“Becoming a deviant involves a social process of definition”. The purpose of this essay is to show how this sociological perspective can assist in understanding drug taking in society. In the essay I will discuss the notion of deviance and will demonstrate that people do not become deviants on the strength of their behaviour alone, but by the sanctions of a society whose norms that the offender has deemed to have violated. I will examine approaches to deviance through biological, psychological and sociological methodologies and while the examination of the theories is necessarily brief, it will interrogate some of the main theories related to deviant behaviour in society. The essay will employ Howard Becker’s labeling theory as the major method of understanding deviance, whilst the issue of drug abuse will be used as the specific deviant behaviour. I will also demonstrate that the notion of deviance in society is subject to change according to location and time.
Deviance can be defined as behaviour which violates social norms or expectations of behaviour in particular circumstances (Lofland 1969, p. 1). It is important to understand that deviance does not necessarily constitute illegal activity, though whilst at times this may be the case, it is also true that behaviour which may be considered deviant in one setting is perfectly acceptable in another. The processes which dictate whether an act is deviant or not are often determined within a social or historical context (Henry 2009, p. 2), which by their very nature are fluid and subject to change. For example, smoking cigarettes on aeroplanes was once considered normal, whereas today, such an act would be considered deviant behaviour and render the smoker liable for prosecution. In an attempt to explain deviant behaviour, theorists offer various explanations, including arguments from a biological and psychological perspective, which suggest that causes of deviant behaviour are to be found within the individual (Aggleton 1987, p. 15). Cesare Lombrosso (1835-1909), an Italian criminologist during the nineteenth century, postulated that criminals were marked by particular physiognomic features or abnormalities that predisposed them to deviant behaviour; he “believed the criminal to be an immoral person who had not evolved to the same social and biological level as other people”, and that they “were born with a strong tendency toward lawbreaking”(Vito and Maahs 2012, p. 81). Lombrosso theorised that this propensity toward criminality was an inherited trait, his theory of atavism suggested that criminal types represented “a lower position in the evolutionary order” (O’Brien and Yar 2008, p. 11). Another approach to understanding deviance is based on psychological causes which suggest that deviant behaviour has its roots in the personality traits of the individual (Anderson and Taylor 2008, p. 169). For example, violence, from a psychological perspective, may be related to unresolved issues from childhood, or the crime of murder may be said to be the outworking of an aggressive personality; or the act may have been committed by a person who is morally flawed. Essentially then, what we see in biological and psychological theories suggest that the causes of deviance emanate from within the individual. In contrast to these views, sociologists have developed a range of theories which address the causes of deviance from various sociological perspectives.
Sociologists offer a number of theories to explain deviance, however, they are yet to arrive at a definition which is universally agreed upon (Clinnard and Meier 2011, p. 74). Emile Durkheim’s (1858-1917) functionalist perspective suggests that deviance is a cultural creation which is essentially an affirmation of cultural norms and values. He postulates that deviance is beneficial for society as it drives social change without which a society would enter into atrophy or...
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