Theories Of Devience

Sociological Theories to Explain Deviance:

Cultural Transmission/Differential Associations Theory  

 All behavior is learned; therefore deviant behavior is also learned. The theory focuses on the key variables involved in learning.  These variables are:

  1. Age of the “learner”
  2. Intensity of contact with the deviant “teacher”
  3. Ratio of “good” to “bad” social contacts in the “learner’s” life

Theory predicts that the younger the “learner” is, in an intense relationship with the deviant “teacher”, and the more contacts with significant others who are “deviant”, then the greater the likelihood the “learner” will also be deviant.  The reverse is also true.

Theory has both strengths and weaknesses.  Think about what they might be. 

Control Theory 

 This theory asks a different question than most of the others; it does not ask “why does someone commit deviance?” but rather control theory asks “why do most of us not commit deviance?” In other words, why do most of us, most of the time, act “correctly?”

The theory answers that question this way — that “normal behavior” is shaped by the power of social control mechanisms in our culture. Put differently, the social bonds that connect people help to keep us from committing deviance.

So what are the basic social factors/components of a social bond between individuals?

  1. Attachment — a measure of the connectedness between individuals
  2. Commitment — a measure of the stake a person has in the community
  3. Involvement — a measure of the time/energy a person is spending on activities that are helpful to the community
  4. Belief — a measure of the person’s support for the morals and beliefs of the community

The theory argues that there tends to be an inverse correlation between these factors and deviant behavior.  What does that mean?  Be able to explain it.

The theory has both strengths and weaknesses. Think about what they might be. 

Labeling Theory 

 (Note:  the title of “labeling theory” can be a bit misleading, so be careful here. Labeling theoristsdo not like labels, okay? But they say that labeling is a social fact, especially when we talk about social institutions like law enforcement, social service agencies, and mental health facilities. So therefore they study the power of labels in our society).  Also note that this theory combines two theoretical perspectives–conflict theory and symbolic interactionism. You should be able to explain what that last sentence means, okay?

The theory explains deviances as a social process whereby some people are able to define others as deviant. It emphasizes that the deviance is relative — it is not until a label is given to someone by someone else in a position of social power that the person actually “becomes” a deviant.

Has some important terms linked to the theory: 

Primary deviance — behavior that does not conform to the social norms, but the behavior might be temporary, fleeting, exploratory, trivial, or especially, concealed from most others. The person who commits the deviant act does not see him/herself as deviant; put differently, it is not internalized as a part of the person’s self concept

Secondary deviance — behavior that does not conform to the social norms, but 1) the behavior tends to be more sustained over time. The person continues to do the deviant behavior even afterbeing caught and labeled by a social institution. The person accepts the deviant label, incorporating it into the person’s self concept.

Deviant career — continued secondary deviance, that becomes one’s “job” and becomes one’s primary economic activity. Person accepts the deviant label.

Radical non-intervention:  labeling theory’s solution, at least to juvenile deviance. Has two parts:   1) preferably do not label anyone, but especially not a juvenile. Sociology knows that many adolescents reduce or stop their deviance as they become adults and accept adult statuses and roles.  So labeling them might in fact prevent that “becoming good” transition as they become adults, and 2) if anyone has to be labeled, label fairly — don’t “peak” and notice social class, race, sex, etc., and therefore label some individuals differently than others.

The theory has both strengths and weaknesses. Think about what they might be. 

Structural Strain Theory/Anomie Theory 

Theory explains deviance as the outcome of social strains due to the way the society is structured. For some people, the strain becomes overwhelming to the point where they do deviance as a way to manage the strain. Often their deviance is due to their feelings of anomie — meaningless due to not understanding how the social norms are to effect them.  This is usually because the norms are weak, confusing, or conflicting.

There is a social consensus in the society about socially approved goals that each person ought to strive for and the socially approved of means to attain those goals.  This consensus is largely due to a shared value system in the society.

Here is the theory’s famous set of options:

Name of Option  Socially Approved Goal Socially Approved Means

Theory has both strengths and weaknesses. Think of what they might be. 

Subcultural Theories 

 There are several subcultural theories, but they all “work” like this:   a person may be a member of a subculture within a larger culture; e.g., a member of a gang which lives inside of America.  In the subculture, a particular behavior may be “normal”/conforming behavior but from the perspective of the larger culture, the behavior is considered to be deviant.

Theory makes it clear we need to ask “who has the power to decide what is ‘normal’ and what deviant behavior is?”  These theories often are linked with labeling theory.

A person in such a subculture may feel role conflict or role strain trying to balance the norms of two very diverse groups of which one is a member

Theory has strengths and weaknesses. Think what they might be. 

Medicalization of Deviance

Theory argues that in the last 100+ years, there has been a shift in which social institution primary is associated with the labeling/”handling” of deviance and deviants. In earlier times in Western Europe and America, the religious institutions had the social power to define/label deviant behavior and to “treat” it (e.g., exorcisms, etc.). But now science and especially medicine as a subset of science has taken over much of the social control processing of deviants.

This shift, it is argued by those who support the theory, is a more humane way of understanding deviant behavior.  People are not “evil” but they are “sick.”  However, the “sick” label still has social consequences that “stick” to the person so labeled.  Some of these consequences are:

  1. It absolves one of responsibility for the deviant behavior
  2. There is little or no stigma (so the theory claims) to the label of sick    
  3. So long as the person fulfills the “sick role” appropriately, he or she is able to not receive a harsh negative label. But the sick role is a role and has a complicated behavioral set that the person has to follow or else. 
  4. The key part of the sick role is that one has to accept that medical perspective is “correct” and therefore anything prescribed by physicians must be done
  5. A more optimistic view of deviance

But there is also a “down” side to the medicalization of deviance.  What is it? 

I also expect you to recall from your Introduction to Sociology class or your Introduction to Social Problems class the following three theoretical perspectives in sociology and how they would discuss deviance.  If you feel unsure, check out the link below.

Which of the above theories that I wrote about would fit into which of these three theoretical perspectives?

  1. Structural Functionalism/”Order” Perspective
  2. Conflict Perspective
  3. Symbolic Interactionist Perspective, especially Goffman
  4. Symbolic Interactionist Perspective, especially Goffman 

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By Hassham

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