Commonsensically, deviance has been seen as an attribute, as something inherent in a certain kind of behaviour or person: the delinquent, the homosexual, the mentally ill, and so forth. Indeed, this was a position which had a certain credence in the earlier writings of the social pathology theorists, and which is still important in some clinical and criminological research. For sociologists, however, deviance is best viewed, not as a type of person, but rather as a formal property of social situations and social systems. There is no fixed agreement on the substance of deviance—even murder on incest are accepted at times—but there are two interrelated properties which help characterize the phenomenon.
The first refers to deviance as a pattern of norm violation, and a range of norms are then specified such that religious norms give rise to heretics, legal norms to criminals, health norms to the sick, cultural norms to the eccentric, and so forth. Since norms emerge in most social situations, such a definition is very wide-ranging, and enters every sphere of social life. For example, there can be class deviance, where the normative expectations of class behaviour are violated; or situational deviance, where the norms emerging between a group of friends are transgressed.
A second property highlights deviance as a stigma construct, a label bestowed upon certain classes of behaviour at certain times, which then become devalued, discredited, and often excluded. This characteristic can also be seen as very wide-ranging: people may make friends deviant simply because they belch or talk too much; whilst terrorists may become political martyrs in the eyes of those who share their particular values. The study of deviance here is concerned primarily with the construction, application, and impact of stigma labels.
Within both approaches—norm violation or stigma construct—deviance is a shifting, ambiguous, and volatile concept. Precisely who or what is deviant depends upon a firm understanding of the norms and labelling process in particular social contexts. Despite these inherent difficulties with the term an enormous sociological literature has been generated by research on deviance.
The work of Émile Durkheim is generally considered the most fruitful starting-point for the contemporary analysis of deviance. In his work, two major and somewhat antagonistic issues emerge, both of which signpost subsequent trends. One is his focus on anomie: a state of normlessness and breakdown which emerges most conspicuously at times of rapid social change. Anomie indicates a strain, a breakdown, within a social order or social structure. This concept shifts the focus away from the deviant as a type of person to the suggestion that deviance is a feature of certain kinds of social structure. It is an idea followed through in a host of subsequent writings: in theories of delinquency as a consequence of strains within the social order (as in the work of Robert Merton and anomie theory); as a consequence of the breakdown of parts of the city (see zone of transition); and in the idea of subcultures.
Durkheim's second concern is his focus upon the functions of deviance. In The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) he suggests that ‘crime is normal because a society exempt from it is utterly impossible’. Deviance is bound up with the very conditions for a society; far from deviance being abnormal or pathological in itself, every society needs deviance. This seemingly paradoxical claim about the normality of deviance is propounded by Durkheim on several grounds. First there is a broad statistical argument: empirically, all known societies do have their deviance, and the rate of deviance often remains relatively stable over periods of time (though Durkheim certainly agrees that there can be abnormally high rates which need to be checked). But why is deviance universal? In line with Durkheim's more general functional analysis he suggests that deviance fulfils a number of important functions. Citing Socrates, he argues that one of these functions is to bring about change: today's deviants are signs of tomorrow's world. This is not true of all deviance—some is apologetic and fits readily into the existing social order. But deviance that is radical, challenging, and threatening is often so precisely because it suggests a different vision of the social world, one that may increasingly come to be: the reforming Christian sects of the 16th century, for example, quickly became the established Churches of subsequent eras. But in contrast to the function of facilitating change there is also a major function of solidarity and cohesion secured by deviance: people unite against a common enemy.