Unit 5 – Deviance « The Socjournal


At the end of this unit, students will be able to:

1.  Distinguish between absolute and statistical definition of deviance.

2.  Be able to discern the intersection of power and deviance.

3.  Understand the importance of social resources in the context of the definition and sanction of deviance.

4.  Identify the way dominant culture and dominant ideology uses deviances as a way of controlling individuals through the application of sanction to non-compliant behavioural or cultural  (race, gender, sexuality, etc.) differences.

Core Readings

Steckley, John and Letts, G. (2007). Chapter Six: Deviance


In this chapter we are going to take a look at deviance. And just what is deviance? Well, if we were to go by “popular” conception, we might say that deviance is some kind of violation of absolute moral or social codes or ethics. That is, according to the “common” perception, deviance is association with “wrongness” or evil behaviour. When someone acts deviant, they are behaving outside the moral or legal codes that “everyone” (or at all “good/strong/wise/moral/upright” people) agree to be in force.

No doubt everyone reading these words will recognize such a definition of deviance. Such a definition of deviance, which relies on rigid reference to moral or ethical codes that are presumably universal, we call an “absolute” definition of deviance. A good example of absolute deviance can be found in the moral codes of the Christian faith and especially in the ten commandments which stipulate a set of behaviours that are presumably universally frowned upon by God. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Individuals who commit these acts are considered deviant.

As you might guess, I am not a big fan of absolute definitions of deviance. There are a number of reasons for this but in the context of our course theme (i.e., sociology is the study of the world we create) my problem with absolute definitions is that they tend to erase human agency and the application of power. Absolute definitions look to divine or natural “laws” as the source of the rules that govern our behaviour and to a sociologist, this is anathema. It just makes no sense. As a sociologist I must insist that is we, as individuals, who create, accept, and apply the rules that create deviance. This becomes quite clear when you consider the fact that many so called absolute moral codes are quite relative. For example, although an absolute definition of deviance would define killing as absolutely wrong, you nevertheless find many examples when killing is sanctioned. For example, the Christian presidents of the United States never seem to have a problem sending their armies into other countries to kill and many states, and many countries that are ostensibly Christian, support death penalties. Clearly, and as you will see as you read through this introduction and the examples in the textbook, there is a lot going on beneath the surface that is not accounted for in simplistic definitions of deviance.

So how do we approach developing an alternative definition of deviance that acknowledges human agency? Well the first step towards an alternative definition of deviance that acknowledges human agency is to develop, as per the textbook, a statistical definition of deviance. A statistical definition of deviance would define as “deviant” any behaviour, attitude, or opinion that strays away from “normal” behaviour. Now it’s very important you understand what we mean by “normal” here because in this case we are not using a “moral compass” to determine deviance but a statistical compass. In statistics, “normal” has a very specific definition. In statistics, normal is basically the “most prevalent” or common behaviour, attitude, or “thing.” For example, in Canadian society the majority of people get up in the morning to go to work and thus it is “normal” to wake up in the morning and go to work. It is also normal to water your lawn and keep it green. It is “normal” to force your kids to go to school and it is “normal” to select from one of the three presented political parties every four years in the federal election. In a society that prides itself on punctuality (i.e., be at work on time, take lunch at the same time every day, go home at same time every day), ongoing tardiness would be considered a deviant behaviour especially if it came to interfere with expected activities (i.e., work). These are just a few examples and you could easily expand them but the point should be clear. As you can see, these behaviours are deviant or normal not because of some absolute moral standard but because that’s the way everyone acts. It is, for whatever reason, what is expected. In our societies, for example, we are expected to not kill each other. By contrast, when it comes to other people whom we define “enemies,” then the morality and normality is turned on its head and killing becomes, for some people, expected. Next time you walk out of your home in the morning take a look at all the “normal” behaviours around and you’ll get some sense of what we mean by a statistical definition of normal.

Now if you are interested in the gory statistical details, statisticians have this “thing” that they call the bell curve. Statisticians use this bell curve  which they use to represent the “normal” distribution of behaviour. An example the bell curve is presented in the image below. Notice the shaded areas in the middle and on either side? According to statisticians, the bell curve (a.k.a. the “normal” distribution) represents the actual distribution of everything human. The shaded part in the middle is where most behaviours fall into (thus most people get up in the morning and go to work and work 8 hours day, most families have 1.7 children, most people believe in God, etc.). By contrast the shaded areas at the tail represent behaviour that is “not normal” (i.e., not within the “common” area in the middle). Thus a few people worship Satan (so called Satanists), some people are “lazy bums” (according to the dominant or “normal” ethical standards) and don’t want to work, and some people believe entheogenic (see entheogen) mushrooms have extraterrestrial intelligence (I kid you not), and so on. These behaviours and beliefs are “deviant” (i.e., not normal) because less people believe them and they fall outside the “normal” area in the statisticians curve.

If you have never come across this construct before, you should know, this bell curve is quite “useful.” You can put anything you want on this curve. You can put human height, intelligence, political opinion, “talent,” ability, behaviour, or whatever and the statisticians will cast their incantations and do their invocations and a normal curve will emerge for you. As we will see in a few moments, if you know the proper statistical incantations, you can create a normal curve out of anything. The normal curve is like the “holy grail” of deviance, inequality, and post secondary social and no doubt you will see more of this as you progress through your studies. For now, just keep in mind the curve and the fact that, in the context of deviance, we can define a behaviour that is “not normal (i.e., not “in the middle”) as deviant.

In my opinion, the statistical definition of deviance is a step forward from the absolute definition in as much as it decouples deviance from loosely applied “absolutes.” However, it’s not perfect. On the one hand, and although this definition decouples deviance from some kind of moral code, it doesn’t decouple it from absolutism or “natural law.” The problem is that most people with a passing familiarity of statistics (i.e., the kind that you get in most undergraduate, and some graduate courses on statistics) will believe that the bell curve represents some kind of “naturally occurring” distribution of behaviour, talent, or whatever. The behaviours in the middle are “normal” or “average” because that’s the way nature made most people (i.e., normal and average). People will always give you examples to support this. Height, they will tell you, is “normally” distributed, as is weight. If you look around you, most men are about 5’10’’ but there are those who are very tall or very short. And it’s not just physical characteristics either. Psychologists will try and tell you that even something like intelligence is normally distributed. Heck, university administrators will tell you that your grades are normally distributed (i.e., most people are average, but some are “stars), and so on. And the reason for this? The reason why most are average and some are stars? According to convention, it all comes down to some kind of “natural” and genetically coded distribution of talent and ability. It is not a moral absolute, but it is an absolute anyway.

Perhaps you can see the problem here. Although the statistical definition of normal moves away from absolute definitions of deviance and normality, we are still stuck with a form of absolutism. However, instead of linking deviance and normality to moral codes, here we link it to the “natural” laws of nature. It’s just the way the world works. Nature only produces “talent” or ability or strength or whatever in limited numbers.

Unfortunately though, and despite what most of us are taught to think, the normal distribution that we use to bring a statistical sophistication to our understanding of deviance doesn’t exist in most cases. The truth is, intelligence, grades, abilities, are not represented in the population in a normal way. The fact is, the normal distribution is either a) a statistical artefact of the way data is gathered and sampled or b) is actually constructed by the activities of people interested in presenting a particular view of reality to you.

Now it is way beyond the scope of this introductory text to go into the reasons why the normal distribution is, in most cases, a statistical artefact. The short explanation is that the normal distribution is not really based on complete overview of a population, it’s based on a sample of the population. What’s worse, the normal distribution is not even constructed from a sample, but a sample of samples! Typically when you take a sample of a population, you never get a normal distribution. However, if you take multiple samples (say ten), calculate the average score for each of those samples, and then throw the average (or mean) of the sample you take into its own distribution, then you get a normal distribution. Basically, the normal distribution emerges when you take sample means and throw them into their own little group.

This is can be a little complicated, so perhaps an example will help. If a psychologist is interested in measuring intelligence in a population, for example, the social scientist cannot administer intelligence tests to everyone. It is impossible. It is too time consuming and too expensive. If you wanted to know the average IQ of people in Alberta, for example, compared to British Columbia, you can’t go and test everybody. The solution? You take a sample. Instead of administering an IQ test to all one million people in Edmonton, you administer to a methodological sound sample of 100 people and then generalize from your sample to the entire population. There are “sampling procedures” that theoretically allow you to gather a “representative sample.” The problem? When you do that, you never get a normal distribution. It simply never happens. For whatever reason, you get a skewed distribution. Reality always gets in the way.

So what do you do?

Well, if you are a statistician, you take another sample. And when that doesn’t show normal, you take another one and another one and then, when you’ve gathered ten or twenty samples together, you calculate the average IQ of each of the samples and then you put that value into a new distribution and when you do that then magically and mystically, you get a normal distribution. And that’s the way it is at all times. Any sample that you take of the “real world” will never mirror the theoretical normal distribution. The only way to get it is to construct it through the creation of what is called a sampling distribution (i.e., a distribution of sample means). And when I say always I mean always. Even randomly generated number data can be made to conform to a normal distribution if you use the magical methodology of multiple samples.

And if that’s not bad enough, there’s more. As I said above, it’s not just that the normal distribution is a statistical artefact, it’s that the normal distribution is actually, in some cases, constructed. What do I mean by that? Well basically I mean that people construct that distribution. Standardized intelligence tests are like that. I don’t know about the new tests but tests like the Stanford Binet or the WISC were created so that they would reflect the illusion of a normal distribution. What the test constructors did was administer a bunch of test items and then collect a selection of items that, when administered, gave intelligence scores that were normally distributed. They manipulated the test to conform to their “theoretically driven” ideas of the natural distribution of intelligence. They were not malicious about this. They simply believed the propaganda that intelligence was normally distributed in the population.

I admit that the notion that things like IQ tests are actually manipulated to create an illusion is a bit esoteric but I do have a striking example from my own experience to illustrate this. When I was doing my PhD work at the University of Alberta I used to teach classes as part of the work. At the end of every term I would always get a little one page “guidance” sheet from the university administration. On this sheet was the historical average of the class (i.e., if it was a 100 level class than maybe the average was 63%), a reminder of the “fact” that marks in the class were normally distributed, and a strong suggestion that the marks of my students should reflect not only the historical average, but also the “normally distributed” scores that the administration expected to see. In case I need to be explicit, the university administration was literally inviting me and giving me the authority to change people’s marks in order to erase the ugly reality of a non-normally distributed sample and force the illusion of a normally distributed collection of sample scores where only a few people could get excellent marks and most fell into the “average” range. And you know, it wasn’t just about lowering marks either. If you wanted to make a normal distribution, you have often to engage in some rather “interesting” manipulations. If ten people got a 90% in the class, six of these might have to be lowered to 70%, and three might have to be lowered to 80% just to create the proper illusion.


I certainly was shocked and had I not been taking statistics from a brilliant sociologist who was highly critical of this practice, I might have joined along in the merry construction of reality. However, because even then I knew that the normal distribution was a statistical artefact, and because I understand that the normal distribution was based on a sampling distribution, I never “curved” my marks (curving is the official description for manipulating the reality of the class marks), but others did. Indeed, some faculties at the UofA were notorious for brutally forcing student marks into the “mould of normality.” In some cases that I am aware of, you could end the class with at 90%, but have a final grade of below 70% just because somebody, somewhere was “expecting” your class to reflect the illusion of normalcy.

So where does this leave us in the context of our discussion of deviance. Well obviously, a statistical understanding of deviance doesn’t give us the full picture. Something else is going on and while getting into the full details of what that “something” is, is way beyond the scope of this introductory sociology course, we can still use this information to add usefully to our understanding of deviance. Putting deviance in the context of our course theme (i.e., that “we” construct reality) we can ask the question, who “constructs” deviance?

We already know the answer to that and it is to be found in the construction of normalcy. We’ve seen the bell curve, we’ve seen that the whole idea of normalcy is illusion, and we’ve seen that normalcy and deviance (in the statistical and moral sense) is often constructed. So who constructs it? Well, people with power construct it. Basically we can say that something becomes deviant when some individual or group with the “power to define” undertakes actions which have the effect of defining an act as deviant (or normal).

And who has the power to construct deviance and normality?

Well, in our complex and modern society, there is no one single individual or group of individuals with the power to construct normality. Depending on the specific issue, it’s different. In regards to the idea of intelligence or university marks, clearly administrators, psychologists, and other “human professionals” have the power to alter the representation of reality and construct normality and deviance. But other issues have other power brokers. For example, consider what many people might consider the “normal” pattern of marriage and co-habitation. Normally, we expect a male and a female to connect, co-habit, marry, and have children. This is the normal way. For many people (though not everybody) gay relationships, where a male and a male or a female and a female get together and co-habitat, are considered “deviant.” In recent decades the acceptance of this has increased, but despite the acceptance, in most places in the world gay people are not allowed to “normalize” their relationship by getting married. I don’t know of any religious groups that currently sanction gay marriage, and I can count on half the fingers of one hand how many provinces and states in North America allow it.

And why would the state want to interfere in something like marriage patterns? Ah well that’s the rub, and that’s where power comes in. In the white western societies, our moral and legal codes are based on Christian values and these values are often antagonistic to homosexual unions. Despite the notion that there is a separation of church and state, nevertheless imagine what would happen if the state legislature in one of the bible belt states in the USA suddenly decided to legalize gay marriages. Christian populations would be up in arms and would no doubt force the legislature to turn back the legislation. Power to define deviance! In this case, it’s in the hands of the “moral majority” (a majority that has been on the decline in recent decades, but nevertheless remains powerful).

You can see, when it comes to deviance, power is important. And it’s not always a case of numbers or majorities either. If you read over the textbook example of the Zoot-suite riots in Chicago you will see that, a single individual, a cartoonist by the name of Al Cap, was able to singlehandedly define a style trend (the wearing of the Zoot Suite) as deviant. Using his cartoon strip as an outlet for his own sentiment and morality, Cap was even able to mobilize violent social action and sanction. He recommended a form of social sanction in his strip (i.e., accosting the wearers of the Zoot suit, ripping off their clothes, and shaving their heads). This recommendation was actually picked up by young men, men in the military service, and others! Al Cap was able to literally invoke violent sanction against a subcultural group that he himself defined as deviant. The riots reached a crescendo in June 1943 when thousands of young white men assaulted zoot-suiters. The riots eventually ended in a judicial ban of a counter cultural group (i.e., wearing a Zoot suit became illegal). This is remarkable perhaps not so much because of the way a single individual was able to define deviance and aim social sanction (though that in itself is instructive), but for th power of the media. If Al Cap had not had a cartoon read by 50 million people of his day, that is, if he did not have the weight of the media behind him, he would have been relatively powerless to define and aim sanction as he did.

Media power to define deviance and normality is also important in other things. The textbook has an interesting case of the 1990 Oka land dispute in Canada where media tended to present a particular “frame” of interpretation that benefited the Government of Canada to the detriment of Mohawk land claims. In the media, the Mohawk natives were always portrayed as defiant and deviant and the white society as defenders of common sense and normalcy. As the textbook points out, there were particular biases in the media that contributed to this definitional work. The media, for example, under represented acts of non-aboriginal violence and always presented a particularly iconic and archetypal image. You can read what the textbook says yourself but what is most interesting about the textbook example is that even sociologists, who should know better, are implicated in the perpetuation of inaccurate and biased mythology on the Oka standoff. Basically, the social scientists put forward a frame in their textbooks that was no different than the erroneous, politicised, and biased media presentation.

Now, as the textbook points out, power also comes into play in the world of crime and punishment as well. The text points to some very real and documented biases in the legal system. According to the text, crimes normally associated with the poor tend to carry heavier penalties, and be tried more often than crimes associated with the wealthy or the middle classes. In fact, when you take a close look at the legal system, you find that the legal system seems to focus almost exclusively on activities of the poor to the point where the laws themselves show bias against poor crime. White collar crime units within policing institutions are almost always under funded and understaffed. And more telling, the deviant acts of rich people are defined away as signs of eccentricities or illness and not crime. Take two individuals, one rich and white, and one poor and native, have them commit the same crime, and chances are good that, even though they have no priors, the white man walks and the native goes to jail (or is sanctioned more heavily)—the same deviant act, but a different application of the rules. Considering the basic sociological premise that “we” create the world we live in, the biased creation of deviance, and the biased application of sanction, is perhaps not surprising considering the fact that the legal system is dominated by white, affluent, men.[1]

And so that’s a sociological overview of deviance. We started off by looking at absolute definitions of deviance, then at statistical, and then ended up taking a brief look at the importance of power in the definition of normalcy and deviance. As we have seen, “normal” exists because somebody, somewhere has the power to define “normal” and then make that stick with sanctions and punishments. As you might gather, this is just the start. This is a big topic and we’ve only scratched the surface of a sociological study of deviance (and normality). Other related topics that you might find interesting in pursuing include corporate and white-collar crime, bias in the criminal system, biases and illusions in the psychological assessment process (especially the psychological assessment of intelligence, and race and IQ tests)


In this week/s assignment I want you to take a look at your life up till this point and provide an assessment of the extent to which you have led a “normal” or “deviant” life. You can choose whatever indicators you want or dimensions you are willing to discuss. Take a look at deviance from an absolute perspective, a statistical perspective, and finally from the perspective of power. Take a look at the behaviour and ask yourself whether or not your behaviours reflect your own personal preferences or are the result of conformity to somebody else’s definition of normality. Have you ever been subject to sanction because you stepped outside of what would be considered “normal” behaviour. Some examples might include the sanctions directed at effeminate male children, sanctions because you didn’t fit into “normal” learning styles, sanctions because you looked or acted different, etc.). In other words, did you ever feel pressure to “normalize” and if so, how did you deal with that pressure. There are no right answers here. You will be graded on the quality of your answer and the depth and breadth of your self-analysis.

Additional Reading




Practice Questions

Who are the dominant cultures in Canadian society?

How does status frustration develop among lower-class youth?

How and why might an Aboriginal youth go on a ‘vision quest’?

How and why are definitions of deviance contested in society?

Distinguish between Goffman’s three types of stigma, namely, bodily, moral, and tribal.

What is racialized deviance? How can it be harmful to some groups in our society?

Despite Canada’s multiculturalism policies, why is there still pressure on immigrants to assimilate?

What is racial profiling? Who generally engages in it? Provide at least two examples.

How is it that male values become normalized in our society?

How does the lack of social resources lead to the over-representation of lower class youths in crime statistics?

Briefly explain Goffman’s notion of impression management. How might we use it in everyday life?

Why, according to Sutherland, do white-collar criminals get punished in a less severe manner than other types of criminals?

Distinguish between occupational and corporate crimes. Provide an example of each.

What is the ‘ideology of fag’? How is it detrimental to homosexuals?

[1] If you are interested in pursuing a critical perspective on crime and deviance, I recommend SOCI 3305 (Sociology of Crime) and SOCI 3365 (Sociology of Deviance).

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