Deviance: Crash Course Sociology #18

Deviance: Crash Course Sociology #18


A person holding up a convenience store and a
pacifist at a protest might seem like polar opposites. But they actually have something in common. So do an American vegan preparing a meal at
home, and a white-collar criminal committing
tax fraud, and a runaway slave. They’re all social deviants. We’ve spent a lot of time so far talking about
how society fits together, and how it functions. But we can’t cover that in any meaningful
way without also talking about the people
who don’t fit. We have to talk about who’s normal and who’s
deviant…and how they get to be that way. [Theme Music] Now, you might think that calling pacifists
and vegans and runaway slaves deviant is…rude,
but in sociology, deviance isn’t an insult. Deviance simply means being non-normative.
Different. So while this does include some things that we might think of as bad or harmful, like, crime, it also includes things we might just think of as outside the mainstream. So if eating a burger is a traditional “all-American”
cultural activity, then being vegan in America is deviant. But there’s something important to notice
here. I didn’t say being vegan in a society where
most people eat meat is deviant, because deviance
is not just a matter of numbers. Deviance is anything that deviates from what
people generally accept as normal. For instance, red hair is statistically uncommon,
but it’s not considered deviant. Dying your hair bright purple – that is
deviant and might earn you some strange
looks from some people. And strange looks from strangers are
a form of social control, attempts by society to regulate people’s
thoughts and behaviors in ways that limit,
or punish, deviance. Specifically, the strange looks are what are
known as negative sanctions, negative social
reactions to deviance. The opposite, naturally, are positive
sanctions – affirmative reactions, usually
in response to conformity. Once you start looking, you begin to see
forms of social control, both positive and
negative, everywhere: a friend making fun of your taste in food or
a teacher congratulating you on a good paper. Or someone commenting loudly on your bright
purple hair. Sanctions all. These are all examples of informal norms,
or what sociologists call folkways. You won’t be arrested for violating a folkway,
but breaking them usually results in negative
sanctions. But not all norm violations are informally
sanctioned. Formal sanctioning of deviance occurs when norms are codified into law, and violation almost always results in negative sanctions from the criminal justice system – the police, the courts, and the prison system. So given the power of formal sanctions, why
does anyone do deviant things? This is a big question. Before we get to the sociological perspective,
we need to mention some of the biological and psychological views of deviance that have
been influential in the past. Spoiler alert: Historically, these explanations
have been insufficient in helping us understand
non-normative behavior. For example, the earliest attempts at scientific
explanations for deviance, and crime in particular,
are biologically essentialist explanations. They were based on the idea that
something about a person’s essential
biology made them deviant. In 1876, Cesare Lombroso, an Italian physician,
theorized that criminals were basically subhuman,
throwbacks to a more primitive version of humanity. He went so far as to suggest that deviants
could be singled out based on physical characteristics, like a low forehead, stocky build, and prominent
jaw and cheekbones, all of which he saw as
reminiscent of our primate cousins. Another scientist, U.S. psychologist William
Sheldon, also found a relationship between
general body type and criminality. In the 1940s and ‘50s, he studied body types and behavior and concluded that men who were more muscular and athletic were more likely to be criminally deviant. We know today that the idea that physical
features somehow correspond to criminality
is just no…it’s wrong. But later work by Eleanor and Sheldon Glueck appeared to confirm William Sheldon’s basic findings on male muscularity and criminal aggression. However, they refused to ascribe their results
to a biological explanation. They countered that a simple correlation
between body type and criminality could
not be taken as causal evidence. Instead, they argued this was an example
of a self-fulfilling prophecy: People expect physically strong boys to be
bullies, and so they encourage aggressive
behavior in such boys. Large boys who have their bullying behavior
positively sanctioned are encouraged to
continue being aggressive, and some eventually grow up and
engage in aggressive criminal behaviors. Psychological approaches, by contrast,
place almost all the explanatory power in a
person’s environment. While some elements of personality may be
inherited, psychologists generally see personality
as a matter of socialization. So they see deviance as a matter of improper
or failed socialization. A classic example of this strain of psychological
explanation is found in the 1967 work of Walter
Reckless and Simon Dinitz. They studied boys who lived in an urban neighborhood
known for its high rate of delinquency. Using the assessment of the boys’ teachers,
they grouped the youths into “good boys” and “bad boys,” and then interviewed them to construct
psychological profiles. They found that the so-called “good boys” had a strong
conscience, were good at coping with frustration,
and identified with conventional cultural norms. The “bad boys,” on the other hand, were the
opposite on all counts. Following the boys over time, Reckless and
Dinitz found that the “good boys” had fewer
run-ins with the police. And they attributed this to the boys’ ability
to control deviant impulses. This idea that deviance is essentially a matter of
impulse control is called containment theory, or
having a personality that contains deviant actions. And containment theory has received support in recent research, including a 2011 study on 500 male fraternal twins that assessed their self-control, resilience, and ability to delay gratification. Researchers found that the brother who scored
lower on these measures in childhood was more
likely to be criminally deviant in adulthood. Now, while we’ve seen that there’s clearly value
in both biological and psychological approaches,
they’re each also fundamentally limited. For example, both kinds of explanations
link criminal deviance to individual factors
– either of body or of mind – while leaving out other important factors, like
peer influence or what opportunities for deviance
different people might be exposed to. Plus, biological and psychological explanations
only understand deviance as a matter of abnormality. Both approaches begin by looking for
physical or mental irregularities, whereas more recent research suggests
that most people who do deviant things are both
biologically and psychologically normal – or, to use a better word, let’s
say: typical. Finally, neither biology nor psychology can
answer the question of why the things that are
deviant are considered deviant in the first place. Even if you could 100% prove that a certain
abnormality caused people to be violent, not
all violence is considered a form of deviance. Think boxing. And here’s where we can turn to a sociological
approach, which sees deviance and criminality
as the result of how society is structured. And here, the approach is based on three major
ideas. First is the idea that deviance varies according
to cultural norms. In other words, nothing is inherently deviant:
Cultural norms vary from culture to culture, and over time and place, so what’s deviant
now might have once been quite normal. Slavery is an obvious example. Not only was race-based slavery normal in
19th century America, rejecting it was considered
deviant. So deviant, in fact, that physician Samuel
Cartwright wrote about a disorder he called
drapetomania to explain the supposed mental
disorder that caused slaves to flee captivity. The second major principle sociologists draw
on is the idea that people are deviant because
they’re labeled as deviant. What I mean here is that it’s society’s
response that defines us, or our actions,
as deviant. The same action can be deviant or not,
depending on the context: Sleeping in a tent in a public place can be
illegal, or it can be a fun weekend activity,
depending on where you do it. And, as the Gluecks argued, labeling people
can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: When society treats you as a deviant,
it’s very easy to become one. Deviance doesn’t even necessarily require
action. Simply being a member of a group can classify
you as a deviant in the eyes of society. The rich may view the poor with disdain for imagined moral failures, or we can return again to racism and slavery, which imagined African Americans as deviant by nature. And the last major sociological principle
for understanding deviance is the idea that
defining social norms involves social power. The law is many things, but Karl Marx argued
that one of its roles is as a means for the powerful
elite to protect their own interests. This is obvious in the case of something like
fugitive slave laws, which applied a formal negative
sanction to deviating from the norms of slavery. But we can also see it in things like the
difference between a campaign rally and
a spontaneous protest. Both are public political speech, and both
may block traffic, but they draw resoundingly
different reactions from police. So these are three foundational ideas about
the sociological perspective on deviance. But I want to stress that they only begin to
define a perspective. Sociology clearly understands deviance in a
different way than biology and psychology do, but if you really want to dive into more
detailed sociological explanations, you’ll need to wait until next week,
when we look at the major theoretical
explanations for crime and deviance. Today we learned about social deviance. We discussed biological and psychological
approaches to explaining deviance, what they can bring to the table,
and their inherent limitations. Then we finished by turning to the sociological
perspective and talking about the social foundations
of deviance. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl
C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and it’s made
with the help of all of these nice people. Our animation team is Thought Cafe and Crash
Course is made with Adobe Creative Cloud. If you’d like to keep Crash Course free for
everyone, forever, you can support the series
at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows
you to support the content you love. Thank you to all of our patrons for making
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