What is Deviance: Definition, Causes, Types, Theories, Examples

Deviance is deflecting from and rejecting socially acceptable standards. The article explains the meaning and definition of deviance. Further, it elaborates on what causes deviance within society. The article also explains the types and situations that give rise to deviant behaviour. It also highlights why deviance is important and required in society.

Society is compared to a living organism by eminent sociologist Herbert Spencer. He referred to various social functions as organs or parts that operate simultaneously to make society work. As there are parts that fit perfectly in society, there are also some that do not.

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Deviance is a sociological concept visible in everyday life and societal events. It can be defined as following an unconventional path, breaking norms, rules or regulations and doing something not accepted and welcomed by society. Not abiding by the said and unsaid standards of the community is called deviance. It is looked at as an aversion or aberration since it is not perceived as normal.

The deviation is usually coined with the term crime since a crime (of any level) is far from the socially acceptable behaviour of individuals. Crime is a deviant behaviour but every form of deviance is not a crime. Deviance often occurs when an individual or group breaks the set expectations of society or community and any activity or action they undertake is considered amoral within society.

As well as this, sociologists argue that deviance is an ambiguous term and that it is often committed unknowingly, as people are unaware of what constitutes deviance and what does not. Also sometimes a particular event is considered to be deviant when it crosses a limit, which is usually set by society. For instance, drinking with friends and family occasionally is considered to be okay in almost all societies but drinking regularly and being an alcoholic, underage drinking is considered deviance and is often looked down upon.

Causes of Deviance- 

There are various individualistic causes of deviance and the reason behind deviant behaviour might vary from person to person. However, they can be classified and grouped into three major causes.

  • Psychological causes of deviance-

The impact on the mind and thinking can be caused by the environment in which an individual is raised. Seeing deviant behaviour frequently can also ignite deviance among individuals and groups. Coming in the close vicinity of deviances like substance abuse, drugs and alcohol consumption, smoking and gambling give rise to the same pattern. The excessive use or the negative impact of social media has a psychological impact on the mindset of individuals and the rise of feelings like desperation, inequality, injustice, revenge or the attitude of being a rebel, being unique is developed among individuals. Anomie or cultural frustration might also play a huge part in deviance. For instance, a woman in the middle east might be considered deviant because she wears a short skirt, though it is considered to be normal in many countries. However, it may not be acceptable in some middle eastern countries, and women may act out against it because of their feelings of repression and doing the opposite of what is considered to be deviance.

  • Biological causes of deviance- 

In the case of biological factors behind deviance, the functioning and development of the brain and mental capacity of an individual, their health, physical attributions and genetics play a pivotal role. Italian physician Cesare Lombroso has also defined deviance in criminals by stating that a certain quality of traits exists in their behaviour or genes and stated such individuals as born criminals. Historically the biological cause behind deviance was one of the first findings and establishment behind understanding the concept of deviant behaviour. It addresses the instincts, inherited qualities, and physical structure of an individual as scientific proof behind deviance and criminal mindset and behaviour of an individual. However, there are no such hard pieces of evidence suggesting that biological qualities or genetics play a role in deviance. It is also emphasized under this theory that there is an extra chromosome present in individuals who generally resort to crime. Although a majority of sociologists refute this theory as it has proved to be impractical.

  • Sociological causes of deviance-

The social upbringing of people also plays an important part in the cause of deviance. The social background, upbringing, socialisation, family problems, rejections faced by society, social and religious beliefs, and poverty plays an important role in causing deviant behaviour. The judgements and labelling done by society create various emotions among individuals. A good job, a decent house and a luxury vehicle are some of the social goals that society states, and there are time limits that are also adopted over the generations to achieve these goals. There is pressure to achieve these goals by a desirable age and the ways and means of achieving these goals are unequally distributed within society which might sometimes lead to aggression. For example, a young individual residing in urban slums might face various issues like poverty, unhygienic living conditions, lack of jobs and social stigma or bias toward being a slum dweller. He/she might also lose certain opportunities because of it and might feel like indulging in ways that would help them attain their social goals. Additionally, it can result in deviant behaviour such as money laundering, blackmailing, phishing scams, or pickpocketing. Deviant behaviour is not present in individuals by birth according to this approach but is developed because of social surroundings and happenings.

Types of deviance-

When a social norm is violated it results in a form of deviance. According to Robert.K.Merton, a person’s adherence to social and cultural goals and eagerness and ambition to achieve those goals by any means plays an important role in the rise of deviance. To illustrate how deviance can result from a variety of causes, below listed are a few examples of possible responses people give when faced with pressure, resistance, and a lack of resources:

  1. Conformity – The idea and concept of adhering and conforming to certain social norms and toeing the line might ignite the sparks of deviance. Always behaving and acting at par with the expectations indeed result in deviance but it also depends on society. For instance, women were confined to housework for ages in different societies, confining themselves just to the social role of homemaker made them act upon it, deviate from social norms and demand the right to education and employment as well. Nevertheless, now it is common to see women work in society but initially, it was considered deviant behaviour and even now is perceived as one in certain societies.
  1. Innovation – When there is external pressure put upon the individual to achieve a specific goal within a given time, the individual generally conforms and accepts the traditional norm or deviates and denies it. Additionally, sometimes it accepts the goal or the social expectations but innovates the way or process to attain that specific means. For instance, earning bread and butter for themselves and their family is a major responsibility of a person. Traditionally, one would gain an education and work or operate a business to accomplish it. But some individuals unable to achieve their means or finding it difficult to follow the said path deviate and innovate their ways of earning money which might not be acceptable to society. An example of this would be theft.
  1. RitualismRitualism can be defined as a way in which individuals reject their social values and goals. They don’t conform or deny and deviate from them. They simply reject those goals and don’t consider them as their ultimate goal. This is not a negative form of deviance since people are not rebelling and engaging unconventionally. For them, the goal might not be as important as labelled by society. In ritualism, individuals tend to work hard as they would to reach their goals and attain values without actually bothering and caring about the result. They are complacent and okay with not achieving their means. A most common example of deviance is visible in the career choices of people. Some people work hard day and night in huge corporations just so they can earn more and more money, whereas some people work hard not so that they can gain more money but rather to find happiness, satisfaction, contentment and passion in their work.
  1. Retreatism – Sometimes individuals develop the urge to deny the social norms, values and conventional methods altogether. Rather than conforming to traditional values or innovating their aims and methods, they completely reject the normal way of life that is expected and accepted by society. They don’t choose any illegal form or way of life to achieve their means but simply deviate themselves from society. In other words, they drop out of society. Because they are so deeply ingrained in the conventional procedure, they are unable to break it. In this case, dropping out of society is the only way to solve their predicament. Hence, retreatism refers to the passive rejection of achieving success and living a respectable life. For instance, a bohemian is an individual who is considered to live an unconventional way of life by society and is considered deviant.
  1. Rebellion – Rebellion is one step ahead of retreatism. It not only denies and deviates from the normal expectations, socio-cultural norms and goals of society but also expects a change and revolution in the already existing system. Individuals look for complete change and destruction of the present social order and construction of a new and drastic order which is relevant to the coming times. These individuals within society and the community are viewed as rebels. They want to transform how things function and don’t want to settle with retreating and giving up on the goals or simply innovating a new path and way. For them, the replacement of conventional methods and manners is more important. Rebellion can range from small-scale to large-scale.

For instance, women fighting for their rights, from the right to education to the right to abortion. Women are rebelling against the traditional rules and regulations that restrict them and fighting for new and modern laws that do them justice.

Importance –

Deviance means deviating from the regular functioning of society and denying socially acceptable norms. However, these deviances that occur in society also have a specific positive impact on individuals and communities within society. The importance and significance of the role played by deviance in the development of society.

  • Deviance brings positive outcomes within society. The deviance which was palpable in society pertinent to rejecting gender roles has resulted in various positive changes. Deviance helps in introducing new concepts and welcomes and accepts the already existing social norms and behaviours that were once considered taboo. For instance, the upliftment of women and the LGBTQ+ community in recent years is a result of deviance. The oppression and suppression of different individuals and communities give rise to rebellion and that has, in turn, introduced various novel laws like equal pay for all genders and LGBTQ+ marriage laws. In short, deviance plays a role in the development and upliftment of society.
  • Deviance portrays the good and bad in society. Deviant behaviours like crime, pimping, rape, murder, and domestic assault are all formal examples of deviant behaviour. For these are not socially acceptable and do not conform to the norms and values of society, they are considered formidable. For instance, when marital rape was considered deviant behaviour with the help of resistance and revolution, various laws were formulated to criminalise it in many countries. The social norm of adhering to the wish and order of the husband after marriage was challenged. It helped people and society to understand the gruesome crime and thus formulate rules and laws to protect women.
  • It is also believed that deviance plays a huge part in uniting people. People become aware of what is right or wrong and acceptable or unacceptable within society and thus tend to act for and against it. This spurs unity and integrity among people and strengthens their bonds and communication. All major revolutions and independence moments were born out of rebellion and there was massive participation of people. They were attached to a specific movement and cause based on the common belief that connected them. Indian war of independence or the Chinese Communist Revolution connected people to a single cause and it was deviance that was generated by previous rulers that gave rise to rebellion. Thus, unity can also play a significant role in unifying society and bringing them together.

Theories of Deviance-

Deviance and crime have been studied since the beginning of sociology, and scholars have developed theories about their causes. A group of causes and theories can be further divided into three major sociological paradigms: functionalism, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism. These theories help to understand the significance and cause behind deviance.

  • Functionalism – Sociologists believing in functionalism support the role played by deviance in the effective and successful functioning of society. Emile Durkheim believes that deviance gives rise to collective conscience and helps people and society to understand what is moral and what is not. Robert Merton explained the strain theory stating that even though people have the same conventional aims, not all of them have the social capacity and resources to act and achieve them, hence giving rise to deviance. Social disorganisation theory under the concept of crime and deviance also assumes that the absence of social order in society gives rise to disorder, deviance and crime.
  • Conflict Theory – Karl Marx developed the conflict theory where he stated the difference between two social groups and the inequality that exists between them. Sociologists have strived to comprehend the relationship between conflict and deviance. The concept established by Marx helped to understand the connection of deviance with power and money. C. Wright Mills in his book The Power Elite also explained the existence of a small group of affluent people who have control of power and money in their hands and how it connects with social deviance in society.
  • Symbolic Interactionism – The concept and meaning of deviance attached to various actions and behaviour keep on changing from time to time, so sometimes when people are doing something they are unaware that what they are doing is considered to be deviant by society. It can be formal deviance like civil crime or informal deviance which varies from society to society like same-gender love or same-gender marriage. This is where the labelling theory comes into place. People often are labelled for the crime they commit. Formal deviance like theft or murder can be understood as a serious label but informal patterns of deviance like being intoxicated around children or consuming alcohol and drugs at a young age give rise to labels that stay with individuals throughout their life. Even if they want to change themselves. This labelling is done by society sometimes leaves a mark on individuals, turning them towards committing deviance.  


  • Deviance doesn’t need to be an absolute crime. It can be a form of deviation and change in terms of beliefs, norms, values and traits. The act of incest is deprecated in many societies, although it may not be considered a gruesome offence but is considered taboo.
  • Deviance changes from society to society and is also dependent upon social stigma. For instance, the Public Display of Affection might not be socially acceptable and be considered a stigma in a few societies while in some it can be widely accepted.
  • Deviance is also associated with the time and period during which it exists and is considered.  The use of surrogacy and adoption as alternative modes of pregnancy was once looked down upon and considered deviant, but these methods are now slowly being accepted by society.
  • There are two types of deviance. One is formal crimes like stealing, human trafficking, unethical hacking and so on. Deviance can also be informal, such as cheating on a spouse or taking someone’s possessions without consent, which are not punishable but unwelcome in society.
  • It also depends on the ratio of deviant to non-deviant populations. There might also be a tendency to consider these acts as normal if the number of deviant populations is large enough, for instance, acts of terrorism in some countries that are war-torn.

Also Read: Crime is a Social Phenomenon

Examples of deviance-

  • Earlier people used to perceive and believe that the Earth is a flat surface and when various scientists like Pythagoras and Columbus stated that the Earth is round it was refuted by many and was considered deviant in the early stage. Although it was not socially acceptable by the people and by the church, it eventually gained acceptance with the help of evidence.
  • Same-gender relationships, marriage and adoption were impossible and unimaginable at one time and were also considered to be deviant. They had to go through a phase of rebellion and transformation to be legally and socially accepted. Even now it is considered to be deviant in a few societies and religions. In many cultures, same-gender relationships are treated as abnormalities and with disrespect.
  • Deviance differs according to the culture, tradition and environment of a society and country. Children moving out of their parent’s house and living independently is a common norm in Western and European countries. The practice, however, is not favoured in some traditional Asian and Islamic societies. As a result, Asian parents tend to have a greater influence over their children’s lives. Children moving out or making rapid decisions on their own are considered to be against social values and deviant.
  • Few countries like France take their weekends seriously as a time to refresh and rejuvenate themselves and don’t entertain work calls and emails during that period. However, the situation is quite opposite in many societies where people tend to work on weekends as well. Those working in such an environment might be unwelcomed and considered deviants if they unknowingly contact colleagues for work during weekends in a society that views weekends as workfree.
  • In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to show an inch of skin and should be covered with the help of a Burqa while in France there is a complete Burqa ban which doesn’t allow covering of the face. Although, it is based on religious and cultural beliefs, what is deviant in one society is not in other.

Deviance is thus an inevitable part of society but at the same time, there are always measures present in society to correct deviant behavior.







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Isha Rane is a sociology graduate with a keen interest in research and analysis, focusing on areas such as Corporate Social Responsibility, Human Resources, and Public Policy. She is an avid reader, particularly enjoying books about the history and political scenario of India. Isha also likes to write about pressing issues and topics that require a voice in the conversation. Her career aspirations lie in the development sector. Additionally, she has a passionate interest in mythology and calligraphy.