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devianceany social behaviour which departs from that regarded as ‘normal’ or socially acceptable within a society or social context. Whilst deviance includes criminal behaviour, its sphere is far wider than this. Furthermore, not all criminal behaviour will always be labelled as deviance, e.g. minor traffic offences (see also CRIME, CRIMINOLOGY).
Although there are some recurring elements among the forms of social behaviour regarded as deviant within society, for the most part social deviance must be seen as a socially relative phenomenon, in that conceptions of normality and deviance are relative to social context and highly variable between different societies, different subcultures, etc.
As emphasized by Erving GOFFMAN, there is also an important sense in which all social actors are deviant in that no one conforms to all the canons of socially acceptable behaviour, none of us entirely fits any social ideal, and we are all sometimes in situations in which we are socially deviant.
A further crucial question is, ‘What or who within society determines “deviance"?’ As stressed by BECKER (1963), ‘deviance is not a quality of the act… but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions’. Thus, the question of by whom, and how, deviance is ‘labelled’ becomes crucial to its explanation (see LABELLING THEORY).
Two main sociological approaches to the study of deviant behaviour can be identified. The first approach includes functionalist accounts of deviance. For example, in the work of DURKHEIM, two complementary usages of the term ‘deviance’ are found. In The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), he describes crime as ‘normal’, in that it is a universal phenomenon in societies, and is functional in that the concepts and ceremonies surrounding crime provide a ‘social reaction’ to crime and a ritual ‘reaffirmation’ of social values which strengthens the social order. In Suicide (1897), Durkheim focuses on deviance as a social problem arising from ‘abnormal’ or ‘pathological’ forms of social solidarity particularly excessive individualism (‘egoism’) and ANOMIE.
Modern functionalist accounts of crime have largely followed Durkheim's. For example, for Parsons, deviance results from inadequate socialization, while Merton directly builds on Durkheim's concept of‘anomie’.
The second approach has developed, in particular, in opposition to the ‘positivism’ seen as underlying orthodox criminology and related approaches to the study of deviance. The starting point of such an alternative approach was the LABELLING THEORY of Becker and others. This was combined, especially in the work of the Radical Deviance Theorists (e.g. Taylor et al., 1973), with a revival of general critical debates about deviance and social control, including Marxian theories of crime. See also PRIMARY AND SECONDARY DEVIANCE, DEVIANCE AMPLIFICATION. NATIONAL DEVIANCY CONFERENCE. Compare FOUCAULT.