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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Social Deviancy, the Law, and Society

By guest blogger Allison Gamble

Deviance and criminal behavior are closely linked concepts in modern thought, although they are not always the same in practice. While the average man on the street may assume deviant behavior is also criminal, in terms of forensic psychology this simply isn't the case. While the categories often overlap, it's possible to be a deviant without being a criminal, or to be a criminal without being socially deviant.

Deviant Behavior, Society, and Social Sanction

Deviant behavior violates what society considers acceptable, while criminal behavior violates the law of that society. The average person sees deviance as behavior not in accordance with the standards of “proper” behavior in society.

Social deviance may include any of the following behaviors:

• Refusing to respect social norms of polite behavior.
This can range from being rude to others to refusing to offer respect to social icons. In general, this sort of behavior brands adherents as standing outside what the majority sees as the acceptable bounds of social activity.

• Unpopular political or religious beliefs.
Minority social or political groups often fall into this category, especially during times of social or ethnic tension. Examples in the United States include abolitionist activists in the Antebellum South, as well as Catholics during the mid- and late-19th century.

• Defying normal class and gender roles.
Early feminists and civil rights advocates often found themselves accused of social deviancy for transgressing against the accepted standards of behavior as it applied to gender and ethnicity.

• Engaging in activities harmful to others.
Murder, theft, rape, and other transgressions that have a direct impact on others are almost universally regarded as both deviant and criminal.

• Criminal behavior.
Although not always the case, many individuals regard breaking the law as a deviant act in and of itself, regardless of the nature of the act. By breaking the law, an individual engages in a defiance of accepted standards of public behavior. However, this definition of deviancy is by no means universal, and a common attribute of unpopular laws is that the majority of the citizenry does not regard disobedience to be a sign of deviant behavior.

Thus, while socially deviant behavior can be criminal, not all criminal offenses are considered socially deviant. Especially in liberal societies, being socially deviant doesn't constitute criminal behavior.

Social Deviancy and Criminal Behavior

However, state and society both often ascribe social deviancy to criminals. In fact, being able to point to the social deviancy of crime is vital to securing the legitimacy of the law in the eyes of a people. Laws which aren't seen as curbing socially deviant behaviors often fail to gain acceptance. Laws that criminalize acts that are nearly universally regarded as socially deviant include laws against rape, pedophilia, murder, violent robbery, or fraud. While those accused of these crimes may deny guilt, they very seldom attempt to defend the acts themselves.

When a population isn't convinced a law enforces social norms, the law often fails. Perhaps the most dramatic example in recent history was Prohibition. Despite the best efforts of proponents, the majority of the population continued to consider alcohol socially acceptable, dooming Prohibition to eventual repeal.

At the other end of the spectrum, perceptions of social deviancy can lead to laws designed specifically to punish deviancy, even where it involves no harm to others. Nudity ordinances are an example of criminal statutes designed solely to enforce social norms and punish social deviants who defy them. Obscenity statues are much the same, and in fact the Supreme Court's approach to obscenity explicitly makes reference to community social standards when determining if something is deviant enough to be labeled obscene.

In these cases, individuals may have radically different opinions about the acceptable or deviant nature of the behavior in question. The legal dependence upon community standards and the average person’s interpretation of them make it clear that standards of social deviancy can vary widely from community to community. Unlike crimes such as murder, in these cases it's very difficult to achieve consensus as to what constitutes deviant behavior, and whether or not it should be criminalized. In the United States, such differences can divide states or even individual communities within those states.

Changing Times and Changing Definitions of Deviancy

This brings up a final factor: definitions of deviant and criminal behavior can change over time, impacting both social and criminal aspects of how behaviors are regarded by society. A number of behaviors, from same-sex relationships to the advocacy of reproductive rights, have been demonized and met with legal sanction. As definitions of deviance change, especially in the eyes of the average population, the relationship between the law and deviant behavior shifts as well.

In this way, both criminal and social standards of deviancy evolve over time, as does the average perception of what constitutes social and legal transgression. The two issues are tightly linked and will always affect each other through mutual influence.

Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing with forensicpsychology.net.

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