Theories to Explain Deviant Behavior

Every culture has a set of customs, rules, and laws which are for the most part obeyed. But in every culture and society there are always people who refuse to follow the rules. Why do people deviate from the common pattern of behavior? There are four major theories that attempt to explain why people deviate from social norms.

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.
Control Theory describes deviance as the result of a deficiency in these social bonds. This theory can not explain the deviance in people who have these social bonds. It also can not explain why deviation takes the forms that it does. Another problem with this theory is that weak social bonds are often a result of deviation, not the other way around.

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.


  1. In my younger years, going through school, I never really conformed to social groups and cliques. The thing is, I never rebelled either. There were repressing influences, such as other people that I would see or meet, would act incredibly rude. Either that or they aren't genuine or a variety of other standards that many children/teenagers follow.

    Even though I'm still young, I'm reflecting on these moments more and I realize that I am somewhat a deviant. Not so much as to I want to destroy something, but the realization that I haven't tried amounting to anything and my nonconformist ways. I've had 2 realizations in my life, as to who I was surrounding myself with and that these people were dragging me down. These realizations have led me to realize that I have chosen a path of not enough critical thinking of myself, what I do and of others. This critical thinking could lead me to far fewer friends, but those few friends could lead to a higher quality of friendship.

    I now have goals which could lead to me doing great things in the future. Even though that sounds somewhat egotistical, those are my plans and anyone that tells me "I don't think you can do it" or "you aren't ready" or anything along those lines, shouldn't be talking to me. I've learned that to change, it's about changing my surroundings, my goals and changing my habits. Reading more and playing less, working harder and learning through experience (to start a business). One of my major weaknesses is giving up too easily and I'm working on changing that.

    I will conform to business standards, attire and anything that is attached to it. Other then that, conforming to groups to which I have not been personal friends with everybody, would lead to mediocre, if not laughable quality experience. I may be too quick to judge and my opinion may be flawed, it's even possible that I could get to know everyone personally at that group. I just think it's better to get to know someone better, one on one.

  2. Thanks for commenting Eric.

    You touch upon a very important thing that my article of deviation does not take into account: positive deviation.

    It isn't always the case that the standards and customs of the majority are beneficial. Sometimes, it is better to be eccentric or different, perhaps it means that you will lead a more healthy, happier life.

    School cliques and customs are a classic example of why deviation is sometimes a necessity. These school children are simply that: children. They don't always make the right choices, and so in some cases deviation from the standard is good.

    Maybe I'll cover such positive deviation in another post.

  3. Interesting post!

    Society is imperfect and fails constantly. If kids and adults alike aren't questioning the state of things, and rebelling on principle alone against an obviously imperfect world, I find that a much greater catastrophe. Where there is the most deviant behavior there is most likely the greatest failure from parents, teachers, media, and everyone else making up what represents society to that individual.

    The one thing theory always leaves out is that human beings aren't machines. As rational and sound as any theory may be, people usually act out of emotion, then rationalize later. Especially kids!!

    From an evolutionary standpoint, I think the rebel teenage years serve a real purpose in pushing us as a whole to become better.

    The "real" deviants that pose a great threat to others - hardcore criminals - certainly can't be ignored or written off as a good thing. Aside from serious mental disabilities causing such behavior, we can still look to society to explain this extreme deviant behavior. It's not just a coincidence that where there's poverty there's crime. Where there's hunger, poor education, lack of positive role models, there's more deviation. Who's going to associate with the norm when all it has done is fail them? Most likely they'll just strike back in anger; probably lacking the positive social relationships and education to help deal with their emotions and problems in a rational way.

    1. Did you ever stop to think that in the areas where there is hunger, poop education, and lack of positive role models, what you consider to be deviation, that's what people, especially childeren, consider to be norms.. When you grow up around such things as crime, violence, and poverty it's all you know, that is your norm.

  4. Thank you very much for the thoughtful comment, Gabriel.

    "From an evolutionary standpoint, I think the rebel teenage years serve a real purpose in pushing us as a whole to become better."

    I have been studying some sociology and that is actually quite true. It is a necessary stage in development where a child works for independence from their parents. It may cause deviant behavior but it seems to be a natural development during the teen years.

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