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Functions of Deviance

Functions of Deviance

Author: Paul Hannan

Examine Emile Durkheim's four functions of deviance, and specific studies of deviance.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain Images from; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on functions of deviance. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

So today we're looking at functions of deviance. Now, one way to kind of think about this is, in our head we sometimes set it up that if you are deviant, if you do bad things, you're a bad person. And if you're not deviant, if you don't do bad things, you're a good person. One thing a sociologist is interested in looking at is the idea that it's not always the-- it's not as simple as that, that people act deviantly for different reasons, that it's not because they are good or bad, it is because of functions of society.

So we're going to look at those today, specifically looking at functions of society within the structural functional approach. So the structural function approach, again, is when-- it's this idea that society is a really complex machine, and all these things work together, and even bad things are actually an important part of keeping our machine running.

Now, Emile Durkheim, who's a famous pioneer of sociology, one of the things he looked at was the idea that crime and punishment are necessary for societies. So they actually serve a purpose for societies. And these purposes are crucial. Our society-- you can't get rid of deviance is one thing that Durkheim argued. Deviance is always going to exist because society needs deviance to function. Durkheim also looked at the idea that all laws and deviances are really subjective, that they really change between cultures and as time passed. And then he laid out four primary functions of deviance.

So the first function of deviance is just that it affirms cultural norms. A good way to think about this is that there must be bad to define what is good. If I get in an argument with my neighbor, and we're arguing with each other, maybe-- I don't know-- I put my trash out, and he thinks the trash is on his side of the lawn, but I think it's on my side of the lawn. We get in an argument and I punch him in the face, right?

If we don't have a definition of what-- that that's a deviant act, that it's not the way you solve an argument is by punching someone, then how do we know what is good? That it's good to not have that solution to a minor disagreement about where trash is placed? So a society needs to have things that are bad so we know what are good.

Now, something kind of similar to that, is another function of deviance, and that's that it clarifies moral boundaries. So the boundaries are drawn between what is right and wrong. I like to think of the example of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports. It's OK for professional athletes to be really careful about what they eat. So eating a lot of protein is something that is good, and it's going to-- and athletes know that, oh, I'm eating a lot of protein, and I'm eating healthy. I'm not eating junk food. And athletes do it because it's going to make their body better, and they're going to be better athletes.

But when we have deviance that it's not OK to use steroids, so to put something unnatural in your body to help yourself, we're helping define those boundaries between right and wrong. So we're defining this line where-- and this line, again, will move-- but this line that it's OK to take care of your body and put things in it that will help you, but it's not OK to put things in that are unnatural and give you an unfair advantage to other people in the sport.

Now, a third function of deviance is that it bonds people together. So when there's deviance, the community will often come together to-- with like a shared outrage and a shared purpose to really stop this deviance. The easy example of that is 9/11. 9/11 was a horrible act, right? It brought people together, though. America had never-- I shouldn't say never-- in recent times had not been that cohesive a unit. But we had a shared outrage and a shared purpose together based on that act of deviance.

It can also happen on a small scale. If on your block someone decides to break window panes, your block is going to come together and maybe you won't even find a solution or the person that did it, but your block might come together and have a stronger bond because of someone else's deviance.

Now, the fourth function of deviance is that it encourages social change. So here this is kind of saying that what is deviance now is not always going to be deviant. So it can push the moral boundaries of society. What is right now does not always mean that it's going to be right forever. And what is wrong might be a moral act in the future.

One of those controversial issues right now is gay marriage. You know, earlier in history, like in Greek and Roman times, homosexuality was something that was not seen as necessarily morally wrong. And then as society moved on, it started to be seen as wrong. And then now it's coming back that these people are not bad people, they just have a different sexual preference.

And so this idea that deviance, continued deviance, can kind of push that line, and so what is considered deviance is not actually deviance anymore, and our society's standards change. And it's not saying that standards changed always to be better or always to be worse, but that the deviance, actually continued deviance, can help push those boundaries.

Another thing I like to think about specifically in the US is we have a really strong history of protest. And often protesting, the people that are protesters are considered deviant. In the South, for example, during the Civil Rights Movement, the Southerners saw those people that are protesting for equality for blacks and whites as deviants.

And that's another thing where that's changed. We still have some racist thoughts and ideas and racist people in our society. We have institutional racism, in fact. But that deviance of those people organizing and coming together has changed it, and so that in our society the boundaries have changed.

Kai Erikson is someone who really took the work of Durkheim, and proved is maybe not the right word, but found strong correlations with examples. So specifically, Erickson was looking at the Puritans. Now, the Puritans are a group-- they're actually kind of easy to remember. You can think of the word "pure" and the word "Puritan." They're a religious group. They are considered pure because they're, I mean, they're almost saintly in their actions.

What Erickson did is Erickson looked at historical records of theirs to study how deviance worked in their society. And Erickson found that actually even this really, really saintly-like society still had deviance. And in fact, the rate of deviance to the amount of actions that were considered deviant within their society stayed steady. So even though as what was a deviant act changed, the amount of people committing deviant acts stayed the same. So he concluded that deviance was a tool. It was a tool that helped shape society and helped define those four functions that I went through before, that it was a tool to help shape society.

So today's takeaway message, Durkheim is a pioneer of sociology. One of things he came up with were the four functions of deviance, and those were that it affirms cultural norms, clarifies more boundaries, bonds people together, and encourages social change. Kai Erikson applied some of the work of Durkheim and studied the history the Puritans and found that deviance was a tool for society, and he reinforced the theories of Durkheim.

Well, that's it for this lesson. Good work, and hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon.

Terms to Know
Four Functions of Deviance

A pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that deviance is not abnormal, but actually serves four important social functions: 1) Deviance clarifies our collective cultural values; 2) Responding to Deviance defines our collective morality; 3) Responding to deviance unifies society; 4) Deviance promotes social change.

People to Know
Emile Durkheim

A hugely important sociologist who is famous for, among a number of things, theorizing the social functions of deviance.

Kai Erikson

An American sociologist who studied the Puritans and argued that even a highly disciplined, religious society created deviance to clarify its moral boundaries.