Tuesday, January 8, 2008


In my class on Deviance and Social Control we talked about how difficult it is to really nail down a good definition of deviance.

There are a few basic takes on this…

There's the absolutist approach – this defines deviance as something that is somehow intrinsically or inherently wrong. That is, there is something about the action itself that makes it wrong. This definition would, as you can imagine, be pretty rigid and inflexible. You might say that me wearing a speedo is always wrong but you'd be hard pressed to keep that perspective with regards to my personal/romantic dress code in my own home.

There's the Statistical deviation approach – which suggest that behaviours that are statistically rare are deviant. Almost no one holds to this view. There are many things that are statistically rare but are hardly deviant. The fact that I can imitate Nacho Libre's famous love song might be rare but it is hardly deviant.

There's the Harmfulness approach – which suggests that if a certain action is harmful in some way it must be deviant. This seems like a decent approach but we know that there are plenty of things that aren't really harmful that are still considered deviant. The fact that I can regurgitate the meal I just ate and show it to you may be deviant but it isn't especially harmful to me or you. I can pick my nose and it hurts no one unless I have just cut my nails and make my nose bleed…you get the point…

The normative approach suggests that culture sets the guidelines for what is right and wrong. The question is here who controls culture.

This approach is similar to the constructionist approach that says that deviance is a social construction whose purpose is to control society in some significant way. Deviance is defined in a struggle between the powerful and those who comply. This is kind of like when I was a youth pastor on a weekend retreat. When I entered the cabin for night what I said was the law. If someone wanted to fart my recourse was to give them the Human Blanket (deviant in itself from some points of view). If I wanted to fart – I did. I got to say what was what.

The reactive approach is almost opposite of the absolutist approach and prides itself on being the most objective and unbiased. This one basically contends that something is deviant only because and when it elicits a reaction especially a negative one. There is nothing intrinsically deviant in and of itself – just as a result of a negative response to some action or condition. This view would say that there is nothing wrong with me leaving my socks on the floor around the house – it is only my wife's strong and negative reaction that makes it such. Try explaining that to Char…

So then the question comes – how do you define deviance?

Funny thing is that Christianity has been preoccupied with sin for millennia. We have made it a huge part of our theological enterprise. Of course we all are most comfortable with the way we define deviance for ourselves but the Christian perspective suggests that not only can our own ideas not be reliable in determining what is right and wrong but there is something that transcends all these approaches and claims the authority to create standards of deviance. I remember debating at length as a boy whether certain things were wrong in certain situations and not in others or whether there was this absolute standard that made things right or wrong.

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