Deviancy and Criminality

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Criminality is a violation of law, whether local, state, or federal. Deviancy is a violation of behavior from a social norm that takes into account place and time. Many crimes are deviant behavior, as most laws are established to help protect and enforce the social contract that people have by living in communities together. However, cultural norms can change so that they are technically crimes, and there are many examples of deviant behavior that is not criminal. By investigating each topic more in-depth, a greater understanding of both will emerge.

Crimes that are social norms in terms of behavior are not common. Indeed, most violent crimes are deviant behavior, and laws are passed to encourage socially acceptable behavior while discouraging deviant, socially harmful behavior. However, a shift in technology, thinking, or attitudes and values about a topic can sometimes mean that laws are on the books for behavior that is not in and of itself deviant. For example, piracy through online downloading is illegal with a stiff penalty. However, with millions of people doing it daily, it can hardly be called deviant behavior. An Internet search for the keywords “download mp3” yields scores of pages advertising openly for traffic with promises of free access to thousands of songs. Likewise, speeding is illegal (a minor infraction), but on a nice day on an uncongested road, it is often the norm behavior demonstrated. It’s not considered deviant behavior—nobody is labeled a “freak” for speeding, except in cases where someone becomes belligerent or exceptionally demonstrative of road rage, which is comparatively rare behavior. A third and final example of criminal behavior that is not necessarily deviant is the use of drugs such as marijuana. Just looking at popular media, the marijuana in the 1970s was only openly embraced by a relative few, such as Cheech and Chong and Willie Nelson. Today it is much more common, being part of the plot of any movie involving Seth Rogan or James Franco; a premise for a popular cable show, Weeds; and referenced in numerous television shows and songs. It is becoming legal as either a recreational or medicinal drug in more states, and social attitudes toward the use of marijuana have relaxed. In some conservative communities, marijuana use is considered deviant as well as illegal, but its overall social stigma has rapidly declined in the last 30 years.

Deviancy is behavior that is in contrast to or violation of socially accepted norms of behavior. Deviancy is also contextual, meaning that time and place have an effect on whether the behavior is seen as deviant. For example, a group of people chanting in an archaic language and then eating flesh and drinking blood would be considered deviant behavior outside of a Catholic church. One example of a general type of behavior that is growing more deviant is physical punishment of children. Child abuse is a defined crime, but where a parent’s right to discipline ends and a violation of the law occurs is somewhat subjective, and parents are typically given leeway for some form of physical reaction to a child’s behavior. However, hitting children as a form of punishment is becoming less socially acceptable and drifting more toward deviant behavior, especially among the new generation of parents. Another example of deviant behavior is Internet trolling, the intentional provocation to start an argument or otherwise create hostility and negativity in a forum of discussion on the Internet, such as the comments section for a political news story. Trolling is common, so it’s not deviant because of its (non)rarity, but because the act itself seeks to disrupt norms of behavior, which include civil discourse and an honest intent to communicate and build community. And, typically rules of conduct for Internet communities have a policy against active trolling, showing the overall community disapproval of the behavior. Lastly, sometimes behavior becomes deviant as the result of a political conversation. The Occupy Movement was an example of people engaging in deviant behavior as a way to point out inequality and injustice, which is a recognized and valid form of deviant behavior in organizations (Kelloway, Francis, Prosser & Cameron, 2010). In this case, protestors left their homes and began living in a park to draw attention to different political causes. These are some of the more significant and recurring forms of deviant behavior that should be considered in respect to criminality.

Criminologists should focus on both criminal acts and acts of deviancy that have the potential to break the social contract or create a situation in which there is a victim. For example, in the example of Internet trolling, Rebecca Sedwick was a 12-year-old girl who committed suicide after being bullied online (Pearce, 2013). As Pearce points out, the state of Florida had an anti-bullying statute for schools that prosecutors are hoping to apply in some way to this case, but there is not a clear law for a behavior that creates a victim and is not an isolated incident. Criminologists should also examine deviant behavior because of the clearly established link between antisocial behavior in children and criminal behavior as adults (Sampson & Laub, 1990). In some instances that are important for criminologists, deviancy could be a good indicator of potential criminal behavior and trends within a generation.

There are clear and understandable differences between behavior that is criminal and behavior that is deviant. In some cases, such as murder, the behavior is both, and in other cases, there may be an example of one being present without the other. In vases such as this, criminologists should focus on behavior and crimes that create a victim or disrupt community or society.


Kelloway, E., Francis, L., Prosser, M, & Cameron, J. (2010). Counterproductive work behavior as protest. Human Resource Management Review, 20. Retrieved from

Pearce, M. (2013, September 12). Florida girl, 12, found dead after bullies said “kill yourself.” The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from,0,1429218.story.

Sampson, R. & Laub, J. (1990). Crime and deviance over the life course: The salience of adult social bonds. American Sociological Review, 55(5), 609–627.