deviance | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminology

In the criminology context, deviance refers to behavior that is outside the norm or that violates social expectations or rules.

In the realm of criminology, deviance is a critical concept. It describes actions that veer away from what society considers normal or acceptable. Deviant behavior does not always equate to illegal activities. It can range from minor offenses, like jaywalking or talking loudly in a quiet area, to severe crimes, like theft or assault.

Importantly, what constitutes deviant behavior can change over time and vary from one culture or society to another. For example, societal norms in one country may view certain behaviors as deviant, while another country may consider the same behaviors as acceptable.

Theories of Deviance

Criminologists have proposed many theories to understand the roots and nature of deviant behavior. These theories often guide interventions and policy decisions.

Strain Theory

Strain theory suggests that deviance arises when there’s a gap between societal goals and the means available to achieve these goals. For example, if society values wealth but an individual lacks the means to attain wealth legally, they may resort to theft or fraud.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory proposes that people learn deviant behavior from others around them, especially during childhood. If a child grows up observing adults engaging in deviant acts, they may be more likely to repeat these behaviors.

Labeling Theory

Labeling theory posits that society’s reaction to behavior is a significant factor in defining deviance. If society labels a person as deviant, the person might accept this label and continue to engage in deviant behavior.

Deviance as a Social Problem

While some criminologists view deviance as a normal aspect of human behavior, others see it as a social problem. They argue that deviant behavior can cause harm to individuals and society. For instance, deviant acts like theft can lead to loss of property, while violent crimes can result in physical harm or even death.

Therefore, many believe that addressing deviance is crucial. This can be through law enforcement, social services, or community programs aimed at deterring deviant behavior.

Studying Deviance to Understand Crime

Criminologists often study deviant behavior to understand crime better. By examining why individuals commit deviant acts, they can gain insights into why people commit crimes. This knowledge can guide efforts to prevent crime and rehabilitate those who have engaged in criminal behavior.


Deviance is a multifaceted concept with significant implications in criminology. It encompasses behaviors that defy social norms, ranging from minor infractions to serious crimes. While some view deviance as a normal part of human behavior, others see it as a problem that needs addressing. By studying deviance, criminologists aim to understand and combat criminal behavior better, contributing to a safer society.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/16/2023

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