Explaining Social Deviance

Course No. 675
Professor Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D.
Emory University
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Course No. 675
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Course Overview

Why do some people commit crimes, use the wrong fork, or speak out of turn? How does a society determine when a crime has been committed, which fork to use, and who should speak when? How have we tried to explain deviance and create categories of deviants? What has been the role of race and class in these definitions?

How do deviants reconcile their behavior with society's norms? What have been the contributions of Freud, Durkheim, Lombroso, and modern literary criticism to our understanding of deviance and conformity?

How is the practice of science itself an example of deviance and conformity?

A Framework for Defining Deviance

This set of 10 lectures examines the complex topic of deviance and how major sociological theories have attempted to define it and understand its role in both historical and modern society.

Professor Paul Root Wolpe introduces deviance as "a complex, often ambiguous, social phenomenon that raises numerous questions about how a varied and often arbitrary set of characteristics can be used to name the same idea.

"Certain theories provide a framework for examining how religion, societal norms, power relations, and personal values and beliefs are often used to determine which personal characteristics and behaviors are labeled deviant and, by default, which individuals, groups, or behaviors are sanctioned in societies," he says.

The application of those definitions has a direct impact on areas of social life, including the mental health profession, systems of deterrence, the judicial system, and the arts. Who do we medicate, educate, incarcerate?

Dr. Wolpe is the author of the textbook Sexuality and Gender in Society and the end-of-life guide In the Winter of Life. He has won several teaching and writing awards and was named "Outstanding Professor at Penn" by the Panhellenic Council at the University of Pennsylvania.

In addition, Dr. Wolpe is the first chief of bioethics for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He is a regular columnist on biotechnology for the Philadelphia Inquirer and appears frequently in broadcast and print media, including MSNBC, CBS and ABC Evening News, Dateline, and The Jim Lehrer Show.

Explore Western Theories of Deviance

Intended for those with some understanding of sociology, this course traces Western theories of deviance from classical demonism to constructionism.

Deviance and criminology. The first lecture introduces the topic of deviance and explores its relationship to criminology, then goes on to outline the three major perspectives of deviance: absolutist, objectivist, and subjectivist.

The absolutist perspective is based on the acceptance of universal norms of morality. The objectivist perspective explains deviance as a variation from established societal norms. The subjectivist perspective views deviance as the result of societal reactions to certain individuals, groups, and behaviors.

The concept of demonism. Lecture 2 explores the concept of demonism in both its classical and modern forms. As an example of an absolutist perspective, demonism bifurcates the world into good and evil, with evil often being characterized as supernatural in nature.

Tracing the history of demonism from the Middle Ages to contemporary examples of Satanism, Professor Wolpe illustrates how demonism has often been used to explain and categorize bad behavior when no other explanation is available.

Deviance and pathology. Deviance as a form of pathology is the focus of Lecture 3. Beginning with the early work of Cesare Lombroso and ending with contemporary arguments supporting racial hierarchy theory, Professor Wolpe analyzes the influence of science on sociological thought.

You examine background information on the IQ controversy, the eugenics movement, and Social Darwinism as well as their effects on other aspects of American social life.

Social disorganization. In Lecture 4 Professor Wolpe examines the first sociological theory of deviance, social disorganization. This theory, which gained prominence at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, contends that deviance is a result of the breakdown of a society's ability to regulate itself and to solve communal problems.

It is the first theory to move away from individualistic views of deviance and consider the role of social structure in deviant behaviors. Social disorganization firmly established fieldwork and empirical research as mainstays of sociology.

Durkheim and Merton. An overview of the work of Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton constitutes the bulk of Lecture 5. While not in agreement as to the role of deviance in society, both sociologists agree that it serves a function, as do all social structures and institutions.

You explore anomie, or the breakdown of social morality, as either causing or preventing deviance.

Learning theory. Lecture 6 is devoted to learning theory, the theory of deviance that examines the influence of subcultures on individual behavior. In this lecture, Wolpe describes how differential association, identification, and reinforcement socialize people into particular norms and behaviors, including the behavior system of deviance.

Professor Wolpe outlines ways that deviants negotiate living in two cultures, normative and deviant, using Sykes's and Matza's techniques of neutralization.

Control theory. Lecture 7 on control theory moves away from the question, "Why do people deviate?" to the question "Why do people conform?" You find included in this analysis the idea that most people are in constant discord with society, but through a process of social bonding they commit to the normative behaviors and rules of conduct.

Based heavily on the idea that people are all inherently motivated to deviate, the concept of deterrence plays a key role in control theory.

How society reacts to deviance. In Lectures 8 and 9, Wolpe concentrates on societal reactions to deviance, outlining how deviance has been both constructed and labeled in society.

In Lecture 8 Wolpe describes mental illness and homosexuality as forms of involuntary, noncriminal deviance, to illustrate the dynamics of labeling theory.

Lecture 9 provides background information on the influence of Karl Marx on conflict theory, a theory that continues to view labeling as an integral part of what is viewed as deviant, but which includes the added dimension of a dominant ideology.

You explore the key components of constructionism, claims making, and image making using contemporary examples from art, advertising, and political ideology.

Inherent to the constructionist perspective of deviance is the problematic nature of social truth, which Wolpe illuminates in his discussion of social problems as a form of claims-making activity.

Theories of sexual deviance. The final lecture applies the theoretical perspectives discussed in this course to sexual deviance.

From the demonistic perspective of sex as sin to the constructionist view of sex as claims making, Wolpe illustrates how each theory explains sexual deviance and how those explanations continue to influence contemporary thought.

Professor Wolpe concludes with reasons why science, as a social institution, must be constantly deconstructed and analyzed as a social process that is susceptible to its own form of claims making.

Professor Wolpe concludes the series by discussing the role of science in society and the responsibility of each individual as "moral entrepreneur."

"The most important job people have as members of society is to challenge definitions of deviance," he states.

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10 lectures
 |  Average 46 minutes each
  • 1
    The First Step—Asking the Right Questions
    In this opening lecture, the topic of deviance is introduced as a complex social phenomenon that raises numerous questions about how a varied and often arbitrary set of characteristics can be used to name the same idea. x
  • 2
    Demonism—The Devil's Children and Evil Empires
    Classical demonism illustrates the absolutist perspective of deviance by dividing the world into good and evil. Classical demonism has re-emerged as an explanation for deviance in modern society. Modern demonism continues to divide the world into opposing forces—those who know what is right and those who do not. x
  • 3
    Deviance as Pathology—I'm OK, You Are Twisted
    The pathological perspective of deviance is based on the assumption of a difference between those who are deviant and those who are not. Scientific thinking attempts to explain this difference through racial hierarchy, heredity, intelligence, and genetics; despite its contention that deviance must be viewed empirically, it is still highly moralistic and discriminatory. x
  • 4
    Social Disorganization—Deviance in the Urban Landscape
    The first sociological theory of deviance emerged from the University of Chicago in the 1920s. Despite its inherent bias and circular logic, the social disorganization theory established fieldwork and empirical research as mainstays of sociology. It was also the first theory to suggest that individuals are influenced by the structure of the social world in which they live. x
  • 5
    Functionalism and Anomie—Why Can't We All Just Get Along?
    Functionalism suggests that deviance is necessary for a society to create moral boundaries and a collective conscience that goes beyond any individual. Two different but influential views of deviance and anomie are explored: Emile Durkheim's view which states that deviance prevents anomie, and Robert Merton's view that anomie is a result of deviance. x
  • 6
    Learning Theory—You Have to be Carefully Taught
    The premise of learning theory is that deviance is not an isolated process; people are socialized into particular behavior patterns and norms of the subculture to which they are exposed. Learning theory attempts to explain the roles that differential association and identification play in the socialization process and how adopted behaviors are reinforced and rewarded. x
  • 7
    Control Theory—Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child
    The principle of control theory is that people are inherently motivated to deviance, and it is only because of social bonds and the fear of punishment that they do not act on these instincts. The role control theory has played in both historical and contemporary thinking on deterrence is also explored. x
  • 8
    Labeling Theory—Is Deviance in the Eye of the Beholder?
    Labeling theory suggests that there is no fundamental difference between someone who is deviant and someone who is not; people simply act, and it is society that determines whether or not behavior is deviant. This theory provides insight into how nonvoluntary, noncriminal behaviors such as mental illness become viewed as a form of deviance. x
  • 9
    Conflict and Constructionism—Every Step You Take, I'll Be Watching You
    Competing interests that are part of all human interactions are the focus of constructionism and conflict theories. The explanation of deviance as pathological or as a result of certain social interactions gives way to a view of deviance that is more explicitly ideological in nature. To understand deviance, it is not the "deviant" who needs to be analyzed; it is the creation of deviance that must be deconstructed. x
  • 10
    Case Studies—Sex and Science
    Because every society devotes much time and energy to determining what is sexually proper and what is taboo, this lecture discusses sexual deviance as an example of how the theories discussed in this course continue to resonate in modern thought. It is the role of science in society and the responsibility of each individual as "moral entrepreneur" to constantly negotiate the meaning of deviance. x

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Your professor

Paul Root Wolpe

About Your Professor

Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D.
Emory University
Dr. Paul Root Wolpe is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics, the Raymond F. Schinazi Distinguished Research Chair in Jewish Bioethics, a Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Pediatrics, and Sociology, and the Director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. Dr. Wolpe also serves as the first bioethicist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where he is responsible for formulating policy on...
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Explaining Social Deviance is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 41.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Warning: This is an old course - course book is copyrighted 1998. It would be a good idea if there was some way on finding this out before buying the course. That said, it is an interesting course. It is more of a history of the study of social deviance. I found it fascinating to trace how thinking of the subject has evolved. I would love an update on current thinking.
Date published: 2019-10-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Topic, But Dated This course needs an update, and possibly an expansion, both in an era in which LGBTQ identities have become more accepted and more assertive and in wake of the exoneration of the men who were charged in the Central Park Jogger/"wilding" case he references in the second lecture. Adding a course book with a list of supplemental reading would also be most helpful. With that said ... the professor does a great job of explaining the various theories at hand, even ones that would leave most of us slack-jawed in horror today (old views of people with Down syndrome, for example).
Date published: 2019-04-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A new perspective As a psychiatrist it was broadening to see this material from a sociological perspective. I really appreciated his format of explaining and exemplifying each theory then criticizing it's weaknesses.
Date published: 2018-09-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Title and Overview Misleading I purchased this course mostly because it was on sale and I expected to have some interest in the subject. For clarity, I repeat the title: “Explaining Social Deviance” and the first paragraph of the overview which appears in a larger font than the rest of the overview: “Why do some people commit crimes, use the wrong fork, or speak out of turn? How does a society determine when a crime has been committed, which fork to use, and who should speak when? How have we tried to explain deviance and create categories of deviants? What has been the role of race and class in these definitions?” I expected to get lectures on what constituted social deviance and, more importantly, why it occurs. This seemed a reasonable explanation give what has just been quoted. However, what Professor Wolpe presents is a series of lectures that explain the definitions of social deviance over time and according to prevailing social deviance theories. To be sure, the rest of the overview explains the course more thoroughly, so perhaps it is my fault that I was surprised by the thrust of the course. Professor Wolpe does a fine job in covering the topic that surprised me. He proceeds in a very logical and straightforward fashion, explaining a theory, giving examples of how certain behaviors either fit into the theory or how other behaviors are not considered “deviant” under that particular theory. He considers why each theory explains some behaviors well and perhaps more importantly, the failings of each theory in explaining other behaviors. He does this, mostly chronologically going over time from one theory to another. I became quite fascinated in following his reasoning even though the course material was not at all what I expected. However, I became quite disappointed when the lectures turned to social deviance theories explaining why the changes in social behavior caused scientists to turn from (for example) Newtonian physics to relativity and quantum mechanics. To me this seemed a facile explanation of an idea not well considered by social (not physical) scientists. (At least one other reviewer shares my dislike to this analysis. I also think that the course went off the rails when it seemed to give legitimacy to a few other topics (e.g. creation science), though it might be one of these instances of a flawed theory resulting in a flawed conclusion. Good course, in most ways, though not at all what I was expecting. I’ll give a recommendation but deduct a couple of stars for the misleading description and (to me) some non-comprehension as to how scientists progress.
Date published: 2017-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Love. This. Course. Please create a 2nd edition This is such a delicious course. So good. But agree with other reviewers that many of the 'deviant' behaviors he mentions are slowly entering into social norms, more permissive, etc. (Which is fascinating in of itself.) It would be great to see a 2nd edition to this course. The lecturer is riveting. Nonetheless, I still recommend this course because the concepts are still relevant although some of the 'behaviors' he mentions might be outmoded.
Date published: 2017-06-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Dated material. Very weird how ideas of social deviance have changed over the years. This very dated course describes an era far before our present time. Many things about social deviance may still be applicable today but it is very distracting wondering which material that is.
Date published: 2017-05-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview Sorry to see that Professor Wolpe hasn't done any other courses for the Teaching Company. His course on Social Deviance provided a thoughtful and diligently presented overview of this subject. He is an engaging lecturer and clearly knows his field.
Date published: 2017-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting and informative I really enjoyed this course. It provides a lot of information on how social deviance, and what is considered deviant, has been explained historically up to the present. It is extremely relevant to current events which is what I was looking for.
Date published: 2017-03-26
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