Sociological Viewpoints on Deviance and Social Control
Part 4. Sociological Approaches to the Study of Deviance

A typology of sociological approaches

Having come this far, you should now realize why this unit began by emphasizing the need to examine the sociological field of deviance before moving on to the subject matter of the field, deviant phenomena per se. As we have seen, sociological viewpoints on this subject matter differ markedly. There is no single, agreed-upon way of looking at deviant phenomena in the contemporary field of deviance. Recognizing that many disagreements do exist among sociologists who study deviance, this unit has attempted to introduce you to the major divisions in the field that give rise to these controversies.

Much of the controversy in the field of deviance stems from a fundamental difference in perspective. Sociologists who use a normative definition see deviant phenomena differently than those who use a relativistic definition. For instance, sociologists in the two perspectives can look at the same empirical generalization, such as a high arrest rate for lower-class persons, and come to quite different conclusions about what it represents. For sociologists in the normative perspective, this generalization shows that lower-class persons are particularly prone to engage in criminal behavior, a phenomenon that is caused by factors in the lower-class environment. To a relativistic sociologist, on the other hand, this generalization reflects a tendency for law enforcement agencies to define lower-class persons as criminals and to react accordingly by arresting them (Kitsuse and Cicourel,1963). This phenomenon, a high rate of audience reaction to lower-class persons, can be analyzed as an outcome of a process of class conflict. This is only one example out of many that could be chosen to illustrate how sociologists within the two perspectives look at empirical reality from separate viewpoints that not only differ but frequently conflict.

However, differences between sociologists in the field of deviance do not end with the disagreement over definitions of deviance. Even among those sociologists who share a given perspective on deviant phenomena, important differences in their analytical approaches remain as an additional source of controversy. Normative sociologists who use a macro level of analysis in their theorizing and research take quite a different approach to norm-violating phenomena than do others who focus on a micro level of analysis. Still greater disagreement occurs within the relativistic perspective, where the debate between sociologists who conduct micro-level analyses of labeling processes and the macro-level advocates of conflict theory is fueled by differences in values as well as by differences in analytical approach.

Therefore, an adequate understanding of the sociological field of deviance and its controversial issues seems to require a classification of approaches based on two major criteria: (1) the perspective implied by a definition of deviance and (2) the level of analysis at which deviant phenomena are studied. This chapter has attempted to introduce you to the four major sociological approaches that result from the combination of two perspectives and two levels of analysis: (1) macro-normative; (2) micro-normative; (3) macro-relativistic; and (4) micro-relativistic. Table 1-2 presents an overview of this classification by summarizing the major characteristics of each approach (see Unit 3 for additional theoretical material from each approach).

Table 1-2. Classification of major sociological approaches to the analysis of deviance
Perspective (definition of deviance) and level of analysis
Normative perspective (deviance as norm violation)
Relativistic perspective (deviance as audience definition)
Characteristics of approaches
Macro level of analysis
Micro level of analysis
Macro level of analysis
Micro level of analysis
1. Descriptive term for approach
2. Example of theory using approach
Anomie theory
Differential association theory
Conflict theory
Labeling theory
3. Central theoretical goal
Explain societal rates of deviant behavior
Explain deviant behavior of individuals
Understand societal sources of definitions of deviance
Understand individual implications of reactions to deviance
4. Nature and focus of concepts
Large-scale environmental variables
Small-scale environmental variables
Large-scale conflict processes
Small-scale interactional processes
5. Typical sources of data
Secondary data; probability sample survey data; cross-national data
Sample survey data; case studies
Historical documents; secondary data
Field observation and ethnographic research
6. Value orientation
Scientific, "value free"
Scientific, "value free"
Activist, "value engaged"
Humanistic, "value engaged"

As we noted earlier, concepts or classifications are tools used by scientists to simplify the task of studying the empirical world. So it is with this classification of sociological approaches to deviance. This classification simplifies a complex part of the empirical world-the sociological field of deviance. Throughout the remainder of this course, this framework will be used to assist your study of the phenomena with which we are concerned, sociological theories and research on deviance. At all times you should remember, however, that this classification, like all conceptual frameworks, oversimplifies reality for the sake of clarity. Therefore, we will discover many points of overlap between approaches that are rigidly distinguished in this conceptual scheme as we examine concrete examples of sociological work on deviance.

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