In the sociological perspective all behavior – deviance as well as conformity – is shaped by society.

Therefore the society lays the foundation of deviance and that is how the title of this discussion. The social foundations of deviance may be looked at from three dimensions:

1. Cultural relativity of deviance

No thought or action is inherently deviant; it becomes deviant only in relation to particular norms.

Sociologists use the term deviance to refer to a violation of norms of culture. One may look at three basic principles:

  1. It is not the action itself, but the reactions to the act that makes something deviant. In other words people’s behavior must be viewed from the framework of the culture in which it takes place.
  2. Different groups are likely to have different norms therefore what is deviant to some is not deviant to others.
  3. This principle holds within a society as well as across cultures. Thus acts perfectly acceptable in one culture – or in one group within a society – may be considered deviant in another culture, or in another group within the same society.

Sociologists use the term deviance non-judgmentally, to refer to any act to which people respond negatively.

When sociologists use this term, it does not mean that they agree that the act is bad, just because others judge it negatively. If we have to understand a particular behavior, we must understand the meanings people give to that event. Consequently we must consider deviance from within a group’s own framework, for it is their meanings that underlie their behavior.

2. Who defines deviance?

People become deviant as others define them that way. If deviance does not lie in the act, but in definition of the act, where do these definitions come from? The simple answer is that the definitions come from people. May be through trial and error process people determine the appropriate patterns of behavior for the smooth functioning of their society. They themselves decide what is desirable and what is undesirable for having social order in their society. These are actually the social norms of the people. These norms are incorporated in the mechanics of social control. The process may be a little different in a simple and small society than in a complex and large society having ethnic variations.

3. Both rule making and rule breaking involve social power.

Each society is dominated by a group of elite, powerful people, who make the decisions for making rules, which become part of the social control system in the society. The powerful group of people makes sure that their interests are protected. The machinery of social control usually represents the interests of people with social power.

A law amounts a little more than a means by which powerful people protect their interests. For example the owners of an unprofitable factory have the legal right to shut down their business, even if doing so puts thousands of workers out of work. But if a worker commits an act of vandalism that closes the same factory for a single day is subject to criminal prosecution.


When we think of deviance, its dysfunctions are likely to come to mind. Most of us are upset by deviance, especially crime, and assume that society would be better off without it. Surprisingly for Durkheim there is nothing abnormal about deviance; in fact it contributes to the functioning of the society in four ways:

1. Deviance affirms cultural values and norms.

Living demands that we make moral choices. To prevent our culture from dissolving into chaos, people must show preference for some attitudes and behaviors over others. But any conception of virtue rests upon an opposing notion of vice. And just as there can be no good without evil, there can be no justice without crime. Deviance is indispensable to creating and sustaining morality.

2. Deviance clarifies moral boundaries and affirms norms.

A group’s ideas about how people should act and think mark its moral boundaries. Deviance challenges those boundaries. To call a deviant member to explain, say in effect, “you broke a valuable rule, and we cannot tolerate that,” affirms the group’s norms and clarifies the distinction between conforming and deviating behavior. To deal with deviants is to assert what it means to a member of the group. For example there is a line between academic honesty and cheating by punishing students who do so.

3. Deviance promotes social unity.

To affirm the group’s moral boundaries by reacting to deviants, deviance develops a “we” feeling among the group’s members. In saying “you can’t get by with that,” the group collectively affirms the rightness of its own ways.

4. Deviance promotes social change.

Deviant people push a society’s moral boundaries, pointing out alternatives to the status quo and encouraging change. Groups always do not agree on what to do with people who push beyond their acceptable ways of doing things. Some group members even approve the rule-breaking behavior.

Boundary violations that gain enough support become new, acceptable behavior. Thus deviance may force a group to rethink and redefine its moral boundaries, helping groups and whole societies, to change their customary ways. Today’s deviance can become tomorrow’s morality.

Source: Introduction to Sociology – Virtual University of Pakistan