Criminology and deviant behavior are often considered connected, if not part of the same phenomenon. Deviance is an individual’s divergence from society’s behavioral norms, while criminal behavior may or may not be deviant when it violates society’s legal norms. Even when deviant behavior fails to rise to the level of criminal action that can be prosecuted and punished, the negative effects of such deviance can be far-ranging, severe and long-lasting.
Criminal Behavior Based on Laws
Deviance is a broader concept, encompassing more specific types of behavior and actions than the concept of criminality. Whether a specific behavior is a crime depends on whether that behavior matches the factors established by the source of criminal law. What constitutes a crime is subject to a strict, formal, legislative and judicial set of processes. While the specifics of criminal law change from time to time, the process of making that change is a formal, deliberative one.
Read More: What Causes Criminal Behavior?
Negative Deviance Based on Values
On the other hand, what constitutes a deviant behavior is subject to the ever-fluid and evolving morals and values of modern society. Morals and values can seem to change with whiplash-like speed, although in actuality, such change is typically driven by generational differences in experience. Many actions designated as crimes are not considered deviant, at least any longer. One such example of negative deviance that has changed is gambling in certain jurisdictions. Other actions that may be considered deviant from the norm in some cultures or milieus (such as adultery) are increasingly viewed as outside the purview of criminal law in some jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom.
Psychopathy vs. Sociopathy
Many individuals view those commonly labeled as “psychopaths”or “sociopaths” as examples of negative deviance. Frequently, these conditions are played up for dramatic or comedic effect in pop culture outings, from literature to film and television. However, both of these terms are subject to disagreement among psychology experts. Both are generally viewed as a form of personality disorder that include behaviors generally deemed antisocial, often driven by the inability to empathize with others.
Deviance and Criminal Justice
Historically, criminologists often incorporated the concept of “deviancy” or “degeneracy” in their work analyzing criminal justice issues. Many of these experts attempted to identify individuals fated to become criminals through earlier deviant actions, in childhood and youth. Many modern experts tend to dispute the notion of such a thing as a “born criminal" but in fact, some recent studies suggest it might not be completely inaccurate; studies on genetic markers and violent compulsions suggest some people may in fact be predisposed to committing violent crime. Thus, the idea that earlier demonstrated deviance can point to future criminal behavior continues to persist. Experts debate the relevance of diagnostic labels and the extent of their usefulness in criminality. In the U.S., insanity remains a criminal defense. However, being diagnosed with a mental illness doesn't necessarily equate to a successful defense.
Social Deviance Can Seem Criminal
Deviant behavior that diverges from societal norms can be called “social deviance.” An example of negative deviance would be adopting a style of dress of which the general public disapproves, such as the “goth” style of dress. In the 1990s, such attire was deeply stigmatized by a leery public. The negative impact of dressing “against the norm” can thus range from societal disapproval to outright prejudice in legal proceedings. The media further stigmatizes subcultures when it portrays them in an undesirable manner, with the public following suit. Social deviance is not illegal, but the ostracism that these groups experience can often make them seem like outcasts or criminals.
Sexual Deviance Sometimes Illegal
Unconventional sexual practices are also regarded with societal suspicion and disdain. Homosexuality is a classic example of preferences that were once and may still be in some circles, considered deviant. Stereotypes and labels, hurtful language, ostracization and legal discrimination may result. Additionally, society may convince vulnerable LGBTQ youth that they are intrinsically worth less than heterosexual peers, which can result in reckless sexual behavior or low self-esteem. Although society has become more open and tolerant, some still treat homosexuality as a disorder or a disease. Pedophilia, on the other hand, is a deviance with actually harmful effects when acted upon. It is considered both sexually and socially deviant, as well as criminal.
Legal Deviance is Far Reaching
Legal deviance is behavior that does not conform to the laws set by society. Breaking the law can often result in incarceration. The positive effects of deviance of this type are few and the negative effects extend to others. If a person commits murder or robbery, there are financial and emotional consequences for the victims, their loved ones and the greater community. The offending criminals themselves suffer permanent consequences, since employers are not eager to hire convicted felons.
Religious Deviance Can Be Severe
For members of religious communities, spiritual community can be as important as membership in society or national identity. When a member of the community demonstrates behavior that violates the community’s religious views, that behavior can be viewed as deviant. In extremist or fundamentalist communities, deviance can carry severe consequences. Many groups practice formal ostracization, such as the Amish practice of shunning or the Church of Scientology’s rumored practice of disconnecting.
Deviant behavior is not the same thing as illegal conduct, but it can overlap. Even so, the negative social and practical impact of deviance can be significant.
- Social Deviance and Crime: An Organizational and Theoretical Approach: Charles R. Tittle; Raymond Paternoster (2000)
- LegalNews.com; Consequences of Criminal Behavior Can Last a Lifetime; Frank Weir; March 2011
- History Extra: The ‘Born Criminal’? Lombroso and the Origins of Modern Criminology
- Famous Trial: The West Memphis Three
Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York. She holds a B.A. in Speech from Catawba College and a J.D. from USC. She has written extensively for publications and websites in the business, management and legal fields.