4 Interesting Social Theories That Explain Deviant Behavior

The suspected forces behind evil acts

Charles Stephen
Jan 18 · 4 min read
4 Interesting Social Theories that Explain Deviant Behavior
4 Interesting Social Theories that Explain Deviant Behavior
Image by Pixabay

Deviant behavior may be the best way to describe the year 2020. In terms of criminal acts and mob mentality, 2020 didn’t seem to miss a beat.

What would cause so many people to engage in such open hostility?

Of course, there were troubling issues, but the same could be said about any other year. Perhaps sociologists have some answers for some of this outrage.

Deviant behavior is defined as behaviors that go against the primary norms of a given society. Over the years, experts have proposed lots of theories in an attempt to explain acts of deviance.

These theories have provided reasons why people participate in deviant behavior — and they have included psychological explanations, sociological explanations, and biological explanations. Let us examine the four major sociological explanations.

Social Control Theory

Travis Hirschi proposed the Social Control Theory¹. It’s basically a functionalist theory that claims deviant behavior occurs whenever a group or a person has suffered a weakening of social bonds.

This theory presupposes that all people really care what others think about them — despite what they may say. Therefore, they conform to the social expectations that others have of them because of the social attachments they feel to them. Socialization is a vital part of conformity to prevailing social rules, so deviant behavior occurs whenever this conformity breaks.

Social Control Theory focuses more on social attachments than on shared value systems, or even the situations that cause a break in commitment to these shared values.

Additionally, this theory implies that most people feel the urge toward deviant behavior from time to time. Still, it’s the attachment to social norms that prevents them from actualizing these feelings.​

Structural Strain Theory

The Structural Strain Theory was created by American sociologist Robert K. Merton². This outlook is based on an extension of the functionalist perspective on deviance. It sees deviance as tensions caused by existing gaps between cultural goals and the perceived ability that people have to attain those goals.

This theory suggests society is composed of culture along with social structure. The culture is what establishes the desired goals for members of that society. And the social structure provides the means for people to reach those goals — but the social structure often fails to do that.

When a society is functioning properly, its citizens have free access to whatever means is required to achieve these societal goals. In this case, there is a balance between the desired goals and the means of achieving these goals.

Deviant behavior occurs when the goals and means are out of balance with one another.

The suspected forces behind evil acts
The suspected forces behind evil acts
Image by Pixabay

Theory of Differential Association

Edwin H. Sutherland created the Theory of Differential Association as a learning theory that examines the process that leads people to commit deviant acts³. This theory states that deviant behavior is learned through the association with people who are already committing criminal activities.

By interacting and communicating with deviant players, the motives, values, methods, and attitudes for criminal behavior are learned. And worse yet, deviant behavior becomes normalized.

Differential association theory places emphasis on the environment and those who exist in the environment. As people associate with deviants, delinquents, or criminals, they start to value deviance, and they feel a sense of belonging to the deviant group.

Labeling Theory

Labeling Theory is perhaps one of the more revolutionary ways of understanding criminal and deviant behavior in sociology⁴. It first assumes that no act is intrinsically criminal.

It believes that criminality is created by both the authorities in power and through the creation of laws. More importantly, it is the result of interpretations of these laws by courts, law enforcement, and correctional institutions. Deviance is viewed as a process between deviants and non-deviants in the context by which criminality is defined.

Therefore, those entities that enforce social behavior boundaries — like the courts, school authorities, police, etc. — become the main source of labeling. When labels are applied to people during the creation of deviance categories, a subjective power structure and hierarchy is also created for society.

The question is whether or not this labeling process is serving the actual needs of society. It is feared that those holding power are making decisions based on classifications like social status, gender, race, or religion and not the acts themselves.


[1]: Karl Thompson. (April 4, 2016). Hirschi’s Social Control Theory of Crime. https://revisesociology.com/2016/04/04/hirschi-control-theory-crime/.

[2]: Stephanie Medley-Rath. (May 4, 2015). Structural Strain Theory and the Baltimore Riots. http://stephaniemedleyrath.com/2018/03/10/structural-strain-theory-and-the-baltimore-riots-repost-from-sif/.

[3]: Cynthia Vinney. (June 06, 2019). Sutherland’s Differential Association Theory Explained. https://www.thoughtco.com/differential-association-theory-4689191.

[4]: Sherry Lynn Skaggs. Labeling theory. https://www.britannica.com/topic/labeling-theory.


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