Is It Socially Acceptable or Deviant Behavior?

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Addictive behaviors — from drinking to gambling to sex — can range from socially acceptable behavior to socially deviant behavior. Here's why.

Are All Addicts Social Deviants?

The stereotype of someone with an addiction is a social deviant. Deviance is a sociological concept referring to behaviors that violate social rules and norms.

Behavior that is perceived as socially deviant is highly stigmatized, which often causes as many or more problems for the person engaging in the behavior than the addiction itself — if there even is an addiction.

There is a large gray area between socially deviant behavior and socially accepted or "sanctioned" behavior, although sub-groups of people with addictions have their own prescribed behaviors and social sanctions that keep addicts feeling like they belong.

Certainly, some addictive behaviors are considered socially unacceptable, and therefore the person doing them can be considered a social deviant.

Heroin use, for example, would be considered quite shocking in most social circumstances. However, in communities and sub-cultures where heroin use is common, it's not really socially deviant to take heroin. In fact, if your parents, friends, and neighbors all take it, taking heroin helps you to fit in with those around you.

On the other hand, many addictive behaviors are considered acceptable by mainstream society and are even encouraged.

Alcohol is arguably one of the most harmful drugs in use, but its consumption by adults is accepted and encouraged in every stratum of society, including the highest classes.

Furthermore, you can actually ostracize yourself by not drinking alcohol in some social situations where it's expected.

The Continuum of Social Acceptability

The table below shows some examples of common addictive behaviors, which illustrate the continuum from socially deviant to socially problematic to socially acceptable behaviors in mainstream Western cultures.

Socially Deviant  Socially Problematic  Socially Acceptable 
Alcoholism Binge drinking Occasional/social drinking
Underage drinking Public drunkenness Drinking in "drinking establishments"
  Drinking at the wrong time/place  
  Methadone maintenance  
  Medical marijuana  
Illegal drug use Painkiller overuse Appropriate painkiller use
  Cigarette smoking  
  Binge eating Moderate eating
Excessive gambling Losing a lot of money in a gambling binge Bingo, lotteries, trips to Las Vegas
Sexual abuse Promiscuity Sex within a relationship
Exploitative sex Sex work  
  Hardcore pornography  
  Sexual harassment  

These are not meant to be rigid categorizations, but simply examples of how behaviors tend to be perceived — for example, illegal activities such as underage drinking are classed as "deviant," whereas in reality, this is quite common and often accepted by youth and adults.

Some behaviors have shifted position in recent decades, for example, smoking cigarettes is socially problematic, but not yet socially deviant, while it was socially acceptable 30 years ago.

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  1. Stebbins, R. Tolerable, acceptable, and positive deviance. The Routledge Handbook of Deviant Behavior.