MCAT Basics Podcast

MCAT Basics: Social Norms and Deviance

Sam Smith breaks down social norms and deviance. He covers the types of norms, different theories regarding deviance, and collective deviance.

  • [02:09] Defining Social Norms & Deviance
  • [04:32] Formal Versus Informal Norms
  • [04:49] Informal Norms: Folkways, Mores & Taboos
  • [09:50] How Informal Norms Intersect with the Law
  • [12:39] Anomie
  • [14:51] Theories & Perspectives on Deviance
  • [27:24] Collective Behavior & Collective Deviance

Norms are the formal or informal rules that govern behavior in groups and societies. Normative behavior is behavior that follows social norms, while non-normative behavior is not conforming to or reflecting an established norm, or, deviation from a specific standard of comparison for a person or group of people, particularly a standard determined by cultural ideals of how things ought to be. Deviation corresponds to non-normative behavior. Note that norms are particular to a society, and reflect only what a particular society has deemed good, right or important. In other words, norms differ across cultures.

Informal Social Norms

There are three common types of informal social norms, namely folkways, mores and taboos. Folkways are societal rules that we are expected to follow, but have no moral significance. For example, when you enter an elevator, you immediately turn and face the door. Facing the other people on the elevator would not be morally wrong, but it would be strange, and would deviate from this folkway.

A more is also an informal social norm that has moral significance. For example, in the United States, cheating on your spouse would be in violation of a social more. Last, a taboo has stronger moral significance than a more. For example, participating in cannibalism would be a taboo in the United States.

Informal Social Norms Versus Laws

Laws are norms that have been put into writing and are enforced. Laws are often correlated with taboos, but they are not the same thing. Consider the following example: cannibalism is a taboo in the US, but it is not illegal in any US state except for Idaho. However, murder is both a taboo and a law. Laws against murder additionally ensure that cannibalism, which generally necessitates murder, is punished.

What is “Anomie”?

While deviance refers to breaking social norms, anomie refers to the breakdown of norms, rules, and laws. French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who coined the term “anomie” thought that this breakdown was the reason for hopelessness and suicide. As a modern example, during in-person interactions and conversations, it is a social norm to be polite and respectful. However, on Twitter, there is anomie, and people are often rude to one another. This can cause a heightened sense of disconnection and anxiety.

Theories of Deviance

There are six main theories for why deviant behavior occurs: labeling, differential association, strain, social disorganization, cultural deviance, and social control. To illustrate the different theories, we will use the example of a student who has been stopped by the police for cycling home from a party while intoxicated.

Labeling theory

Labeling theory posits that deviance is not an inherent tendency of an individual, and that an individual only becomes deviant through the labeling of society. After being labelled as deviant, this labeling causes the student to commit more deviant acts. For example, in the case of our inebriated student, they are arrested by the police for committing a DUI and sent to jail — this is the primary deviance. Having been labelled deviant by other people, the student internalizes this view — the secondary deviance — leading them to commit more crimes. Labeling theory has aspects of symbolic interactionism and social constructivism.

Differential association theory

Differential association theory says that individuals base their behaviors by association and interaction with others. In the case of the student, differential association posits that the student learnt this behavior from the people around them. For example, by observing their friends committing similar acts. Differential association has aspects of Bandura’s social learning theory and symbolic interactionism.

Strain theory

Strain theory posits that social structures within society pressure individuals to become deviant and to commit crimes. This theory typically looks at disadvantaged groups. People in disadvantaged groups may not be able to reach their goals in the way that society is currently structured. Thus, they deviate from social norms. In the case of our student, the student might be financially challenged, leading them to choose to bike home instead of ordering an Uber. They cannot reach their financial goals if they do not commit this crime. However, this application is a bit of a stretch. Strain theory falls under the functionalist perspective.

Social disorganization theory

Social disorganization theory asserts that crime is most likely to occur in communities with weak social ties where there is an absence of social control. A lack of community, community relationships, residential instability and neighborhood segregation all contribute to creating deviant behavior. In the words of the authors Rebecca Wickes and Michelle Sydes, “this theory shifts criminology scholarship from a focus on the pathology of people to the pathology of places.” In the case of our student, perhaps the student did not have community relationships which allowed them to comprehend the wrongness of cycling while drunk. Social disorganization falls under the functionalist perspective.

Cultural deviance theory

Cultural deviance theory is a combination of the strain and social disorganization theory. Under this theory, deviance is a result of conforming to lower class norms. Because the lifestyle in a disadvantaged community is difficult and draining, members create their own subculture that has different rules, values and norms than the primary culture. The middle class culture prioritizes hard work, delayed gratification, and education, whilst the disadvantaged, poor communities have a culture that emphasizes excitement, toughness, fearlessness, immediate gratification and “street smarts.” In the case of our student, perhaps cycling whilst drunk does not violate the social norms of the disadvantaged community in which he grew up. Cultural deviance theory falls under a functionalist perspective.

Social control theory

Social control theory explains why people obey rules and are not deviant. An individual internalizes good values, and their relationship with others leads them to non-deviant behavior. We act within norms because we are controlled by two factors — external controls and internal controls. External controls include things like friends, family, and the police. Internal controls include embarrassment and conscience. In the case of the student, they might be influenced by external controls — say friends at the party who discourage the student from cycling while drunk, or internal controls — say their conscience. However, if the student chooses to commit the crime, these internal and external controls were not enough to keep them from deviating. Social control theory places a stronger emphasis on the individual’s choice, rather than focusing on the systemic issues as in the other theories. It falls under rational choice theory and symbolic interactionism.

Types of Collective Deviance

Finally, let us look at three types of collective deviance — fads, mass hysteria, and moral panic. Sam uses Wikipedia’s definition of a fad, namely, “any form of collective behavior that develops within a culture, a generation or social group in which a group of people enthusiastically follow an impulse for a finite period.” Mass hysteria refers to “widespread fear and concern that turns out to be false, overblown or at least greatly exaggerated. For example, during the 1938 radio drama “The War of the Worlds,” about one million listeners thought that Martians were actually invading the Earth and mass hysteria resulted. Moral panic is a type of mass hysteria, and is defined as widespread fear or concern over perceived threat to the moral order that is either false or greatly exaggerated. For example, the legalization of marijuana has been sensationalized by groups of people who think that it will ruin society.

You can join the Med Student Mentor FB Group to ask questions and receive guidance related to clinical rotations and clinical knowledge! Sign up to join Dr. Erkeda DeRouen (The Prospective Doctor), Sam Smith (MCAT Basics), and Chase DiMarco (1-Minute Preceptor & The Medical Mnemonist) on Behind the Mic LIVE on September 24 as they discuss their journey through medicine, why they began podcasting, their dream guests, and more.


Sam Smith

Sam completed his Bachelors of Science in Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. Following his graduation, he worked at the National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center studying HIV. Meanwhile, with a microphone in his garage, Sam founded the MCAT Basics podcast. The podcast has grown to become the top rated MCAT podcast on iTunes. In addition to podcasting, Sam enjoys the outdoors, sports, and his friends and family.

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