Sociologists who study deviance and crime examine cultural norms, how they change over time, how they are enforced, and what happens to individuals and societies when norms are broken. Deviance and social norms vary among societies, communities, and times, and often sociologists are interested in why these differences exist and how these differences impact the individuals and groups in those areas.
Sociologist define deviance as behavior that is recognized as violating expected rules and norms. It is simply more than nonconformity, however; it is behavior that departs significantly from social expectations. In the sociological perspective on deviance, there is subtlety that distinguishes it from our commonsense understanding of the same behavior. Sociologists stress social context, not just individual behavior. That is, deviance is looked at in terms of group processes, definitions, and judgments and not just as unusual individual acts. Sociologists also recognize that not all behaviors are judged similarly by all groups. What is deviant to one group may not be considered deviant to another. Further, sociologists recognize that established rules and norms are socially created, not just morally decided or individually imposed. That is, deviance lies not just in the behavior itself, but in the social responses of groups to behavior by others.
The study of deviance can be divided into the study of why people violate laws or norms and the study of how society reacts. This reaction includes the labeling process by which deviance comes to be recognized as such. The societal reaction to deviant behavior suggests that social groups actually create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders.
Sociologists often use their understanding of deviance to help explain otherwise ordinary events, such as tattooing or body piercing, eating disorders, or drug and alcohol use. Many of the kinds of questions asked by sociologists who study deviance deal with the social context in which behaviors are committed. For example, are there conditions under which suicide is an acceptable behavior? Would one who commits suicide in the face of a terminal illness be judged differently from a despondent person who jumps from a window?
Andersen, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.