What Is Deviance Theory? All You Need to Know for MCAT

January 22, 2024
6 min read


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 1/22/24

Deviance theory poses several explanations about behaviors that violate social norms, and, as an aspiring healthcare professional, the MCAT will assess how much you know about this important sociological theory. 

Why do some people shoplift, swear in public, show up late to work, and commit other crimes and socially unacceptable behaviors? Deviance theory aims to explain why these deviant actions exist in society. Read on to learn what deviance is, its various forms, and the associated theories, all of which you may be asked about on the MCAT.

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What Is Deviance?

Deviance refers to actions and behaviors that depart from or violate social norms—or, in other words, deviance is breaking the rules. 

Most sociologists see deviance as inevitable across societies. People live together in societies that establish common norms to function in a particular way. Some of the members of this community will violate these norms, and society will punish them in order to return to a standard of stability.

While it may be common, deviance can vary dramatically across different cultures. Social norms are relevant to the society they belong to, and therefore, what counts as deviance from these cultural norms is also relative. Cultural norms and deviance change within a society as well, such as across generations.

There are two main categories of deviant behaviors: formal and informal deviance. Below we’ll break down their definitions and explore the difference between these two categories.

Formal Deviance 

man in prison cell

Formal deviance is violations of written, official, and enforced norms, such as formally enacted laws or explicit rules in a societal or organizational context. In simpler terms, formal deviance is a crime

Society deems these violations as seriously dangerous to the self, others, and society as a whole. Punishments are typically enforced by the police, courts, and other formal institutions, and are typically severe, including penalties, fines, arrests, and even capital punishment. 

The purpose of these punishments is to deter other society members from committing the same or similar transgressions. Rehabilitation of the offender can also be a goal of the punishment so that they can re-enter society with less risk of committing the same offense. 

Examples of Formal Deviance 

Types of formal deviance depend on the society and its legal frameworks but formal deviance examples can include those below:

  • Robbery
  • Theft
  • Murder
  • Assault 
  • Domestic Violence
  • Incest 
  • Drinking under the influence 
  • Public nudity
  • Arson
  • Animal cruelty

Informal Deviance

female looking down with arms crossed

Informal deviance is less standardized than the former type of deviance and is the violation of informal, implicit social norms and expectations. Like formal deviance, informal deviant behavior can result in negative consequences for the offender. 

These consequences, however, are not enforced by formal institutions and veer more towards stigmatization, social disapproval, and ostracization from social groups and individuals within the society. 

Societal responses to these transgressions include gossip, verbal reprimands, and non-verbal cues like dirty looks and exclusion from social activities.

Examples of Informal Deviance

Informal deviance examples vary across societies and cultures but can include:

  • Standing too close to someone
  • Picking one’s nose
  • Swearing in public
  • Showing up to work late
  • Not tipping at a restaurant 
  • Chewing with one’s mouth open
  • Lying
  • Inappropriate gestures

Theories of Deviance

There are several theories that seek to explain why deviance exists in society. Below we’ll discuss a few that you may encounter on the MCAT.

Differential Association Theory

The differential association theory that you might come across on the MCAT asserts that criminal behaviors and values are specifically learned through interactions with those around them, such as peer groups, family units, schools, and neighbors. For instance, a teenager may be influenced by his friends to underage drink. 

Social Disorganization Theory

According to social disorganization theory, crime occurs due to the lack of organization, ties, relationships, institutions, and shared values within a community. It asserts that healthy communal relationships discourage crime by promoting cooperation. 

This theory argues that an individual’s residential location strongly indicates whether they will display deviance, shifting the focus to a neighborhood’s ecological characteristics at its core.

Labeling Theory

The labeling theory suggests that people become deviant due to the labels they are given in society. It implies that deviance is not inherent to an individual but rather is based on how they are negatively classified and subsequently stigmatized. 

Once negatively labeled as deviant, individuals will begin to confirm this label by departing from social norms. Initial acts of deviance (primary deviance), are mild but can eventually lead to social stigma and internalization of the deviant label (secondary deviance). This internalization and external judgment can further encourage more serious and deviant behavior.

For instance, someone who has been labeled a thief may in turn begin to see themselves as a thief, causing them to actually start shoplifting more frequently.

Strain Theory

The strain theory asserts that social pressure to achieve culturally valued goals leads to deviant behavior. For instance, a society may culturally value higher education but may only be structured in a way that a small percentage of privileged people can realistically achieve this. 

If an individual from a more disadvantaged group of this society is deprived of institutional means to achieve this goal of higher education, such as funds for tuition, they may experience frustration (“strain”) that can lead them to crimes such as theft to obtain resources.

Cultural Deviance Theory

Cultural deviance theory combines the strain and social disorganization theory to explain deviance. It posits that the cultural values of one’s main surrounding community strongly influence rates of deviance. 

It labels the key factors leading to criminal behavior as not innate factors but rather the subculture that originates from 1) where an individual lives, 2) their socio-economic conditions, and 3) the people this individual interacts with.

The cultural deviance theory is controversial, having been used to critique immigrants and the working class.

Social Control Theory

The social control theory argues that displaying deviance is natural and that individuals will engage in criminal behavior if they are not adequately controlled by schools, families, the criminal justice system, and other institutions. 

This theory states that individuals who have strong social bonds, whether with friends, family, school, or other social institutions, are less likely to display deviant behavior. Social bonds create a sense of belonging for an individual, and thus deterring from social norms may put this security at stake. 

Unlike the aforementioned theories, the social control theory puts more emphasis on individual choice rather than systemic issues in society.

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FAQs: Deviance Theory

You can find the answers to any remaining questions about what to know about the deviance theory for the MCAT.

1. What Is the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Deviance in Labeling Theory?

Primary deviance refers to behavior that violates social norms but does not incur lasting labels, stigma, or long-term negative consequences for the individual. This behavior prompts limited or minor reactions from others in society, and an individual’s concept of self is not impacted.

According to Secondary Deviance in Labeling Theory, on the other hand, an individual has been permanently labeled as a deviant person and has subsequently internalized this label. This, in turn, encourages further deviant behavior, creating a cycle of criminal behavior.

2. What Is Deviance Theory, and How Does It Differ from Other Sociological Theories?

Deviance theory differs from others in sociology because it seeks to explain why individuals in society commit crimes and other deviant behaviors.

3. What Are the Primary Factors That Influence the Social Construction of Deviance?

Several theories explain the factors that influence the social construction of deviance. Many theories state that the main factors include an individual’s peers, family, friends, social bonds, socioeconomic background, institutional influence, and community. Other theories not mentioned here look to factors such as genetics and personality as influences on the social construction of deviance. 

Final Thoughts

Deviance is actions and behaviors that violate social norms, whether that’s breaking the law (known as formal deviance), or being rude to a service worker (informal deviance). Society will punish offenders in order to return to a standard of stability, either institutionally or through less formal means. 

Several theories of deviance, such as the strain and differential association theory, aim to explain why some people display deviant behavior. The MCAT will test you on the deviance theory and other sociological concepts. After all, healthcare professionals have a vital role in creating a healthy society.

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