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Instructor's Manual for Unit VII, Deviance and Conformity

Prepared by Caroline H. Persell, New York University, September 2008

Sociology considers all aspects of human social existence, including the questions of when and why people conform and what various societies consider to be deviant.

The creation, maintenance, and breakdown of social order are central issues in the study of society. See the unit page for Deviance and Conformity and the discussion of it in the ASA Task Force's draft Curriculum.

If you haven’t already had students do the “Breaking a Social Norm” exercise, you might use that in this unit to show the power of social norms over our behavior and help them gain understanding of why we conform. There is a Lesson Plan for it and work sheets. Stanley Milgram’s Experiment and the film Obedience of the experiments is also a powerful exploration of when people conform to the directives of an authority and when and why they may not. Phillip Zimbardo’s Prison Study illustrates the power of social positions and roles on people’s behavior.

The socially constructed nature of deviant behavior might be explored by having students complete the Activities Inventory anonymously. An alternative to collecting data from the class which might work better with a smaller class, is to prepare cards with brief descriptions of acts that may be considered deviant. The results from either of these exercises could be compiled and then discussed in class with respect to what class members think is deviant behavior. That could open up a discussion of the socially constructed nature of deviance. Definitions vary by time and place, and in different social groups. This may lead to the question of whose definitions of deviance prevail in a given area. The book, Sociology Through Active Learning, has several exercises for increasing student understanding of deviance, including: “The Hand Game: An in-class Group Exercise” by Paul Higgins; “Debating Deviance” by Brenda L. Beagan; and “Drug Testing in the Workplace: What Would You Do?” A Group Exercise Regarding Deviance by Robert B. Pettit; and “Images of Crime: An Individual and Group Exercise” by Paul Higgins.

If text readings or lectures discuss various theories of deviance, you could have students do the Deviance Theory Exercise which links to work sheets that different groups work on completing together. The power of labeling theory is illustrated in the films Blue Eyed, Eye of the Storm and A Class Divided.

When students study deviance they also tend to think of crime. A data exploration students can do is to investigate the trends in violent crimes over the last 30 years. They can see the sequence of events in the criminal justice system, or what happens to crimes that are reported. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have increasingly been used as a way of pinpointing where crimes of different types occur in communities. Students can learn more about what crime mapping is at the U.S. Department of Justice site or see how it works in a number of different cities at a crime mapping commercial website. There is an extensive research project for students described in "How Much Crime is There?"

Students are often interested in social sanctions and whether they reduce crimes. Perhaps the most hotly debated sanction is the death penalty. The Death Penalty Information Center Fact Sheet contains data on states that have the death penalty, executions, race of victims and defendants and execution rates, and other facts. Amnesty International has a Resource Guide and Curriculum for teachers on their website. There is a data exercise for students asking them to compare executions by country.

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