Formal deviance refers to behaviors or actions that violate explicitly stated norms, rules, or laws within a given social or organizational context.
In everyday life, we use the term “deviance” as an attribute, something that is inherent in a person (say, the delinquent or the mentally ill) or behavior. However, most sociologists see deviance not as a type of person, but as a formal property of social systems (Scott, 2014).
In other words, they see deviance as being an inevitable part of all societies: when people live together, they establish common norms; these norms are violated by some people; and the society punishes them to maintain its stability.
One way of studying deviances involves classifying them into formal and non-formal ones, which we will discuss later. Before that, let us learn about the concept in more detail, understand its two broad approaches, and look at some examples.
Formal Deviance Definition
Erich Goode defines deviance as:
the violation of a social norm which is likely to result in censure or punishment for the violator.” (Goode, 2015).
He adds, however, that there are several controversies associated with this. There are two different perspectives on studying deviances: the constructionist approach and the explanatory approach.
1. Constructionist Approach to Formal Deviance
The constructionist approach sees deviance as “subjectively problematic”; they are primarily interested in studying how deviance is defined subjectively and culturally.
Such sociologists argue that what is important in studying deviance is its social construction. They shift the focus away from the objective nature/causes of deviant behavior and instead focus on how certain people & behavior “come to be defined as deviant by others” (Kitsuse, 1964).
Constructionists (which constitute the majority of sociologists) believe that a person violates norms not only through certain actions but also through undesirable attitudes or characteristics; attitudes, behaviors, and characteristics are the “ABCs” of deviance, as Adler puts it (2003).
One of the major beliefs of the constructionist approach is that deviance is relative to time and place. What may be considered reprehensible in one society may be seen as completely normal in another one. We will discuss this further while talking about examples like incest.
Constructionists also focus on social control: the efforts to ensure conformity to norms. All humans have a tendency to violate norms; this is because they can easily secure for us the things that we desire, and many forbidden things are in themselves rewarding (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990).
So, societies must employ both positive (rewards) and negative (legal consequences, censure, etc.) efforts to control behavior. One final point of interest for constructionists is power. Those who control society’s resources also get to say what is right and wrong. This was exemplified in Apartheid South Africa, which we will discuss in the examples.
2. Explanatory Approach to Formal Deviance
The explanatory approach sees deviance as “objectively given”; it focuses on understanding why non-normative behavior occurs.
Proponents of this approach see deviance, not merely as a social construction, but as a specific type of action—almost like a “syndrome” in the medical field (Goode, 2015). Unlike constructionists, they do not believe that deviance is relative to time & place.
Yes, while customs have varied across societies throughout history, they argue that certain behaviors have identifiable, universal properties. So, even if alcoholism or mental illnesses are seen differently in different societies, they ultimately do have a common thread. Societies criminalize actions that are harmful both on a micro and macro level.
The explanatory approach provides explanations for why deviance occurs. Often, they argue that deviance is caused by the essentialistic characteristics of a person. More commonly, however, they argue that the causes of crime are to be found in the environment of the criminal, not in their individual traits (Goode, 2015).
One strand of this involves opportunity theories. These argue that crime occurs when a motivated offender finds a suitable target without a capable guardian (Cohen & Felson, 1979). In other words, crime is a particular kind of “opportunity”, which involves maximum potential rewards and minimum costs.
See Also: 9 Types of Deviance in Sociology
Formal Deviance Examples
- Incest: Incest, that is, sexual activity between family members, is a crime in most modern societies. But constructionists remind us that the very categories constituting deviance vary across cultures. So, the same partners who are seen as incestuous in one society may be acceptable (or even mandatory) marital partners in another society (Ford & Beach, 1951). In other words, the definition of “incest” itself is socially constructed and varies across times/places. For example, in Ancient Egypt, marriage within the family was a common way of perpetuating the royal lineage. (Godelier, 2004).
- Homosexuality: Although LGBTQ+ movements across the world have made much brought many changes, many countries (especially non-Western ones) continue to treat homosexuality as a criminal offense. Adamczyk argues out that there are three main factors why homosexuality is seen as deviant in many countries: money, democracy, and religion (2017). She points out that poor countries (such as Uganda & Nigeria) are focused on basic survival; their group loyalty & tradition makes them reject homosexuality. Democratic countries allow greater freedom—the more democratic a nation, the more accepting it is of different sexual orientations. Finally, many countries (such as those in the Middle East) have religious problems with homosexuality.
- Poaching: The illegal hunting or capturing of wild animals, known as poaching, is considered a serious crime globally (Moreto & Lemieux, 2015). In many societies, hunting is part of cultural and subsistence practices, yet commercial poaching for financial gain is universally condemned. Factors influencing this form of deviance include poverty, opportunities for illegal trade, and lack of enforcement (Kalron & Heinrich, 2012). This variance illustrates the social construction of the concept of “poaching” and its relative interpretation across societies and environments.
- Adultery: Adultery, which involves a spouse having sexual relations outside the marital bond, is considered a form of deviance within many societies (Lammers, et al., 2014). Yet, societal views on adultery vary greatly, from societies that outlaw it as a criminal offense to those that are largely indifferent (Solomon, et al., 2016). Moreover, societal attitudes towards adultery are often influenced by prevailing views about marriage, gender relations, and sexual autonomy, hinting at the broader cultural and ideological factors that invariably mold our definitions of deviance.
- Public Nudity: The act of exposing one’s body in public spaces, namely public nudity, is considered an act of deviance in many societies (Barcan, 2004). This behavior breaks social norms which demand a certain level of modesty in public, showcasing the cultural variations in perceptions of the human body. However, there are also societies and movements that celebrate public nudity as a form of liberation, implying that the boundaries of what is perceived as deviant are quite fluid.
- Cannibalism: Cannibalism, or the act of consuming another individual’s flesh, is widely perceived as one of the most extreme forms of societal deviance (Soderlund, 2005). As with other forms of deviance discussed herein, societies differ markedly in their views of cannibalism, ranging from strict taboo to ritualistic practice (Goldman, 2013). Anthropologists have noted that various factors influence societies’ views on cannibalism, including survival in extreme conditions, spiritual beliefs, and social hierarchy.
- Child Marriage: Child marriage is a practice that has been considered deviant in many societies especially where the legal age to marry is defined by law (UNICEF, 2014). In some cultures and societies, however, this practice continues wherein early marriage is socially accepted and sometimes encouraged (Otoo-Oyortey & Pobi, 2003). Although internationally condemned, the practice is still prevalent in certain regions, pointing to the variance of the definition of deviance across cultures.
- Forced Labor: Forced labor, where people are compelled to work under the threat of violence or other forms of penalty, is often seen as deviant and is generally considered to be a serious violation of human rights (ILO, 2012). Despite international regulations and protections, incidences of forced labor persist, especially in societies undergoing economic development or societal unrest. This instance demonstrates how contextual factors can redefine what is normally considered deviant behavior.
- Vigilantism: Vigilantism, or the act of taking the law into one’s own hands without legal authorization, is viewed as deviant in societies with robust legal systems (Moncada, 2017). Perceptions of vigilantism differ across societies; some people may view vigilantes as heroes combating crime, while others view them as threats to the legal order. This underlines the evolving views on what constitutes deviance and how different societies interpret the rule of law.
- Body Modification: Extreme forms of body modification, such as heavy tattooing, piercings, and body sculpting (like “bagel head” injections in Japan or neck elongation in Thailand’s Kayan tribe) are considered deviant in most traditional and mainstream societies (Pitts, 2003). Yet, in certain subcultures or societies, extensive body modification is viewed as an art form, a means of self-expression, or a part of cultural or spiritual practices (Pitts, 2003). This example highlights the subjectivity of deviance—what one group may view as normative behavior may be perceived as deviant by another.
Formal vs Informal Deviance
Formal deviance involves criminal violation while informal deviance is when people violate informal social norms.
Formal deviance is when people violate formally-enacted laws. As we discussed in our examples, these include murder, rape, assault, etc. Society views these deviances as serious offenses, which cause both personal & societal harm.
Therefore, it punishes the offenders severely, such as through arrests, sentences, or even capital punishment. Informal deviance, on the other hand, involves violating informal social norms, which are a lot less serious.
These can include things like picking one’s nose in public or standing excessively close to a person. Society views these violations as less severe and usually punishes the offenders in a similar fashion: somebody might reprimand them or their friends might disassociate with them.
|Feature||Informal Deviance||Formal Deviance|
|Definition||Violations of unwritten, cultural norms||Violations of laws or official rules|
|which are not codified.||codified in a society.|
|Examples||– Not adhering to dress codes|
– Picking one’s nose in public
– Talking loudly in a library
– Speeding in a car
– Physically harming others
|Consequences||– Social disapproval|
|– Legal penalties (fines, imprisonment)|
– Possible social ostracization
|Regulation||– Managed by individuals and social groups informally.||– Enforced by formal institutions such as the police, courts, and jails.|
|Severity||Generally less severe, as it does not result in legal penalties.||Usually more severe, especially if it leads to criminal charges and penalties.|
– Verbal reprimands
– Non-verbal cues (e.g., dirty looks)
|Purpose of Sanctions||To establish and maintain social order and cohesion by reinforcing norms.||To deter, punish, and rehabilitate.|
|Scope||Can vary widely from one culture or subculture to another.||Typically more standardized across a given society, as they’re based on laws.|
Formal deviance involves a violation of legal norms; societies treat this kind of behavior as a serious offense and punish the violators adequately.
Examples include murder, rape, assault, etc. However, as the constructionists argue, deviance is socially constructed and varies across times & cultures. So, what may be reprehensible in one society may be encouraged in another.
Even within a society, deviance can be viewed differently, depending on the context, the violator’s characteristics, and the society’s power dynamics. But the proponents of the explanatory approach also remind us that often there are universal patterns in crimes & norms.
Adamczyk, A. (2017). Why do some countries disapprove of homosexuality? Money, democracy, and religion. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/why-do-some-countries-disapprove-of-homosexuality-money-democracy-and-religion-73632
Adler, P. A. & Adler, P. (2003). Constructions of Deviance: Social Power, Context, and Interaction, 4th ed. London: Wadsworth.
Barcan, R. (2004). Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy. London: Berg Publishers.
Benedict, R. (1946). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Cohen, L. E., & Felson, M. (1979). Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American sociological review, 588-608. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/2094589
Ford, C. S. & Beach, F. A. (1951). Patterns of Sexual Behavior. London: Harper & Row.
Godelier, M. (2004). The Metamorphoses of Kinship. New York: Editions Flammarion.
Goldman, L. R. (2013). Ritualistic Cannibalism in Papua New Guinea: Flesh and the Transformation of Matter. In Cannibalism and the Colonial World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goode, E. (2015). Deviant behavior. Routledge.
ILO (2012). ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour: Results and Methodology. The International Labour Office.
Kitsuse, J. I. (1964). “Societal Reaction to Deviant Behavior: Problems of Theory and Method” in Becker, H. S. (Ed.) The Other Side: Perspectives on Deviance. New York: Free Press.
Lammers, J., et al. (2014). The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 777-798.
Moncada, E. (2017). Varieties of vigilantism: Conceptual discord, meaning and strategies. Global Crime, 18(4), 403-423. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/17440572.2017.1374183
Pitts, V. (2003). In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body modification. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Scott, J. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Soderlund, G. (2005). On Cannibalism. Pennsylvania State University Press.
Solomon, H., et al., (2016). When Sex is More Than Just Sex: Attachment Orientations, Sexual Experience, and Relationship Quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1073-1091. Doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.119
Otoo-Oyortey, N., & Pobi, S. (2003). Early marriage and poverty: exploring links and key policy issues. Gender & Development, 11(2), 42-51. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/741954315
Pitts, V. (2003). In the flesh: The cultural politics of body modification. London: Springer.
UNICEF (2014). Ending Child Marriage: Progress and prospects. United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.