Deviant Behavior / The Social Learning Theory

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1 March 2016

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A person would be considered to be acting in a deviant manner within a social setting if they are violating the established social “norm” within that particular culture. What causes a human being to act in certain ways is a disputed topic among researchers. There are three types of researchers that have tried to answer this question. There is the psychological, biological, and the sociological approach. With all of the studies that have been performed, not one group has provided an exact reason or explanation as to why people behave in a deviant manner. Although sociologists’ theories have not been disproved as often as the psychologists’ and biologists’ theories because their experiments are too hard to define and no one definition for deviance is agreed upon by all experimenters (Pfuhl, 1980, p. 40), the sociological perspective has provided the most information concerning why people exhibit deviance. The definition of deviant behavior is considered to be broad with multiple viewpoints which makes it complicated and difficult to find an accurate answer (Pfuhl, 1980, p. 18). This is why this topic is so important in the study of sociology. Sociologists have more information, and therefore may be closer to finding the best explanation for the major contributing factors in explaining the development of deviant behavior(s) within a certain culture. For this reason, the main focus of this paper is based on the sociological stand point of deviance based upon the Social Learning Theory and social reaction(s) to deviant behavior(s).

According to The Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977), one person can learn simply by observing the behavior of another person (DeLamater, 2011, p. 10). The family is the major link to socialization in one’s environment (Four Categories of Family Functions that Seem to Promote Delinquent Behavior, p. 1). In the family, divorce, conflict within family, neglect, abuse, and deviant parents are the main determinates for the offspring’s actions or behavior. Early researchers first thought parental absence only affected girls and members of the white population. Modern research finds that the lack of supervision or support of the child’s needs is a link to delinquency in any race. It occurs more in single parent homes because they have a more difficult time providing supervision and support. Poverty can be another reason within the family for conflict because it can lead to both family breakups and delinquency.

Children need close and supportive relationships with parents. The inability to talk to parents also promotes deviance within the home. The child may feel that they need to obtain attention elsewhere, thus acting in a deviant manner if their parents are not there to provide guidance and support. Parents can prevent this type of behavior by being competent, providing non-aggressive punishment, and by being supportive in order to build the child’s self-confidence. Family conflict has more damaging effects on children than divorce, whereas parental death has less impact than divorce (Four Categories of Family Functions that Seem to Promote Delinquent Behavior, p. 2). When a parent dies a child at least knows that the parent did not want to leave on his own terms and probably did not inflict any abuse to his or her psyche before the parent passes away.

Also, if a child still has contact with both parents after a divorce the less likely the child will feel neglected and feel the need to react with deviant behavior. Family size also leaves an adolescent without the necessary attention they need as an individual. Middle children are more likely to exhibit deviant behavior because they go unnoticed more than their younger or older siblings. The legal definition of abuse and neglect varies from state to state but does, in any form, create serious consequences for behavior. This abuse and/or neglect occurs in sustained patterns, which causes stress, poor self-esteem, aggressiveness, lack of empathy, and fewer interactions with peers. Child abuse is defined as any physical or emotional trauma to a child for which no reasonable explanation is found. Neglect refers to the deprivation that children suffer at the hands of parents (Deviance: Behavior that Violates Norms, p. 1). Such components that apply to these definitions are non-accidental physical injury and neglect, emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, and abandonment. Over one million youth in America are subjected to abuse each year. In terms of sexual abuse, one in ten abused are boys, and one in three of them are girls. It is unknown how many cases go unreported in any area of abuse or neglect each year. From 1980 to 1986, the number of reported cases rose sixty percent. The most common reason for parents abusing their children is due to a learned function they acquired from their parents. This tendency to pass down deviant behavior through generations is a cycle of family violence (Lemert, 1972, p. 48). Parents are unable to separate childhood traumas from the relationships they have with their own kids. Another unhealthy thing to learn from a parent is the feeling of isolation from family and friends. This is more common is single parent families and lower socioeconomic classes. If a person is living in a lower class, single-parent environment, that person is at a real disadvantage.

It may be because they do not feel they are good enough to belong in the realms of society. Delinquency is when a child acts out their hostility towards the parent or abuser in a deviant manner (Lemert, 1972, p. 59). Parents need to provide adequate guidance and punishment to their child when the child exhibits deviant behavior; however, the problem is that some parents do not see or choose not to see the child’s deviant behavior.

Other influences outside of the home can cause a person to act in a deviant manner. Peers, media images, and other people in society establish what the “norm” should be in a given area or culture. What is considered “normal” can be relatively different in various areas of the world. What is considered deviant can be changed over time once society as a whole feels more comfortable and accepting of the certain type of deviant behavior. For instance, only certain people once obtained tattoos and now it is a current fad to cover the entire body with them. Media portrays models and famous figures with unusual tattoos, piercings, and certain attitudes as “normal” and acceptable to teenagers in today’s culture. There are more devil-worshipers, or so they portray, in the music business. This implies to children that it is cool to wear the black clothes and act somewhat gothic. This is just one example.

It may depend on the person as to how much their peers and media influence them to go against the “norms”. Once a person is labeled deviant, they usually continue to respond to society as if they are deviant. This aspect of deviance is called The Labeling Theory. There are sociologists who seek to find why certain acts are defined as criminal, and others are not. They also question how and why certain people become defined as a criminal or deviant. In this realm of study, the acts that they perform are not significant to the criminals, but it is the social reaction to them that is (Becker, p. 1). The response and label from other individuals in society, such as peers, are how the individuals view themselves. When a person performs a deviant act, they are then labeled by society and separated from the “normal” people. Such labels in today’s society are whore, abuser, loser, etc. These people are then outsiders and associate with other individuals who have been cast out of the societal “norm”. When more and more people within the “norm” of society think of these people as deviant, then these people performing deviant behaviors think they are deviant too. The Labeling Theory states that once they feel this way, they will continue to behave in the way society now expects them to behave. The question is, are humans genetically predisposed to deviant behavior, or do the people around them influence them to act in this way?

The sociological perspective is the factor that has been the least questioned explanation even though it does not always give the exact justification for the origin of the deviant behavior. Sociologists learn from cultural influences in lieu of biological or psychological biases. Rather than concern with behavior from certain people, sociologists view deviance as a behavior engaged in a person by having a common sociocultural or the same experiences within a culture. Edwin H. Sutherland explains that deviant and non-deviant behaviors are learned in the same ways through his Differential Association Theory. Sutherland demonstrates that criminal behavior is learned from intimate groups by the means of communication. When they learn how to act in a deviant manner, they know what is involved in, and what drives a person to commit a crime. This does vary in people who have different characteristics and learning abilities. However, one group may view certain behavior as deviant, i.e. shoplifting, while others may view shoplifting as justified because businesses charge too much money. The viewpoint of each group develops by observing others and imitating their behavior, otherwise known as The Social Learning Theory (DeLamater, 2011, p. 386). Whatever the cause of deviant behavior, it is a major problem within society.

The exact determinates that contribute to a person’s deviant behavior are controversial. It may be from inherited traits, behavior learned from society and family, or even a combination of the two. The social interaction certainly leads to The Labeling Theory and how individuals may strive to meet the expectations of their “labeled” identity. However, The Social Learning Theory seems to best explain the major environmental influences on children by family members and peers which contribute to the development of deviant behavior and society’s reaction to various behaviors that are considered to be deviant.

Becker, H. S. (n.d.). Overview of Labeling Theories. Retrieved from DeLamater, J. &. (2011). Social Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. Deviance: Behavior that Violates Norms. (n.d.). Retrieved from Four Categories of Family Functions that Seem to Promote Delinquent Behavior. (n.d.). Retrieved from Lemert, E. M. (1972). Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. Pfuhl, E. H. (1980). The Deviance Process. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company.

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"Deviant Behavior / The Social Learning Theory" StudyScroll, Mar 1, 2016.

"Deviant Behavior / The Social Learning Theory" StudyScroll, 1-Mar-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 2-Oct-2023]

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