Deviance is an attribute, something inherent in a certain kind of behavior or person. For sociologists, deviance is not a type of person, but rather a formal property of social situations and social systems. There are two interrelated properties that help characterize the phenomenon of deviance. The first property refers to deviance as a pattern of norm violation. For example, religious norms give rise to heretics, legal norms to criminals, and cultural norms to the eccentric. Such a definition is very wide-ranging because norms emerge in most social situations and as a result it enters every sphere of social life.

The second property defines deviance as a stigma construct. It refers to deviance as a label bestowed upon certain classes of behavior at certain times, which then becomes discredited, devalued, and often excluded. In this case, the primary concern of the study of deviance is the construction, application, and impact of stigma labels. Either as a norm violation or a stigma construct, deviance is an ambiguous, shifting and volatile concept. The definition of who or what is deviant depends on a firm understanding of the norms and labeling process in particular social contexts. What is considered deviant also changes from society to society as well as over time within any given society.

The academic definitions of deviance can be divided into four major categories: natural law definitions, normative definitions, labeling definitions, and critical definition. Natural law or absolutist definitions are perhaps the oldest conceptions of deviance and suggest that there are norms, prohibitions, and codes of conduct that are appropriate for all people in any social context at all times. Under this category fall taboos such as incest and cannibalism as well as less extreme behaviors that are considered necessary for a society to function properly.

Before the 1960s, most sociologists adhered to normative definitions of deviance. Such definitions support the view of deviance as norm violation or a rule-breaking behavior. These definitions, as well as natural law definitions, have been criticized because they presume that there is societal consensus over which rules bind people together. While natural law approaches have been criticized for denying the role that power inequalities play in shaping definitions of deviance, normative definitions have been criticized for not examining that role.

Labeling definitions of deviance, which are often referred to as "social reaction," definitions, refer to the stigma concept and assume that no act is inherently deviant. According to these definitions, it is not the act itself which is deviant but the society's reaction to the act which determines whether something or someone will be considered deviant. According to critics, label theorists overstate the relativity of deviance and fail to explain why some groups tend to be involved in more criminal and deviant behavior than others. However, this approach has remained the dominant perspective in studies of deviance.

Supporters of the critical approach adopted and built upon many of the tenets of the labeling definitions of deviance. According to critical theorists, those in positions of economic and political privilege are intentionally favored by definitions of deviance. These theories claim that the political elite use the law and other agencies of socialization they control to play up the threat of the deviant and criminal underclass, on the one hand, and to neutralize their own law violations and deviant behaviors, on the other. Critical definitions of deviance have been criticized for being too vague and broad to have any practical import.

The dominant belief among sociologists remains that deviance is relative. This relativity is represented by the fact that what is acceptable in one place and at one time is not acceptable in a different place and time. This belief is consistent with the critical and labeling theories in the aspect that defines deviance as a matter of power relationships and personal and collective perspective. As a result, formal distinctions between deviant and acceptable behaviors are often not related to objective analysis of harm or societal consensus. Among the pioneers of this relativity perspective was Michel Foucault who insisted that in order to define deviance the proper social perspective and an analysis of power relationships in society are required.

Deviance: Selected full-text books and articles

Deviance: The Interactionist Perspective By Earl Rubington; Martin S. Weinberg Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008 (10th edition)
Deviance and Control By Albert K. Cohen Prentice-Hall, 1966
Rebels in Groups: Dissent, Deviance, Difference and Defiance By Jolanda Jetten; Matthew J. Hornsey Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
Librarian's tip: Especially Part II "Deviance in Groups"
The Social Dynamics of Self-Esteem: Theory to Therapy By R. A. Steffenhagen; Jeff D. Burns Praeger, 1987
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "The Self-Esteem Theory of Deviance"
The Death of the Sociology of Deviance? By Bendle, Mervyn F Journal of Sociology, Vol. 35, No. 1, March 1999
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Is the Street Child Phenomenon Synonymous with Deviant Behavior? By Roux, Johann le; Smith, Cheryl Sylvia Adolescence, Vol. 33, No. 132, Winter 1998
The New Criminology: For a Social Theory of Deviance By Ian Taylor; Paul Walton; Jock Young Routledge, 1988
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