Sociologists use the term deviance to refer to any violation of rules and norms. From a sociological perspective, deviance is relative. Definitions of "what is deviant" vary across societies and from one group to another within the same society. Howard S. Becker described the interpretation of deviance as, "It is not the act itself, but the reaction to the act that makes something deviant." This coincides with the symbolic interactionist point out that it is not the act itself but the reactions to the act that make something deviant. In some cases, an individual need not do anything to be labeled a deviant. He or she may be falsely accused or discredited because of a birth defect, race, or disease. Even crime is relative when interpreting the deviance of the actor.
Deviance is based on adherence and violation of norms. Human groups need norms to exist. By making behavior predictable, norms make social life possible. Consequently, all human groups develop a system of social control, which involves formal and informal means of enforcing norms. Those who violate these norms face the danger of being labeled deviant. Violators can expect to experience negative sanctions for the violation of norms. Members of society who conform to societal norms, especially those who go above and beyond what is commonly expected, receive positive sanctions. In some societies, such as the Amish, shaming is a common negative sanction.
Biologists, psychologists, and sociologists have different perspectives on why people violate norms. Biological explanations focus on genetic predispositions, psychologists concentrate on abnormalities within the individual (commonly known as personality disorders), and sociologists look at social factors outside the individual.
Symbolic interactionists interpret deviance through the following social theories: differential association theory (people learn deviance from the groups with whom they associate), control theory (people generally avoid deviance because of an effective system of inner and outer controls), and labeling theory (people are directed toward or away from deviance by the labels others pin on them).
Functionalists contend that deviance is functional for society; it contributes to the social order by clarifying moral boundaries, promoting social unity, and initiating social change. Furthermore, according to "strain theory," people who are unable to achieve cultural goals (such as wealth or high status) through legitimate means are likely to experience strain, which, in turn, can lead to deviant and/or criminal behavior. In addition to strain theory, functionalists stress theories addressing illegitimate opportunity structure in society.
Conflict theorists note that power plays a central role in defining and punishing deviance. The group in power imposes its definitions of deviance on other groups, then use the law and criminal justice system to maintain its power and privilege over those other groups.
Reactions to deviance in the United States include everything from mild sanctions to capital punishment. Since the 1980s, the United States has adopted a "get tough" policy on crime that has imprisoned millions of people. Prisoners are generally much younger than average American, nearly 94 percent male, and disproportionately African American.
Since crime statistics are produced within a specific social and political context for particular purposes, they must be interpreted with caution. Power plays a central role in which behaviors are defined as crime, and how actively "criminal behaviors" are prosecuted and/or punished. For example, although street crime is given the greatest attention by the media, white collar crime actually costs the American taxpayers more. Even cases of gross negligence that causes death are funneled into administrative hearings that result in little more than a fine for the corporation. The definition of crime is subject to change, however, and how various acts are treated by society changes with shifts in power and public priority.
Since the early twentieth century, there has been a growing tendency toward the medicalization of deviance, viewing deviance, including crime, as mental illnesses. Thomas Szasz offers another perspective, claiming that mental illnesses are neither mental nor illness. Rather, they are problem behaviors that are related to people's particular experiences in life.
Since deviance is inevitable, the larger issues include finding ways to protect people from those forms of deviance that harm themselves and/or others, tolerating deviant behaviors that are not harmful, and developing systems of fairer treatment for deviants.