symbolic interactionism and deviance
Symbolic interactionists posit that no act or behaviour is inherently deviant. Drawing upon other major sociological theories of social deviance explains how symbolic interactionists justify this claim.
Social deviance is defined as ‘Differing from a norm or from the accepted standards of a society’ (dictionary.com). A deviant is one that differs from a norm, especially a person whose behavior and attitudes differ from accepted social standards. Generally, explanations for deviance have one of two focal points. The first is the individual where the causes of deviance are held to reside in the biological or psychological make up of particular types of people or in the kinds of choices that individuals freely make. While focus on individual behaviour is thought to be effective, there is good evidence to suggest ‘the causes of crime cannot be satisfactorily derived by reference to biology, psychology or wilful action alone (Winter and Lemert and Lemert 2000, p.12). This has led to the development of a second focal point for the explanations of deviant behaviour – the nature of social relations, or more simply, society.
Given the importance of the impact of deviance on society, many approaches have been used to attempt to understand why people engage in deviant behaviour. Symbolic interactionists argue that deviance is “relative”. That is, what might be considered in one group (or society) might not be in another. There are a number of different explanations of deviance from each of the different theoretical perspectives in sociology.
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Differential association theory is a symbolic interactionist perspective developed by Edwin H. Sutherland. The principal of different association states that a person becomes a deviant because of an “excess” of definitions in favour of violation of the law over definitions unfavourable to violation of the law. In other words, deviant behaviour develops when one is exposed to more social message favouring conduct than prosocial messages (Sutherland, 1947 p.186). Symbolic interactionism suggests that Deviant behaviour is learned through the process of associating with other deviants and therefore their deviant behaviours are learnt. The theory focuses on the three key variables involved in learning; age of the “learner”, intensity of contact with the deviant “teacher” and the ratio of "good" to "bad" social contacts in the "learner's" life. This Theory predicts that the younger the "learner" is, in an intense relationship with the deviant "teacher", and the more contacts with significant others who are "deviant", then the greater the likelihood the "learner" will also be deviant. The reverse is also true. An individual’s associations are determined in a general context of social organization (for instance, family income as a factor of determining residence of family and in many cases, crime rates are largely related to the rental value of houses) and thus differential group organization as an explanation of various crime rates is consistent with the differential association theory. (Sutherland, 1974, p. 77).
There are a number of factors that criticise this theory. The first problem is that the concept of "definitions" in the theory is not precisely defined, and the statement did not give good guidance on how to apply the ratio or "excess of definitions" favourable to criminal behaviour over definitions unfavourable to criminal behaviour. Other criticisms suggest that the theory omits the consideration of free will, it does not explain the origin of deviance well, and it ignores the roles of victims in crime or deviance and is not allied closely enough with more general sociological theory and research.
The labelling perspective was the first criminological theory to suggest that crime has as much to do with the process and effects of law making as it does with law breaking. On this account, deviance exists because society defines certain actions as deviant (Holmes, Hughes and Julian 2003, p. 320). Most of us commit deviant acts on a daily basis (speeding, swearing etc) but usually manage to avoid being labelled “deviant”. What counts as deviance, therefore, has as much to do with the responses of particular groups in society as with any particular actions on our part. So in this case no act or behaviour is inherently deviant. The important question for the sociologist becomes: who has the power to influence the definition and policing of deviant behaviour at any one time? Responses to this question have typically made reference to those of high social and economic class. The definition of deviance is likely to be developed through conflict instead of, as previous theorists had thought, by ways of consensus between like-minded groups. There are two distinguishing types of terms linked to this theory: primary deviance is described as the behaviour of those who commit deviant acts but went on to resume law-abiding lives. These people do not identify themselves for any extended periods of time as criminals or deviants (Lemert 1967). Crime resulting from the criminal justice system is said to be secondary deviance, for example, many people’s experience of police, courts and prisons led often to more not less offending.
In the cases that an act might be inherently deviant, Merton’s functionalist strain theory tries to explain the origins and roots of this as opposed to the symbolic interactionist ways of Sutherland and such. This theory suggests deviant behavior occurs when a person does not have the means to achieve a goal through legitimate channels and attempts to do so illegitimately. It sees deviance as the outcome of social strains due to the way the society is structured. For some people, the strain becomes overwhelming to the point where they do deviance as a way to manage the strain. These deviant acts can in a way be seen as “inherently deviant” since the deviant or the offender has the knowledge of the nature of the crime or deviant act and chooses to go on with the delinquency due to social strains.
The functionalists suggest what is deviant may vary, but deviance is found in all societies. Deviance and the social response it provokes sustain the moral foundation of society and deviance may also guide social change. Symbolic interactionism explains that nothing is inherently deviant but may become defined as such through the response of others. The reaction of others is highly variable and what is seen as deviant by some may not be seen as deviant by others while suggesting that the labelling of deviant may lead to the emergence of secondary deviance and possibly a deviant career. These theories aim at explaining social deviance and what is thought to be inherently deviant but in the end it also comes to defining deviance and the conflict theories where laws and other norms reflect the interests of powerful members of society. Those who threaten the status quo are generally defined as deviant. Social injury caused by powerful people is less likely to be considered deviant or criminal than social injury caused by people who have little social power.
Edwin H. Sutherland. (1974). Criminology. J.B. Lippincott Company
, , . (2000) Crime and deviance. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc
Edwin M Lemert, (1967) Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control.
Dictionary website for definitions used, available from: www.dicionary.com