How America’s Social Structure Causes Deviance
Although many people know that deviancy is apparent in American society, few realize that it is society itself that causes deviancy. Our social structure exerts numerous pressures among people in our society to engage in non-conforming and deviant behavior to achieve the American dream. American society does this by emphasizing certain success goals, and not emphasizing the correct means to achieve these goals. In addition, deviancy is reinforced in numerous elements of American social structure through culturally defined goals, institutionalized means, societal reactions, and various forms of sanctions. Further, American society has a strong emphasis on wealth and an unreasonable demand for success. Therefore, Americans are lead to forms of innovation, deviancy, and live in a state of anomie.
First, we must examine the definitions of deviance and norms. Henry defines deviance as a person who goes against the standards, expectations, and norms of their society (lecture). Further, deviancy is thought of as a personal
attribute or behavior that results in social disapproval from others, or behavior that breaks the rules and norms for that society(Social Deviance 5). Norms are rules of conduct, and each norm is a statement of desirable or undesirable behavior. Examples of desirable and undesirable states of being are messages like “don’t be too fat” and “don’t be too thin” (Social Deviance 5). In addition, norms are the shared expectations and evaluations of behavior or being that the majority of society’s members agree upon. Meier states that expectations refer to how people will act or be, and evaluations are how people should act or be (Social Deviance 5). These expectations and evaluations further reinforce the standards and expectations of our society.
Some sociologists previously believed that deviance was caused by biology. Sociologists once believed that deviant people were “born bad”, and that heredity, genes, and a persons body chemistry were all common denominators in deviant people. Merton contradicts this theory by noting that:
With the more recent advancement of social science, this set of conceptions has undergone basic modification. For one thing, it no longer appears so obvious that man is set against society in an unceasing war between biological impulse and social restraint. For another, sociological perspectives have increasingly entered into the analysis of behavior deviating from prescribed patterns of conduct. For whatever role the biological impulses, there still remains the
further question of why it is that the frequency of deviant behavior varies within different social structure and how it happens that the deviations have different shapes and pattern in different social structures. (230)
Now sociologists, such as Robert K. Merton, have new insight into the theory that deviancy is caused by the society in which we live, not biology or body chemistry.
This theory of deviance is also backed up by the belief that American society leads an individual to want the American dream, but does not afford them with the means to achieve them (Fanning). As members of a society obsessed with television and media, we have pressures that reinforce the popular belief that material possessions and wealth are extremely important in American society. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that if we can locate certain groups subject to the pressures of achieving the American dream, we should expect to find high rates of deviancy in its members. In addition, some social classes do not have equal opportunity to achieve goals. Due to discrimination, members of lower classes, and certain racial and ethnic minorities, all suffer from blocked opportunities. The stress and strain that results from blocked opportunities causes the individual to question the legitimacy of traditional and institutionalized means (Fanning). In effect, these members of society begin to think of other, often illegal, ways to succeed. Furthermore, when this occurs, respect for the traditionally accepted means of achieving goals crumble, norms weaken, and
society is no longer able to regulate the methods its members use to obtain success. Therefore, high crime among lower classes can be attributed to the stresses caused by American society. If a person is born into a poor family, they might be forced to work while going to high school, and may not be able to focus on school work, like other classmates. Therefore, due to life chances, they might not have the opportunity to go to college due to bad grades or unaffordability. While constantly struggling to make ends meet, they decide to commit a crime to be able to have material possessions, since they believe that they will never be able to save up to buy anything through traditional work.
This new social theory states that deviancy is people simply responding normally to the social situation in which they are in. Furthermore, Merton states that “some social structures exert definite pressures upon certain persons in the society to engage in nonconforming, rather than conforming conduct” (230). In addition, deviance varies culture to culture. What we consider to be deviant is different than what other societies consider deviant. Deviant definitions also change rapidly. American society used to think that women who wore short skirts, or smoked cigarettes were deviant. Now, the same acts are not considered to still be deviant. In addition, Merton notes that “some social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in society” (230). American society is a perfect example of a society that exerts unreasonable pressures, and therefore leads some of its members to deviant behavior.
This social theory is proven further by Merton’s theory of social structure. In American society, Merton believes that there are two elements of social structure; culturally defined goals, and institutionalized means. Culturally defined goals are integrated into society, involving various degrees of value and significance. Culturally defined goals are what society thinks its members should strive for, such as financial success. Institutionalized means are the regulations and norms that are the acceptable way of achieving the culturally defined goal (234). An example of a culturally defined goal is a good education, and a good job. Our society gives a strong social reaction to those who deviate its norms. Societal reactions embrace the ways in which society responds to the individuals, their acts, or suspected deviance. Forms of societal reactions are sanctions and formal sanctions. Sanctions are “punishments usually designed to control suspect or actual deviance” (Social Deviance 5). Formal sanctions are the punishments administered by the state or other form of legal authority. Examples of formal sanction are fines or imprisonment. Most often these formal sanctions have a negative stigma attached to them. Furthermore, sanctions are the ultimate measuring rod for identifying deviancy and deviant acts. An example would be a person given the formal sanction of a prison sentence being labeled a “ex-con”. Informal sanctions are sanctions from less official sources, such as family, peers and friends. Examples of informal sanctions are ridicule, peer disapproval, and criticism (Social Deviance 5).
The next point to discuss is the common types of deviance that result from the pressures that American society puts on its members. Merton says that members of American society are sometimes forced to innovate to reach the goals society prescribes for them. First, goals are internalized and thought of as important, such as wanting a nice car, money, and a home. These people conform to the expectations society gives them, and therefore try to achieve the goals. The person who wants a car to be accepted in society, so they conform by going to college to get a good job, to be able to buy the car. The problem occurs when members want these things, but may not have access to them. Thus, this leads persons to have to innovate to achieve these goals (Merton 233). An innovator may be a person who is unable or unwilling to go to college to get a god job, so they rob a bank to be able to buy the home and car, and therefore can fit in to societies material demands.
Deviancy is also caused by the numerous contradictions and variations American society has on what avenues are thought of as acceptable ways of achieving the goals. In addition, our society also has many double standards about what is seen as acceptable. Some cheat the system, but may be thought of as being crafty, or smart. On the other hand, some equally dishonest acts have punishments, and are looked down upon by members of our society. An example of this is when a business owner price fixes. Even thought the business owner is being exploitative, he is thought of as a business genius, and intelligent.
People who cheat on their taxes, or get paid under the table are dishonest and using morally wrong ways of attaining money. However, these lawbreakers are not criticized, looked down upon, or thought of as criminals. An example of this double standard is when we find an illegal act with the absence of social disapproval. Without social disapproval, an illegal act is not considered to be truly deviant (Fanning). An everyday occurrence of this discrepancy is when someone is caught speeding. The act of speeding is illegal and punished with formal sanctions, such as fines, tickets, or license suspension, but is accepted in our society. We have police officers that are paid to regulate the highways, but no negative stigma attached to the act of speeding, or the punishment given by legal authority.
The demand for success in American society is overwhelming. Success has become constructed as “winning the game” rather than “winning under the rules of the game.” Through the same process, tension generated by the desire to win in a poker game is relieved by a successful dealing one’s self four aces, or when shuffling the cards in a game of solitaire. Merton states that “cultural (or idiosyncratic) exaggeration of the success – goals leads men to withdraw emotional support from the rules” (232-233). On the other hand, a person who robs a bank to attain money is labeled a criminal, and given punishments. People who mug, rob, and burglarize are feared and hated in our society, but cheaters, plagiarizers, and perjurers are not. These double standards create confusion,
and lead members of our society to feel as if they are without guidance or clear morals.
The next argument proving how American society causes deviance is due to American society putting too much emphasis on goals, and not enough value attached the correct means to achieve these goals. Merton states that “American culture continues to be characterized by a heavy emphasis on wealth as a basic symbol of success, without a corresponding emphasis upon the legitimate avenues on which to march toward this goal” (Social Structure 235). Due to this lack of clear guidance, strong social pressure to achieve, and inadequate ways to achieve the pressures society inflicts causes members to be deviant to attain acceptable status in our society. Merton further emphasizes that:
Of the types of societies that result from independent variations of cultural goals and institutionalized means, we shall primarily be concerned with the first – a society in which there is an exceptionally strong emphasis upon specific goals without corresponding emphasis upon institutional procedures. No society lacks norms governing conduct. But societies do differ in the degree in which the folkways, mores, and institutional controls are effectively integrated with the goals which stand high in the hierarchy if cultural values. The culture may be such as to lead individuals to center their emotional convictions upon the complex of culturally acclaimed
ends, with far less emotional support for the prescribed methods of reaching out to these ends. As this process continues, the society becomes unstable and there develops what Durkheim called “anomie,” or normlessness. (232)
Anomie is caused by a society without clear norms, such as American society. Being without institutionalized structure, expectations, and regulations, leads people to become disorientated. Capitalist societies, such as America, are perfect examples of anomic societies. Through ruthless competition and lack of morals and values, capitalists strive for money. Therefore, our social order becomes upset and people lose their way in pursuit of wealth without real regulation.
In addition, money in our society is thought of as more important than honesty, morals, family, and happiness. As Merton states “in some large measure, money has been consecrated as a value in itself, over and above its expenditure for articles of consumption and or its use for enhancement of power. “Money” is a peculiarly well adapted to become a symbol of prestige” (233). Money can buy class, power and status, all of which are highly regarded in American society. Simmel emphasizes that money is highly abstract and impersonal. However acquired, fraudulently or institutionally, money can be used to purchase the same goods and services (Illuminating Social Life 84). Therefore, it doesn’t really matter how one gets money; it just matters that one has money.
The next argument as to why American society leads its members to be deviant is because our society puts a tremendous emphasis on wealth and success. Merton states that the United States has three cultural axioms. The first axiom is that everyone should strive for the American dream, which are wealth, success and independence. The second axiom states that present failure is only a slight setback; third, the only real failure is personal failure, and the withdrawal of ambition (235). This social structure puts tremendous amounts of pressure on all individuals in American society. Our society looks down upon members who do not have wealth or success. Furthermore, there is a negative attitude towards people who do not wish to achieve the “American Dream.” Some members of our society are satisfied with what they have, and do not strive for raises, promotions, or anything greater. These people are thought of as lazy, lacking ambition and work ethic, and put down in our society for simply being content with what they have.
In conclusion, many people think that money will solve all of their problems, and give them happiness. On the contrary, many wealthy people are miserable, and their money has created numerous problems for them. Merton notes that when he was an observer of a community in which the common annual was in the six figures. He witnessed one victim of the American Dream saying, “in this town, I’m snubbed socially because I only get a thousand a week. That hurts” (233). Competition among neighbors, community, co-workers, and
club members is overwhelming. Even after achieving monetary success, it seems as is there is no stopping point to the amount of money some strive for. Merton states that “in the American Dream there is no final stopping point. The measure of “monetary success” is conveniently indefinite and relative” (232). No matter how much money one has, it is never enough. No one can be “too rich” in America. Durkheim states that “to pursue a goal that is unattainable is to condemn ones self to a state of perpetual unhappiness. Our passions must first be limited by a moral force” (Suicide 229). Since we put pressure on ourselves to reach unattainable goals, we are therefore always dissatisfied with our lives.
These social pressures that are reinforced in almost every aspect of American society can further explain deviance. Merton states that:
To say that the goal of monetary success is entrenched in American culture is to say that Americans are bombarded on every side by precepts which affirm the right or, often, the duty of retaining the goal even in the face of repeated frustration. Prestigeful representatives of the society reinforce the cultural emphasis. The family, the school, and the workplace- the major agencies shaping the personality structure and goal formation of America- join to provide the intensive discipline required if an individual is to retain intact a goal that remains elusively beyond reach. (233)
One of the major agencies that shape young Americans morals and values is our education system. Our education system places great emphasis on grades, test scores, and grade point averages. It seems that achieving these things is more important than really learning and retaining information. Therefore, this leads to cheating on tests, bribing professors, and altering transcripts, and all of which are forms of dishonesty and deviance. Durkheim believes that once our society brings back morals and values we will begin to establish more acceptable and reinforced ways of achieving goals (Anomie 79). We must set achievable goals for ourselves and put more emphasis on attaining happiness, not monetary success.
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