Deviance: it’s what society says it is

I’ve started my latest The Great Courses course thanks to a friend and fellow author who got to choose what we did next (so many choices!). I think  that this isn’t going to be quite what either of us expected, but it certainly is interesting and no shortage of something(s) new to learn.

So the next couple of months is going to be about ‘social deviance’ and I want to warn that the word ‘deviant’ is going to be coming up a lot attached to people who clearly are not, by our modern useage of the term. But here’s the definition that psychologists use when employing the word and, after that, a great context to go forward with:

What makes a deviant?  In language use, the word ‘deviant’ has come to mean someone who is somehow broken, or damaged, or twisted, but in sociological terms the concept of deviance is literal. It refers to people who deviate from the sociological norm. In any way and for any reason.

So, ultimately, deviance is what society says it is – someone becomes deviant when they are treated as deviant by society whether they consider themselves to be deviant or not.

This was of great interset to me because the examples they listed of people deemed to be deviant (from the norm) included a dwarf (person), a stutterer, and a homeless person but, and would also include people as far ranging as an albinto through to a person with astonishing vocal skills through to a sociopath. All people living outside of social norms. Yet none (except maybe the vocalist who could have trained) would have any say over their ‘deviance’ and in ll cases only one aspect of them is what is deviant.  A dwarf person could be perfectly normal in all other ways except their body ratio,  a homeless person could be statistically normal except for the fact they have no home to live in.

Yet the ‘deviance’ dominates in the views of society.

The other interesting point of definition re: social deviance is that the thing only becomes deviant when it is reacted to. Deviance only exists in relation to those who define and control it. It cannot exist in isolation.  A person on a desert island can never be deviant because they have left their society and are now their own society. Unsanctioned, unjudged, uncondemned (unless by themselves).

And they can be anyone who deviates from the social norm and society will decide who they react to/control more. A stutterer or a dwarf?

But, as we’ll see later on, deviance becomes an issue because of the way the person being reacted to is made to feel about themselves and the element that pushes them outside the norm. Some deviance is demonised when the thing might be totally outside of the person’s control (like, say, albinoism) and yet other deviant individuals or behaviour become normalised – like the sexualisation of young girls a la Honey Boo Boo. Or they can be desireable, like the amazing vocal skills. Or genius. Or being really, really, ridiculously good looking (yes, I’m looking at you Derek Zoolander…)

So as we go forward, please understand I’m not calling any of these individuals “a” deviant. It is merely their place on the social scale that either is or is not deviant from the norm.

That said… let’s get going. Tomorrow a few words about how deviance changes through time.

Taken from The Great Courses’ Explaining Social Deviance Lecture 1: Asking the Right Questions