Definitions of Alcohol-Related Deviance

1. Two Sociological Definitions

The Diversity of Deviant Phenomena

Social scientists who study habitual drinking, drunk driving, violence in bars, or other problematic alcohol-related behaviors usually conceptualize these phenomena as forms of deviant behavior. In this section, we will discuss two definitions of deviance that alcohol researchers as well as criminologists, mental health researchers, and other social scientists have found useful in their work. These definitions not only apply to alcohol-related deviance, but to a bewildering variety of other forms of problematic behavior and people. So, let's begin by asking the general question, what is deviance? You can undoubtedly give numerous examples of people or behavior that strike you as immoral, weird, evil, illegal, sick, or, in a word, deviant. Your answers might be similar to those obtained in a survey by J. L. Simmons, in which he asked a sample of 180 persons in 1965 to "list those things or types of persons whom you regard as deviant." The following table shows the responses given by 10 percent or more of Simmons' sample. In addition to this list of the "top 14" deviants, a few of Simmons' respondents also placed such persons as career women, junior executives, girls who wear makeup, and know-it-all professors in the category of "deviant."


Most frequent responses to the question "what is deviant?"

  Response Percent Mentioning  
  Homosexuals 49  
Drug addicts 47
Alcoholics 46
Prostitutes 27
Murderers 22
Criminals 18
Lesbians 13
Juvenile delinquents 13
Beatniks 12
Mentally ill 12
Perverts 12
Communists 10
Atheists 10
Political extremists 10
Source: J.L. Simmons, Social Problems 13 (1965).

What should impress you most about the findings of Simmons' study is the incredible diversity of the social phenomena that people classify as deviant. Social definitions of deviance not only vary markedly across different segments of the general public but they also change across time. How many of us today, only a few decades since Simmons' study, would include beatniks or atheists in our top 14? How many of us would place gay people, drug addicts, or alcoholics at the very top of our list of deviants? Further research of the kind conducted by Simmons would be required for an adequate answer to these questions, but an informed guess would be that some important changes have occurred in public definitions of these and other forms of deviance (for instance, see the 1972 study by Rossi et al.).

Two Definitions of Deviance

If at this point you can appreciate the sheer diversity of phenomena that are considered deviant by the general public, you can also appreciate the difficulties confronting social scientists when they themselves attempt to answer the question "what is deviance?" Sociological efforts to define deviance are less concerned with particular kinds of deviance, such as alcohol dependence, underage drinking or domestic violence, than they are with what all forms of deviance have in common. What sociologists seek in a definition of deviance is an abstract concept that can be applied to deviant phenomena in general.

Conceptual definitions, being agreements to adopt a particular perspective on reality, are not true or false. However, these agreements are hardly arbitrary. Depending on the scientific problem at hand, some definitions will be more useful than others. For instance, many geneticists have agreed to define and classify human "races" according to the distribution of various blood proteins in different human populations. This concept of race has proven useful for investigating various biological problems relating to human inheritance. Such a definition of race is useless to sociologists involved in the study of race relations. Instead, sociologists define race in terms of social distinctions made between groups of people in various societies that may have little or no relationship to biological inheritance, but have great significance for understanding racial prejudice and discrimination. Needless to say, geneticists have not found sociological definitions of race to be particularly useful in their work.

Returning to our initial concern, "what is deviance?," we can now refine this question to ask "which way of defining deviance is most useful for social research and theoretical understanding of deviant phenomena?" Sociologists simply do not agree among themselves on a conceptual answer to this basic question. Most of the disagreement over the concept of deviance appears to boil down to a choice between two alternative definitions: a normative definition of deviance versus a relativistic definition of deviance.

The normative definition is the older of these two sociological conceptualizations. According to this definition, deviance refers to behavior that violates social norms or to persons that engage in such behavior. However, beginning in the 1970s, this traditional definition of deviance was seriously challenged by sociologists who favor the relativistic alternative. According to the relativistic definition, deviance refers to behavior or persons that are defined as deviant by social audiences. This definition is termed relativistic because it views persons or their behavior as deviant only relative to the way other people react to them.

Although differences in the wording of these definitions may seem subtle and of little consequence, each conceptualization focuses attention on quite different aspects of deviant phenomena. The normative definition narrows in on persons who engage in norm-violating behavior. The relativistic definition emphasizes not the deviants themselves but the social audiences that define them as deviant. These two conceptualizations also raise different questions for research and theorizing on deviance. The normative definition suggests the importance of identifying who breaks norms and explaining why they commit deviant acts. The relativistic definition, on the other hand, indicates a need for research and theory on how social audiences go about defining others as deviant. Simmons' (1965) study of public definitions of deviance is a good example of the kind of research inspired by a relativistic definition.

Thus, the normative-relativistic distinction refers to much more than a mere disagreement over words. These terms identify two distinct perspectives for the study of deviant phenomena. In many respects, this distinction parallels the more general contrast between objectivist and constructionist viewpoints on social problems. For instance, researchers who view "binge drinking" as an objectively harmful problem would typically define this phenomena as a pattern of norm-violating behavior. On the other hand, sociologists interested in how "binge drinking" was socially constructed as a national crisis in the mass media would tend to view this phenomenon relativistically—i.e., as a label applied to drinking behavior by certain social audiences. Each perspective highlights quite different research questions and offers different kinds of insight into drug- and alcohol-related deviance. At the same time, both of them have proven to be sociologically useful alternatives to medicalized conceptions of "substance abuse."

Index Page