Informal deviance refers to the breaking of social norms, without violating any law. If you were to violate the law, you would be crossing over to formal deviance.
An example of informal deviance is the act of staring at someone in public. There are no formal laws against such behavior, but it is considered socially inappropriate – it’s a norm violation. Society sees these as minor offenses, although there are still repercussions for the violators.
If a person who commits informal deviance, they may get verbally reprimanded by someone or their friends may stop associating with them. As with formal deviance, informal deviance varies from culture to culture: what is considered inappropriate in one might be completely normal (or even encouraged) in another.
Definition of Informal Deviance
Erich Goode defines deviance as:
“…the violation of a social norm which is likely to result in censure or punishment for the violator.”(Goode, 2007)
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. This position was earlier accepted in academics too, especially by social pathology theorists.
Today, however, most sociologists see deviance not as personal attribute but as a formal property of social systems. They believe that there are no fixed criteria for what constitutes deviance—even killing can become acceptable at times—but it is characterized by two interrelated properties (Scott, 2014):
- Norm Violation: The first sees deviance as a form of norm violation. A norm is a “shared expectation of behavior that is considered culturally desirable and/or appropriate” (Scott). It is prescriptive, like rules, but lacks their formal status. Different norms can give rise to different deviances: religious norms lead to heretics, health norms to the sick, cultural norms to the eccentric, etc.
- Stigmatization: The second property emphasizes the stigma construct of deviance: certain behaviors become devalued and are seen as deviant. For example, something as simple as talking too much may make a person seem deviant, and their friends may not want to be around them.
Deviance is always an ambiguous and shifting concept. Precisely what is deviant depends upon a particular culture, the specific social context, and even the violator’s traits.
So, in a racist society, a black person may get punished for something extremely trivial—as used to happen in the Reconstruction Era of the US—while a white person may get away with grave offenses.
Informal vs Formal Deviance
Informal deviance involves going against social norms while formal deviance means breaking laws.
The former generally include minor offenses, such as picking your nose in public or speaking rudely to someone. The society sees them as being inappropriate but does not have any concrete laws against them.
The violators face repercussions like being reprimanded or getting ostracized by friends. Formal deviance, on the other hand, involves violating formally-enacted laws. Society considers these major offenses and therefore has concrete laws against them.
Examples of formal deviance include theft, assault, etc. Violators face serious consequences for such actions, such as fines, arrests, or even capital punishment. Despite the differences, both informal and formal deviance are ultimately shaped by time and place; what may be unacceptable in one culture may be quite normal in another.
|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.|
Examples of Informal Deviance
- Workplace etiquette: Every workplace comes with certain norms of accepted behavior, and while violating them may not always lead to concrete repercussions, they constitute informal deviance. Examples include being always late to work, making inappropriate jokes, or being rude to colleagues. However, we must also note workplace culture (like the larger culture) is shaped by the powerful. So, most organizations in the world today follow and promote Western cultural values: from physical appearance to cultural goals. Those who do not come from the same background may often be at a disadvantage. For example, people with non-European accents often face difficulty in getting hired and promoted (Gray, 2019).
- Communication & Personal Space: Every culture has some established practices of communication, such as the use of language. Not adhering to these—say using an abusive word or inappropriate gesture—can lead to informal deviance. Non-verbal communication is quite subtle, so outsiders need to learn these well, otherwise, they risk being offensive. There are also collective notions of personal space: in Western cultures, it is common to sit or stand at a considerable distance, while in non-Western cultures, people often stay quite close. Physical touch, say patting on the shoulder, is expected in some cultures but may be inappropriate in others.
- Public behavior: There are certain norms of behaving in public spaces, and going against them is informal deviance. For example, picking your nose or staring at someone. Despite being relatively innocuous, such behavior is considered inappropriate. It can lead to repercussions like verbal reprimands or ostracism. But, once again, it’s important to remember that norms of public behavior are also shaped by power structures. For example, in rural India, a lower-caste man can be beaten for sitting on a horse during his wedding procession. So, a society’s understanding of deviance is also determined by who the “violator” is.
- Table manners: Something as simple as eating food is characterized by numerous cultural norms: everything, from what we eat to how we eat, is shaped by our surroundings. For example, we need to use proper utensils: eating noodles with hands would be quite inappropriate. Yet, this is also determined by where and what we are eating: Dosa (a south Indian dish) is eaten with hands, as it involves many chutneys/sauces. There are several other commonly accepted table manners, such as waiting for others to start, eating with your mouth closed, sitting properly, etc. Norms also adapt with time: using your phone at the dinner table is not considered appropriate.
- Fashion Faux Pas: Fashion is not just a way of expressing ourselves but is also tied intimately to our culture. Every occasion requires appropriate dressing: you wouldn’t go to a meeting in shorts or wear fancy clothes at a funeral; these would be considered casual and disrespectful. At institutions, such as a school or a hospital, students/employees need to wear uniforms. In slightly conservative cultures, one cannot wear excessively revealing clothes. One also has to maintain cleanliness while dressing. Finally, fashion is also linked to gender expectations, and going against them can be considered deviant.
- Queue Jumping: Queue jumping refers to the act of cutting in line or bypassing others who are waiting in a systematic order. It is considered disrespectful and unfair to those who have been patiently waiting for their turn. Queue jumping can occur in various settings, such as at the grocery store, public transportation stops, or ticket counters. The practice can lead to frustration and conflicts among individuals, as it disrupts the established order and creates a sense of injustice. In some cases, people may confront the queue jumper, leading to heated arguments or even altercations.
- Public Display of Affection (PDA): Public Display of Affection involves engaging in intimate and romantic gestures, such as kissing, hugging, or groping, in a public setting. While some level of PDA may be acceptable in certain cultures or contexts, excessive or explicit displays of affection can be considered inappropriate, especially in more conservative societies or formal environments. PDA can make others uncomfortable, and it may be seen as a lack of respect for social boundaries. In places like religious institutions, formal events, or conservative neighborhoods, engaging in PDA can lead to disapproving glances or social disapproval.
- Littering: Littering is the act of disposing of waste, such as food wrappers, bottles, or cigarette butts, in public areas instead of using designated trash bins or proper disposal methods. Littering not only makes the environment look unsightly but also poses significant harm to ecosystems and wildlife. It can lead to pollution, blockage of drainage systems, and the spread of diseases. Additionally, littering reflects a lack of civic responsibility and consideration for others who share the same public spaces. Many societies have implemented fines or penalties for littering to deter this form of informal deviance.
- Being Disrespectful: Being disrespectful involves speaking or behaving in a rude, impolite, or offensive manner towards others. This can manifest in various ways, such as using offensive language, disregarding someone’s opinions, or mocking their beliefs. Disrespectful behavior can cause emotional distress, damage relationships, and create a hostile environment. It is often considered a breach of social norms and can lead to social isolation or exclusion from social groups. In professional settings, being disrespectful to colleagues, superiors, or clients can have serious consequences, including reprimands, loss of job opportunities, or a damaged reputation.
- Disruptive Behavior: Disruptive behavior refers to actions that cause disturbances or noise in places that require quiet and concentration, such as libraries, hospitals, classrooms, or public transportation. Examples of disruptive behavior include talking loudly, playing loud music, or engaging in rowdy activities in quiet areas. Such behavior can be irritating and distracting to others, impeding their ability to focus or relax. In sensitive environments like hospitals, disruptive behavior can have serious consequences as it can impact patient well-being and the ability of medical staff to perform their duties efficiently. In educational settings, disruptive behavior can disrupt the learning process for everyone involved and may result in disciplinary actions.
Durkheim’s Work on Deviance
Durkheim is usually seen as the starting point of studying deviance in sociology, and his work revolves around two main issues: anomie and the function of deviance.
In Durkheim’s work, anomie is a state of normlessness and breakdown. It often emerges at times of rapid social change, say when there is a sudden economic collapse. Through this concept, Durkheim was able to re-conceptualize the idea of the deviant.
Instead of being a type of person, “deviance” is seen as a feature of certain kinds of social structure. This idea became highly influential in sociology, shaping Merton’s theories about delinquency, Burgess’s work on the “zone of transition”, subcultures, etc.
Durkheim’s second focus was on the function of deviance. He believed that:
“…crime is normal because a society exempt from it is utterly impossible” (1895).
In other words, deviance is tied to the very conditions of a society, which cannot exist without it.
He supports this rather paradoxical claim with several arguments. First, there is history: all known societies have deviance. Second, Durkheim argues that there are several functions that deviance fulfills.
One of these functions is to bring about change. This is not true of all types of deviance; something like killing others would only harm society. However, many kinds of deviance do promote change: they present a different vision of the world by being radical and challenging.
So, for example, the reforming Christian sects of the 16th century became the established churches in the upcoming years. Durkheim argues that deviance also promotes social solidarity by bringing people together against a common enemy.
See Also: Examples of Anomie
Informal deviance refers to violating social norms, which are not formally established as laws.
Examples include jumping a queue, being disrespectful, or staring at people. These are relatively innocuous acts and society does not have any concrete laws against them. However, violators can still face rebuke or ostracization.
Informal deviance is contrasted with formal deviance, which constitutes a violation of laws (such as theft, etc.). All forms of deviance are ultimately shaped by a particular culture and its power dynamics.
Durkheim, E. (1895). The Rules of Sociological Method. New Yrk: Simon & Schuster.
Goode, E. (2007). “Deviance” in George Ritzer’s (Ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Gray, A. (2019). The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards. SSIR. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_bias_of_professionalism_standards
Scott, J. (2014). “Deviance” in A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.