Deviant behavior is behavior which does not adhere to widely-accepted social or cultural norms. For example, murder is a form of extreme deviant behavior which violates the cultural norm which states that it is unacceptable to kill another human being. There are a number of approaches to the study of deviance, along with explanations for why deviant behavior occurs, and how it might be addressed. Numerous colleges and universities offer coursework in this subject, and there are professional publications dedicated to this topic, including the creatively named “Deviant Behavior.”
The first step in understanding deviant behavior is the study of cultural and social norms. Norms vary widely across cultures, and in some cases, behavior which is polite or expected in one culture may be considered rude or inappropriate in another. The study of norms includes the history of such norms, the evolutions of norms over time, and the study of changes which occur in norms as society itself shifts. For example, wearing gloves in public was once a social norm for ladies in much of the Western world, but would now be considered slightly eccentric unless the weather was cold.
Deviance can be viewed from psychological, biological, and sociological perspectives. From the perspective of sociology, issues such as class can play a role in deviant behavior. Theft, a common instance of deviant behavior, could be said to be driven by sociological pressures such as poverty. Biologists may be interested in variations in the brain which lead to expressions of deviance, along with the biological motivations for normal behavior. Psychologists are interested in the thought processes behind normal and deviant behavior, ranging from depression, which may cause people to act out, to the study of early childhood development, which explains how people learn about behavioral boundaries.
Theories about deviant behavior posit a range of possible explanations. Many reflect an interdisciplinary approach, acknowledging that many factors can come together to influence behavior. Theories have also changed over the years, and have influenced the approach to issues like law enforcement, criminal justice, and treatment of the mentally ill. Forcing the unemployed into workhouses to motivate them into conforming with the norm which expects people to work, for example, is not a practice used today, although it was popularly embraced in the 19th century.
Understanding deviant behavior and the motivations behind it can be valuable for people in a wide range of settings. Doctors, for example, may like to know why some patients do not comply with medication regimens, while teachers may want to know about the roots of bullying and how to address students who act out in class.