Positive Functions of Deviance

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When we hear of the word “deviance”, what we immediately think of is something that is negative, something you would not want to be associated with, that is, we think of universally unaccepted things like murder and rape, or we think of the disabled or blind man begging at the street corner. As a result we view deviance as something that should be removed from society and once society becomes free of deviance, it becomes healthy and close to perfect. According to Aggleton (1987: 7), “deviance could be defined as behaviour which violates certain widely shared expectations or norms.” The problem with such a definition however is that norms vary from society to society despite the fact that globalisation has moved the world towards a single homogeneous culture, based on Western norms, in the last half century. However, most acts of deviance are still universally shared; incest for example is not accepted in most societies. Although deviance is contextual, its functions and consequences are all the same in every society. Perhaps the biggest positive function of deviance is that it acts as a catalyst of social change as Durkheim points out (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004: 333), virtually all forms of social change start from deviance since deviance goes against what is the norm. A certain amount of change is good for society and necessary for its continued survival (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004: 333), without social change, there is no social progress thus society becomes stagnant. An example of deviance which has led to positive social change can be seen in the struggle against apartheid; activists like Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo had to partake in activities which can be defined as deviant, through their deviant acts however they managed to bring about a better more equal South African society. If they had conformed to the norms of that particular period and had sat back and left the status quo as it was then nothing would have changed. Deviance is therefore a prerequisite for progression, whilst innovation may be viewed negatively today, tomorrow it will be lauded, all forms of scientific progression have had to undergo such a process. Darwin theory of evolution may have been deviant two centuries ago, but today it provides a better understanding of the world. Thus, deviance becomes acceptable slowly and the deviant act ends up as a norm. Because deviance introduces change gradually, it prepares people against the trauma of social change as people are exposed to different ways of acting slowly but surely, thus because of deviance there isn’t sudden unexplained change in society. Again something like the struggle against apartheid comes to mind, for so long fighting against a racist regime was deviant but it prepared people for a future black ruled society, without deviance such a change would have been radical and it would have been very hard to adjust to. Another important function that deviance performs in society is that it boosts unity and solidarity in a society thus making social life steadier (Erikson, 2009:13). Deviance splits society into different categories, and those who will have been divided into a similar category will tend to become closer and more integrated. Thus those who will have conformed to society’s norms are likely to stick nearer to each other further reinforcing their norms and creating a secure society than would have happened if acts had not been classified into what is acceptable or not thereby leaving individuals to their own devices. Deviance also makes society more stable by highlighting the outer boundaries of a social group, it declares the amount of variability and diversity that can be tolerated in a group before it starts to lose its distinct identity (Erikson, 2009: 15). Therefore the strong message that is sent out to a murderer serves to point out that, killings cannot be tolerated if a social group is to survive and not die out. When deviance occurs, people in a particular community...
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