March 22, 2010

Deviance 101

By Todd Schoepflin

When I introduce the sociological study of deviance to my students, I make sure to focus on the reactions that people encounter when they violate norms or act in unconventional ways. Think about it: if you violate a norm but there’s no reaction to that violation, is it really deviant behavior? I’m going to discuss several examples of norm violations; some involve reactions, others don’t.

My first example is a true story. A few years ago, a very outgoing student with a great sense of humor came to my social psychology class wearing a huge orange wig. The funny part is that he acted like it was no big deal, as if it were normal to attend class wearing an oversized bright-colored wig. I laughed heartily and explained to the class that his wig was a great example of deviant behavior; after all, no one else had ever come to my class with a crazy wig (and no one has since).

Looking back, though, I don’t think it’s a great example of deviant behavior, because, for whatever reason, the other students didn’t react to his behavior. They were indifferent. I actually offered the only reaction--and the way I laughed conveyed a positive reaction. And though my reaction and my comment about his wig indicated that I thought he was behaving in deviant fashion, no one else seemed to think of it that way. Basically, they didn’t care. Considering that, did an act of deviance really occur?

My next example is hypothetical. Suppose I wear sweat pants everyday to class (That’s a dream of mine, by the way. Some people dream of becoming millionaires and owning mansions. Me, I dream of wearing sweat pants 24-7-365). However, I don’t wear sweat pants for fear that my colleagues would view me as unprofessional.

But would my students care? Maybe at first. I suppose a student might say “You don’t look like a real college professor!” But I bet after just a few classes students would lose interest and find the whole enterprise unremarkable. Even my colleagues would probably get used to it. Sure, some of them might whisper “he’s strange” and my dean might suggest that I dress more professionally, but in the classroom I sincerely doubt I’d get any significant negative reaction.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s unconventional for a professor to wear sweat pants, just like it’s unconventional for a student to wear an orange wig to class. But if reactions to unconventional behavior are mild, minor, or nonexistent, there’s little at stake. In other words, without a significant negative reaction, unconventional actions don’t matter much.

When I introduced the sociological perspective of deviance to students in my introduction to sociology class this semester, one of my students gave an excellent illustration of the importance of reactions when it comes to behavior that is viewed as deviant. She talked about the negative reactions she encountered when she was pregnant. For example, one person said to her “You’re throwing your life away.” What a harsh thing to say to someone! And that’s Irena exactly my point: a hostile reaction is a strong signal that someone’s behavior is received as deviant.

As Irena talked more about her situation she pointed out that some of the disapproval she faced was based on the fact that she wasn’t married. Then, in an e-mail message, she gave me two more examples of negative reactions. One was that some of her friends reacted with an assumption that she would have to drop out of school. Another was that some of her “friends” were initially excited at the news she was pregnant, but have since stopped talking to her and essentially disappeared from her life.

Irena’s experiences show how important it is to focus on the reaction rather than the action. No one would say that being pregnant is a norm violation for all women at all times. We have to take the context into consideration when we try to determine if behavior is deviant, and we have to keep in mind that what is deviant to some people (and to some groups and cultures) is not deviant to other people (and to other groups and cultures). Would a married woman who is 25-years-old be treated as a deviant person because she is pregnant? I doubt it. Conversely, I bet it would be celebrated and received as great news.

During that same class session I used interracial relationships as an example of something that has become more acceptable over time (and hence, less deviant) but something that is still regarded by some in society as unacceptable (and therefore, is still deviant to a degree). It seems to me that interracial relationships are more acceptable in American society than ever before, but people in interracial relationships are still sometimes subjected to negative reactions (for example, see Janis Prince Inniss's blog about a justice of the peace who refused to marry an interracial couple).

Think about this in terms of your family. If you brought your new boyfriend or girlfriend home to meet your family and they belonged to a different race, how would your parents react? And what would your grandparents say? My guess is that many of you would encounter disapproval. By the way, my student Irena told the class that some of the people in her life were more accepting of her when she was in an interracial relationship than they were when she was a pregnant, unmarried college student.

Okay, one more example. When I arrived to class that day to introduce the topic of deviance, I was excited because I love the subject. But my students seemed tired and not ready to engage in any material. So, to break the ice I intentionally told a lame joke to lighten the mood (“Why did the banana go to the doctor? Because he wasn’t peeling well.”) The silly joke served my purpose because it was a simple ice breaker.

Driving home from school that day an interesting thought occurred to me: What if I had told a dirty joke to my class? I’m not saying I wanted to tell a dirty joke or that I tell dirty jokes in my spare time. My point is that a dirty joke would have been extremely inappropriate in a classroom setting. And I think it would have been an example of deviant behavior. I say this because I assume I would have gotten a lot of disapproving reactions. Who knows, depending on the actual content of the joke, some students might have laughed. But I suspect some would have been offended and some would have left class thinking of me as “pervert” or “dirty old man.”

My examples demonstrate the critical role that reactions play when it comes to deviant behavior. You’ll notice that my examples of deviant behavior focus on negative reactions. That’s because negative reactions (like a mean stare, an insult, or an act of discrimination) are clear signals that deviant behavior has occurred. But what about positive reactions? In my example of the student who wore a wig to class, I implied that a positive reaction (my laughter) was part of the reason why his behavior wasn’t really deviant. But can you think of any examples of positive reactions to an action that is believed to be deviant? In other words, is there any deviant behavior that generates a positive reaction? Hmmm, maybe that’s another blog topic for another time…


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The idea of the dirty joke reminds me of this:

My college sociology prof was once explaining that our unwritten rules are more important than our written rules. As proof, he pointed to a sign that said "no food or drink" and then pointed to all the people eating and drinking in class. Then, as he continued to belabor his point, he pulled out a cigarette, lit it up, started smoking, and just kept casually talking. The shock and awe was priceless, and of course he made his point.

Reading this article made me realize how much I consider the ways that people react to what I do and say based on social norms. It is interesting that young women who give birth before they marry or people who are in interracial relationships usually are cautious about what other people think of them. It would be nice if certain things in our society were accepted so that they weren't under the category of "social deviance."

I am a senior in high school, and I plan to get married next October. Many people have given me many different reactions. Some say it's stupid, others are happy. Some just give me "the look" and shake their heads. After reading this article, it makes me realize that all people have a different idea of what is considered "social deviance" and as long as I am happy, along with my family, other people's idea of "social deviance" doesn't matter that much.

I'm a 15 year old sophmore in high school, and I have a daughter, who is 7 months old. She is my life now. Everyone has their own opinions about it, some good, some bad. The usual. After I read this article, it made me think about norms, values, and social deviance. It made me think that it doesn't matter what other people say. I am who I am, and I will be happy with what I chose to do with my life. People can say and think what they want, because of course, I say and think things about other people. Other people's idea of " Social Deviance " doesn't matter. Just like Samantha said, :) This article made me realize a lot.

Reading this made me think a lot. If you think about it there really is not set deviant behavior in every society. Getting pregnant to one person may be the best thing ever, but to another may be the worst. It all depends on who the person or the society is. And like you said is it really deviant if people are getting enjoyment out of it? I mean who really says an action is deviant it depends ont he person and that persons reaction.

I definitely agree with the earlier comments about not taking people's reactions too seriously. I think that what is considered deviant in our society is changing because people aren't tied to traditions like they used to be. Getting pregnant or married at a young age is beginning to lose the stigma of deviance as people become more independent and do what is right for them. The traditional family has lost value because people don't care what society thinks anymore and I think it's a good thing. People shouldn't have to worry about what other people think when something is right for them.

I think that society is changing and it's not like it used to be. We used to follow traditions and care about what people thought of us. Now it seems like we have gotten away from that. We don't seem to care what people think as long as we are doing the right thing for ourselves. We also don't seem to follow traditions as closely as we used to.

I guess that the point here is that there is a difference in breaking a norm and deviance. Deviance is defined by the negative reactions people receive because they broke a highly valued norm. The orange wig reminds me of some of my fellow students in high school. These kids are non-conformists who are universally liked and considered cool. They play the ukulele, spice up their wardrobes with thrift store clothes, carry their Rubik’s cubes around, and join the bowling team. I used to be on a team with one of these individuals. She was unique and also one of the nicest people I have ever met. These people are another example of breaking social norms without being deviant. They rarely get much of a reaction any more, and when they do it is often positive.

After reading this blog about deviance I realized that Mr. Schoepflin makes a great point. Weather or not an act is considered deviant you have to see the reactions that follow it. Society as a whole comes up with norms and what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. It is a shame that for his expample about the pregnanat college student society viewed her pergnancy in a negative way. Then if you are a married 25 year old the news of pregnancy would be celebrated. It just shows where are values are and sometimes the situation has everything and reactions have everythihng to do with wheater or not we think an act is deviant.

I agree that with out a negative reaction a behavior most not be considered deviant. I can't really think of a behavior that is deviant that gets a positive reaction. I also think that different people will have different reactions to things, one person might be offended by something, and another might think it was funny.

What about the deviant behavior that is ignored on purpose? One cannot not know whether or not this is intentional

This gave me a good understanding about why people react to something outside the norm that they are use to.

I think everyone just has different opinions on what is right and what is wrong. I mean who really cares if someone gets married at a young age it is not their right to judge others. Very good blog.

How It can affect people? It depend the reactions that people can have sometimes because sometimes it can be positive or negative. Looking the example about the class professor I have sometime similar. I remembered my first semester in College when I had to take writing classes. I felt happy because I liked to write in English, but my big problem was that my grammar is bad. One day the professor gave us the first assignment. When I saw my essay, I found many errors, but the most terrible thing was when he used my own errors like an examples in class. Everyone was laughed. I felt very angry because they did not understand that English is not my first language. At the same time he gave us more examples about grammar mistakes in other classmates. Next, day I though that he was right because he showed something positive in my life and I understood the norm that I got was to pen more attention in my grammar and I understood my behavior because at ht beginning was negative, but after my action was positive.

I remember we first learned about breaking norms and deviances in chapter 3 of our sociology book by Richard T. Schaefer in sociology class. We learned that breaking the norm would result in sanctions, depending on the type of the norm broken. I really enjoyed reading this article since it opened up my mind about certain things and changed the way I think. After reading the “Deviance 101” blog entry by Todd Schoepflin, I realized the importance of focusing on the reaction rather than the action when breaking certain norms. The examples Schoepflin gave, such as with his student walking in with an orange wig in class and his pregnant student Irena, helped make me notice this, which I never thought of before. I believe that his examples reveal the significant role that reactions play when it comes to deviant behavior. For example, in my family intraracial marriage is very important and highly stressed, and marrying outside our race is HIGHLY discouraged; this is the norm for our family and most of America as well. Yet my older step-brother, who is white, married a person that is from another race, Black, and with this he received a lot of negative “reaction” from the family. I used to think that breaking a norm would be doing a certain action and getting sanctions from that. Yet here the action of marrying isn’t wrong, but marrying a person of another race was violating the norms. I personally saw this as wrong and thought marrying anyone should be ok. Now I learned to focus more on the reaction you get from breaking a norm, rather than the action itself when experiencing social deviances.

C. I found this article to be very thought provoking and certainly got me thinking about deviance in our culture. At the end of the blog, Schoepflin asks the question [“can you think of any examples of positive reactions that is believed to be deviant... is there any deviant behavior that generates a positive reaction?] about deviant behaviors with positive reactions. I believe that in many cases, deviant behavior receives different reactions based on who is around them. For example, if a high school student snuck out of their house after curfew to meet up with some friends, this is seen as deviant behavior with negative reactions from parents. However, the high school student would receive positive reactions from their friends and peers, based on their perceived idea that sneaking out is “cool”.

It's interesting that I never would have thought of reactions to behavior just as important to qualifying something as deviant as the behavior itself. It makes complete sense but it's not something that is thought of right away. I think the best example was that of the young woman being pregnant. It is true that the majority of pregnant are not looked upon as deviant, but that in certain situations people would perceive a pregnancy in a bad light.

I think it would be very interesting to take examples from each years of schooling. For example, something labeled deviant in elementary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate school. It would be interesting to see or survey people to get solid examples of deviant behavior and actually experiment by having people do them and then recording the audience’s reactions.

This post hit on some of the basic fundamentals of the relative nature of deviance. It is easy to forget how much of the idea of "deviance" is a social construct determined by a variety of factors that are constantly in flux. I feel as though the final question would be worthwhile to explore in another post. Also, it would be interesting to examine the value of deviance in a society of individuals, such as ours, since small acts of deviance are often the impetus for large-scale shifts in perceptions of normalcy.

You have a really great point about what may be seen by some as deviant, may not be that big of a deal to others. It also brings about what some people think is weird, others think of as "normal" behavior. Deviance really is a very relative state.

Can someone help me with my wrk, its a sociology qestion that i dont have a clue about.

Discuss how far sociologists would agree that an act some people would see as deviant might not be seen as deviant by other people.


This is very interesting. As far as social deviance goes, I know there are social norms that it is considered unusual not to follow. But it's hard not to wonder how far one would have to go in order to become "Socially deviant". If wearing an orange wig to class isn't, then I'm not sure what is. I think one of the biggest examples of this is girls who get pregnant in high school, this is becoming less and less unusual, social deviance changes over time.

Societies and culture determine what is an appropriate behavior. Deviant in one society might be the norm in the other, as the author points out, the level of deviance is based on the reactions one might get negatively towards that act. Deviance can be taken as someone acting outside of the normal behavior pattern. We live in a society in NY where cultures and religion blend into a potpourri of things. There is no right or wrong easily. There was a Jewish parade last week in Manhattan and so many men were wearing their traditional caps and sporting a beard. Now this is fine in New York but the same parade in a Christian or Islamic centric country would illicit strange reactions. Also to consider is this, is a deviant behavior really considered deviant when it is done by a huge amount of people. In part this slowly becomes the norm.

As a Muslim growing up in India, we never used to wear Hijabs to cover our heads, it was only done by elderly but not the young. If a young girl does it, it creates a positive deviant behavior with the elders but at that time incited and went against what all the other young girls did not do. The girl would be looked at negatively by her friends and questioned by others as to why she was doing it. She was being a deviant in a good way for a group of people and deviant and negative to another.

I found this article on deviance to be very interesting. Often, deviance is based purely on negative reactions to the action. As the author points out, actions that may be considered deviant in one culture could be social norms in another. By reading this article, I was able to understand that deviance is more a matter of social definition and opinion than anything else. For this reason, it can vary between groups, societies and cultures. Violating social norms will usually classify a person as a deviant, but social norms may differ between cultures. Thus, it is impossible to permanently label someone as a deviant.

This article was one of the more interesting I have read. Deviance seems to be very relative and fluctuates person to person, as well as culture to culture. For example, in many European countries it is considered normal to kiss someone when you meet them, even if you do not know them well. If this occured here in America, many people would think of it as quite strange, and it would be considered deviant behavior.

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