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9.8: Reviewing Theories on Deviance

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    Learning Outcomes

    • Differentiate between functionalist, conflict theorist, and symbolic interactionist explanations for deviance and crime

    Summary of Theoretical Explanations of Deviance

    The three major sociological paradigms offer different explanations for the motivation behind deviance and crime. Functionalists point out that deviance is a social necessity since it reinforces norms by reminding people of the consequences of violating them. Violating norms can open society’s eyes to injustice in the system.

    Conflict theorists argue that crime stems from a system of inequality that keeps those with power at the top and those without power at the bottom.

    Symbolic interactionists focus attention on the socially constructed nature of the labels related to deviance. Crime and deviance are learned from the environment and enforced or discouraged by those around us.

    Review each of the main theories associated with each perspective below.

    Functionalism Associated Theorist Deviance arises from:
    Strain Theory Robert Merton A lack of ways to reach socially accepted goals by accepted methods
    Social Disorganization Theory University of Chicago researchers Weak social ties and a lack of social control; society has lost the ability to enforce norms with some groups
    Social Control Theory Travis Hirschi Deviance results from a feeling of disconnection from society; social control is directly affected by the strength of social bonds
    Conflict Theory Associated Theorist Deviance arises from:
    Unequal System Karl Marx Inequalities in wealth and power that arise from the economic system
    Power Elite C. Wright Mills Ability of those in power to define deviance in ways that maintain the status quo
    Symbolic Interactionism Associated Theorist Deviance arises from:
    Labeling Theory Edwin Lemert The reactions of others, particularly those in power who are able to determine labels
    Differential Association Theory Edwin Sutherlin Learning and modeling deviant behavior seen in other people close to the individual

    Watch It

    Watch this video to review some of the major theories covered in this module. You’ll examine the symbolic interactionist paradigms of differential association and labeling theory, and also the functionalist paradigm of strain theory.

    An interactive or media element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

    Think It Over

    • Choose a public figure who has effected a major, controversial political and or legal change. To what extant were this person’s actions or beliefs considered deviant when they first emerged? How can the process by which they were eventually accepted and became new norms be explained by applying the major sociological paradigms? What norms needed to be re-examined? Which paradigm seems most useful? Why?
    CC licensed content, Original
    • Modification, adaptation, and original content. Authored by: Scott Barr for Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution
    CC licensed content, Shared previously
    All rights reserved content
    • Perspectives on Deviance: Differential Association, Labeling Theory, and Strain Theory. Authored by: Jeffrey Walsh. Provided by: Khan Academy. Located at: License: Other. License Terms: Standard YouTube License

    This page titled 9.8: Reviewing Theories on Deviance is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lumen Learning.

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