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How would you define deviance, and which theories would you use to guide your definition?

In any society, various social norms range from formally structured rules and laws to widely recognized behavioral standards. These norms may vary across cultures, groups, and societies. Any behavioral conduct that does not conform to these standards, rules, and laws can be termed as deviant. Referred to as rule-breaking behavior, deviance is an inevitable part of society that occurs when an individual or a group displays non-conformance towards established models of behavior, most often to achieve personal goals or interests. Although criminal behavior is attributed to deviance, however, not all deviant conduct can be considered a crime. Only when societal laws are broken, a behavior can be regarded as criminal. While piercing of body parts, picking one’s nose in a public place, or opposing a political party may be termed as non-conformance of socially acceptable behavior, none of these actions are punishable by law. On the contrary, robbery, rape, murder, theft, and assault fall under the category of serious offenses that are punishable by law. It is important to note that in certain situations what is considered deviant by one group may not be regarded so by the other (Thompson, 2020).

Numerous theories have been put forth over the years to explain deviant behavior. To guide the definition of deviance stated above, various functionalist perspectives can be used. The Anomie theory was proposed by Emile Durkheim, who viewed deviant behavior to be a central part of society. According to the Anomie theory, innovation takes place in societies as a result of non-conformance. It is through non-conformance that the acceptable standards are defined and clarified. Robert Merton’s strain theory explains divergence as a result of social situations that hinder goal achievement through traditional methods. Uneven distribution of wealth and privilege leads to frustration among the masses hence forcing individuals to digress through innovation and rebellion. Another functionalist perspective was presented by Travis Hirschi through Social Control Theory. Focusing on selfish human nature, the sociologist shared his disbelief over the people who abide by social norms and associated conformance to strong social ties with social institutions such as schools and families. Therefore, individuals with a weak social association such as unhealthy relationships with parents are more prone to exhibiting deviant behavior (Abrams, 2018).

Another school of thought that drives the definition of deviance is Symbolic Interactionism. Edwin H. Sutherland proposed the Differential Association theory which describes non-conformance as a learned behavior arising from the process of socialization. Interaction with friends and family not only develops deviance but also teaches the rationalization to justify lawbreaking. It is, therefore, one’s association with deviant individuals earlier in life that creates non-conformance at a later stage. Labeling theory postulates that divergence is a result of being labeled (Bohm & Vogel, 2011). Deviants live up to the self-image attributed to them from society and their behavior is reinforced due to the marginalized treatment directed towards them. This labeling is imposed by powerful individuals such as judges, politicians, and doctors among others. Individuals may be labeled as sex offenders, drug addicts, prostitutes, etc. depending upon the divergent behavior exhibited. Other non-legal factors such as race, physical appearance, and social class also affect how labeling occurs and influences the self-image of individuals (Abrams, 2018). Conclusively, deviance is an imperative part of any society influenced by socialization and social segregation which ensures that the acceptable standards are reinforced.

How is deviance measured? Do you see any difficulties with the methodology?

Deviance or delinquent behavior can be commonly measured through the use of two methods. The first method considers the official records of any convictions for crimes committed, and the second method is through the measure of self-reporting. The greatest advantage of official records is their high reliability whereas self-reports benefit in terms of detecting a vast range of behaviors, both in terms of seriousness and frequency of the non-conforming behavior (Sanches, Gouveia-Pereira, Maroco, Gomes, & Roncon, 2016). With various studies accounting for the validity of self-reports, this method is most often utilized in psychological research to gauge delinquency and deviance (Webb, Katz, & Decker, 2006).

Three types of self-reporting scales are commonly used to measure deviance. These focus on measuring either the frequency, the variety, or the seriousness of the non-conforming behavior. While the frequency scales to gauge the number of times each divergent act is committed over a particular period, the scales measuring seriousness rate the severity of these behaviors. Developed by experts in the field, seriousness scales segregate offenses into two or in some cases three categories i.e., serious, moderate, and minor offenses. The level of the most serious offense determines the label attributed to individuals. The variety scales are used to quantify the different types of divergences committed by a person over a certain time. Each item on the variety scale deals with a particular type of infraction.

Since deviance is a behavioral outcome, it can not be measured with a hundred percent accuracy. The methods availed to measure deviant behavior can, however, provide an overview of the situation. Although the official records and self-report measures provide an insight into the prevalence and degree of various offenses, there are certain difficulties and disadvantages associated with these methods. The official records are often an over-representation of the most serious forms of deviance and may highlight only the most criminally severe offenders especially the ones caught and convicted. Such records may not account much for unregistered deviances and may under-represent minor and moderate offenses. Similarly, many consider self-reports to be less reliable as such reports lack objectivity, may be influenced by bias, and negatively impacted by the memory of the incident and a need to conceal facts.

The frequency scale is the most widely used tool in deviance research however, recent research has highlighted its shortcomings such as low internal consistency and stability over time, highly skewed data, and a rather difficult items pool. The frequency scales present a disadvantage due to their low group differences and a weaker association with conceptual variables. The frequency scale may also over-represent minor offenses based on their high frequency of incidence. In contrast, the various scales are attributed superiority due to higher internal consistency and stability over time (Bendixen, Endresen, & Olweus, 2010). Variety scales also utilize simpler answering formats making it time efficient and reducing the incidence of guessing. Over the years, frequency scales have been gaining a reputation as being more reliable and valid.

While there are means to measure deviance, its difficulties arise due to its behavioral context and varied interpretation from different structures of the society. While deviant behavior may hold significant importance in one context it may be disregarded in another. Quantifying behavior may lack the necessary objectivity. Misrepresentation of facts due to poor memory and the need to be considered socially acceptable may also hinder truthful responses on self-reports. Although a certain level of subjectivity can be achieved through focused group discussions and observations, however, still these accounts can not be completely reliable since they are open for human interpretation. It can be therefore established that the measure of deviance through official records and self-report, although may have certain disadvantages, yet can be utilized to create an outline of prevalence, seriousness, and types of deviances occurring within society.


Abrams, D. (2018). Deviance. Retrieved from Britannica:

Bendixen, M., Endresen, I. M., & Olweus, D. (2010). Variety and frequency scales of antisocial involvement: Which one is better? Legal and Criminological Psychology, 8(2), 135-150.

Bohm, R. M., & Vogel, B. L. (2011). A Primer on crime and delinquency theory. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Sanches, C., Gouveia-Pereira, M., Maroco, J., Gomes, H., & Roncon, F. (2016). Deviant behavior variety scale: development and validation with a sample of Portuguese adolescents. Reflexão e Crítica, 29(31).

Thompson, K. (2020). What is sociology? Retrieved from Revise Sociology:

Webb, V., Katz, C., & Decker, S. (2006). Assessing the validity of self-reports by gang members: Results from the arrestee drug abuse monitoring program. Crime and Delinquency, 52(2), 232-252.



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