Introduction to Theories of Social Deviance

What you’ll learn to do: contrast the varying theoretical perspectives on deviance

Three jars full of marijuana buds are in the foreground.

Since the early days of sociology, scholars have developed theories that attempt to explain what deviance and crime mean to society. These theories can be grouped according to the three major sociological paradigms: functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory. Let’s revisit marijuana legalization from a theoretical perspective. How can sociological theories help explain the trends and corresponding human behavior and group patterns we discussed in the first section?

Conflict theorists would focus their attention on power and inequality. Who has the power to criminalize, decriminalize, and legalize marijuana use? How has the criminalization of marijuana disproportionately affected minorities and the poor?

Functionalist theorists might examine how the legalization of marijuana might benefit state economies and also how this issue has served to increase social solidarity and redefine social norms.

Interactionist theorists would likely focus on the perceptions of marijuana use and the symbolic nature of the marijuana leaf over time. Labeling is also of interest to interactionists–who gets labeled (the by whom is examined by conflict theorists).

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