The study of deviance is based on two different points of view. The first has viewed deviance as an exceptional, but consistent, variation from statistical norms. In other words consistent performance, behavior, or cognition, which is an unusual occurrence in relation to the overall population, is considered deviant. This definition has been prominently used in the psychological study of deviance.
The second prominent position has seen deviance as defined by the occurrence of single critical events. The occurrence of unusual and high-intensity behaviors characterized by mental illness and violence exemplify this point of view. The critical event view of deviance is the basis of legal definitions of deviance.
Deviance has been the thrust of major aspects of personality theory, clinical psychology, and social psychology. The study of deviance can be classified into four major positions. The first posits that deviance is a function of internal factors. Deviance is seen as differences among individuals. The individual differences point of view suggests that individuals or groups of individuals possessing certain levels of characteristics are more likely to become deviant. Individual differences are further posited to be causally related to deviance.
A second major explanation of deviance posits social structural differences as major precursors. Officially codified forms of deviance tend to be disproportionately represented among the lower socioeconomic strata in our society. From a social structural point of view, it is suggested that differential access to legitimate opportunity, differential access to illegitimate opportunity, and alienation or enmity tend to be the critical ingredients causing deviance. From this point of view, deviance has both individual components that are a result of differential social structures, and environmental aspects.
A third major explanation of deviance takes an interactionist point of view. Formally entitled labeling theory, deviance is created by the reaction of critical individuals to a given act. Psychological disturbance, criminality, and underachievement are both formally and informally labeled as deviant. From the labeling perspective deviance is clearly an interaction between individual performances and society’s reactions to those performances.
A fourth major point of view is that expressed by learning theory. Learning theory suggests that all actions, deviant and normal, are learned according to the laws of modeling, reinforcement, and punishment. Those individuals who display deviant behavioral patterns have received differential reward for such actions. From the learning theory point of view there is no inherent difference between deviant and normal behavior. Criminal behavior, abnormal behavior, and learning disabilities are learned.