7.1 Deviance and Control

Introduction to Deviance, Crime, and Social Control/ Philip Hudson entered Morehouse College at age 19 wearing men’s jeans and long hair tied back in dreadlocks. “The first day I got to campus, I was a boy

Introduction to Deviance, Crime, and Social Control/ Philip Hudson entered Morehouse College at age 19 wearing men’s jeans and long hair tied back in dreadlocks. “The first day I got to campus, I was a boy,” Philip recalled a few years later. He said he was “trying to be this masculine boy, real cool and real quiet.” By the end of his sophomore year, Philip had swapped his jeans for skirts and found himself the target of a strong backlash (King 2010). Morehouse College made national news for its response to the teen’s lifestyle, establishing a schoolwide ban on the wearing of women’s clothing by men (Chen 2010).

Morehouse College, an all-male college in Atlanta, Georgia, has a prestigious history. Established in 1867 as a place of higher learning for former slaves, Morehouse is the alma mater of great leaders such as “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Howard Thurman, and celebrities such as Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee” (Mungin 2009). The sense of revolution is what brought Philip to Morehouse, a place where he hoped he could be himself.

After a difficult upbringing where his gendered-ness resulted in abuse and rape, he realized that he identified as a female and wanted to express that aspect of his person. He began taking female hormones to start his biological transition to the female sex. Although Philip initially halted his treatment once he began college, he soon found others like himself. At Morehouse, he met Diamond Poulin, a student who defined himself as a man who felt comfortable in women’s clothes. Joined by a handful of others, Philip and Diamond donned skirts, high heels, and other traditionally female attire on campus in an attempt to be themselves. They were jeered at and ridiculed—even attacked.

Then came the school’s shocking decision in late 2009. The new rules, titled the “Appropriate Attire Policy,” banned cross-dressing anywhere on the campus grounds. Those who broke the rules were not allowed to attend class unless they changed their clothing, and multiple transgressions led to disciplinary action and suspension.

Diamond left Morehouse that fall, but returned once in the spring to visit his friends. He found himself escorted off campus by school security for violating the dress code. Philip remained at Morehouse for another year before leaving because of stress. He now plans to resume his studies at a larger university in Florida. What he’s most looking forward to is walking around in public without being verbally attacked. “They’ll stare,” Philip says with resignation, “but I’m used to that” (King 2010).

7.1 Deviance and Control

What, exactly, is deviance? And what is the relationship between deviance and crime? As Philip Hudson found out, some behaviors, such as wearing clothes of the opposite sex, can be deviant in certain places, criminal in some places, and perfectly acceptable elsewhere. According to sociologist William Graham Sumner, deviance is a violation of established contextual, cultural, or social norms, whether folkways, mores, or codified law (1906). It can be as minor as picking one’s nose in public or as major as committing murder. Although the word “deviance” has a negative connotation in everyday language, sociologists recognize that deviance is not necessarily bad (Schoepflin 2011). In fact, from a structural functionalist perspective, one of the positive contributions of deviance is that it fosters social change. For example, during the U.S. civil rights movement, Rosa Parks violated social norms when she refused to move to the “black section” of the bus, and the Little Rock Nine broke customs of segregation to attend an Arkansas public school.

“What is deviant behavior?” cannot be answered in a straightforward manner. Whether an act is labeled deviant or not depends on many factors, including location, audience, and the individual committing the act (Becker 1963). Listening to your iPod on the way to class is considered acceptable behavior. Listening to your iPod during your 2 o’clock sociology lecture is considered rude. Listening to your iPod when on the witness stand before a judge may cause you to be held in contempt of court, and consequently fined or jailed.

As norms vary across culture and time, it makes sense that notions of deviance change also. Fifty years ago, public schools in the United States had strict dress codes that, among other stipulations, often banned women from wearing pants to class. Today, it’s socially acceptable for women to wear pants, but less so for men to wear skirts. In a time of war, acts usually considered morally reprehensible, such as taking the life of another, may actually be rewarded. Whether an act is deviant or not depends on society’s response to that act.


When sociologist Todd Schoepflin ran into his childhood friend Bill, he was shocked to see him driving a hearse. A professionally trained researcher, Schoepflin wondered what effect driving a hearse had on his friend and what effect it might have on others on the road. Would using such a vehicle for everyday errands be considered deviant by most people?

Schoepflin interviewed Bill, curious first to know why he drove such an unconventional car. Bill had simply been on the lookout for a reliable winter car; on a tight budget, he searched used car ads and stumbled upon one for the hearse. The car ran well and the price was right, so he bought it.

Bill admitted that others’ reactions to the car had been mixed. His parents were appalled and he received odd stares from his coworkers. A mechanic once refused to work on it, stating that it was “a dead person machine.” On the whole, however, Bill received mostly positive reactions. Strangers gave him a thumbs-up on the highway and stopped him in parking lots to chat about his car. His girlfriend loved it, his friends wanted to take it tailgating, and people offered to buy it. Could it be that driving a hearse isn’t really so deviant after all?

Schoepflin theorized that, although viewed as outside conventional norms, driving a hearse is such a mild form of deviance that it actually becomes a mark of distinction. Conformists find the choice of vehicle intriguing or appealing, while nonconformists see a fellow oddball to whom they can relate. As one of Bill’s friends remarked, “Every guy wants to own a unique car like this and you can certainly pull it off.” Such anecdotes remind us that although deviance is often viewed as a violation of norms, it’s not always viewed in a negative light (Schoepflin 2011).

Social Control

When a person violates a social norm, what happens? A driver caught speeding can receive a speeding ticket. A student who wears a bathrobe to class gets a warning from a professor. An adult belching loudly is avoided. All societies practice social control, the regulation and enforcement of norms. The underlying goal of social control is to maintain social order, an arrangement of practices and behaviors on which society’s members base their daily lives. Think of social order as an employee handbook and social control as a manager. When a worker violates a workplace guideline, the manager steps in to enforce the rules.

The means of enforcing rules are known as sanctions. Sanctions can be positive as well as negative. Positive sanctions are rewards given for conforming to norms. A promotion at work is a positive sanction for working hard. Negative sanctions are punishments for violating norms. Being arrested is a punishment for shoplifting. Both types of sanctions play a role in social control.

Sociologists also classify sanctions as formal or informal. Although shoplifting, a form of social deviance, may be illegal, there are no laws dictating the proper way to scratch one’s nose. That doesn’t mean picking your nose in public won’t be punished; instead, you will encounter informal sanctions. Informal sanctions emerge in face-to-face social interactions. For example, wearing flip-flops to an opera or swearing loudly in church may draw disapproving looks or even verbal reprimands, whereas behavior that is seen as positive—such as helping an old man carry grocery bags across the street—may receive positive informal reactions, such as a smile or pat on the back.

Formal sanctions, on the other hand, are ways to officially recognize and enforce norm violations. If a student violates her college’s code of conduct, for example, she might be expelled. Someone who speaks inappropriately to the boss could be fired. Someone who commits a crime may be arrested or imprisoned. On the positive side, a soldier who saves a life may receive an official commendation.

The table below shows the relationship between different types of sanctions.


Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

The textbook content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. ​Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11407/latest/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.