Deviance- Does what other people think about us matter?

The post-modern era is saturated with laws and norms to help society function efficiently and healthily. However, our society seems very much diverse in regards to individuals consisting it and their preferred lifestyles. Despite the extra emphasis on freedom of choice, action, and expression, lots of members of our post-modern civilization still struggle while making decisions concerning their own life with the question “But what are people going to say?”. This question is nothing but a pure fear of being labeled as deviant.

A deviant is a person who differs markedly (as in social adjustment or behavior) from what is considered normal or acceptable. (Merriam-Webster, n.d.)

Different societies in various epochs have been troubled by ones who refused to follow the rules and norms. Those guidelines were created to contribute to the nation's development, and rejecting them could easily result in chaos. Therefore, Deviation has mostly been considered a negative phenomenon. Citizens, who were not following the mainstream culture and norms, used to be considered a reason for the dysfunction of society and social disorder.


Various sociologists have been trying to understand the roots of deviant action. Symbolic interactionism perceives it as a consequence of labeling. One forms own lifestyle based on what others expect from them.

Although all of us violate norms from time to time, few people would consider themselves deviant. Those who do, however, have often been labeled “deviant” by society and have gradually come to believe it themselves (Lumen Learning, n.d.).

Lables attached to an individual based on norms, expectations, and values
Figure 1: labeling

On the other hand, the Conflict theory emphasizes the connection between deviance and power. It claims that how one’s actions are perceived, as deviance or non-deviance, more or less depends on how much power one possesses. "It is these people (ones with power) who decide what is criminal and what is not, and the effects are often felt most by those who have little power" (Lumen Learning, n.d.). On the other hand, those left without a say try to find their way by going against the mainstream culture. Following the deviant pass as they have already been labeled as one, thus there seems no other way for making the world notice them.


However, it is wrong to consider this phenomenon only as destructive. Being a deviant has often been proven to be constructive and beneficial to the individual and society. French sociologist Emil Durkheim viewed deviance as an inevitable part of how society functions. He argued that deviance is a basis for change and innovation, and it is also a way of defining or clarifying important social norms. (Britannica, n.d.). To know what is correct, people need an example of what is wrong — being exposed to the negative sanctions attached to those labeled as deviants seeds the fear of becoming one. As individuals, we strive for social connections and acceptance. Therefore, the question “what are people going to say” comes into existence and guides our lives.


Apart from that, history gives us examples of the deviants who were not afraid of those sanctions, and their actions turned out to be turning points for humankind and the beginning of a new era. One of those deviant heroes would be Rosa Parks. Her brave decision to reject the norm, refusing to give her seat to a white man, resulted in the Montgomery Bus boycott and became the starting point for the Civil Rights movement in the USA. “Parks not coincidentally lost her job — and ended only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Over the next half-century, Parks became a nationally recognized symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial segregation” ("Rosa Parks," 2021).


American civil rights activist, Rosa Parks sits in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after the Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal on the city bus system on December 21st, 1956; the man sitting behind Parks is Nicholas C. Chriss, a reporter for United Press International out of Atlanta. Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery. This set off a successful boycott of the city buses. (Photo by Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)
Figure 2: Rosa Parks Riding The Bus

To sum up, our wish to be respected members of society and avoid being outlawed has a tremendous impact on our decisions. This thought has its roots in the concept of deviance. Different sociological paradigms have opposing definitions for the phenomena. Symbolic interactionism suggests that deviance is a consequence of labeling. Conflict theory perceives it as a result of inequality in the distribution of power. And, based on the functionalist view is an integral part of society that encourages the good by setting an example of what is bad. The concept of deviance changes over time and cultures but remains one of the main concerns for individuals living in those societies. Despite its negative connotation, there are historically proven deviant events that have shaped our modern-day in a better way. Therefore, next time before we ask “what are people going to say?” we should think about if others thought matter in our case.




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Irina Berdzenishvili

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