Reviewing Theories on Deviance

Learning Outcomes

  • Differentiate between functionalist, conflict theorist, and symbolic interactionist explanations on 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.

Try It

Try It

Let’s review each of these theories again in using the example of sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement.

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?


Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More