Crime vs. Deviance – Is There Really a Difference?

The term “deviance” can be a foggy concept, mostly because it’s more of a philosophical or psychological concept than a simple word. What is deviance? A word like “crime”, on the other hand, is easy to define. A crime is an act involved with breaking the law. If a person commits a crime, that individual will attain a new identity- a criminal. A concept such as crime cannot easily be disputed. Laws against acts that are inarguably bad are set up by a nation’s government. These laws normally govern such acts as: murder, rape, robbery, vandalization, abuse, etc… To commit any of these acts is to commit a crime.


It’s easy to understand what a crime is because, to commit a crime is universally considered to be negative. However, what does it mean to commit a “deviant” act? There are no laws set up to govern deviance, so how is a person to know what type of behavior may be considered deviant? In contrast to crime, the concept of deviance is entirely opinion oriented. Because of this facet, deviance can be exceedingly difficult to govern. Life situations such as: culture, psychology, personal experience, religion, education, genetics, and family status dictate what people perceive as negative or deviant acts. This creates an interesting conundrum because, what is looked at as being deviant in one culture may be completely customary in another culture.


A situation that perfectly illustrates differing psychological concepts concerning deviance would be the process of body modification. For example, in India, many women of childbearing age wear jeweled studs in their left nostril to signify female fertility and beauty. However, in predominately Christian societies, girls who wear nose rings are often judged harshly and even discriminated against because of their piercings.

Yet another example of an act that could be perceived as deviant in one culture and completely acceptable in another is the art of tattooing. The Motu Loita tribe of Papua New Guinea believes that tattoos are a beautiful way to decorate the human body. According to the Berg Encyclopedia of Costume, “Pre-World War Two, jewelry, full body tattoos and an ubi completed the women’s dance costumes… There were occasions when the women incorporated a fierce, high swing that exposed the tattoos on their buttocks and thighs; young women often competed to see who could produce the highest swing.

Pre-missionary intervention, young newly tattooed girls would incorporate these high swings during special ceremonial dances performed on dubu platforms.” To make matters even more culturally interesting in regards to the psychological concept of deviance, “With little exception, the Motu Koita were unable to wear European styled shirts, blouses and dresses, as the 1919 Native Regulation made it an offence for indigenous men and women to wear clothing that covered their upper body.” In other words, in most cultures it is considered a sin to expose the breasts, while the Motu Loita people considered it indecent to cover themselves. This is a perfect example of how deviance exists completely in the mind, and thus, can’t be measured by any universal scale.

So, why do people look at piercings and tattoos as being “deviant” behavior? These actions are considered “deviant” and not “criminal” because, they are judged by personal beliefs and opinions- not laws.


The actions of Martin Luther King and other activists could, by many standards be considered deviant as well. Martin Luther King was repetitively arrested for protesting against African American discrimination. King devoted his life to the suffrage of African Americans, and to the unyielding concept that one day- all races and creeds would be looked at as “equals”. When King’s actions are studied today, he seems like a hero. America has even made King’s birthday into a holiday to celebrate his outstanding courage. However, because of opinions that were held during Martin Luther King’s era, King was looked at as being a deviant by many people for his acts of rebellion. Our labeling of King has changed with time because our cultures and opinions have changed with time as well.


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