Some people, some types of people, some groups of people break from the norms of society. These acts outside of societal boundaries are considered deviant.
Deviance is inherently social. For an individual to be a deviant, they must be involved with other people. It is impossible for someone to be deviant without a person or institution to label them as such.² To study deviance is not to study acts, people or things but is to studying a process. This is a fluid process that is happening every day.¹
There are changes in context which causes other people to identify others as deviant, odd or unusual. Durkheim and other structural functionalists believe deviance is often the result of anomie: a state of social disorder and instability. Most sociologists agree that deviant behaviour usually occurs because something is wrong with society as a machine and that deviance is typically a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. Some structural functionalists actually believe that deviance serves an important purpose in society.¹ How would we know where society’s boundaries are if no one crossed them?
There are many important trends and questions being explored in deviancy today. In terms of reform strategies: can you take a deviant person, put them in a deviant environment like a prison or a mental hospital and expect them to become non deviant?
Something else being explored is the potential functionality of deviance. Does deviance help us keep clear definitions of our norms? is it necessary to have some deviants to confirm norms, thereby reducing anomie and deviance in general?
Another popular question is whether the general structure of society or the structure of smaller communities such as families and neighborhoods holds more importance in the process of being ‘normal.’ Is one necessary for the other?
There are obviously other factors that most sociologists do not address in deviance, such as mental illness.
Here is a great example of the fluidity of deviance. NYU Professor Harvey Molotch teaches an open education course on Sociology. In the following lecture: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_-NlN8BjwM) he tells his first year sociology class to cumulatively raise their hands if they have done any of the ‘deviant’ acts on a list that he reads aloud. Eventually, 100% of the room has their hands raised including the professor.²
History has given us a long list of traits and acts that were once considered deviant and are acceptable now, such a interracial relationships. So is deviance a natural, universal cycle that happens whenever society encounters something new? Is anything actually deviant? Are there some things are universally deviant? Is everyone inherently deviant in some way? Why has almost every single society isolated those they consider deviant? What purpose does this serve? These are the questions sociologists are exploring.
1. College of Liberal Studies. The University of Oklahoma. http://www.ou.edu/cls/online/lstd3763/pdf/on_the_sociology_of_deviance.pdf