symbolic interactionism and deviance

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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’ ( 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 ...

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