Who Defines Deviance?
Are some behaviors. beliefs. and conditions inherently deviant? In commonsense thinking, deviance is often viewed as inherent in certain kinds or behavior or people. For sociologists, however, deviance is a formal properly of social situations and social structure. As the sociologist Kai T. Erikson (1964: 11) explains, Deviance is not a property inherent in certain forms of behavior; it is a property conferred upon these forms by the audiences which directly or indirectly witness them. The critical variable in the study of deviance, then, is the social audience rather than the individual actor. since it is the audience which eventually determines whether or not any episode of behavior or an}' class of episodes is labeled deviant. Based on this statement, we can conclude that deviance is relative-that is, an act becomes deviant when it is socially defined as such. Definitions of deviance vary widely from place to place. from time to time. and from group to group (see "Sociology Works!").
Today, for example. some women wear blue jeans and very short hair to college classes; some men wear all earring and 10l1g hair. In the past, such looks violated established dress codes in many schools, and adm inistrators probably would have asked these students to change their appearance or leave school. Deviant behavior also varies in its dt'grec of serious ncss, ranging from mild transgressions of folkwr s, to more serious infringements of n.ores, to qu ile serious violations of the law. Have you kept a library book past its due date or cut classes? If so, you have violated folkways. Others probably view your infraction as relatively minor; at most. you might have to pay a fine or receive a lower grade. Violations of mores-such as falsifying a college application or cheating on an examinntionare viewed as more serious infractions and are punishable by stronger sanctions, such as academic probation or expulsion. Some forms of deviant behavior violate the criminal law. which defines the behaviors that society labels as criminal. A crime is a behavior that violates criminal law and is punishable with fines, jail terms, and/or other negative sanctions. Crimes range from minor offenses (such as traffic violations) to major offenses (such as murder). A subcategory. juveuil« delinquency, refers to a violation of law or the commission of a status offense by young people. Note that the legal concept of juvenile delinquency includes not only crimes but also status offenses (such as cutting school or running away from home). which are illegal only when committed by younger people