Saturday, 30 November 2019

Social Deviance: Types and Causes

For sociologists, the term deviance does not mean pervasion or depravity. Deviance is behaviour that violates the standards of conduct or expectations of a group or society. For instances, being late for class is categorized as a deviant act; the same is true of wearing jeans to a formal wedding. On the basis of the sociological definition, we are all deviant from time to time. Each of us violates common social norms in certain situations.

Deviance involves the violation of group norms, which may or may not be formalized into law. It is a comprehensive concept that includes not only criminal behaviour but also many actions that are not subject to prosecution. For example, the public official who takes a bribe has defied social norms.

From a sociological perspective, deviance is hardly objective rather it is subject to the social definition within a particular society and at a particular time. For that reason, what is considered deviant can shift from one social era to another. In most instances, those individuals and groups with the greatest status and power define what is acceptable and what is deviant. For example, despite serious medical warnings against the dangers of tobacco made as long as 30 years ago, cigarette smoking continued to be accepted in good part because of the power of tobacco farmers and cigarette manufacturers. Only after a long campaign led by public health and anticancer activists did cigarette smoking become more of deviant activity. Today, many state and local laws limit where people can smoke.

Types of Deviance[1]

Deviance may assume different forms. Some of them may be noted here.

  1. Innovation: Society sets forth goals for the individuals to aim at and also lay down means to achieve them. When a person accepts both goals and means the result is generally “conformity”. Sometimes, a person may accept the goal but not the means. He may innovate or create his own means for achieving the goals and in this sense, he becomes a deviant.

If these innovative means brings positive results it poses no problem for the social order and if it brings negative results it may pose a danger to society. Example: Some poor people and pleasure-seekers may be forced to ‘innovate’ or resort to illegitimate, “dishonest” mean to get money. Such “innovators’ are problematic devi­ants.

  1. Ritualism: Sometimes a person gives up important social values yet does lip service to them by carefully observing related norms of behaviour. They are ritualists. They abandon the pursuit of success as fruitless and yet strictly adhere to the prescribed means.

They regard rules as sacred. They tend to lower their aspirations and never expect success. Because they find themselves unable to break out of their commitment to the rules./Ritualists are also deviants because such persons refuse to take courageous and possibly dan­gerous action demanded by true adherence to values. On the other hand, they take refuge in neutral but safe behaviour which looks like decent conformity.


A person stabbed to death within the sight of a number of neighbours who refuse to get themselves involved in the case. This kind of behaviour is ritualistic. It is difficult to criticise such behaviour harshly. It is also a form of deviance because norms exist or should exist to serve values. They should not eclipse values or transcend them.

  1. Retreatism: The rejection of both values and norms is ‘retreatism’. It is in one way or another of ‘dropping out’ of society. The person who drops out ‘resigns’ so to speak. Those who ‘retreat’ from society refuse to pursue wealth either by legal or illegal means.

They also refuse to lead a ‘conventional’ life. They are unable to get success ‘honestly’. They are not able to break the conventional procedure because of the strongly internalised norm. The best solution to their di­lemma is to ‘drop out’ of society. Hence ‘retreatism’ is a kind of passive rejection of the goal of success and of respectable occupational activities.

According to Merton, in this category fall “some of the adaptive activities of psychotics, autists, pariahs, outcasts, vagrants, vagabonds, tramps, chronic drunkards and drug addicts.” Such people receive strong disapproval because they care little about the values most people live by.

  1. Rebellion: Rebellion is another response open to those who reject both ends and means. Some people reject the prevailing order and engage in efforts to replace that order. They try to substitute new ends and means for those that exist.

They are called ‘rebels.’ Rebellion is produced by alienation from both values and norms. Instead of ‘retreating’, the rebel gives active support and loyalty to an incompatible set of values and norms.

He feels that they are superior to those of conventional society. He seeks some reconstruction, some change in the existing order. He may even attempt at the complete destruction of that order or struggle to replace it with another order. Rebellion may vary from small-scale to that greater scale.


A student giving up education in the name of doing greater things is an example of small-scale rebellion. A law-abiding young man going away from society to form a criminal gang to take revenge upon some authority is an example of greater-scale rebellion. Political and religious revolutions that were initiated by one or the other individual also come under this category.

Causes of deviant behaviour

Deviant behaviour may be caused due to the individual inability or failure to conform to the social norms or the societies failure to make its components follow the norms set by it as normal behaviour. The inability to conform may be the result of a mental or physical defect. On account of mental illness, a person is unable to perceive and respond to realities in an orderly and rational manner. Hence, he becomes a social deviant. The causes of mental illness may be both physical and social. The stresses and strains of modern social life produce mental illness. But some people fail to conform even though they are physically and mentally capable of learning conventional behaviour. To explain such causes of deviation some theories have been put forward. These are:

  1. Physical-type theories: These theories seek to relate deviant behaviour with body type. Lombroso was of the view that certain body types are more given to deviant behaviour than others. Deviants were classified into physical types to explain their behaviour. A number of serious errors have been pointed out in the method of their classification.

  2. Psychoanalytic theories: These theories attribute deviant behaviour to the conflicts in human personality. Freud was a leading psychoanalyst. He gave the concepts of id, ego and superego. Deviant behaviour is the result of conflicts between the id and the ego. The psychoanalytic theory is still improved by empirical research. Sometimes, culture frustrates biological drives and impulses leading thereby to deviant behaviour. Thus, our culture makes approved provision for the satisfaction of sexual drives of the unmarried, widowed or separated.

  3. Failure to Socialization: Both types of theories fail to explain deviant behaviour adequately. Everyone affected with physical or mental illness does not become a deviant likewise, every member of society is frustrated by the clash of his biological drives with the taboos of this culture, but not everyone becomes a deviant. The social scientists are of the opinion that some persons are deviant because the socialization process has failed in some way to integrate the cultural norms and he behaves in an unexpected manner. His lapses are rare. Behaviour norms are mainly learnt in the family.

  4. Cultural Conflicts: Society is an extremely heterogeneous society. There are many sets of norms and values which compete with one another. The family norms may come into conflict with the norms of a trade union. One religion teaches one thing, another teaches a different thing. The school teaches respect and obedience. The party teaches resistance and secularism. The religious system teaches that one should be generous and self-sacrificing, but our economic system rewards those who are ruthless and selfish. Our formal mores demand chastity until marriage, but our films present too much sex. Young people are exposed to sexual literature. Thus, cultural conflicts are a unique feature of the modern complex and changing society. They are found virtually in all societies.

  5. Anomie: Anomie is a condition of normlessness. By normlessness we do not mean that modern societies have no norms, instead, it means that they have many sets of norms with none of them clearly binding on everybody. The individual does not know which norms to follow, whether to follow the norms of the family or of the school. Anomie thus arises from the confusion and conflict of norms. People in modern society move about too rapidly to be bound to the norms of any particular groups.

In traditional societies, people were guided by a coherent set of traditions which they followed with little deviation. But the modern society lacks coherent traditions, with different groupings having different norms. According to Durkheim “when there is a sudden change, the normative structure of the regulating norms of society is slackened, hence, man does not know what is wrong or what is right, his impulses are excessive, to satisfy them, he seeks anomie”. The post-Soviet Union societies are a good example of this.

  1. Personal Factors: Sometimes personal factors may also be involved in the genesis of deviant. As a result of their particular experiences, many people acquire deviant attitudes and habits. An ugly face may deprive some people of the opportunity to participate in the affairs of the community. Some persons are so seriously affected by an experience that they isolate themselves from certain groups or situations. Thus, some people may refuse to ride trains because of some accident in which they were involved. The sight of a dead man led Lord Buddha to renounce the crown. A mouse eating the food offered to the idol made Swami Dayanand a critic of idol worship.

  2. Social Location: The location of people in the social structure also causes deviant behaviour. The position a person occupies in the stratification system, his position in the age and sex structure of the society and his position in the special arrangements of the society make a difference in how he behaves. The life chances of people depend on the particular position they occupy in society.

The emergence of the new norms through deviant behaviour can be easily seen in family relationships. In the nineteenth century a woman going out of the norm to work in an office and earn an independent living was a deviant but today it is commonplace. It may, however, be noted that all forms of deviation are not socially useful. The behaviour of the animal, the sex deviant or the drunk rarely contributes to the creation of a socially useful norm. It is only a few forms of deviant behaviour that may become future norms. The behaviour of individual due to social conflict leads to the formation of new norms.

[1] Rao, C. N. (2012). Principles of Sociology. New Delhi: S. Chand. p 476-477

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