus on kinds of people to explain various forms of deviant behavior, sociological theories focus on kinds of environments (Reasons, 1975). Thus, when sociologists attempt to describe the general characteristics of deviants, they are searching for clues to the kinds of environmental factors that force people into deviant behavior.

This search for important environmental factors in deviant behavior is not conducted at random but is guided by theoretical concepts that define selected aspects of the social environment as being particularly worthy of sociological attention. Like concepts of deviance, concepts referring to the social environment are defined by agreement among sociologists. And here, too, disagreements arise about which concepts are most useful for the purpose of explaining deviant behavior. While not as controversial as the conceptual conflict that separates general perspectives on deviance, different conceptions of the social environment do form the basis for important divisions between theoretical approaches to deviant behavior within the normative perspective.

One of the most important divisions between theoretical approaches within the normative perspective is based on differences in the level of analysis that characterizes various conceptions of the social environment. Some normative theories of deviant behavior are concerned with a macro level of analysis whereas others are directed at a micro level of analysis. Macro-level theories of deviant behavior are based on concepts that focus on very large-scale features of the social environment and attempt to explain broad patterns of variation in deviant behavior. Social class, community, or social institution are some examples of concepts that are used in macro-level theories to deal with large-scale features of the social environment. Micro-level theories, on the other hand, employ concepts that look at small-scale features of the social environment, such as face-to-face relationships and group influences on the individual. Micro-level theories of deviant behavior attempt to analyze the impact of the deviant's immediate social environment upon his or her behavior.

This classification of theoretical approaches according to conceptual levels of analysis is helpful in understanding sociological explanations of deviant behavior within the normative perspective. While two theories might both fall within the normative perspective by virtue of the common way they define deviance, their explanations of deviant behavior may be quite dissimilar since they focus on phenomena at different levels of analysis. As we shall see in the next section, the macro-micro distinction can also be applied to theoretical approaches within the relativistic perspective on deviance.

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