Deviance is a sociological concept referring to behaviors that break social norms and laws.
Examples of deviance include theft, vandalism, lying, breaking social taboos, and disobeying the law.
Studying deviance allows us to understand the boundaries differentiating acceptable, criminal, and deviant behaviors. Understanding deviance is also important for the study of other relevant sociological concepts, such as social control which is used to prevent deviance.
Deviance is a concept used to describe divergences from a society’s norms, values, rules, and expectations.
Here is one clear scholarly definition:
“Deviant behavior refers to conduct that departs significantly from the norms set for people in their social statuses’’ (Merton, 1966, p. 805).
Each culture and society has norms and expectations about how people from certain social groups and statuses should behave.
Therefore, behaviors deviating from culturally appropriate patterns lead to deviance. Similarly, deviants are individuals who violate the social agreements over norms and values (Herman, 1995).
The relation between crime and deviance is important to understand. While crime refers to divergence from formal rules and laws, deviance also includes deviating from informal norms and values (Deflem, 2015).
Therefore, many criminal acts such as theft and fraud are also deviant behaviors. However, all deviant behaviors are not necessarily illegal or criminal acts. For example, lateness at work, or rudeness are not crimes but they are considered deviant behaviors.
25 Deviance Examples
- Verbal Abuse: Being verbally abusive through cursing, insulting, or other types of verbal aggression is a deviance breaking informal rules around communication. Depending on the context, such as insulting someone in a public platform, verbal abuse can also be considered a crime.
- Self-harm: Self-harming behaviors range from purposefully injuring oneself to ending one’s life through suicide. Since the social norms expect individuals to avoid pain and injury, self-harm is considered deviant behavior.
- Stealing and theft: Obtaining one’s property, information or services illegally and without their consent is referred to as stealing. All forms of stealing, including theft, robbery, and identity theft, break both social norms and laws. Therefore, stealing and theft are both deviant behaviors and criminal acts.
- Lateness: In Western societies, it is socially expected that individuals will arrive at their appointments, work or classes on time. While occasional delays are often tolerated, being constantly late to work without any valid excuse is a deviant behavior.
- Public Nudity: Despite varying clothing styles across different cultures, social norms and rules assert that individuals are supposed to be clothed in the public spheres. Therefore, public nudity is a deviant behavior and often punishable as a criminal offense.
- Paraphilia: Paraphilia is a concept consisting of all sexual deviances such as voyeurism, sadism or masochism. While some sexual paraphilias only break informal social norms, some others, such as those including minors or nonconsenting adults, are crimes.
- Gangs: Gangs refer to groups of people with a leadership structure that try to control neighborhoods or communities through violence. Violence committed by gangs are both deviant and criminal. In Canada, 20% of homicides in 2020 were related to gang violence and organized crime (Government of Canada, 2021).
- Vandalism: Damaging public or private properties intentionally are commonly referred to as vandalism. It is both a deviance and criminal act due to the social norms and rules around property ownership and protection.
- Favoritism: Favoritism refers to deliberately favoring an individual in a workplace, school, or political organization. Although it is not always considered a criminal act, favoritism is a deviant behavior since it threatens the social values and consensus around equal and fair treatment.
- Breaking taboos: All societies have taboos, which are unspoken rules that refer to things that people find immodest. A simple example is the taboo of talking about religion or politics at the dinner table.
- Hunger strikes: Many imprisoned people who are completely disempowered will engage in hunger strikes to get attention. This will force the authorities to take action so the person in their care doesn’t die.
- Nepotism: Nepotism refers to the act of employing someone not on merit but because they are a family member. It is frowned upon in most societies.
- Rudeness: The simple act of being rude is seen as deviance, particularly in settings like schools, where you may be reprimanded by your teacher.
- Refusing a gift: Refusing a gift is a taboo that comes across as offensive and therefore is seen as deviant – i.e. breaking social norms.
- Lying: Lying is a deviant behavior that we are taught not to do as children, and yet is a behavior that people do on a weekly or even daily basis.
- Littering: Littering is considered deviant because society has agreed that it is harmful to the environment, and this is something society increasingly cares about.
- Disrespect: Disrespecting your parents or teachers is clearly seen as deviant in schools. But when you’re in the workplace, disrespect for coworkers or your boss may end up seeing you fired. Similarly, disrespecting a judge might be ruled as contempt of court.
- Protesting: Protesting is necessarily deviant because it involves taking a stance against power structures in society in order to effect change. In many western democracies, it is tolerated as freedom of speech.
- Tax avoidance: Avoiding your taxes demonstrates lack of social responsibility and is therefore seen as an act of deviance.
- Skipping school: Truancy is a serious deviant behavior for school children which can lead you to getting detention, suspension, or expulsion from school.
- Laughing at others’ misfortune: This is a taboo in most cultures as it is seen as rude and offensive to the people who have suffered the misfortune.
- Discrimination: While historically, discriminatory actions have been within the bounds of social norms, societies increasingly see this as an unacceptable deviance from new societal expectations.
- Having dangerous ideas: Dangerous ideas during the reformation – such as belief in individual liberty or non-religious philosophy – could land you in prison, but today are lauded as massive milestones in human development.
- Talking out of turn: Talking out of turn at school or in a workplace meeting is considered offensive because it undermines social order.
- Speeding in your car: Driving faster than the law allows is one of the main ways regular people come in contact with police forces, who offer small infringement fines.
- Cheating on exams: Cheating on an exam undermines the concept of meritocracy and therefore is seen as unacceptable.
1. Primary Deviance
Primary deviance is a term used within the labeling theory of deviance. It is behavior that is seen as unacceptable by society. However, unlike secondary deviance, the person who has engaged in deviant behavior has not yet been labeled as a deviant by society.
For example, a child who lies to their parent once in a while isn’t likely to be typecast by their parent as a liar. Here, the deviance is primary because it’s not applies as a label: “you are a liar”. Rather, it’s: “you lied”.
2. Secondary Deviance
This commonly happens in schools when a child internalizes the idea that they’re a ‘bad’ student.
According to labeling theory, this student who starts to believe that they are the bad student will lean into the identity and start engaging in deviant behaviors because it is what is expected of them.
3. Formal Deviance
Formal deviance refers to deviant behavior that is encoded in laws. If you engage in formal deviance, you are breaking either the rules of an institution or the laws of a sovereign region.
For example, a person who engages in formal deviance in a school setting might have broken the class rules and, therefore, be subject to a sanction such as detention or extra homework.
Similarly, in adulthood, driving too fast will lead to a speeding ticket; while more serious infractions may see you in front of a court or even in prison.
4. Informal Deviance
Informal deviance refers to breaking social norms without breaking codified laws or rules.
It occurs when you engage in taboos, behave in culturally insensitive ways, or do something that infringes on other types of norms.
It can be as simple as choosing not to go to college despite the expectations of your parents and grandparents. Or, it could be being rude to a waiter or speaking out of turn at school.
All of these acts of deviance will not land you in formal trouble, but may end up making you an outcast in your community.
5. Subcultural Deviance
Subcultural deviance refers to deviant behavior that people within a subcultural group do not believe to be deviant.
This comes about because subcultures have different norms and beliefs to the norms of the mainstream or dominant culture.
An example of subcultural deviance is tattooing your face. Within hipster subcultural circles, it is seen as cool and a form of self-expression. Within dominant culture, it can be seen as an affront and you’re looked upon with suspicion.
6. Situational Deviance
Situational deviance refers to a deviant behavior that is only deviant within a specific situation or context.
For example, swearing is often only deviant in certain situations. If you swear around a campfire with your high school friends, no one will bat an eyelid. But swearing at dinner with your girlfriend’s family will likely lead to some pearl-clutching!
To avoid situational deviance, you will need situational awareness and cultural competence to know what is and is not appropriate in various different situations.
Theories of Deviance in Sociology
See our main article: Cultural Deviance Theory.
1. Labelling Theory of Deviance
The labelling theory of deviance argues that deviance can be a result of the labeling of people as deviants.
Take, for example, a child in a classroom who misbehaves. His teacher has two options: to label the behavior as deviant (“Johnny, we don’t do that and I know you’re better than that”) or label the child as deviant (“Johnny, you’re a naughty little boy”).
According to labelling theory, the act of telling Johnny that he’s naughty means that Johnny internalizes a self-belief that he is deviant. When this becomes a part of his identity, he plays up his deviance to act the part.
This, in turn, leads the boy down a path of misbehaving, breaking the rules, fighting against authority, and eventually becoming a law-breaking adult.
2. Conflict Theory of Deviance
The conflict theory of deviance argues that people engage in deviant behavior due to social systems that oppress them.
If systems of power such as capitalism oppress a social group, then that group has an increased likelihood that they will engage in deviant behaviors because they:
- want to demonstrate their discontent with the current power structure
- want to undermine the current power structure
- don’t respect the people who oppress them
- get no benefit from the current system so they have no affection toward it
- are impoverished and need to engage in deviant behavior to meet their needs
As an example of conflict theory, we see rebel groups in some countries forming to take up arms against their government if the government is too oppressive. Similarly, many people will join violent protests if they are not content with the government.
3. Structuralist Theory of Deviance
Structural functionalism sees society as creating norms and rules of behavior to ensure there is a safe and functioning social system.
To them, they see deviance as a safety valve where people will engage in minor deviant behaviors to let off steam so they won’t engage in worse behaviors in the future.
Deviant behavior might also be a positive thing if it causes society to re-evaluate its norms, such as when people engage in nonviolent protest that causes changes in laws.
Generally, structural functionalism embraces law, order, and strong social hierarchies, and deviance is expected but can be controlled through the setting of clear and unambiguous norms.
Case Studies of Deviant Behavior
Being absent from work, school, or other obligations regularly without a valid excuse is referred to as absenteeism.
In the context of work, absenteeism is categorized as deviant employee behavior (Everton et al., 2007).
Absenteeism is considered harmful to work and educational organizations. It is often seen as a sign of a lack of consistency and responsibility of the absentee, which does not match with the social expectations.
Despite being seen as an implication of poor work ethics, employee absenteeism is often a result of perceived unsupportiveness and infairness of organizational managers (Everton et al., 2007).
Favoritism occurs when an authority figure deliberately favors an individual in a workplace, school, or other organization.
For example, overly tolerating lateness and absenteeism of an employee without any valid excuses would be a case of favoritism towards that employee (Anasiz & Püsküllüoglu, 2018).
Favoritism in workplaces and schools is considered a political deviance as it leads individuals to be treated unfairly (Anasiz & Püsküllüoglu, 2018).
Therefore, it conflicts with the social values and widespread expectations around organizational justice.
Divergences from a society’s norms, values, rules and regulations are referred to as deviance.
Deviant behavior is an act that is in conflict with social expectations about an individual’s status. Deviant people are those who commit deviant acts and behaviors.
Deviant behaviors include relatively common acts such as favoritism, absenteeism, or lateness to more serious acts such as vandalism, gang violence, or theft.
While a majority of criminal acts are also considered deviant behavior, these two concepts do not always overlap. For example, behaviors such as lateness or absenteeism are merely deviant acts and not crime.
Anasiz, B. T., & Püsküllüoglu, E. I. (2018). Phenomenological Analysis of Teachers’ Organizational Deviance Experiences in a Rural Primary School in Turkey. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 6(1), 70-79.
Deflem, M. (2015). Deviance and social control. In E. Goode (Ed.), The handbook of deviance (pp. 30–44). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Dickson-Gomez, J., Pacella, M., Broaddus, M. R., Quinn, K., Galletly, C., & Rivas, J. (2017). Convention versus deviance: moral agency in adolescent gang members’ decision making. Substance use & misuse, 52(5), 562-573.
Everton, W. J., Jolton, J. A., & Mastrangelo, P. M. (2007). Be nice and fair or else: understanding reasons for employees’ deviant behaviors. Journal of management Development, 26(2), 117-131.
Government of Canada. (2021, December 2). Summit on Gun and Gang Violence. Public Safety Canada / Sécurité publique Canada. Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/cntrng-crm/gn-crm-frrms/index-en.aspx
Herman, N. J. (1995). Deviance: A symbolic interactionist approach. Rowman & Littlefield.
Klonsky, E. D., Oltmanns, T. F., & Turkheimer, E. (2003). Deliberate self-harm in a nonclinical population: Prevalence and psychological correlates. American journal of Psychiatry, 160(8), 1501-1508.
Merton, R. K., & Nisbet, R. A. (Eds.). (1966). Contemporary social problems. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
NHTSA. (2017, October). 2016 Data: Impaired Driving. CrashStats – NHTSA. Retrieved November 7, 2022, from https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812450