Deviance: Meaning, Elements and Forms of Deviation!


Deviance is directly related to social order and control, i.e., how it is structured and how its moral, economic and political interests are protected. When a society functions in an orderly way, most people will generally be observing most norms.

Deviance occurs when norms are broken or violated. Deviance connotes only those norm violations that make a person objectionable or at least significantly discredited. In its widest sense, it is a generic term referring to the activities described in such conventional expressions as ‘crime’, ‘alcoholism’, ‘immorality’, ‘cheating’ and ‘sexual perversion’. Howerd Becker (1932), a leading proponent of the labeling theory asserted: “Deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.”

Deviance is universal and normal (Durkheim,). It exists in all societies (folk-urban or traditional-modern), wherever people interact and live in group. The notion of ‘deviance’ or ‘deviant’, as we shall see, is actually not an_ easy one to define.


It meant different things to different people. Generally, it is defined as any “failure to conform to the customary norms of the society”. According to Wickman (1991), “deviance is behaviour that violates the standards of conduct or expectations of a group or society’. Being late for class is categorised as a deviant act; the same is true of dressings gorgeously for a funeral ceremony.

Anthony Giddens (2000) defined it, “as non-conformity to a given set of norms that are accepted by a significant number of people in a community or society”. On the basis of these definitions, we are all deviant from time to time. Most of us on some occasions transgress generally accepted rules of behaviour. None of us are all rule breakers as well as conformists.

Main Elements of Deviance:

There is no fixed agreement on the substance of deviance—even murder or incest is accepted at times.

But there are a few interrelated elements which help characterize the phenomenon:


1. Deviation Is Relative, Not Absolute:

In this sense, most people are deviant to some degree. When we say that deviance is relative, it only means that what is defined as deviant varies because different cultural groups have different norms. Thus, to consume alcohol would be a deviant act in an orthodox Muslim community, but not in Rajput community of Hindu society. Not only this, the relative nature of deviance also varies historically within a given culture.

2. Deviance Refers To Norm Violation:

There are wide range of norms—religious norms, legal norms, health norms, cultural norms and so forth. Sometimes, there is a conflict between these different norms. In such situations, it becomes very difficult to decide about deviance or deviant behaviour. It should be noted that norm violation is somewhat broader conception than deviant behaviour since it connotes breaking any standard of expected conduct in a particular social setting.


3. Deviance is also Viewed as a ‘Stigma Construct’:

It is a label bestowed upon certain classes of behaviour at certain times. This characteristic can also be seen as very wide ranging. People may make friends deviant simply because they belch or talk too much. Terrorists at times may become political martyrs. Because of its relative character, wide range of norms, and stigma construct, deviance is a shifting, ambiguous and volatile concept. This is why, Colin Sumner (1994) proclaimed that the concept of deviance is now dead and the focus should be on why some forms of difference are socially censured whereas others are not.

Forms of Deviation:

Deviation takes many forms. It can vary from political terrorism to failing to observe accepted eating habits. The juvenile delinquent, the hermit, the ascetic, the mentally ill, the hippie, the sinner, the homosexual, the saint and the miser gloating over his wealth all have deviated from the conventional social norms. But only those forms of deviation are considered deviant which are disapproved by the society or the culture. So, the scope of the concepts of deviant and deviance is very wide.

More recently, sociologists have begun to advocate a relativistic view of deviance. This view suggests that like other behaviour, deviance can also be interpreted in the socio-cultural context in which it occurs. This view avoids the problems of the absolute, moral, medical and statistical models of deviance. According to this view, an act that is deviant in one context may not be deviant in another. A behaviour considered sick (mentally ill) in one society could be thought healthy in a different society.


Thus, deviance does not consist merely of acts or behaviours, but of group responses, definitions and the meanings attached to behaviours. Definitions of deviance vary with circumstances, time, place, situation, and even with social status. Sociologists almost always recognise socio-cultural relativity in deviance. An act considered deviant in one period may be considered non-deviant in another. Behaviours or social practice such as polygyny viewed as deviant in one society or culture may be considered non-deviant in others.

Behaviour defined as deviant in one situation (wearing woman’s clothes by a man to act in a play or consuming alcohol at public place) may not be deviant in another, even the same time period and place. Deviance also varies with social status.

The status associated with person’s sex, caste, age and income will influence which of his or her behaviours are considered deviant. To understand deviance, we must focus not only on people or acts but also on the conditions in which deviance occurs and how others react to it.

Individual and Group Deviation:


Deviance does not refer only to individual behaviour; it concerns the activities of group as well. Deviation may be individual, in which a person deviates from the normal behaviour of his group or it may be group deviation, in which the entire group deviates from social norms.

The individual deviates from the norms of his sub-culture. He is thus an individual deviant. In a complex society, however, there may be a number of deviant sub-cultures, whose norms are condemned by the conventional morality of the society.