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What is deviance? Compare and contrast the use of anomie theory and labelling theory in understanding and explaining deviant behaviours. Essay Example

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Definition of deviance

Different theories define deviance as a social behavior that does not conform to the norms and values held by the society. This means that it is a behavior that is morally condemned and looked down upon by the members of the society. This means that a behavior is judged to be deviant not by the act itself but by the norms and values of the society. This may lead to discrimination and punishment of the people who engage in such behaviors because they deviate from what the society believes in. Whether a behavior is deviant or not may depend on the norms and values of the society which also differ from one society to another. For one to understand whether a behavior is deviant or not, a person must understand the norms and values of the society. One behavior may be deviant to one society but may not be viewed as deviant in another society depending on the norms and values of that other society. However, the norms and values of the society change with time, this means that even what the society considers deviance may change with time1.

Conditions necessary for deviant behaviors to be observed

Different theories have defined a number of conditions that promote development of deviant behavior. One of them is the social context in which deviance is being defined. The social context is determined by the existing rules and the procedure by which such rules are established. Since deviance is determined by the rules of the society, when the rules change, what is regarded as deviance also changes.

Another determinant is the ongoing social processes such as the political, legal and cultural processes. No act can be said to be deviant by itself. Deviance of an act comes as a result of the interaction of political, legal and cultural social processes. These processes are created by moral entrepreneurs who in pursuit of their own interests label some acts as wrongdoing. The moral entrepreneurs fuel public fear over some acts making the authorities to label them and try to repress the behaviors. Therefore the interaction of the entire social process ascribes the deviant status to individuals engaging in acts that have been labeled as deviant2.

Theories of deviance

Anomie/strain theory

Robert Merton sought to explain what brings about deviance behavior through his Anomie theory. The theory describes the values, norms, as well as social institutions that make up the social structure and how the society sets out to achieve its goals described by the values. The theory defines values as the desired goals of the society while norms and social institutions are usually established by the society to enable them achieve those goals. Every society has established its own means of achieving its desired goals. For example in acquiring a goal a such as wealth, the society has established means such as acquiring good education, a well paying job, or being successful in business. If all members of the society are able to follow these as the established means, then there will be no deviance. However, according to Merton, these means that the society has established are not accessible to everyone in the society. The poor and the less privileged may not be able to access good education, they may not get employed in well paying jobs and they may also not be able to run successful businesses. Yet, just like any other person in the society, the poor and the less privileged too have desires to achieve wealth as their goal. They also face pressure from the members of the members of the society to acquire wealth.

The theory further explains that for such a society, acquiring wealth is just like achieving the socially desired goals and is therefore a sign of success. Therefore those who do not achieve wealth as one of the society’s desired goals feel the pressure, which Merton refers to as strain. They feel pressure being exerted on them to succeed but they cannot access the means that the society has approved. Such people therefore turn to alternative ways of coping with this pressure which includes adoption of deviant behaviors3.

The theory therefore explains that society plays a role in creating deviance behavior through its defined social structure. Members of the society have accepted certain goals as valued by the society and are therefore under pressure t achieve these goals using the society’s approved means. To cope with the pressure, people come up with other means of achieving the goals. According to the theory, deviance in people is created by the problems in the social structure. Those who conform to the social structure are people who submissively accept the flaws in the society. On the other hand, those who rebel and adopt deviant solutions are those not that they are inadequately socialized but have adopted liberal and broad socialization that has enabled them to consider better alternative solutions. Therefore the theory indicates that deviance is not a problem with the individual but it is a reflection of inadequacies in the social structure4.

The labeling theory

Labeling theory explains that deviance is a result of labeling process by the society through selective application of rules and sanctions. Some people are more likely to labeled deviant when they act in a certain manner than others who also act in a similar manner. The theory focuses on the structure of power in the society and the role they play in labeling deviant behaviors. The theory explains that labeling is not universally applied but it is determined by the power relations in the given society. People who are in power in the society and whose values are considered dominant are the ones allowed to give labels. They therefore create categories of deviance and also dominate the society with their views. Other sources of labeling in the society include the rich over the poor, men over women as well as ethnic majorities over the minorities.

The labeling theory describes two types of deviance: primary deviance and secondary deviance. Primary deviance refers to acts committed by an individual that leads other people to label them as deviant. Primary deviant behaviors are committed from time to time and include the small things that are often overlooked such as students skipping classes, adults getting drunk or engaging in gambling. Sometimes the society may take such acts negatively and react so strongly towards them labeling those who commit them as deviant. The theory defines secondary deviance as one that arises when a person who has been labeled deviant deviates further as he/she reacts to the results of being labeled deviant. Secondary deviance tends to continue in an individual even long after the person has been labeled deviant by a particular social institution. The person accepts the deviant label and incorporates it into his/her self concept. Therefore, according to the theory, labeling of a person depends on the person who has committed the act, when and where the act was committed, his/her audience and the nature of interactions between the various actors involved5.

Differences between anomie theory and labeling theory in explaining deviant behavior

Anomie/strain theory explains deviance as an outcome of pressure exerted on an individual by the social structures. The theory refers to this as social strain. Some people get so overwhelmed by the strain such that adopt deviance as a way to manage the pressure. The theory explains that deviance arises due to failure by them to understand how the social norms affect them. This happens because the norms are conflicting, weak and confusing. Therefore there exists in the society a set of socially approved goals that every members of the society is expected to strive for, as well as socially approved means of achieving these goals6.

On the other hand, labeling theory explains deviance as a social process that involves people defining others as deviant. The theory explains that there is no exact definition of deviance since it arises from labeling of a person by someone else who is in a position of power. The person therefore acquires the deviant definition.

The key difference between explanations of deviance by the two theories is that anomie theory asserts that an individual becomes deviant in the socialization process due to pressure to achieve the society’s approved goals while labeling theory asserts that a person is labeled as a deviant. However, the two theories acknowledge that deviance is an acquired status determined by interactions of social structures.


One of the major things in the definition of deviance is the fact that it is not a characteristic of an individual but a construction of the social structures. It is a status that one acquires during his/her interaction with the social values as well as the powerful people and institutions in the society. Therefore deviance is a status that is ascribed to an individual when he fails to conform to the expectations of the society in terms of the values, and also the rules and sanctions of the powerful people in the society.


Bilton, Tony. Introductory Sociology 4th edn, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Giddens, Anthony. Sociology,
6th edn. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.

Bilton, Tony. Introductory Sociology 4th edn, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Giddens, Anthony. Sociology,
6th edn. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.

Giddens, Anthony. Sociology,
6th edn. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.

Bilton, Tony. Introductory Sociology 4th edn, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Giddens, Anthony. Sociology,
6th edn. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.

Bilton, Tony. Introductory Sociology 4th edn, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.