In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Deviance

  • Introduction
  • Classic Works
  • Textbooks
  • Chicago School
  • Interactionism
  • Radical Ambiguity
  • Women and Crime
  • Youth
  • American Gangs
  • Presence in the Adult World
  • Deviant Work, Everyday Deviance

Sociology Deviance
Dick Hobbs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0012


The study of deviant behavior, although now partially obscured by the relentless expansion of criminology, remains central to the discipline of sociology due to its wider, more flexible range and its ability to focus on activity that may transgress societal norms or expectations, while not necessarily breaking laws. Although the study of deviance may touch on social policy, criminology, penology, anthropology, psychology, and human geography, it retains a distinctive edge by using a range of predominantly qualitative methods and theoretical tools such as social interactionism, social constructionism, and phenomenology. These methods are used to highlight the artificial distinction between honest and dishonest, legal and illegal, as well as the manner in which deviant behavior is socially constructed, which are consequently integral to the normative order. The tendency of scholars of deviance is to be committed to observation and interaction, with their central principle being that deviance is normal, unremarkable, and essentially a product of human interaction rather than a pathological state of being.

This article was written with the assistance of Roxana Bratu.

Classic Works

The sociological understanding of deviance has been marked by numerous attempts to define and explain the phenomenon, drawing on a wide range of intellectual and methodological traditions. Despite the lack of temporal and intellectual proximity, the works presented in this article have the merit of being innovative, while challenging established conventions of the field. Mayhew 2010 located deviance within cultures of poverty and provided rich accounts of class and exclusion in Victorian London. Bonger 1969 also placed crime in relation to deprivation but suggested that criminality was a result of the insecurities that resulted from the capital-labor relationship. Durkheim 1982 used the concept of anomie to describe transition in a society featuring weak moral guidelines, which left citizens free to deviate. Erikson 1966 followed Durkheim in emphasizing the functionality of deviance. Merton 1938 employed anomie to show that deviance was a routine way of upward mobility for people who wanted to live the American dream but whose normative aspirations were blocked. By focusing on the implications of labeling a person as deviant, Becker 1963 concluded that “deviance is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather a consequence of the applications by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender.’ The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label” (p. 9). Building on Becker’s perspective, Matza 1969 discussed the implications of labeling, suggesting that involvement in deviancy can be summarized as a process involving affinity, affiliation, and signification. Box 1983 combined strain and conflict theories to show that inequality was reproduced by police practices that directed their attentions toward low-status members of society. Katz 1988 emphasized the allure or seduction of deviant behavior, whereas Foucault’s 1977 seminal work focuses on the social context of punishment, arguing that changes in power relations and culture have altered the nature of punishment.

  • Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: Free Press.

    Becker discusses the profound implications that labeling a person as a deviant can have. According to his perspective, the individual’s engagement in a deviant career is followed by the integration of the label in a symbolic reorganization of self.

  • Bonger, Willem A. 1969. Criminality and economic conditions. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    Bonger employs an explicit Marxist perspective and places crime in the context of deprivation and inequality. The uncertainty of employment conditions encourages the egoism that is at the heart of capitalism, and Bonger’s analysis is also noteworthy for the attention paid to gender inequalities within the workplace. Originally published in 1916.

  • Box, Steven. 1983. Power, crime, and mystification. London: Routledge.

    A witty and incisive overview of the state deviance and market operatives. Box indicates how the law only criminalizes some behaviors, usually those committed by the relatively powerless, and excludes others, those frequently committed by the powerful against subordinates.

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1982. The rules of sociological method. New York: Free Press.

    Durkheim regarded crime as normal and functional, a vehicle for creating social progress, bringing about social change, or providing a warning device signaling when a part of the social system was malfunctioning. Consequently, a healthy society requires both crime and punishment in order to support the collective sentiments and values. Originally published in 1895.

  • Erikson, Kai. 1966. Wayward Puritans: A study in the sociology of deviance. New York: Wiley.

    Using his study of the Puritan settlement in 17th-century Massachusetts, Erikson’s Durkheimian study highlights deviance as a valuable societal resource that is necessary for the maintenance of a coherent social order.

  • Foucault, Michel.1977. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage.

    By focusing on historical documents, Foucault analyzes punishment in its social context and argues that the changes in power relations and culture have altered the nature of punishment. The ceremonial aspect of public executions before the 18th century morphed into the ritualistic discipline of the prison system, which aimed to coerce and reform the individual.

  • Katz, Jack. 1988. Seductions of crime: Moral and sensual attractions in doing evil. New York: Basic Books.

    Katz locates a sensual dynamic by which the individual becomes seduced into crime and stresses the sensual, emotional, and moral attractions that compel people into deviance. Importantly, Katz emphasizes the importance of deviants’ own understanding of their actions, rather than the imposition of a culturally alien criminal justice template.

  • Matza, David. 1969. Becoming deviant. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Matza emphasizes the role of the subject in creating deviance, a process that is distinctly creative. This work should be read as a sometimes-neglected precursor to the influential work of Jack Katz, whose emphasis on the attractions, allures, and seductions of crime have also proved a valuable counter to the positivistic obsessions of administrative criminology.

  • Mayhew, Henry. 2010. London labour and the London poor: A selected edition. Edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    In the mid-19th century, Henry Mayhew wrote eighty-two 10,000-word articles for the Morning Chronicle, describing the material conditions and life experiences of the poor, and located deviant behavior within these conditions. The unearthing of the costermongers’ (street vendors) culture should be seen as a forerunner of the appreciative work on deviant subcultural life that emerged a century later. Originally published 1861–1862.

  • Merton, Robert. 1938. Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review 3.5:672–682.

    DOI: 10.2307/2084686

    Merton proposed a typology of deviance based on the importance of an individual’s adherence to societal goals and the ability of the individual to use legitimate means to achieve them. Merton’s typology constructed five types of deviance: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion. This typology has been particularly influential on studies of youth deviance. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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