Deviants and Crime

Table of contents

The person who deviates distinctly from the norm is called a deviant. A deviant may also be defined as the person whose attitudes and behaviors go against the set societal norms or standards. Deviance is not age specific but it starts in the early ages of human development and if it goes unmarked, it ends up reaching a point of no return making an adult whose personality can be described by one word; a deviant. The act of deviance is learnt either by association with other deviants or by trying to give excuses to justify the acts of deviance leading to habit. Deviance and crime is one and the same thing.

This is because, when one goes against the set of norms in this case the formal rules called law, this is crime. Deviants defy both the formal and informal (Social) standards and norms. For example, a deviant may go against the social norms and commit an act of nose picking in public or against the law and break into private premises with an intention of stealing. Based on this, deviance is a subject of concern to both the socialists and the criminologists. These two professionals engage in a serious study of how norms are formed, changes that the norms undergo over time and the enforcement of norms.

The sociology of deviance can be summarized in three main theories i. e. symbolic interactionism theory, Structural functionalism theory, and conflict theory. These theories try to explain the causes of deviance. Stealing is one example of deviance that is a serious crime in the US today. People do not wake up one day and become thieves. Theft is a habit that is learnt at childhood and continues into adulthood. This paper seeks to define and develop a sociological theory that explains deviance from the symbolic interactionism theory perspective (Rodney, 2007:pp 48)

Symbolic Interactionism Theories

All the theories under this class are of the view that deviant behavior is learnt. As a result of the learning, the deviant behaviors eventually become part of an individual’s personality or character. The theories under this class include Sutherland’s differential association theory, Gresham Sykes and David Matza’s neutralization theory and Tannenbaum and Howard Becker’s labeling theory. Sutherland’s differential association theory proposes that criminal and deviant behaviors are not inherent in individuals but they are only learnt.

It amplifies the common belief that all human are created good. Every individual is inherently good but society makes them bad. The learning of criminal or deviant behaviors is the same as the learning of other behaviors such as saying “thank you” when one gives a compliment or gives a favor. The learning process comes as a result of interaction between people or groups of people through the use of symbolic communication. The symbolic communication may also include ideas and attitudes that are transferred from one individual or group to another.

If the symbols used in the communication are favorable and desirable than the converse, then an individual or group embraces deviance communicated by the symbols, ideas or attitudes and will tend to be oriented to of deviant behaviors more than any other behavior (Lanier, 2004 pp. 162-163). Taking theft as an example of deviant criminal behavior, we realize that if individual associated with an individual or group who steal or hold the idea of stealing more favorable than unfavorable, and the association is intimate, then motives ideas, attitudes , techniques etc that are favorable to stealing are learned.

Once this learning occurs and incase there is a need, then one will tend to steal and in this way we say that this criminal and deviant act of theft has resulted from symbolic interaction. The Neutralization theory, just like the name suggests, sets out to explain the ways that the deviants eventually kill their guilt conscience through rationalization. Some of the rationalizations used include the denial of responsibility of the deviant action aimed at making the criminal feel better.

Denial of responsibility is simply an argument that the offender had no option and that any other person put under the same circumstances would have acted the same way the offender did. Continued denial of responsibility eventually kills the guilt conscience making the criminal cold and to have a propensity of committing the crime again. For example, if a criminal steals and accepts responsibility, then there is some guilt that comes with the acceptance and this guilt has a reform component. Failure of accepting responsibility rules out possibility of reform and thus high probability of committing the crime again in future.

Other defense mechanisms or rationalizations used include the denial of damage and denial of victim. Denial of damage or injury refers to the reasoning that the criminal act did not hurt anybody and thus the offender is not morally wrong. This reasoning is based on the elementary conviction that if an action doesn’t cause any harm to others, then it is morally right. On the other hand, denial of the victim is an argument that the victim deserved the deviant act due to his /her perceived lack of morals by the offender. Denunciation of his denouncers is yet another rationalization used by deviants or criminals to protect their actions.

It is an argument that those who denounce their actions have the potential of committing same or similar acts or they also commit similar acts and as such they are hypocrites. Denunciation of denouncers makes the offender feel better about his actions and it too blocks reform thus opening up a possibility of future criminal acts. Finally, appeal to higher loyalties involves positive reinforcement of the criminal act by what he beliefs in. The criminal argues that some values surpass the law or traditions and thus the criminal construes the values to be more important than the law.

For example, if one steals because he is starving, he has done nothing because he believes in saving life. To him, life is more important than the law. Generally, under this theory, criminals rationalize criminal acts by neutralization (Lanier, 2004 pp. 168- 9). The labeling theory is a popular one which has been used not only in sociology but also in psychology. The psychological labeling theory, in a layman’s language states that if you continually call a child names, say a thief, the child will end up becoming one. Frank Tannenbaum and Howard S.

Becker proposed the labeling theory in the sociological context. They said that the act of society creating rules whose violation amounts to defiance causes deviance in itself. If society says that the people who take other people’s property without permission are thieves and thieves are not good people, this definition amounts to labeling. The labeling represents the negative attitude the society holds against a deviant such as a thief and makes the offenders to internalize the label and try to act out the label by carrying out actions that conform to the label.

For example labeling of a thief, makes the deviant such labeled to internalize this label and carries out acts of theft in a bid to conform to the label. This theory lies at the boundary of symbolic-interactionism and conflict theory. The conflict theory orientation of this theory proposes that the society wield power to create norms and label deviants. A good example is the prison system which labels the convicts of theft to a point that these theft convicts also begin to view themselves as thieves (Giddens, 2006 pp. 525-7).

In a bid to reinforce the reinforce Edwin Lemert proposed the idea of primary and secondary deviation. He construed primary deviation to be the deviance before the deviant is labeled as such. Secondary deviance on the other hand is the acts of deviance that come after the primary deviance as a reaction to the societal institutions that have power to set norms and to label. Lemert explains further how one moves from primary to secondary deviation and finally to assumption of the role of the label he/she has been given.

The transition between these stages starts when an offender commits a deviant act for the first time prompting the society to administer some disciplinary penalties on him. If the disciplinary penalties administered on the primary deviant do not manage to stop the crime, the offender may act the same crime or deviance again thus prompting even harsher punishment from the society. The harsh punishment makes the offender to resent the society or the institution in the society that administers this harsh punishment. The resentment sets pace for more crimes with the institution reining harsher and harsher punishment on the offender.

As the number of crimes increases the society, apart from the punishment given to the offender, lavishes stigma too on the offender. This stigma marks the labeling g stage. The stigma sandwiches the offender between a rock and a hard place where he has no option than accept the role prescribed by the label. In a bid to fulfill the role, the offender acts out the role prescribed in the label and this constitutes the secondary deviance. Secondary deviance hardens the criminals courtesy of the labeling act by the society

Primary and secondary deviance is witnessed in the American legal system when a first time offender receives lesser punishment as compared to a second or multiple time offender of the same crime. For both the offenders, say thieves, the punishment is meant to reform them. The multiple time offenders get a harsher punishment because the society feels that the first- time punishment was not sufficient enough making the offender commit a second crime. The second time offender is more likely to commit the crime the third time that the first time offender is to commit a second crime.

The implication of this primary and secondary deviance can be applied in the prison system where the criminals are supposed to be viewed as good people except fore the crimes they have committed. They should not be condemned but subjected to rehabilitation. This is necessary because it has been witnessed that the harsher the punishment, the deeper the deviance and the higher the probability of the crime or deviance being repeated again (Hanson, 2005, P75). In conclusion, the reformation of criminals should not be harsh and inhuman.

The harsh and often inhuman punishments we witness in our American prisons were put in place to scare the larger good population away from crime. It is evident that this intention has blatantly failed and thus there is need for an alternative strategy. This is necessary because if people are no longer scared of that harsh and inhuman punishment, then they will automatically engage in criminal activities. This is the same as threatening a person who doesn’t fear death with death. This won’t achieve any end at all. However, removal of such harsh and inhuman punishment may trigger the same response that its existence triggers; resistance.

What will happen if people know that the punishment given after a crime is lighter than before? The US government represented by the prison system is at a cross road and there is dire need to try a punishment devoid rehabilitation approach as opposed to the harsh punishment. Just like labeling has the impact of acting out, positive labeling may create desirable reformation in the criminals. The society too needs to be sensitized so as to respect the innate goodness of the criminals such as to avoid stigmatization that has led to the hardening and resistance of the criminals.


  • Rodney, Stark Sociology; Biological Theories of Deviance (10th edition) Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007
  • Newman, Graeme Crime and Deviance: A Comparative Perspective. Michigan: Sage Publications, 1980 pp127-135
  • Giddens, Anthony Sociology. Polity Publishers, 2006 pp 525-7
  • Lanier, Mark Essential Criminology. Westview Press, 2004. pp 168-9

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