Sociology of Deviance and Crime

The Study of Cultural Norms and What Happens When They Are Broken

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Sociologists who study deviance and crime examine cultural norms, how they change over time, how they are enforced, and what happens to individuals and societies when norms are broken. Deviance and social norms vary among societies, communities, and times, and often sociologists are interested in why these differences exist and how these differences impact the individuals and groups in those areas.


Sociologists define deviance as behavior that is recognized as violating expected rules and norms. It is simply more than nonconformity, however; it is behavior that departs significantly from social expectations. In the sociological perspective on deviance, there is a subtlety that distinguishes it from our commonsense understanding of the same behavior. Sociologists stress social context, not just individual behavior. That is, deviance is looked at in terms of group processes, definitions, and judgments, and not just as unusual individual acts. Sociologists also recognize that not all behaviors are judged similarly by all groups. What is deviant to one group may not be considered deviant to another. Further, sociologists recognize that established rules and norms are socially created, not just morally decided or individually imposed. That is, deviance lies not just in the behavior itself, but in the social responses of groups to behavior by others.

Sociologists often use their understanding of deviance to help explain otherwise ordinary events, such as tattooing or body piercing, eating disorders, or drug and alcohol use. Many of the kinds of questions asked by sociologists who study deviance deal with the social context in which behaviors are committed. For example, are there conditions under which suicide is acceptable? Would one who commits suicide in the face of a terminal illness be judged differently from a despondent person who jumps from a window?

Four Theoretical Approaches

Within the sociology of deviance and crime, there are four key theoretical perspectives from which researchers study why people violate laws or norms, and how society reacts to such acts. We'll review them briefly here.

Structural strain theory was developed by American sociologist Robert K. Merton and suggests that deviant behavior is the result of strain an individual may experience when the community or society in which they live does not provide the necessary means to achieve culturally valued goals. Merton reasoned that when society fails people in this way, they engage in deviant or criminal acts in order to achieve those goals (like economic success, for example).

Some sociologists approach the study of deviance and crime from a structural functionalist standpoint. They would argue that deviance is a necessary part of the process by which social order is achieved and maintained. From this standpoint, deviant behavior serves to remind the majority of the socially agreed upon rules, norms, and taboos, which reinforces their value and thus social order.

Conflict theory is also used as a theoretical foundation for the sociological study of deviance and crime. This approach frames deviant behavior and crime as the result of social, political, economic, and material conflicts in society. It can be used to explain why some people resort to criminal trades simply in order to survive in an economically unequal society.

Finally, labeling theory serves as an important frame for those who study deviance and crime. Sociologists who follow this school of thought would argue that there is a process of labeling by which deviance comes to be recognized as such. From this standpoint, the societal reaction to deviant behavior suggests that social groups actually create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders. This theory further suggests that people engage in deviant acts because they have been labeled as deviant by society, because of their race, or class, or the intersection of the two, for example.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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Your Citation
Crossman, Ashley. "Sociology of Deviance and Crime." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Crossman, Ashley. (2020, August 27). Sociology of Deviance and Crime. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "Sociology of Deviance and Crime." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).