Society and the Need for Deviance

In every society, there are varying definitions of deviance and those who will cross the boundaries of what it means to be “deviant.”

Emile Durkheim, often referred to as the “father of sociology,” pointed this out in his “society of saints thesis,” in which he said that even in a society of exemplary individuals where crime as our society defines it may not be present, “faults which appear tolerable to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousness.”

In other words, societies draw lines in the sand somewhere when it comes to what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Whether it be murder or just poor manners, someone is going to land on the wrong side of a boundary, thus illustrating the need for the line to be drawn. Because of this, Durkheim believed that no society can exist without deviance.

Durkheim believed deviance, particularly crime, was good to an extent. In a writing entitled, “The Normal and Pathological,” he argued that: “Crime is necessary; it is bound up with the fundamental conditions of all social life, and by that very fact it is useful, because these conditions of which it is a part are themselves indispensable to the normal evolution of morality and law.”

How society defines deviance is important because doing so creates norms that inform members as to what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. While it’s easy to think we either fall on one side of the line or the other, a closer look at rituals and the release of deviant desire in various societies shows that at some point or another, the vast majority of people go for a walk on the deviant side of that line.

Landing on the deviant side of said line is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, one of the primary roles of deviance, according to the structural functionalist view, is that deviance offers an understanding of the disruption and re-calibration of societal norms over time. In other words, what may be initially stigmatized by society may over time become socially acceptable.

A good example of this can be seen in the treatment of the LGBT community over the last 30 years. Where once society saw deviants behaving in ways that triggered disgust, research from Gallup in recent years shows the majority of Americans view equal rights for the LGBT community as a societal norm.

Purging Deviance

In a 1962 paper titled “Notes on the Sociology of Deviance,” sociologist Kai T. Erikson argued that once we experience deviance, that behavior gains momentum and develops forms of organization that persist over time. Increased deviant desire eventually requires release so that ordinary people can live their ordinary lives for the majority of the time.

We see this release played out in the behavior of fans in football and soccer stadiums around the world, in the tattoos and piercings of people on the street and entire festivals dedicated to what is known as “sanctioned deviance,” something many sociologists believe is necessary for maintaining stability in any society.

Carnival is arguably the most famous expression of sanctioned deviance. In the days that lead up to the Christian observance of the Lenten season, many Roman Catholic countries traditionally hold festivals where cross-dressing, promiscuity and role reversals of societal relationships occur for a matter of days.

Mardi Gras is an American take on Carnival, serving as a purge of deviant behaviors ranging from sexual promiscuity to public begging and excessive alcohol consumption. Events like this aren’t limited to Mardi Gras. Tampa, Florida’s pirate-themed celebrations of drunken debauchery known as Gasparilla, Key West’s hypersexualized Fantasy Fest and a large number of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations around the United States all essentially serve the same purpose.

Some events that can be defined as exhibiting deviant behavior may be labeled as something else entirely, yet remain true to the principle of purging deviant desire. Burning Man, for example, is indeed a music festival, but it involves living in primitive conditions for seven days while many attendees walk around free of clothing and experimenting with heavy narcotics and promiscuity.

This idea of sanctioned deviance falls under what sociologist Erving Goffman called the theory of “backspaces,” places where people can escape without having to worry about the judgment of others while unveiling parts of their personalities they would normally conceal to fit in with societal norms.

Perhaps the best attempt to explain this comes from Erikson’s examination of social norms. He said that norms are not firm rules or codes by which we live, so much as behaviors with histories much like articles of common law. They are accumulations of decisions made by a community over long periods of time which gather enough moral influence to serve as precedent for future decisions.

Looking at a historical perspective of deviance, Erikson points to the attention we pay to deviant behavior. At one time in human history, criminals were paraded through public places on their way to correction. Today, mass media has stepped in to provide the forum for such a parade, which satisfies our psychological perversities and provides the main source of information society has about what constitutes normal, acceptable behavior.

“Morality and immorality meet at the public scaffold, and it is during this meeting where the line between them should be drawn,” he writes.

Sanctioned deviance is yet another public market for deviant behavior, one which is aimed at what blurring boundaries in an attempt to provide a release from societal constraints, effectively doing what Erikson referred to as “regulating deviant traffic.”

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