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 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…