Sociological Explanations Of Deviant Behavior

A Look at Four Different Theories

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Deviant behavior is any behavior that is contrary to the dominant norms of society. There are many different theories that explain how behavior comes to be classified as deviant and why people engage in it, including biological explanations, psychological explanations, and sociological explanations. Here we review four of the major sociological explanations for deviant behavior.

Structural Strain Theory

American sociologist Robert K. Merton developed structural strain theory as an extension of the functionalist perspective on deviance.

This theory traces the origins of deviance to the tensions that are caused by the gap between cultural goals and the means people have available to achieve those goals.

According to this theory, societies are composed of both culture and social structure. Culture establishes goals for people in society while social structure provides (or fails to provide) the means for people to achieve those goals. In a well-integrated society, people use accepted and appropriate means to achieve the goals that society establishes. In this case, the goals and the means of the society are in balance. It is when the goals and means are not in balance with each other that deviance is likely to occur. This imbalance between cultural goals and structurally available means can actually encourage deviance.

Labeling Theory

Labeling theory is one of the most important approaches to understanding deviant and criminal behavior within sociology.

It begins with the assumption that no act is intrinsically criminal. Instead, definitions of criminality are established by those in power through the formulation of laws and the interpretation of those laws by police, courts, and correctional institutions. Deviance is therefore not a set of characteristics of individuals or groups, but rather it is a process of interaction between deviants and non-deviants and the context in which criminality is defined.

Those who represent forces of law and order and those who enforce the boundaries of proper behavior, such as the police, court officials, experts, and school authorities, provide the main source of labeling. By applying labels to people, and in the process creating categories of deviance, these people reinforce the power structure and hierarchies of society. Typically it is those who hold more power over others, on the basis of race, class, gender, or overall social status, who impose rules and labels on others in society.

Social Control Theory

Social control theory, developed by Travis Hirschi, is a type of functionalist theory that suggests that deviance occurs when a person’s or group’s attachment to social bonds is weakened. According to this view, people care about what others think of them and conform to social expectations because of their attachments to others and what others expect of them. Socialization is important in producing conformity to social rules, and it is when this conformity is broken that deviance occurs.

Social control theory focuses on how deviants are attached, or not, to common value systems and what situations break people’s commitment to these values. This theory also suggests that most people probably feel some impulse towards deviant behavior at some time, but their attachment to social norms prevents them from actually participating in deviant behavior.​

Theory of Differential Association

The theory of differential association is a learning theory that focuses on the processes by which individuals come to commit deviant or criminal acts. According to the theory, created by Edwin H. Sutherland, criminal behavior is learned through interactions with other people. Through this interaction and communication, people learn the values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal behavior.

Differential association theory emphasizes the interaction people have with their peers and others in their environment. Those who associate with delinquents, deviants, or criminals learn to value deviance. The greater the frequency, duration, and intensity of their immersion in deviant environments, the more likely it is that they will become deviant.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.