“I know it when I see it” is a common colloquial phrase many of us use when we can’t quite articulate exactly what it is we’re talking about. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used this phrase when deciding a 1964 case involving whether a French film, The Lovers, was pornographic or obscene. Can we identify deviance when we see or hear about it? Justice Stewart was looking for a universal, essential quality to pornography. Most contemporary sociologists do not believe that any such inner essence to deviance exists—no central or abiding core that they can identify and characterize verbally. Deviance is not something that’s simply different from the norm; it is something that is considered wrongful by an audience. More than being different and non-normative, that “something” tends to stimulate a negative response in parties who observe or find out about it. No such phenomenon rises before us, announcing to the world, “Here I am!” when we encounter it. Inevitably, studying and writing about such a cloudy yet emotion-laden subject attracts disputation and controversy. Hence, we need a clear-thinking, truth-telling Diogenes to guide us through disagreements and seeming ambiguities. The goal of this chapter is to spell out the different ways that sociologists have defined deviance and weigh and consider its cognate characteristics and elucidate its major manifestations, that is, behavior, beliefs, and physical characteristics. It’s not sociologists who are labeling deviance—it is the multiple social audiences—society and its members—who react negatively when they encounter something they find objectionable.
Deviance: What Is It?
Marshall Clinard’s volume Sociology of Deviant Behavior—the first modern textbook published on the subject—defined deviance as “deviations from social norms which encounter disapproval” (1957, p. vii), a definition that came to be widely adopted and seem entirely sensible, but it’s only a beginning. I’d like to qualify, shade, and complicate Clinard’s definition a bit. Whose norms? How widely held are these norms? How much disapproval do these supposed deviations need to attract from audiences in order for us to decide that they are in fact instances of deviance? Are these norms sanctioned by the society at large—or do different, diverse, and scattered social circles sanction different norms? Here, we need to provide answers to these questions.
When we encounter behavior, expressed beliefs, and even physical traits or characteristics that we consider offensive, improper, unseemly, or inappropriate—the “deviations from social norms” Clinard mentions—there’s a certain likelihood that we will punish, condemn, stigmatize, humiliate, shun, or steer clear of the normatively deviating party. In a similar fashion, if a type of behavior in question is illegal, law enforcement is likely to step in and make an arrest. In other words, societies exercise some forms of social control. If social control is never exercised, societies almost inevitably collapse into chaos and anarchy. But this formulation leaves some issues unresolved. When members of audiences observe something of which they disapprove, when and under what circumstances do they express disapproval?
Even if we see something we regard as wrongful, sometimes we react negatively, sometimes we don’t. Why? What’s the pattern here? Under what circumstances do we do the one—or the other? Here, I address these issues; they are central to the sociology of deviance.
Sociologists define deviance as behavior, beliefs, and characteristics that violate society’s, or a collectivity’s, norms, the violation of which tends to attract negative reactions from one or more audiences. Such negative reactions include contempt, punishment, hostility, condemnation, criticism, denigration, condescension, stigma, pity, and/or scorn—and lots more as well. Not all negative reactions are immediately evident or obvious as forms of denigration and condemnation. Sometimes people just walk away from what they disapprove of. They may snub or ignore someone, express a blank, stony stare, or make a mental note not to socialize with that person in the future, decide to interact with him or her less, or say negative things, or interact in a less cordial fashion.
How do people react to seeing what they regard as unacceptable or reprehensible behavior, or hear beliefs of which they disapprove, or observe physical characteristics they regard as repulsive? And who are these “people,” these relevant audiences? In all probability, the most common negative reaction to what the relevant parties regard as unacceptable or deviant is the withdrawal of sociability—potentially interacting individuals, as I explained, removing themselves from the presence of the normative offender in question. How offensive does something have to be for the sociologist to refer to it as deviant? The short answer is: It doesn’t matter; deviance is a matter of degree. The stronger the negative reaction and the greater the number of audiences that react this way—and the more sizable and influential the audiences are—the more likely it is that the violator will attract negative reactions or labeling, and the more certain sociologists feel that they have an instance of deviance on their hands. Not all members of a given audience will react in the same way; usually—even within a specific society or social circle—reactions to normative violations vary. No exact point exists at which the sociologist can say, here’s deviance and there’s conventionality.
It almost goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Deviance varies with respect to how much consensus exists among audiences as to whether and to what extent it is wrongful or sanctionable. “High”-consensus (or higher-consensus) deviance consists of actions, beliefs, and conditions for which there is a great deal of agreement that they are unacceptable and that the actor, believer, or bearer should be stigmatized, punished, condemned, or sanctioned for engaging or believing in or possessing them. “Low”-consensus (or lower- consensus) deviance is made up of those acts, beliefs, or traits that audiences less generally feel this way about. Of course, degrees of consensus vary not merely within the same society but across societies generally. Though no absolute cultural “universals” exist, for some actions, beliefs, and conditions, we can locate substantial consensus with regard to their sanctionability.
When we want to know what’s deviant, we can perform a mental experiment. We activate our imagination and picture thousands of settings, thousands of audiences or observers, different people hearing about the hypothetical behavior, imagine all manner of behaviors being enacted, being narrated, being told about—then visualize the responses. We do the same thing with expressed beliefs and physical characteristics. To define something as sociological deviance, we need not witness negative, punishing, or condemnatory reactions every time an audience witnesses or hears about something. People may store up hostility, resentment, and other negative feelings about what they’ve seen and heard and react more overtly the next time. But the more often it is reacted to negatively, the more deviant it is. Sociologists conduct polls and surveys, do some observation of their own, ask people about how they feel about behavior, beliefs, and physical traits. The results of this effort tells us what audiences consider deviant; we sound people out, discuss our feelings about such matters with others, and eventually get some idea that some things are widely considered or regarded as wrongful or unacceptable in certain social circles, among certain categories of people, or in the society at large. If we are responsive, empathetic observers, if we watch the responses of others, pay attention to a great deal of feedback, including from the media, if we’re students of our own society, able to put ourselves in the shoes of others, we will have some sense of what others consider reprehensible. While specific reactions to certain behaviors, beliefs, or traits will vary from one situation to another, from one audience to another, after conducting our own research and thought experiments enough times, after interacting with enough people, we will be able to put together a fairly accurate notion of what’s considered deviant in a given society.
Sociologists don’t have to agree with a given negative assessment or react in such negative ways; neither do the rest of us. Nobody has to feel that the violator ought to be chastised, punished, shunned, or denigrated—but it’s the obligation of all of us to notice that certain audiences do react negatively. The fact is, negative reactions to social exchanges define or constitute deviance. And normative violations plus negative reactions seem a good place to start. There’s no essence to deviance, no hard, concrete reality that we can put our hands on that exists independent of such condemnatory or scornful reactions, no quality all deviancies possess—and hence no categorical or generic “cause” of deviance. The defining characteristic of deviance for most sociologists is not harm, injury, wrong, psychopathology, sin, evil, or abusiveness. True, not all behavior, beliefs, or physical characteristics that are generally reacted to negatively generate such reactions in all instances. Perhaps observers tell a friend, a teacher, or a relative about it; perhaps they’ll wait for the appropriate time and place to react. Or perhaps they simply sublimate their reactions and feel resentful and lash out at someone else. It’s possible that they disagree with the majority negative judgment.
A definition is not a theory. The sociologist’s definition of deviance conceptualizes what deviance is, sociologically speaking. It does not formulate a cause-and-effect explanation for why people behave the ...