The first theory about deviance is Cultural Transmission Theory. This theory basically approaches deviation from the viewpoint of social relationships. It states that society usually encourages a respect for cultural norms, but that if a person is in an environment where people do not follow cultural norms he too will ignore cultural norms. It can be summarized as, “Association with deviants promotes deviation.” There are several factors that influence the effect of association with deviants. These include the intensity of contact with deviants, the age at which these contacts take place, and the ratio between contacts with deviants and contacts with conformists. The book, “Sociology,” by Ian Robertson summarizes this theory, “Nobody is born with the knowledge, techniques, or the justifications available to the deviant. Like any other elements of culture, these things must be transmitted from one person or group to another.”
This theory has a few shortcomings preventing it from covering all cases. For example, most children raised in deviant surroundings do not grow up to be criminals. In addition, some people who live in very conformist surroundings still become criminals. Cultural Transmission theory can only explain how deviance is learned, not how it arises.
The second theory that attempts to explain deviance is Structural Strain Theory. This theory explains deviance as a result of social strains put on people. The root of Structural Strain theory lies in the anomaly, a condition of confusion when social norms are weak or conflicting. An anomaly may be the result of a contradiction, when socially approved goals can not be met using socially approved means. For example, everyone wants to make money so that they can support their family and have a nice lifestyle. However, there may be no jobs, or the person may not have enough education to get a good paying job. They are unable to meet their goal of making money by using socially approved means. Structural Strain Theory describes five character types that arise in a situation like this.
- The Conformist continues to try to meet his socially accepted goal while using socially acceptable means, even if his attempts to meet his goals are unsuccessful or inefficient.
- The Innovator tries to meet his socially accepted goal using means that may not be socially accepted. For example, a person needs money. He can not find a job to meet his goal in an acceptable way, so he turns to stealing, a socially unacceptable way to make money. Innovation is not always bad. Many innovators manage to find ways to meet their goals lawfully.
- The Ritualist abandons his goal but sticks to the socially acceptable means of reaching it. An example of this might be a bureaucrat who is obsessed with the rules and procedures but forgets what the rules were designed to achieve.
- The Retreatist leaves both his socially approved goal and the socially approved means. Retreatists usually become drunks or drug addicts.
- The Rebel rejects socially approved goals and the socially approved means, and instead makes their own goals and ways of reaching them. A rebel might be unable to find a job and make money, so he begins promoting a communist government as a way to provide social equality.
The problem with this theory is that it fails to explain why people who have the means to reach socially approved goals do not do so using their socially approved means. For example, some wealthy people who already have money and have access to all the means that they need to make more lawfully still cheat on their income tax and use fraudulent means to make more money even though it is illegal.
The third theory, Control Theory, does not start with the question of why people deviate. It starts with the question of why people conform. It explains deviation as a failure of society to conform a person to its norms. An example of this is suicide. One study showed that people who have few social bonds are more likely to commit suicide than those with many social bonds. Society failed to conform these deviants to social norms. Bonds with society, the same bonds that allow society to conform someone to social norms, fall into four categories.
- Attachment: If you have have affection and respect for friends or family and you care about their welfare and feelings then you want to act in a responsible way. But people who are unattached don't care about social relationships, and are more likely to steal or abuse drugs.
- Commitment: The more a person has invested in their education, career, homes, etc. the more they want to conform so as to protect what they have worked so hard to obtain.
- Involvement: A person who is busy with participation in culturally and governmentally approved activities has no time for deviant actions.
- Belief: If a person firmly believes that deviant actions are wrong they are less likely to engage in them. In this respect religion can be a force to prevent deviation.
The final theory to explain social deviation is Labeling Theory. It puts deviation into two stages. This first is Primary Deviance, based on the fact that everyone behaves in a deviant way at times. Primary Deviance is temporary, exploratory, trivial, and/or easily concealed. An example of a person engaging is primary deviance may be a student who cheats on a test or tries a drug to see what it is like. After the deviant act, the person returns to social conformity. If the deviant act becomes public though, other people may begin to regard the person as a cheater or a drug addict. They refer to the person as such and the person begins to refer to himself as such. Secondary Deviance results and nonconformity persists in the person. The deviant is forced into the company of other deviants and their deviation is reinforced. One objection to this theory is that some persistent deviants have never been discovered and labeled. However, the Labeling Theory also comes into effect when people label themselves, thinking of themselves as they think others see them. One problem with this theory is that at times labeling a deviant can shock the nonconformist into disgust at his or her deviance, so that they leave it.
These four theories approach deviance from four different angles. None of these theories can apply in all cases, but together they form a picture of the deviant and a general explanation of some of the forces and influences behind social deviation.
More Helpful Resources on the Subject of Deviant Behavior:
Credit for the graffiti images goes to OrangeAcid's Graffiti Set on Flickr.