Do societies need deviance to survive? Common sense tells us they do not. Everyone knows the world would be a much better place if people would just follow the rules and do what’s expected of them. There would be no crime, no fighting, no misunderstandings. Life would be great, like being on an all expenses paid, happy vacation together. Right?

But what if common sense is wrong? Not only wrong, but completely backward? What if deviance is as necessary for the survival of society as food is for the survival of the human body?

Well over 100 years ago, one of the founding fathers of sociology, Emile Durkheim, set out to discover the purpose of deviance in society. And his discoveries were so deviant that people had a hard time accepting them. And they still do! Which is why Durkheim’s views of deviance have been pretty much ignored by sociologists for over 100 years.

A Deviant Discovery

A sociologist, Durkheim was a firm believer in empirical observation. So he began his study of deviance by studying as many societies as he could. He studied his own, those in neighboring European countries, and even those of the ancient past. What did he notice? They all had deviance! It didn’t matter where or when he looked. In every society there was something that got defined as deviant, and someone who did that deviant thing. The pattern was strikingly consistent, and also puzzling. If deviance was such a bad thing, why was it so common?

Durkheim knew (from his contemporary, Charles Darwin) that for a body part or organ to exist in a species, like a long beak or wings or gills, it must be useful for the survival of that species. If the beak or wing or gill were an impediment to survival then members of the species who had that body part would fail to thrive and would eventually die out.

This made Durkheim wonder: Was deviance like a beak or wing or gill? If it existed in all known societies did this mean it was somehow needed for the society’s survival?

If deviance was necessary, the implications were startling. It meant that deviance was, as he put it, “a factor in public health, an integral part of all healthy societies,” and not a pathology to be eliminated at all costs. But how could this be?

Remember, just like today, most people in the late 1800s (when Durkheim lived) believed that deviance hurt society, like cancer or a virus hurts a healthy body. To imagine it was more like a vital organ seemed counterintuitive, and very deviant. Durkheim had to think it through carefully. 

A Society of Saints

Durkheim began to imagine what society would be like if there was no deviance in it whatsoever. And after trying for some time he found he couldn’t. Here’s how he saw it. For deviance to disappear every single person would have to behave themselves all the time. And for this to happen every single person would have to feel equally and powerfully opposed to doing deviant acts. If anyone wavered, even for a moment, deviance would pop right back into existence.

Where could Durkheim find a deviance-free society? What about in a group of really good and righteous people, like in a monastery? Would deviance exist there? Or would it merely change form?

Durkheim reasoned that in a society of monks (or what he called “saints”), deviance would not disappear. Instead, little things such as being too loud or eating too much or failing to clean ones room would stand out and eventually get defined by the “saints” as “deviant.” In other words, with nothing more serious to compare to, minor deviations would suddenly seem more troubling, and eventually they would cause the same degree of disgust that more serious acts of deviance cause among regular non-monk people. This idea is known as Durkheim's “society of saints thesis.”

After thinking about it some more, Durkheim felt certain that in a society where crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery, and theft no longer occurred, minor deviations such as rudeness or lying or calling in sick to work when you’re not really sick would start to seem way more serious to people. So much so that some of these acts would become defined as deviant, maybe even criminal.

Using the language of his time, here’s how Durkheim put it:

“If [the urge to punish] grew stronger, to the point of silencing in all consciousnesses the inclination which disposes man to steal, he will become more sensitive to offenses, which until then, touched him but lightly”

Robbery and murder, therefore, shared something important in common with less serious offenses, such as rudeness and lying: Both violated the social rule that people should be considerate of others. As long as robberies still occurred, Durkheim explained, people would be inclined to view rudeness as less of a problem. After all, it’s way better to be offended by someone’s poor manners or lied to than it is to be robbed!

But, if people’s revulsion toward robbery grew so strong that robbery was completely eliminated, people would immediately become more sensitive to lesser violations of the norm of considerateness toward others. Without serious offenses such as robbery to compare to, people would react against lesser offenses, such as rudeness and lying, with the same disgust they previously felt toward robbery, making those lesser offenses – the ones that had previously “touched them but lightly” - feel more like acts worthy of serious punishment.

To illustrate his idea, Durkheim painted the following picture:

“Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes will there be unknown; but faults which appear tolerable to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousness. If, then, the society of saints has the power to judge and punish, it will define these lesser acts as criminal and will treat them as such.”

So, according to Durkheim, there is something about human nature and the nature of groups that causes people to draw boundaries, or lines in the sand, making some things deviant and some things not. And because of this a deviance-free society cannot exist.

Adding to the human tendency to draw boundaries is the fact that people are different. Differences in family backgrounds, heredity, and social experiences make it impossible for everyone to agree on what is deviant and what is not. In other words, individual differences in social experiences create differences in moral values. As a result there will always be someone who does something that someone else considers deviant. The specifics of what gets defined as deviant may change and vary across time and place, but according to Durkheim, there will always be something that is considered deviant and someone who is inclined to do that thing.

A Deviant View of Deviance

Once he convinced himself that deviance had to exist, Durkheim turned his attention to figuring out why. His answer was that without deviance society would be incapable of adapting and changing. How did he reach this conclusion? Durkheim once again turned to Darwin for inspiration.

Darwin had observed that plants and animals survive in nature because they are able to adapt to changes in their environment, including climate change and competition from other creatures. If they didn’t adapt they didn’t survive. Darwin suggested that one way plants and animals adapt was by “mutating,” which means producing an unexpected difference, like a new physical characteristic or behavior, that turns out to be advantageous for the species’ survival. Mutation is a kind of biological deviance that, if better suited to the current environment, can help the species survive. Was the same true for societies? Did they too rely on mutations (or deviants) to help them adapt to changing conditions so they could survive?

It seemed clear to Durkheim that the answer was yes. For a society to adapt, it must produce a small but consistent flow of people who are willing to experiment with new ways of living, thinking, and behaving. In other words, it must produce a steady flow of deviants. If the norms of a society were so rigidly enforced as to eliminate all deviance, then such experimentation would cease to occur, and the society would be incapable of change. Its attitudes toward such things as women, racial minorities, tattoos, divorce, etc., would be frozen in time, unable to evolve or change because there would be no one willing to push the boundaries and point the way toward other, better ways of living, thinking, and behaving  Durkheim summarized this observation by writing:

“Every pattern is an obstacle to new patterns, to the extent that the first pattern is inflexible. The authority which the moral consciousness enjoys must not be excessive; otherwise no one would dare to criticize it, and it would too easily congeal into an unchangeable form.”

The more he thought about it the more sense this idea made to him, and examples from history started popping into his head left and right.

Take Socrates. According to Athenian law, Socrates was a criminal. The crime for which he was put to death was the independence of his thought, a crime that ultimately enhanced humanity, as well as his country by ushering in needed change. Socrates brought into awareness a new morality and faith in reason, which the Athenians needed, since the ideas they were living by no longer were in harmony with modern times. The freedom of thought we enjoy and take for granted today might not have emerged when it did if Socrates wasn’t willing to deviate from the laws and norms of his country.

The same can be said for Martin Luther King Jr.’s influence on our beliefs about racial equality, for Susan B. Anthony’s influence on our beliefs about women’s rights, and for Galileo’s influence on our beliefs about science. Socrates, King, and Galileo were deviants. They violated the prevailing norms in their societies. And their deviant ideas and behaviors ushered in much needed reforms. Without their deviance the world might have become a very different, and arguably worse place for the rest of us to live in.

Conclusion: No Deviance Means No Innovation Means No Social Change

Based on Durkheim’s insights, we can no longer view deviance as an unwanted, parasitic, destructive force in society. Instead, we must from here forward recognize that deviance is necessary for the survival of society, and that the deviant has an important role to play in social life. We shouldn’t start popping champagne corks if rates of deviant behavior were suddenly to drop to zero. According to Durkheim, a zero or near-zero rate of deviance would be a sure sign of trouble to come. While it might mean less murder and robbery it would also mean less innovation and social change. Here's how Durkheim put it:

“In order that the originality of the idealist whose dreams transcend his century may find expression, it is necessary that the originality of the criminal, who is below the level of his time, shall also be possible. One does not occur without the other.”

In other words, if a society managed to eliminate all deviance, it would also eliminate all innovation. If everyone followed the rules all the time things would never change. If Durkheim is correct, then, in the realm of human behavior, we’ve got to learn to take the good with the bad. The more we try to rid ourselves of unwanted deviance (e.g., crime) by reducing people’s freedoms and monitoring and punishing their behavior the more we may also be suppressing the positive, innovative deviance that society needs to adapt and survive in the long run. In other words, if you are for freedom and innovation in society then you must also be for a certain amount of deviance.

Eric Silver
Doctor of Society

(This summary is based on Emile Durkheim’s groundbreaking book, The Rules of Sociological Method, published in the late 1800s.)
Chandler Copeland
1/30/2014 10:49:58 am

Deviance is as necessary for the survival of society as food is for the survival of the human body. Without deviance society would be incapable of adapting and changing. Durkheim turned to Darwin for inspiration and made a connection between their work. Darwin suggested that one way plants and animals adapted was by mutating; producing an unexpected difference, like a new characteristic/behavior, that turns out to be advantageous for the species' survival. Thus, in order for a society to adapt it must produce a steady flow of deviants. If the norms of a society were so bluntly enforced as to eliminate all deviance, then such experimentation would cease to occur, and the society would be incapable of change. Without Martin Luther King Jr.'s influence on our beliefs about racial equality, Susan B. Anthony's influence on our beliefs of human rights & Galileo's influence on our beliefs about science. Their deviant behavior made tremendous reforms. Without their deviance the world might have been a different, and perhaps a even worse place for the rest of us to live in.

8/29/2014 01:45:34 am


Marcus Griffith
10/18/2017 02:51:44 pm

"Common Sense tells us they do not"???

What a general and indefensible statement.

"Everyone knows the world would be a much better place if people would just follow the rules"

Does everyone know that? I don't. Its people's unwillingness to separate from the herd that dooms us all....

I stopped there, two ridiculous statements in the first two sentences is two too many.


Leave a Reply.