Deviance: Absolute or Relative?

When we note the idea that "deviance is in the eye of the beholder", we are suggesting that deviance (and, by extension, crime) is a relative, rather than an absolute, concept.Even something like cannibslism is accepted as normal in some societies...

If the concept is absolute it would mean that the same behaviour will always be considered deviant in all societies and at all times. If valid, this idea is significant in two ways:

Firstly, it would mean that all societies would develop rules that proscribed certain forms of behaviour (or "acts", to use the jargon). If this were the case, by understanding the reasons for such proscriptions we would be able to understand the essential nature of deviance and social control.

Secondly, it would mean that the study of deviance should concentrate on why people break certain rules. That is, it would necessarily focus on the deviant (or criminal) and, by so doing, would focus on a variety of factors, both psychological (deviants as "damaged personalities, for example) and sociological (family and educational background, class, gender and age, etc.).

In methodological terms, therefore, we would be able to accept the proscription of certain forms of behaviour as "given" (that is, there would be no question that such behaviour was wrong) and focus our efforts on explaining the qualities possessed or not possessed by different people as "causes" of deviance.

A variation on this particular (absolutist) theme is one that focuses on norms of behaviour at any given moment in a society's development. For example, "violent behaviour" such as assault or murder is proscribed behaviour in our society. To be violent, therefore, is to be deviant in terms of the prevailing social norms.

As with the first type of absolutist theory, explanations as to why some people are violent - and others not - focus on the particular social, psychological, genetic or biological characteristics that predispose some - but not others - to this type of behaviour.

If, however, the concept is relative it would mean the same behaviour, in different societies and at different times, may be considered either deviant or non-deviant. In effect, someone could commit an act in one society that would be seen as deviant while they could commit the same act in a different society and be seen as non-deviant. This idea is also significant in two main ways:

Firstly, because different societies define the same behaviour in different ways it would mean that, as sociologists, the focus of our studies should be on understanding how and why rules are created in any society (by whom and for what reasons).

Secondly, it would mean that it is pointless to look for the "causes" of deviance in the social and psychological qualities of "rule-breakers", since if the rules themselves are relative (that is, changeable from one moment to the next) there can be no constant "causes" of deviance to be found "within the individual".

Having said this, of course, once we understand the nature of the rule-creation process in any society it would be useful to look at the social / psychological qualities of people who do - and do not - break these rules (which we could similarly consider, as sociologists, in terms of family and educational background, peer group influence and so forth).