Deviant Behavior & Group Norms

Deviant Behavior & Group Norms

The Difficulty Defining Deviant Behavior

Deviant behavior defines as behavior that departs from accepted social or cultural standards, which presents the inherent relativistic nature of judging or classifying deviant behavior. For example, in many religious communities, premarital sex categorizes as deviant behavior but for those individuals living outside these communities this does not qualify as deviance. The obvious problem in a pluralistic society is the conflict of morality that arises between groups. However, this problem is further complicated by degrees of deviance.

Acceptable behavior can be seen as either normal or deviant depending upon the group norms and morals but also the severity of the deviance changes depending on the group in question. For example, stealing is generally considered a universal crime throughout the world but what is not universal is the treatment of this crime. In the United States, punishment for stealing ranges from a proverbial slap on the wrist to jail time. In Saudi Arabia, however, the punishment for thievery might be limb amputation, or even decapitation (Amnesty International, 2013). Some Islamic nations deem this practice as correct or normal but in western culture this form of punishment is viewed as inappropriate or deviant based on cultural beliefs. Examples such as this provide evidence of the relativistic nature of deviant behavior despite specific behaviors such as stealing having universal status. 

Deviant behavior complicates further in the context of group norms which can alter the perspective of deviant behavior further in the group context. For example, criminal enterprises while considered deviant by their nature and purpose, e.g. elicit, have many group norms that guide behavior. Gangs and mafias have norms such as showing respect or being loyal and these norms allow the group to operate cohesively. Deviation from these group norms carries varying degrees of reprisal such as threats but more serious violations of mores or laws can result in deadly punishment. As such group norms can exist within deviant groups, revealing also deviance existence in nondeviant groups.

It is entirely possible for legal, socially acceptable groups to commit deviant acts. This often takes the form of corruption such as corporate management colluding in unethical behavior. Enron provides one of the best examples of this form of deviance which billions of investor dollars lost due to fraud.

Deviance and the relation to group norms has given rise to several possible theories concerning deviance's causes including,

Anomie: Deviance is caused by anomie, or the feeling that society’s goals
or the means to achieve them are closed to the person

Control: Deviance exists because of improper socialization, which results
in a lack of self-control for the person

Differential association: People learn deviance from associating with
others who act in deviant ways

Labeling: Deviant behavior depends on who is defining it, and the people
in our society who define deviance are usually those in positions of power

Theories abound but no single theory explains deviance likely due to more complex factors at work. For instance, deviance often manifests in disenfranchised groups because of limited opportunities giving rise to the argument that society contributes to deviant behavior through oppression, racism, prejudices, bullying, and many other elements that unjustifiably exclude members of society.

Deviance is topic of tremendous controversy because of its relativistic qualities and the ensuing arguments over what is right and wrong in the larger scope of society. When studying deviance, one must disengage the tendency to judge or fail to objectively document the elements and impacts of social phenomena.


Amnesty International (2013). URGENT ACTION SEVEN MEN TO BE EXECUTED. Retrieved from

Photo by Jade Masri on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Sun, Nov 14, 2021. Deviant Behavior & Group Norms Retrieved from

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