Norms, Roles, and Deviance


All societies have norms which are expectations or rules specifying proper and improper behavior. Individuals are rewarded or punished according to how well they adhere to these rules. The norms set the limits within which the individual may seek alternate ways of achieving his goals. Much behavior, however, deviates from the social norms.

This module discusses the importance and the effects of social norms As you read the text, keep the following questions in mind.


Members of society have norms or expectations of right and proper behavior. Norms increase the predictability of social life, since the expectations operate more or less as rules for behavior. Any individual who is aware of the social norms can then predict the behavior of another person in the society.

Norms specify the behav for society expects of an individual

Remember that an individual has a tendency to fill in gaps about people by drawing upon his notions of which traits or behaviors tend to go together. This is possible particularly when there are common expectations of behavior for persons occupying given positions in society. An individual may occupy the position of mother, son, wife, or doctor. Society attaches norms to each position, and that collection of norms or expectations defines the role. For example, there is a role of mother, son, wife, or doctor. The roles are bound together by the shared expectations of behavior for each role. Thus in American middleclass society a woman expects a man to rise when she enters the room. There is generally no difficulty because the man knows he is expected to rise.

Scientific observers have noted that in group formation there may be a person who expedites the discussion, a clarifier, a mediator, an obstructionist, and so forth. Once a person makes a few comments clarifying a discussion, it may be very difficult for him to leave the clarifier role. Here, the primacy effect operates. The others expect him to continue in his clarifier role, and he tends to behave in accordance with their expectations. Thus, roles are often assigned on minimal cues, partly because roles increase predictability and stabilize the structure of the group.

An individual's behavior may not be predictable if norms conflict or if he does not know what they are

The individual may find that he has no norms to guide his behavior in certain situations. Cultural norms are for the most part loose and incomplete. In addition, the individual does not learn all of the norms in his society, particularly when the society is complex. He learns only those norms that affect his daily life. Even when the individual tries to adhere to all the norms, there will always be novel situations in which the "right thing to do" is not clear.

What happens when behavior is not specified by a norm? The processes underlying the choices of behavior in such situations are of special interest to the social psychologist. In general, when the individual's choice of action is not clearly specified by a norm, he will choose the action that seems most likely to lead to rewards.

Norms are based on values commonly held in the society. For example, there is a norm that says you should be pleasant to a person when you meet him for the first time. This norm is based on a value that says courtesy or pleasantness is important or a good thing. As the individual is socialized, he develops a set of values. When the time comes to act, he does not hear a babble of competing inner voices. He chooses in accordance with his values.

Behavior has a tendency to show stability over time. The stability of the behavior, however, is influenced by its effect. If the effects are positive, the individual is reinforced and the behavior is likely to recur in the same situation. If there is an absence of reinforcement or a punishment, the behavior is likely to be unstable.

Behavior that does not match the social norm is called deviantbehavior. That is, it fails to conform to some standard that society expects. Thus, stealing, cheating, murdering, and rock-throwing are behaviors which deviate from norms.

74 Deviant behavior is tolerated up to the point that it appears threatening

Much behavior in given circumstances can be viewed as a normal curve, as shown in Figure 1. Note that behavior can deviate from the norm in a positive or a negative direction. Society will tolerate deviance that falls within certain limits. A child who performs well in school is likely to be rewarded. However, if his performance is too high, he may be viewed as a bookworm. Similarly, a factory worker who produces at too high a rate will be punished for rate busting. When the tolerance limits are passed, members of society feel threatened. They will act either to bring the behavior back toward the norm or to isolate the individual.

figure 1. The normal curve representation of conformity and deviance

figure 2. The J curve

Some behavior can be plotted as a J curve, as shown in Figure 2 (Allport, 1934). The number of people who come to a full stop at a stop sign rises sharply at the norm (stop) on the horizontal axis.

Much investigation of deviance in this century has centered upon the deviant personÄthe criminal, the juvenile delinquent, and the like. There has been considerable emphasis placed on psychological and environmental characteristics. The prevalent view has been that deviance resulted from some types of environmental exposure such as broken homes, poverty, or association with other deviants. Much of this emphasis has been an attempt to counter an earlier conception of deviance as some inherent or genetically caused characteristic. In other words, the emphasis shifted from a biological perspective to a social perspective.


In the late 1950's, however, Barbara Wooten identified 12 predominantly social variables that were commonly thought to cause delinquency (Woolen, 1959). She then examined 20 major empirical studies conducted in three countries over several decades and reached the following conclusion:

All in all, therefore, this collection of studies although chosen for its c comparative e methodological merit prod uces only the most meager and d ubiously supported gen er a liza t ions

Miss Wooten and others compiled data that gave very little support for the view that deviance came in predictable combinations with many other easily identifiable conditions.

A new perspective began to emerge, one that emphasized deviant behavior rather than deviant persons. Albert Cohen (1959) noted that most deviant behavior is produced by clinically normal people.

Another important contribution was the emphasis on deviance as a culturally defined phenomenon. Howard Becker pointed out that ". . . social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance ..."

Becker described a process which he called a "deviant career." The first deviant act may be done on a lark, that is, on the spur of the moment and just for fun. The individual may, however, be drawn into a deviant pattern through association with other deviants (Becker, 1963).

A subculture is considered deviant only if it r eje c ts social nor ms

Since whole groups may engage in deviant behavior, the concept of the deviant subculture emerges. In the 1930's Edwin Thrasher observed the behavior of juvenile gangs in Chicago. He noted that individuals became socialized to a set of norms which are deviant or in opposition to the norms of the larger society (Thrasher, 1936). In the 1950's sociologists gave closer attention to gangs, which appeared to have a much more formal organization than in prior decades. Delinquent gangs were now seen as delinquent or deviant subcultures that functioned in opposition to the conventional culture (Cohen, 1954). A group that engages in deviant behavior is not necessarily a deviant subculture. Many groups engage in deviant behavior from time to time without substituting a new set of norms. Members of a deviant subculture, however, subscribe to norms that oppose the norms of the larger cultures.

There was much speculation concerning the appearance of these subcultures. Stress was placed on the collective sharing of problems, and, in particular, on the lack of opportunities for achieving conventional social goals. Blocked opportunity was viewed as creating a status problem which the delinquent subcultures could solve. High status was unattainable in the larger society, but the individual could achieve high status within the subculture.

Some investigators found, however, that not all of the delinquents, and not even most of them, became adult criminals (Matza, 1964). This suggests that delinquency frequently results from advantages.taken of opportunities in a given situation. There is considerable evidence that when opportunities for deviance increase, deviance will increase. Car thefts, for example, increase with car sales and a car is more likely to be stolen if the keys are left in it.


More opportunities for deviance increase the frequency of deviant behavior

In the case of delinquency and crime, the individual is not deprived of social interaction. He seeks out, and usually finds, the company of other deviants among whom he may find new status. An individual can also become isolated from his usual group, as in the case of mental illness. He does not find a deviant group to which he can flee for support, protection, or status.

In the social struggle against harsh treatment for the insane, there was much pressure for the acceptance of the term "mental illness." Though the term and its implications were widely accepted, institutions came under attack for em : custody rather than therapy. Many were organized in such a way as to ensure a smooth flow of routine procedure. This, said Erving Goffman (1961), was very much unlike ordinary social life.

Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (1961) levels a compelling criticism against the use of the term "mental illness." His argument is that the behavior and emotions regarded as mental illness are problems of living. Mental illness is the label placed on deviant behavior, which is then made into the cause. In mental problems, he says, behavior is covertly measured by the psychiatrist's reference to norms specifying the behavior of "normal" persons. The norms are not medical but psycho-social, ethical, and legal.

Szasz is not arguing that there are not emotionally troubled people. He says instead that they are not "ill" in some medically objective sense. They have problems of living which are more disturbing to them than they usually are to other people.



Now test yourself without looking back.

1. Society's expectations. or rules specifying proper behavior. are called:
a. roles.
b. norms.
c. positions.
d. tolerance limits.

2. A collection of norms attached to a particular position describes:
a. deviant behavior.
b. conformity.
c. a role.
d. (none of these)

3. The individual must operate without norms in some situations because:
a. he does not learn all of society's norms.
b. there are always novel situations.
c. (neither)

4. Deviant behavior is any behavior that does not conform to a

5. In Deviant career" the individual develops a pattern of deviant behavior when:
a. he performs a deviant act as a lark.
b. he is drawn into the company of other deviants.
c. he performs the deviant act for the first time.

6. Which is correct when society chooses to act against deviance?
a. The deviance has surpassed the tolerance limits.
b. Any norm has been violated.
c. Society will try to bring behavior back toward the norm or it will isolate the individu-
d. (none of these)

7. What is a deviant subculture?
a. An ethnic subculture
b. A subculture whose norms are in opposition to those of the larger culture
c. Any group that engages in deviant behavior
d. (none of these)


8. Match.
1. Status theory of deviant subculture______________________


Opportunity theory of deviant subculture______________________

a. Given situations of reduced control and increased chances for deviance, deviant behavior will increase.

b. Deviant behavior results from inherent characteristics.

c. The deviant subculture provides new chances for respected positions.

9. Thomas Szasz criticized the term "mental illness" by saying that:
a. mental illness is actually a label for problems of living.
b. there is no such thing as emotional disturbance.
c. the psychiatrist covertly compares the subject's behavior with norms which are not medical but psycho-social, ethical, and legal.
d. patients are actually ill in a medical sense.





A role is described by the norms attached to a given position in society. A role is therefore described by:
a. expectations of proper behavior.

b. society's rules specifying proper and improper behav~or.

c. status in the society.

__________________________ 6

A role is often assigned on the basis of minimal cues. The expectahons that an individual will remain in a given role continue. Roles are therefore:
a. a source of stability within the group.
b. often difficult for the individual to give up, even if he
wishes to.
c. (neither)

In a complex society the individual does not have an opportunity to learn all of the norms. In addition, cultural norms are usually loose and incomplete. Novel situations always arise. In cases where the norms do not specify behavior, the individual will generally attempt to maximize the positive outcome of his behavior. He will therefore choose:

a. the course of least resistance.
b. the course of action most likely to lead to rewards.
c. the least difficult actions.

________________________________________________ 5

As the individual becomes socialized within the culture, he presses toward a harmony of values, Then when a novel situation arises:

a. he can rely on nomms.
b. he relies on his values as a guide to behavior.
c. (neither)


Behavior that deviates from or does not conform to a social standard or norm is called_______________________________________4

Society will tolerate a certain degree of deviance. However, when deviant behavior surpasses the tolerance limits, members of society - feel threatened. You would expect members of society to:

a. refrain from acting.
b. attempt to change the behavior to conform more closely to the norm.
c. isolate the individual if his behavior is threatening to the society.

Deviations from social norms may:
a. form a normal curve.
b. form a J curve.
c. occur in either a positive or a negative direction.
____________________________________________ 7


1 b
2 b, c
3 a, b
4 deviant behavior

5 b
6 a,b
7 a,b,c
8 a,c


Norms attached to given positions in society describe ______________________________________8

Society's expectations or rules specifying proper and improper
behavior are called____________________________________________3

Becker (1963) described a process he called a "deviant career." "normal behavior." The first deviant act may be done as a lark. This does not necessarily result in a deviant pattern. A deviant pattern develops when the individual associates with others who deviate in the same way. Thus, a pattern develops when the individual:
a. is pulled into a deviant group.
b. performs
a deviant act.
c. (neither)
_____________________________________________ 6

The study of delinquent gangs led to a status theory of deviance. Collections of individuals shared the same conditions. They were all blocked from achieving status within the larger society. To achieve high status, they:
a. developed a subculture in which status could be achieved.
b. developed a deviant subculture.

Some investigators found that delinquents do not necessarily become adult This led to an opportunity theory of deviance. According to this theory, the deviance increases when:
a. there is lack of status opportunities.
b. there are increased chances for deviance.
c. (neither)

Mental illness is a form of deviant behavior. Thomas Szasz criticized the use of the term "mental illness" by stating that mental illness is a label used for problems of living. The mentally ill are therefore:
a. not behaving in accordance with norms specifying
b. ill in a medical sense. c. (neither)

Deviant subcultures may form when the individuals are blocked
from achieving socially accepted goals or_________________________________4

ANSWERS 1 a, b 2 b 3 norms 4 status
5 society's expectations 6 a 7 a8 roles




1. Deviant behavior is any behavior that does not conform to a

2. Society acts against deviance:

a. to bring the behavior back toward the norm.
b. to isolate the individual.
c. when tolerance levels are surpassed.

3. What types of curves would you expect to get about a given norm?____________________

4 A subculture whose norms are in opposition to those of the larger culture is called__________________

5. In a ``deviant career," an individual may initially engage in deviant behavior as a lark. A pattern of deviance emerges, however, when he is pulled into the company of_____________________________
6. Society's expectations or rules specifying proper behavior are called________________________________

7. A role is described by:
a. expectations attached to a specific position.
b. conformity to a standard.
c. positions.

8. The status theory of deviant subcultures focuses attention on:
a. inability to achieve status within the culturally defined framework.
b. the sharing of common difficulties.
c. (neither)

9. If the opportunities for deviance are increased, you would expect deviant behavior to ____________________________

10. Thomas Szasz criticized the term "mental illness" by saying that:
a. the term is used as a cause for deviant behavior.
b. it is a label applied to certain patterns of behavior that are actually problems in living.
c. patients are not ill in a mental sense; they are ill in a medical sense.




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