Relativity of Social Deviance

Table of Content

Deviance can simply be said to be actions taken by one group or one society to condemn another in a negative manner. Deviance is recognized universally. Basically, different societies have got what they consider to be deviance behaviors, hence it requires for responsible actions among its members. The society has set up rules and norms which have to be observed. This is actually what leads to deviance to exist. Therefore, if the society could lack rules, then it would not be possible to get deviance behaviors. On the other hand, it is clear that no society can exist without norms and rules. Because of this, deviance is normal to any society as was pointed out by Emile Durkheim (Conrad & Schneider, 1992).

There are various aspects that can make up deviant behaviour according to Durkheim. The society sets rules that have to be observed, and going against this leads to punishment. Therefore, since the society has the powers to punish one because of certain actions, it is the same society that sets what’s to be considered as deviant behavior (Bryan, 1989).

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Deviance has been considered to be universal, but since each society sets it own rules, it is hard to find acts that are defined to be same in all the societies. Taking for instance incest, this is considered to a universal deviance act. However, going further into different societies, there are different levels in which these societies considers to classify incest. In some societies, incest is only considered when there is a brother- sister relation ship, whereas in others, even a relationship between third cousins is considered incest. With this case, it cannot be easy to give exactly what universal deviant behaviour is, in respect to incest (Conrad & Schneider, 1992).

Deviance can be as well considered to be relative. This is because there are different behaviors that are defined in different societies to be deviant. In most Christian’s societies, suicide is condemned and classified as deviant, while a person who commits the same act in some imperial Japanese areas might be considered to have taken very honorable action. This is cultural relativity, whereby different societies should be viewed by their acts and standards. This implies that what is deviant, should be relative to that society.

As already said, it is the society that defines what deviance is. The society intentionally defines some acts which when one goes contrary to turns out to have committed deviant act. Therefore, deviant is an attributed condition to a certain society. It is thus the way in which the society judges individuals’ behaviour that it can be classified as being deviance. In essence, an act becomes deviant not in the way it has been done, but how it has been defined by the society. This can help one to draw a distinction between defining a deviant act, and the act itself. With time, the definition of deviance behaviour can change and what was once considered to be deviant changes. For instance, the Puritans considered witchcraft to be deviance, but this is no longer deviance in the contemporary American society (Conrad & Schneider, 1992).

The context of what is categorized as deviant also varies depending on issues like the society, subculture, and who are affected by the acts. It is illegal in many societies for one to smoke marijuana, while it is normal among certain subculture like the youth, hence being in that group and you don’t smoke, it turns out that you are deviant by not smoking. The other example is masturbation which in the Victorian period was considered a deviant act, but the current society takes it as a healthy act. Thereof ere, defining deviant, and who has committed the deviant act is basically based on the context of the society.

Defiance can be influenced by power in the society. Those considered to be powerful in the society on different aspects can force their deviance thinking on those who are less powerful. For instance, it is mostly adults who come up with rules that children have to follow and live with. The most powerful in the social class also forms rules that the less powerful have to follow. This can be one reason as to why there are many deviant acts among those at lower social class than those at the upper class (Fitzgerald, McLennan & Pawson, 1999).

Relativity is a method that has been used to understand human behaviour, from the group’s or society’s point of view. Relativity thus calls for one to view the acts of another in exactly that form. This means that a relativist is capable of understanding what certain group accepts at what period, and what is not required again at what period. Through relativity, it can thus be understood that ones behaviour cannot be found everywhere. Hence, when one condemns another’s culture, it does not have to be biased on ethnocentric and egocentric behaviors. It is not possible to completely avoid being bias, but through relativity, it is possible to accept the partiality (Curra, 2000).

The danger of relativity is that it can lead to a person accepting what others are doing no matter what the actions are. The acceptance of others culture and behaviors without necessarily proper evaluation can hamper the understanding of social deviance. There are cases where people can use propagandas to hide what they are doing under the pretext of social norms, and behaviors, hence have to be fully understood.

Deviance can cause shock, whether in the short or long term. Traveling from one place to another, one comes across various customs. Therefore, the much one travels, the more experience they may get, hence the shock. With increased culture shock, it can cause one to be more ethnocentric and egocentric. Deviance can lead to culture shock, but it can be valuable when used to understand others cultures (Curra, 2000).

It can be argued that by seeing deviance in relativity way is actually tolerating atrocities in the society. However, by defining deviance in relative to time and place does not mean that oppressive actions and other immoral activities have to be condoned. This simply tries to show how differently the society has been defining the wrong actions, from time to time and place to place. For instance, in the 19th century it was right for the landowners to own the slaves, but such an act is barbaric in the current society. Therefore, relativity of deviance does not really mean that all such behaviors have to be adopted or condoned, but it’s a way of appreciating their existence, and the issue is how the society is now dealing with them.

In conclusion, it can be agreed that deviance is a universal concept, yet has a lot of variations, from time to time, place to place, and group to group. It is created by the society, and especially those who are powerful to make sure that certain rules and norms in the society have been observed.


Bryan, C. D. (1989). Deviant Behavior; Readings in the Sociology of Norm Violations; ISBN 089116779X, Taylor & Francis.

Conrad, P & Schneider, J. W. (1992). Deviance and Medicalization: From Badness to Sickness: with a New Afterword by the Authors; ISBN 0877229996, Temple University Press.

Curra, J. (2000). The Relativity of Deviance; ISBN 0761907785, SAGE.

Fitzgerald, M., McLennan, G & Pawson, J. (1999) Crime and Society: Readings in History and Theory; ISBN 0710009445, Routledge,

Goode, E. & Ben-Yehuda, N. (1994). Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance; ISBN 063118905X, Blackwell Publishing,


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