In modern society, a person gains greater freedom in behavior and self-expression. Foundations, dogmas, norms change, as quickly as society itself. The standards of human behavior also vary – in each community in different ways depending on their culture. Although many forms of behavior that were previously interpreted as criminal or wrong today are perceived as permissible, often there is another situation: allowable earlier action becomes a deviation.
Deviant behavior is actions that do not comply with norms or standards officially or actually established in a particular society (Goode, 2019). The concept of social norms is essential for understanding deviant behavior. They mean a limit, a measure acceptable in the behavior or activities of people and ensure the preservation of the social system and its functioning. Deviations from existing social norms can be positive and negative. Positive is aimed at overcoming outdated norms or standards and is related to social creativity, which contributes to qualitative changes in the social system. Negative deviations include dysfunctional actions that disorganize the social order and lead to its destruction.
Deviant behavior can be considered a social choice. When a person cannot achieve some goal through acceptable means and opportunities, he or she can use other methods to do this. For example, some individuals, in pursuit of illusory success, wealth, or power, choose socially prohibited measures, and sometimes illegal ones, and become either offenders or criminals. Another type of deviation from the norms is open disobedience and protest, demonstrative rejection of values and standards accepted in society. It is a characteristic of revolutionaries, terrorists, religious extremists, and other similar groups of people actively fighting against the community within which they are located. In all these cases, the deviation is the result of the individuals’ inability or unwillingness to adapt to society and its requirements, that is, the impossibility of socialization.
One phenomenon that was treated as deviant 50 years ago and becomes the norm in modern society is a non-traditional sexual orientation. In 1990 the World Health Organization (WHO) excluded homosexuality from the list of sexual deviations (Bullough, 2019). The American psychiatric association made it even earlier – in 1973 (Bullough, 2019). Moreover, in the USA and Europe, the treatment of homosexuality is legislatively forbidden as such activity initially is considered deception and is subject to criminal prosecution. Although there is still much to be achieved in the field of protecting LGBT rights, there is already significant progress.
It is possible to refer to Labeling theory to understand better changes in the perception of the phenomenon as deviant or not. It is one of the main theories of explanations for deviant behavior. It is based on the assumption that no action is considered initially wrong or criminal; it is presented in this way by those who have power and authority (Cockerham, 2017). They set the limits of allowed behavior and create specific labels, creating categories of deviations. Previously, scientists with stronger influence declared homosexuality a deviation. However, activists did not stop drawing attention to the problem and demanded recognition of the non-traditional orientation as the norm. Since homosexuality does not harm society, and its perception as a crime can adversely affect its representatives, a more logical option is the exclusion from deviations.
A little more than 50 years ago, racial segregation was considered the norm in American society. To separate the white population from its other representatives – Native Americans and African Americans, special social barriers were created, for example, separate education, a ban on interracial marriage, seating on public transport, and much more (Rothstein, 2017). In the 1970-80s, active protests were held in support of the rights of African Americans, thanks to which segregation was exterminated. Labeling theory is also associated with this phenomenon and explains that the role of the deviate is imposed on society by those who have power. Now, although discrimination is present in society, it is not as strong as before, and there is no place for segregation phenomena at all. There is a chance that in the future, discrimination on any basis will not just be a deviation in society, but will become history.
Social norms are constantly changing, and with them, the perception of deviant behavior is also changing. Humanity is becoming more open and understanding to others, there are more opportunities for self-realization and control over personal desires. Women can wear pants and choose a child-free life; the position of representatives of the LGBT community has significantly improved. However, many changes are yet to come in the future. For example, it is possible that in 50 years, help in ending life – euthanasia – will become the norm. At the moment, only in a few countries, it is possible with the help of doctors to end human lives with strong reasons for this – for example, an incurable disease that makes life painful. Currently, disputes are underway, providing arguments for and against the medical termination of life, but there is no formal acceptance. At the same time, other social phenomena are likely to become deviations or even disappear. For example, even now, smoking is less popular, but the habit still affects many lives.
Bullough, V. L. (2019). Homosexuality: A history (From Ancient Greece to Gay Liberation). Routledge.
Cockerham, W. C. (2017). Medical sociology. Taylor & Francis.
Goode, E. (2019). Deviant behavior (12th ed.). Taylor & Francis.
Rothstein, R. (2017). The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright.