How Does Society Define What Is Deviant?

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How does society define what is deviant?

Any conception of deviance that we can know of is never agreed upon by the whole of society. It is salient to note that the concept of ‘society’ used in this question is rather homogenous. It assumes that every different section within society, every class, race and gender, has the same definition of deviance which it is the job of this essay to unpick. Instead I will be focusing upon how any definitions of deviance are biased towards the upper class definitions. It is the upper class that have access to the institutions through which any general definitions are determined. It is the upper class that have access to the state law institution, that have the corporate control over the gate keeping media, and have an exuberant presence within the institutions of social definition, the church and the school. Through this essay I will adopt the theories of deviance available and examine the upper class power over institutions to demonstrate that they merely enhance the upper class definitions of deviance rather than any other. It is not a case of how society defines what is deviance, but how the upper class legitimately and successfully determine what is defined as deviance – and this includes many academic theorists on the matter. I will therefore take ‘society’ to mean the upper class.

To examine how society defines what is deviant we need to understand what deviance really is. Deviance is defined in dictionaries as the condition of being abnormal. By interpreting this from an individual’s point of view deviance can be seen as any act or practice that is not performed by yourself as it is not normally done by yourself in your regular habits, routines and practices. When we look at deviance from a society’s point of view it can be viewed similarly as something that is not done normally by the community. From an act like murder to picking ones nose, there are many things that can be looked at as deviant. From an academic perspective, according to Paul Rock, deviancy is a social construct fashioned by members of the society in which it exists. Deviant roles are given names which single them out for purposes of elucidation, action and, often, the justification of action. (1973:19). So deviants are differentiated in society by labeling, singling out and ostracization. Additionally, according to Steven Box, deviants were perceived as essentially different from conformists by the fact that a deviant act had been committed. The cause of deviant behaviour were speculated upon and resulted in a ‘five fold fracture in the unity between a person and (i) the meaning of his/her behaviour, (ii) the perception of his/her behaviour, (iii) the reaction of the person to the reaction of others, (iv) the reaction to the reaction of state officials, and (v) the State as the creator of rules whose violation constitutes the grounds for deviance attribution’. Armed with these definitions I will take it that society, or specifically the upper class, defines what is deviant through many different institutions namely the state, the media, schools, and religion. I will now examine how these institutions contribute to the definitions of deviance in society.

Through the criminal justice system, the state defines crime and enforces a code of expected behavior known as the law. And it is the state’s definition of crime that is the most powerful influence upon society’s definition of deviance. The concepts of capitalism and Marxism have been used extensively during the process of defining deviance by the state. Crime is defined by the law and practiced through imprisonment and other punishments. For example, Michael Foucault was a strong believer in the states power to provide a model of discipline, as described in his book Discipline and Punish (1977). He believed that since deviance will always be inevitable in the law, the function of imprisonment may indeed be to maintain the presence of an institution...
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