Social Deviance and Conformity


Social Deviance:

Deviant behavior is any behavior that is contrary to the dominant norms of society. There are many different theories on what causes a person to perform deviant behavior, including biological explanations, psychological explanations, and sociological explanations. Following are some of the major sociological explanations for deviant behavior.

Types of Crimes

Crimes Against Persons

Crimes against persons, also called personal crimes, include murder, aggravated assault, rape, and robbery. Personal crimes are unevenly distributed in the United States, with young, urban, poor, and racial minorities committing these crimes more than others.

Crimes Against Property



Property crimes involve theft of property without bodily harm, such as burglary, larceny, auto theft, and arson. Like personal crimes, young, urban, poor, and racial minorities generally commit these crimes more than others.

Crimes Against Morality

Crimes against morality are also called victimless crimes because there is not complainant, or victim. Prostitution, illegal gambling, and illegal drug use are all examples of victimless crimes.

White-Collar Crime

White-collar crimes are crimes that committed by people of high social status who commit their crimes in the context of their occupation. This includes embezzling (stealing money from one’s employer), insider trading, and tax evasion and other violations of income tax laws.

White-collar crimes generally generate less concern in the public mind than other types of crime, however in terms of total dollars, white-collar crimes are even more consequential for society. Nonetheless, these crimes are generally the least investigated and least prosecuted.

Organized Crime

Organized crime is crime committed by structured groups typically involving the distribution of illegal goods and services to others. Many people think of the Mafia when they think of organized crime, but the term can refer to any group that exercises control over large illegal enterprises (such as the drug trade, illegal gambling, prostitution, weapons smuggling, or money laundering).

A key sociological concept in the study or organized crime is that these industries are organized along the same lines as legitimate businesses and take on a corporate form. There are typically senior partners who control the business’ profits, workers who manage and work for the business, and clients who buy the goods and services that the organization provides.

A Sociological Look at Crime

Arrest data show a clear pattern of arrests in terms of racegender, and class. For instance, as mentioned above, young, urban, poor, and racial minorities generally commit personal and property crimes more so than other demographic groups. To sociologists, the question posed by this data is whether this reflects actual differences in committing crimes among different groups or whether this reflects differential treatment by the criminal justice system. Studies show that the answer here is “both.” Certain groups are in fact more likely to commit crimes than others because crime is linked to patterns of inequality in the United States. However, the process of prosecution in the criminal justice system is also significantly related to patterns of race, class, and gender inequality. We see this in the official arrest statistics, in treatment by the police, in sentencing patterns, and in studies of imprisonment.

Deviance Amplification

Definition: Deviance amplification is a process, often performed by the mass media, in which the extent and seriousness of deviant behavior is exaggerated. The effect is to create a greater awareness and interest in deviance which results in more deviance being uncovered, giving the impression that the initial exaggeration was actually a true representation.

Structural Strain Theory

Robert K. Merton developed the structural strain theory as an extension of the functionalist perspective on deviance. This theory traces the origins of deviance to the tensions that are caused by the gap between cultural goals and the means people have available to achieve those goals.

Culturally Accepted Goals Vs. Culturally Approved Means

Societies are characterized by both culture and social structure. Culture establishes goals for people in society while social structure provides (or fails to provide) the means for people to achieve those goals. According to Merton, in a well-integrated society, people use accepted and appropriate means to achieve the goals that society establishes. In this case, the goals and the means of the society are in balance. It is when the goals and means are not in balance with each other that deviance is likely to occur. This imbalance between cultural goals and structurally available means can actually lead an individual into deviant behavior.

The achievement of economic success in the U.S. is a great example that helps further explain the structural strain theory. In the United States, economic success is a goal that most everybody strives for. The legitimate means to economic success are education and jobs. Not all groups of people have equal access to these means, however. The result is structural strain that produces deviance. Lower class individuals are most likely to experience these strains because they aim for the same goals as the rest of society, however they have blocked opportunities for success. These individuals are therefore more likely to turn to crime and deviance as a way to achieve economic success. There is a high correlation that exists between unemployment and crime and the structural strain theory helps explain this relationship.

Five Categories of People

Merton further categorized people into five general categories with regards to their relationship to culturally accepted goals and the means to achieving those goals.

Conformists. Conformists are people who believe in both the established cultural goals of society as well as the normative means for attaining those goals. They follow the rules of society. An example would be a successful investor or businessman who is economically successful because of their employment or hard work.

Ritualists. Ritualists are individuals who do not believe in the established cultural goals of society, but they do believe in and abide by the means for attaining those goals. For example, a middle-management worker who cares little for wealth but still continues to climb the socioeconomic ladder through traditional means and hard work.

Innovators. Innovators are those individuals that accept the cultural goals of society but reject the conventional methods of attaining those goals. These people usually have a blatant disregard for the conventional methods that have been established in attaining wealth and are generally those we regard as criminals. An example is a stockbroker who engages in illegal insider trading. The cultural goal of wealth is accepted, but nontraditional means of insider trading are used. Drug dealers, thieves, and prostitutes are also examples of innovators.

Retreatists. Retreatists are individuals who reject both the cultural goals and the accepted means of attaining those goals. They simply avoid both the goals and means established by society without replacing those norms with their own counter-cultural forces. Severe alcoholics, some homeless people, and hermits are examples of retreatists.

Rebels. Rebels not only reject both the established cultural goals and the accepted means of attaining those goals, but they substitute new goals and new means of attaining those goals. Examples of rebels include the American Nazi party, “skinheads,” and the Ku Klux Klan.

Labeling Theory

Labeling theory is one of the most important approaches to understanding deviant and criminal behavior. It stems from the work of W.I. Thomas who, in 1928, wrote, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Labeling theory begins with the assumption that no act is intrinsically criminal. Definitions of criminality are established by those in power through the formulation of laws and the interpretation of those laws by police, courts, and correctional institutions. Deviance is therefore not a set of characteristics of individuals or groups, but rather it is a process of interaction between deviants and non-deviants and the context in which criminality is being interpreted.

In order to understand the nature of deviance itself, we must first understand why some people are tagged with a deviant label and others are not. Those who represent forces of law and order and those who enforce the boundaries of proper behavior, such as the police, court officials, experts, and school authorities, provide the main source of labeling. By applying labels to people, and in the process creating categories of deviance, these people are reinforcing the power structure of society.

Many of the rules that define deviance and the contexts in which deviant behavior is labeled as deviant are framed by the wealthy for the poor, by men for women, by older people for younger people, and by ethnic minorities for minority groups. In other words, the more powerful and dominant groups in society create and apply deviant labels to the subordinate groups. For example, many children engage in activities such as breaking windows, stealing fruit from other people’s trees, climbing into other people’s yards, or playing hooky from school. In affluent neighborhoods, these acts may be regarded by parents, teachers, and police as innocent aspects of the process of growing up. In poor areas, on the other hand, these same activities might be seen as tendencies towards juvenile delinquency.

Once a person is labeled as deviant, it is extremely difficult to remove that label. The deviant person becomes stigmatized as a criminal or deviant and is likely to be considered, and treated, as untrustworthy by others. The deviant individual is then likely to accept the label that has been attached, seeing himself or herself as deviant, and act in a way that fulfills the expectations of that label. Even if the labeled individual does not commit any further deviant acts than the one that caused them to be labeled, getting rid of that label can be very hard and time-consuming. For example, it is usually very difficult for a convicted criminal to find employment after release from prison because of their label as ex-criminal. They have been formally and publicly labeled a wrongdoer and are treated with suspicion likely for the remainder of their lives.

Critiques of Labeling Theory

One critique of labeling theory is that is emphasizes the interactive process of labeling and ignores the processes that lead to the deviant acts. Such processes might include differences in socialization, attitudes, and opportunities.

A second critique of labeling theory is that it is still not clear whether or not labeling actually has the effect of increasing deviant behavior. Delinquent behavior tends to increase following conviction, but is this the result of labeling itself as the theory suggests? It is very difficult to say, since many other factors may be involved, including increased interaction with other delinquents and learning new criminal opportunities.

Biological Explanations Of Deviant Behavior

Lombroso’s Theory

Cesare Lombroso was an Italian criminologist of the mid to late 1800s. He rejected the Classical School, which believed that crime was a characteristic of human nature and instead believed that criminality was inherited. From this belief, he developed a theory of deviance in which a person’s bodily constitution indicates whether or not an individual is a “born criminal.” These “born criminals” are a throwback to an earlier stage of human evolution with the physical makeup, mental capabilities, and instincts of primitive man.

In developing his theory, Lombroso observed the physical characteristics of Italian prisoners and compared them to those of Italian soldiers. He concluded that the criminals were physically different. The physical characteristics that he used to identify prisoners included an asymmetry of the face or head, large monkey-like ears, large lips, a twisted nose, excessive cheekbones, long arms, and excessive wrinkles on the skin. Lombroso declared that males with five or more of these characteristics could be marked as born criminals. Females, on the other hand, only needed as few as three of these characteristics to be born criminals.

Lombroso also believed that tattoos were markings of born criminals because they stood as evidence of both immortality and insensitivity to physical pain.

Sheldon’s Theory of Body Types

William Sheldon was an American psychologist from the early to mid 1900s who spent his life observing the varieties of human bodies. As a result, he came up with three types of human bodies: ectomorphs, endomorphs, and mesomorphs.

Ectomorphs are thin and fragile. Their body is described as flat-chested, fragile, lean, lightly muscled, small shouldered, and thin. Celebrities that could be described as ectomorphs include Kate Moss, Edward Norton, and Lisa Kudrow.

Endomorphs are considered soft and fat. They are described as having a soft body, underdeveloped muscles, a round physique, and they often have difficulty losing weight. John Goodman, Roseanne Barr, and Jack Black are all celebrities that would be considered endomorphs.

Mesomorphs are muscular and athletic. Their body is described as hourglass shaped (female) or rectangular shaped (male), muscular, has excellent posture, gains muscle easily, and has thick skin. Famous mesomorphs include Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone. Mesomorphs, according to Sheldon, are the most prone to commit crime or deviant behaviors.

Y Chromosome Theory

Patricia Ann Jacobs  is a British geneticist,XYY syndrome is a genetic condition in which a human male has an extra male (Y) chromosome, giving a total of 47 chromosomes instead of the more usual 46. This produces a 47,XYY karyotype, which occurs in 1 in 1,000 male births. The extra Y chromosome theory is the belief that criminals have an extra Y chromosome, giving them an XYY chromosome makeup rather than an XY makeup, that creates a strong compulsion within them to commit crimes. This person is sometimes called the “super male.” Some studies have found that the proportion of XYY males in the prison population is higher than the general male population (1 to 3 percent versus less than 1 percent), however other studies don’t provide evidence that supports this theory. Patricia Ann Jacobs FRS FMedSci is a British geneticist,

Conformity:

Conformity is the tendency to align your attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with those around you. It’s a powerful force that can take the form of overt social pressure or subtler unconscious influence. As much as we like to think of ourselves as individuals, the fact is that we’re driven to fit in, and that usually means going with the flow.

Conformity involves changing your behaviors in order to “fit in” or “go along” with the people around you. In some cases, this social influence might involve agreeing with or acting like the majority of people in a specific group, or it might involve behaving in a particular way in order to be perceived as “normal” by the group.

Definitions of Conformity

  • “Conformity is the most general concept and refers to any change in behavior caused by another person or group; the individual acted in some way because of influence from others. Note that conformity is limited to changes in behavior caused by other people; it does not refer to effects of other people on internal concepts like attitudes or beliefs… Conformity encompasses compliance and obedience, because it refers to any behavior that occurs as a result of others’ influence – no matter what the nature of the influence.”
    (Breckler, Olson, & Wiggins, Social Psychology Alive,2006)
  • “Conformity can be defined as yielding to group pressures, something which nearly all of us do some of the time. Suppose, for example, you go with friends to see a film. You didn’t think the film was very good, but all your friends thought that it was absolutely brilliant. You might be tempted to conform by pretending to agree with their verdict on the film rather than being the odd one out.” (Eysenck, Psychology: An International Perspective,2004)

Why Do We Conform?

Researchers have found that people conform for a number of different reasons. In many cases, looking to the rest of the group for clues for how we should behave can actually be helpful. Other people might have greater knowledge or experience than we do, so following their lead can actually be instructive. In other cases, we conform to the expectations of the group in order to avoid looking foolish. This tendency can become particularly strong in situations where we aren’t quite sure how to act or where the expectations are ambiguous.

Deautsch and Gerard (1955) identified two key reasons why people conform: informational influence and normative influence.

Informational influence happens when people change their behavior in order to be correct. In situations where we are unsure of the correct response, we often look to others who are better informed and more knowledgeable and use their lead as a guide for our own behaviors. In a classroom setting, for example, this might involve agreeing with the judgments of another classmate who you perceive as being highly intelligent.

Normative influence stems from a desire to avoid punishments (such as going along with the rules in class even though you don’t agree with them) and gain rewards (such as behaving in a certain way in order to get people to like you).

Types of Conformity

As mentioned previously, normative and informational influences are two important types of conformity, but there are also a number of other reasons why we conform. The following are some of the major types of conformity.

  • Normative conformity involves changing one’s behavior in order to fit in with the group.
  • Informational conformity happens when a person lacks knowledge and looks to the group for information and direction.
  • Identification occurs when people conform to what is expected of them based upon their social roles. Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment is a good example of people altering their behavior in order to fit into their expected roles.
  • Compliance involves changing one’s behavior while still internally disagreeing with the group.
  • Internalization occurs when we change our behavior because we want to be like another person.

Factors That Influence Conformity

  • The difficulty of the task: Difficult tasks can lead to both increased and decreased conformity. Not knowing how to perform a difficult task makes people more likely to conform, but increased difficulty can also make people more accepting of different responses, leading to less conformity
  • Individual differences: Personal characteristics such as motivation to achieve and strong leadership abilities are linked with a decreased tendency to conform.
  • The size of the group: People are more likely to conform in situations that involve between three and five other people.
  • Characteristics of the situation: People are more likely to conform in ambiguous situations where they are unclear about how they should respond.
  • Cultural differences: Researchers have found that people from collectivist cultures are more likely to conform.

Examples of Conformity

  • A teenager dresses in a certain style because he wants to fit in with the rest of the guys in his social group.
  • A 20-year-old college student drinks at a sorority party because all her friends are doing it and she does not want to be the odd one out.
  • A woman reads a book for her book club and really enjoys it. When she attends her book club meeting, the other members all disliked the book. Rather than go against the group opinion, she simply agrees with the others that the book was terrible.
  • A student is unsure about the answer to a particular question posed by the teacher. When another student in the class provides an answer, the confused student concurs with the answer believing that the other student is smarter and better informed.

Some theoretical and experimental explanations 

What is the Bystander Effect?

The term bystander effect refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress. When an emergency situation occurs, observers are more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses.

In a series of classic studies, researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley (1) found that the amount of time it takes the participant to take action and seek help varies depending on how many other observers are in the room. In one experiment, subjects were placed in one of three treatment conditions: alone in a room, with two other participants or with two confederates who pretended to be normal participants.

As the participants sat filling out questionnaires, smoke began to fill the room. When participants were alone, 75% reported the smoke to the experimenters. In contrast, just 38% of participants in a room with two other people reported the smoke. In the final group, the two confederates in the experiment noted the smoke and then ignored it, which resulted in only 10% of the participants reporting the smoke.

Example of the Bystander Effect

The most frequently cited example of the bystander effect in introductory psychology textbooks is the brutal murder of a young woman named Catherine “Kitty” Genovese. On Friday, March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Genovese was returning home from work. As she approached her apartment entrance, she was attacked and stabbed by a man later identified as Winston Moseley.

Despite Genovese’s repeated calls for help, none of the dozen or so people in the nearby apartment building who heard her cries called police to report the incident. The attack first began at 3:20 AM, but it was not until 3:50 AM that someone first contacted police.

Initially reported in a 1964 New York Times article, the story sensationalized the case and reported a number of factual inaccuracies. While frequently cited in psychology textbooks, an article in the September 2007 issue of American Psychologist concluded that the story is largely misrepresented mostly due to the inaccuracies repeatedly published in newspaper articles and psychology textbooks.

Explanations for the Bystander Effect

There are two major factors that contribute to the bystander effect. First, the presence of other people creates a diffusion of responsibility. Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action, since the responsibility to take action is thought to be shared among all of those present.

The second reason is the need to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways. When other observers fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate. Other researchers have found that onlookers are less likely to intervene if the situation is ambiguous(2). In the case of Kitty Genovese, many of the 38 witnesses reported that they believed that they were witnessing a “lover’s quarrel,” and did not realize that the young woman was actually being murdered.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

An Experiment in the Psychology of Imprisonment

Work Experience.

In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set out to create an experiment that looked at the impact of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. Zimbardo, a former classmate ofStanley Milgram (who is best-known for his famous obedience experiment, was interested in expanding upon Milgram’s research. He wanted to further investigate the the impact of situational variables on human behavior.

The question the researchers asked was how would the participants react when placed in a simulated prison environment. “Suppose you had only kids who were normally healthy, psychologically and physically, and they knew they would be going into a prison-like environment and that some of their civil rights would be sacrificed. Would those good people, put in that bad, evil place—would their goodness triumph?” Zimbardo explained in one interview.

The Participants

The researchers set up a mock prison in the basement of Standford University’s psychology building, and then selected 24 undergraduate students to play the roles of both prisoners and guards. The participants were selected from a larger group of 70 volunteers because they had no criminal background, lacked psychological issues and had no major medical conditions. The volunteers agreed to participate for a one- to two-week period in exchange for $15 a day.

The Setting and Procedures

The simulated prison included three six by nine foot prison cells. Each cell held three prisoners and included three cots. Other rooms across from the cells were utilized for the prison guards and warden. One very small space was designated as the solitary confinement room, and yet another small room served as the prison yard.

The 24 volunteers were then randomly assigned to either the prisoner group or the guard group. Prisoners were to remain in the mock prison 24-hours a day for the duration of the study. Guards, on the other hand, were assigned to work in three-man teams for eight-hour shifts. After each shift, guards were allowed to return to their homes until their next shift. Researchers were able to observe the behavior of the prisoners and guards using hidden cameras and microphones.

Results of the Stanford Prison Experiment

While the Stanford Prison Experiment was originally slated to last 14 days, it had to be stopped after just six days due to what was happening to the student participants. The guards became abusive and the prisoners began to show signs of extreme stress and anxiety.

While the prisoners and guards were allowed to interact in any way they wanted, the interactions were generally hostile or even dehumanizing. The guards began to behave in ways that were aggressive and abusive toward the prisoners, while the prisoners became passive and depressed. Five of the prisoners began to experience such severe negative emotions, including crying and acute anxiety, that they had to be released from the study early.

Even the researchers themselves began to lose sight of the reality of the situation. Zimbardo, who acted as the prison warden, overlooked the abusive behavior of the prison guards until graduate student Christina Maslach voiced objections to the conditions in the simulated prison and the morality of continuing the experiment.

“Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously I was not among that noble class,” Zimbardo later wrote in his book The Lucifer Effect.

What Do the Results of the Stanford Prison Experiment Mean?

According to Zimbardo and his colleagues, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates the powerful role that the situation can play in human behavior. Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways they would not normally act in their everyday lives or in other situations. The prisoners, placed in a situation where they had no real control, became passive and depressed.

Criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment is frequently cited as an example of unethical research. The experiment could not be replicated by researchers today because it fails to meet the standards established by numerous ethical codes, including the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association. Zimbardo acknowledges the ethical problems with the study, suggesting that “although we ended the study a week earlier than planned, we did not end it soon enough.”

Other critics suggest that the study lacks generalizability due to a variety of factors. The unrepresentative sample of participants (mostly white and middle class males) makes it difficult to apply the results to a wider population.

The study is also criticized for its lack of ecological validity. While the researchers did their best to recreate a prison setting, it is simply not possible to perfectly mimic all of the environmental and situational variables of prison life.

Despite some of the criticism, the Stanford Prison Experiment remains an important study in our understanding of how the situation can influence human behavior. The study recently garnered attention after reports of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses in Iraq became known. Many people, including Zimbardo himself, suggest that the abuses at Abu Ghraib might be real-world examples of the same results observed in Zimbardo’s experiment.

Research and Experiments on Conformity

Jenness (1932): ‘Beans.’

A basic study in which Jenness gave a jar of beans to individuals and got them to estimate the number of beans inside.  He then grouped the same participants together and got them to discuss the contents.  Later when they were separated and asked their opinions Jenness found that the estimates had converged around a central figure.  Jenness’ 1932 Experiment: In one of the earliest experiments on conformity, Jenness asked participants to estimate the number of beans in a bottle. They first estimated the number individually and then later as a group. After they were asked as a group, they were then asked again individually and the experimenter found that their estimates shifted from their original guess to closer to what other members of the group had guessed. Conclusion: when we are unsure of an answer we look to others for help assuming that a majority figure will be more reliable. 

Asch Experiment

Imagine yourself in the following situation: You sign up for a psychology experiment, and on a specified date you and seven others whom you think are also participants arrive and are seated at a table in a small room.

You don’t know it at the time, but the others are actually associates of the experimenter, and their behavior has been carefully scripted. You’re the only real participant.

The experimenter arrives and tells you that the study in which you are about to participate concerns people’s visual judgments. She places two cards before you. The card on the left contains one vertical line. The card on the right displays three lines of varying length.

The experimenter asks all of you, one at a time, to choose which of the three lines on the right card matches the length of the line on the left card. The task is repeated several times with different cards.

On some occasions the other “participants” unanimously choose the wrong line. It is clear to you that they are wrong, but they have all given the same answer.

What would you do? Would you go along with the majority opinion, or would you “stick to your guns” and trust your own eyes?

If you were involved in this experiment how do you think you would behave? Would you conform to the majority’s viewpoint?

Solomon Asch – Conformity Experiment

Asch believed that the main problem with Sherif’s (1935) conformity experiment was that there was no correct answer to the ambiguous autokinetic experiment.  How could we be sure that a person conformed when there was no correct answer?

Asch (1951) devised what is now regarded as a classic experiment in social psychology, whereby there was an obvious answer to a line judgment task.  If the participant gave an incorrect answer it would be clear that this was due to group pressure.

Aim: Solomon Asch (1951) conducted an experiment to investigate the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform.

Procedure: Asch used a lab experiment to study conformity, whereby 50 male students from Swarthmore College in the USA participated in a ‘vision test’. Using a line judgment task, Asch put a naive participant in a room with seven confederates.

The confederates had agreed in advance what their responses would be when presented with the line task.  The real participant did not know this and was led to believe that the other seven participants were also real participants like themselves.

Each person in the room had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B or C) was most like the target line. The answer was always obvious.  The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave his or her answer last.

There were 18 trials in total and the confederates gave the wrong answer on 12 trails (called the critical trials).  Asch was interested to see if the real participant would conform to the majority view. Asch’s experiment also had a control condition where there were no confederates, only a “real participant”.

Results: Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view.  On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority on the critical trials.

Over the 12 critical trials about 75% of participants conformed at least once and 25% of participant never conformed. In the control group, with no pressure to conform to confederates, less than 1% of participants gave the wrong answer

Conclusion: Why did the participants conform so readily?  When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought “peculiar”.  A few of them said that they really did believe the group’s answers were correct.