92 Why It Matters: Deviance, Crime, and Social Control

Why define deviance and describe the sociological theories that account for deviance, conformity and
social control?

Photo of a sign for a medical marijuana dispensary showing that the business is open
Washington is one of several states where marijuana use has been legalized, decriminalized, or approved for medical use. (Photo courtesy of Dominic Simpson/flickr)

Twenty-three states in the United States have passed measures legalizing marijuana in some form; the majority of these states approve only medical use of marijuana, but fourteen states have decriminalized marijuana use, and four states approve recreational use as well. Washington state legalized recreational use in 2012, and in the 2014 midterm elections, voters in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington DC supported ballot measures to allow recreational use in their states as well (Governing 2014). Florida’s 2014 medical marijuana proposal fell just short of the 60 percent needed to pass (CBS News 2014).

The Pew Research Center found that a majority of people in the United States (52 percent) now favor legalizing marijuana. This 2013 finding was the first time that a majority of survey respondents supported making marijuana legal. A question about marijuana’s legal status was first asked in a 1969 Gallup poll, and only 12 percent of U.S. adults favored legalization at that time. Pew also found that 76 percent of those surveyed currently do not favor jail time for individuals convicted of minor possession of marijuana (Motel 2014).

Even though many people favor legalization, 45 percent do not agree (Motel 2014). Legalization of marijuana in any form remains controversial and is actively opposed; Citizen’s Against Legalizing Marijuana (CALM) is one of the largest political action committees (PACs) working to prevent or repeal legalization measures. As in many aspects of sociology, there are no absolute answers about deviance. What people agree is deviant differs in various societies and subcultures, and it may change over time.

Tattoos, vegan lifestyles, single parenthood, breast implants, and even jogging were once considered deviant but are now widely accepted. The change process usually takes some time and may be accompanied by significant disagreement, especially for social norms that are viewed as essential. For example, divorce affects the social institution of family, and so divorce carried a deviant and stigmatized status at one time. Marijuana use was once seen as deviant and criminal, but U.S. social norms on this issue are changing.

In this module, you’ll learn more about what is considered deviant behavior and then examine how societies work to control and prevent deviance through methods of social control. You’ll also examine the U.S. criminal justice system and examine statistics related to crime in America. You’ll see in the following image that the incarceration rate in the United States is abnormally high, even though incidents of crime in the United States are not dramatically higher than they are elsewhere. Do you think the criminal justice system in the United States is effective? How might you explain the recidivism rate for those jailed in the United States (over half of prison inmates will be convicted on another charge within three years of having been released and return to prison)? Keep these questions in mind as you read through the material in this module.

Map showing the prisoner population rate in the world. The US is show in red, with over 600 prisoners per 100,000 people. The next highest percentages show and Russia, Brazil with between 400-600 prisoners per 100,000 people, and significantly lower rates in the rest of the world.
While the population of the United States is the third largest in the world (behind China and India), the percentage of the population that is in prison is the highest in the world, as illustrated by the map. The prisoner population rate per 100,000 people is depicted in the key.


  • Define deviance and methods of social control
  • Contrast the varying theoretical perspectives on deviance
  • Describe the criminal justice system and types of crimes


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