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Perspectives on deviance: Differential association, labeling theory, and strain theory

Deviance, a departure from societal norms, is explored through three theories: Differential Association, Labeling, and Strain. Differential Association suggests deviance is learned from others who violate norms. Labeling theory argues deviance depends on societal judgment. Strain theory proposes that blocked goals can lead to deviance. These theories provide a comprehensive understanding of deviance in society. Created by Jeffrey Walsh.

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Video transcript

Voiceover: In the last video, we defined norms and outlined some basic ways that a person could violate a norm. When a norm is violated, it's referred to as deviance. And though the word, deviance, seems negative, it's not. It simply means that an individual's behaving differently from what society feels is normal behavior. If a person is deviant from norms, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are doing something bad or immoral. As an example, most Americans eat meat on a regular basis, and they feel that doing so is normal behavior. Someone who doesn't eat meat, someone who's a vegetarian, they would be considered deviant. Their behavior is different than what the majority considers acceptable and normal. And just like norms are relative, deviance is relative, as well. It is dependent on the context, individual group, or location in the world. And standards for deviance change, based on those factors. Sociologists often use symbolic interactionist perspective when studying deviance. The perspective basically states that society is a product of everyday social interactions of individuals. This means that looking at how people behave in normal everyday situations, helps us to better understand and define deviance. One view of deviance from this perspective, is the theory of differential association. And differential association states that deviance is a learned behavior that results from continued exposure to others who violate norms and laws. So this situation in individuals who commit deviant behavior learn values and norms that are different from the dominant culture. So you can think of this as monkey see, monkey do. But also the monkey believes this is acceptable behavior. So imagine an elite athlete. This athlete grows up with coaches and teammates that believe that cheating is wrong and to be a successful athlete one must train hard, avoid drugs and alcohol and be respectful to opponents. Now imagine the athlete switches teams and his new team members believe that using steroids, partying, and heckling are the best way to be successful in the sport. From his new team members the athlete learns that drug use, partying, and heckling are acceptable even though they were not acceptable before. The new team members may even show the athlete how to be deviant by demonstrating how to take a particular drug or introducing the athlete to a new type of steroid. The athlete rejects his norms and values, and accepts the new deviant behaviors. With this in mind the theory differential association asserts that the relationships a person forms are very important. If a person forms strong relationships with someone who is incredibly deviant, and provides constant exposure to violated norms, they are more likely to learn deviance. However, if they form relationships with someone who follows norms, they are less likely to learn deviant behavior. Another view of deviance that's supported by this symbolic interaction as perspective in sociology is labeling theory. In labeling theory, a behavior is deviant if people have judged the behavior and labeled it as deviant. So think back on our early athlete. If he uses steroids, is that deviant? Well the answer depends on what is considered acceptable within that specific team, sporting league, or even within the greater society. See using steroids isn't necessarily right or wrong. It is possible that in some situations, steroids are medically necessary. However in the context of professional sports steroid use can be labelled as wrong or unfair. And thus be considered deviant and subject to criticism from others. Society's reaction to and its labels for the deviant behavior and the person who committed the deviant behavior are very important. An act labeled as primary deviance does not have huge consequenceS. This act produces very little societal push back. The reaction to the deviant behavior is very mild and, and doesn't affect the person's self esteem. The individual's able to continue to behave in the same way without feeling immoral or wrong. As an example, imagine that our athlete took steroids and his teammates found out. Since they all use steroids, the athlete is not labeled as deviant and his actions go unnoticed. His deviance doesn't matter. However, an act labeled as secondary deviance can produce more serious consequences. Secondary deviance is characterized by a severe negative reaction that produces a stigmatizing label that can result in even more deviant behavior. So imagine the teammates of our athlete label his behavior as deviant. And they exclude him from practices and tell him that he's a terrible player. The reactions may cause them to feel he needs to continue to use steroids to be a better player. He may even escalate and use steroids more often or try more dangerous forms of the drug. His repeated deviance gives him a reputation and the stigma of deviance stays with him for the rest of his career. And the last theory of deviance that we'll cover is called strain theory. And strain theory suggests that if a person is blocked from attaining a culturally accepted goal, they become frustrated or strained and turn to deviance. So in this viewpoint, individuals in a group are pushed to attain certain goals, but they may not have the means or legitimate a way to achieve success. Though society values a certain behavior, they do not make the opportunity to success available to everyone. In some situations a lack of equal opportunity results in increase access to illegal means to achieve success. So if we think about our athlete example, imagine that he attends a school that doesn't have access to proper training equipment. Or doesn't have access to a qualified coach or solid funding. The athlete becomes frustrated with his inability to become an elite athlete, and so he turns to deviant behavior. Or maybe because the school athletic program lacks the proper resources to be successful, there are more steroid dealers in the area. And our athlete turns to steroids to try to level the playing field. These behaviors are deviant but they provide the athlete with a way to achieve the socially acceptable goal of being a successful, strong, and talented player. So that's the strain theory