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Deviant Performance - An Examination of the Persistence of Deviant Behaviours in Deviant Groups

Updated: Feb 24, 2022


When we speak of deviance in the Sociological canon, analysis is likely to occur on two distinct registers: (1) Structural concerns, inquiring into the genesis and persistence of categories we might regard to be deviant, and (2) concerns at the individual or psycho-social level, that is, an elucidation of the reasons individuals begin and continue to engage in deviant behaviour (DeLamater, 1968). Inquiries of the second sort shall be my focus in the following essay, which will seek to expand upon Becker’s (1963/2018) sequential model of deviance using a dramaturgical framework, specifically in relation to individuals who have integrated themselves into deviant group as the ‘final step’ of their deviant career. Such an approach, I believe, will grant insight into the factors motivating individuals’ continued deviant behaviour, despite the negative social consequences of doing so.


First, however, we must explore what it means for an individual to be classified as deviant. For this we might fall back once more upon Becker, whose analysis in Outsiders (1963/2018) takes reference to deviance as ‘the product of a transaction that takes place between some social group and one who is viewed by that group as a rule-breaker’. Deviance is, in other words, not a stable category embodied by individuals, but a product of an interaction between a group of rule-makers, and perceived rule-breakers. Those at the final step of Becker’s sequential model, then, are individuals who move into organised groups that are seen to eschew rules of society at large, and it is these individuals that will interest us here.

Negative and Positive Motivations

Why might individuals integrate themselves into groups that appear to contravene social rules, engendering for themselves potential negative social consequences? Labelling theory, also outlined in outsiders, might serve as an explanation. One’s branding as deviant is, according to Becker, an essential step towards developing a consistent pattern of deviant behaviour; looked upon as a ‘lunatic’ or ‘nut’, their attempts at ‘normal’ social participation are rendered impotent. It is not difficult to see that consequences of this nature are likely to provide powerful motivation for one’s integration into a deviant group. Nonetheless, such a framework provides only a negative account of the situation, and positive motivations on the part of the deviant individual remain to be seen. I will argue in the following that the association with deviant groups provides individuals with rewards that serve as motivations of this positive kind.

DeLamater (1986) outlines four classes of such rewards, one of which appears to pertinent to our purposes here: status and self-esteem. Deviant groups are likely to form a unique culture comprising beliefs and values that an individual can adopt in constituting a positive identity. Being a member of such groups also entails the formation of friendships and close personal ties with individuals who are likely to positively evaluate the deviant’s adoption of such a character, thereby bolstering his self-esteem. The reward in this case is thus not in the deviant act in itself, but the association with others with whom the deviant identifies.

Deviance and Dramaturgy

Now, we have established that a deviant individual receives status from the group. As a dramaturgical framework will reveal, it is this reward that will continue to drive the deviant individual to perform his deviant behaviour. As espoused by Goffman (1956/2007), a dramaturgical perspective considers the way individuals present and control the impression of themselves while sustaining a performance; interactions, then, are analysed as scenes, with individuals playing characters to each other. An interesting tenet of dramaturgy that marks its difference from symbolic interactionism is its view of the self – while the latter might view the self as a substance possessed by and internal to individuals, the former takes the self to be something derived, derived from the signifying behaviour displayed during a performance and its interactions; it is a self in effect (Schawlbe, 2013). Crucial to this definition is the concept that an imputed self must be done so by an audience, someone to whom the individual is playing a part (Goffman, 1956/2007). Returning to the question at hand, it is now clear that, if we take other members of the deviant group as audience, individuals achieve their identification by acting the part of the deviant; we might say that individuals may continue to exhibit deviant behaviour in order to present a veneer of authenticity, allowing themselves to be accepted by the group in question, for the purposes of achieving status and identity otherwise made unavailable.

As I have hoped to show, then, a dramaturgical lens gives greater insight into the mechanism through which rewards act as motivating factors for deviant individuals, and provide a case for the positive motivations that drive deviant individuals towards their integration into deviant groups, rather than an account that is entirely negative.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What practical examples might we see of such a process?

  2. If the dramaturgical view takes it that the self is essentially performed, is there nothing left behind the mask, that there is only an empty husk outside of the interaction?

Written by Yap Yi Yang, Year 1, Sociology Major



Becker, H. S. (2018). Outsiders. Free Press. Original work published 1963.

DeLamater, J. (1968). On the nature of deviance. Social Forces, 46(4), 445.

Goffman, E. (2007). The presentation of self in everyday life. Penguin Books. Original work published 1956.

Schwalbe, M. (2013). Situation and Structure in the Making of Selves. In C. Edgley (Ed.), The drama of Social Life: A dramaturgical handbook (pp. 75–92). essay, Routledge.

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