Why do some people commit crimes, use the wrong fork, or speak out of turn? How does a society determine when a crime has been committed, which fork to use, and who should speak when? How have we tried to explain deviance and create categories of deviants? What has been the role of race and class in these definitions?
How do deviants reconcile their behavior with society’s norms? What have been the contributions of Freud, Durkheim, Lombroso, and modern literary criticism to our understanding of deviance and conformity?
How is the practice of science itself an example of deviance and conformity?
A Framework for Defining Deviance
This set of 10 lectures examines the complex topic of deviance and how major sociological theories have attempted to define it and understand its role in both historical and modern society.
Professor Paul Root Wolpe introduces deviance as “a complex, often ambiguous, social phenomenon that raises numerous questions about how a varied and often arbitrary set of characteristics can be used to name the same idea.
“Certain theories provide a framework for examining how religion, societal norms, power relations, and personal values and beliefs are often used to determine which personal characteristics and behaviors are labeled deviant and, by default, which individuals, groups, or behaviors are sanctioned in societies,” he says.
The application of those definitions has a direct impact on areas of social life, including the mental health profession, systems of deterrence, the judicial system, and the arts. Who do we medicate, educate, incarcerate?
Dr. Wolpe is the author of the textbook Sexuality and Gender in Society and the end-of-life guide In the Winter of Life. He has won several teaching and writing awards and was named “Outstanding Professor at Penn” by the Panhellenic Council at the University of Pennsylvania.
In addition, Dr. Wolpe is the first chief of bioethics for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He is a regular columnist on biotechnology for the Philadelphia Inquirer and appears frequently in broadcast and print media, including MSNBC, CBS and ABC Evening News, Dateline, and The Jim Lehrer Show.
Explore Western Theories of Deviance
Intended for those with some understanding of sociology, this course traces Western theories of deviance from classical demonism to constructionism.
Deviance and criminology. The first lecture introduces the topic of deviance and explores its relationship to criminology, then goes on to outline the three major perspectives of deviance: absolutist, objectivist, and subjectivist.
The absolutist perspective is based on the acceptance of universal norms of morality. The objectivist perspective explains deviance as a variation from established societal norms. The subjectivist perspective views deviance as the result of societal reactions to certain individuals, groups, and behaviors.
The concept of demonism. Lecture 2 explores the concept of demonism in both its classical and modern forms. As an example of an absolutist perspective, demonism bifurcates the world into good and evil, with evil often being characterized as supernatural in nature.
Tracing the history of demonism from the Middle Ages to contemporary examples of Satanism, Professor Wolpe illustrates how demonism has often been used to explain and categorize bad behavior when no other explanation is available.
Deviance and pathology. Deviance as a form of pathology is the focus of Lecture 3. Beginning with the early work of Cesare Lombroso and ending with contemporary arguments supporting racial hierarchy theory, Professor Wolpe analyzes the influence of science on sociological thought.
You examine background information on the IQ controversy, the eugenics movement, and Social Darwinism as well as their effects on other aspects of American social life.
Social disorganization. In Lecture 4 Professor Wolpe examines the first sociological theory of deviance, social disorganization. This theory, which gained prominence at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, contends that deviance is a result of the breakdown of a society’s ability to regulate itself and to solve communal problems.
It is the first theory to move away from individualistic views of deviance and consider the role of social structure in deviant behaviors. Social disorganization firmly established fieldwork and empirical research as mainstays of sociology.
Durkheim and Merton. An overview of the work of Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton constitutes the bulk of Lecture 5. While not in agreement as to the role of deviance in society, both sociologists agree that it serves a function, as do all social structures and institutions.
You explore anomie, or the breakdown of social morality, as either causing or preventing deviance.
Learning theory. Lecture 6 is devoted to learning theory, the theory of deviance that examines the influence of subcultures on individual behavior. In this lecture, Wolpe describes how differential association, identification, and reinforcement socialize people into particular norms and behaviors, including the behavior system of deviance.
Professor Wolpe outlines ways that deviants negotiate living in two cultures, normative and deviant, using Sykes’s and Matza’s techniques of neutralization.
Control theory. Lecture 7 on control theory moves away from the question, “Why do people deviate?” to the question “Why do people conform?” You find included in this analysis the idea that most people are in constant discord with society, but through a process of social bonding they commit to the normative behaviors and rules of conduct.
Based heavily on the idea that people are all inherently motivated to deviate, the concept of deterrence plays a key role in control theory.
How society reacts to deviance. In Lectures 8 and 9, Wolpe concentrates on societal reactions to deviance, outlining how deviance has been both constructed and labeled in society.
In Lecture 8 Wolpe describes mental illness and homosexuality as forms of involuntary, noncriminal deviance, to illustrate the dynamics of labeling theory.
Lecture 9 provides background information on the influence of Karl Marx on conflict theory, a theory that continues to view labeling as an integral part of what is viewed as deviant, but which includes the added dimension of a dominant ideology.
You explore the key components of constructionism, claims making, and image making using contemporary examples from art, advertising, and political ideology.
Inherent to the constructionist perspective of deviance is the problematic nature of social truth, which Wolpe illuminates in his discussion of social problems as a form of claims-making activity.
Theories of sexual deviance. The final lecture applies the theoretical perspectives discussed in this course to sexual deviance.
From the demonistic perspective of sex as sin to the constructionist view of sex as claims making, Wolpe illustrates how each theory explains sexual deviance and how those explanations continue to influence contemporary thought.
Professor Wolpe concludes with reasons why science, as a social institution, must be constantly deconstructed and analyzed as a social process that is susceptible to its own form of claims making.
Professor Wolpe concludes the series by discussing the role of science in society and the responsibility of each individual as “moral entrepreneur.”
“The most important job people have as members of society is to challenge definitions of deviance,” he states.
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